Youthreach revelations - Every euro must deliver public value

Serious questions are raised by today’s Irish Examiner investigation into misuse of taxpayers’ money and lack of normal procedures at a State-funded Youthreach programme.

The litany of failings exposed by an internal audit covering 2008, 2009 and 2010 at Macroom Youthreach, under the umbrella of the Cork County VEC, puts the spotlight on major “control weaknesses” at the organisation and failures by the VEC.

The Macroom venture is one of several youth programmes across the country aimed at developing the potential of young people. From the classroom to the sports-field, they range from Youthreach at the National Concert Hall, bringing classical music to the young masses, to local initiatives to combat the use of drugs by young people.

The investigation into Co Cork VEC has also uncovered a range of issues in Ballincollig, Fermoy, Bantry, and Glanmire. In Macroom Youthreach, an estimated €200,000 could be the cost of deficiencies identified by the audit ordered by former VEC head Barra Ó Briain after concerns were raised in an earlier probe.

Its findings include: teachers being overpaid, students ineligible for the scheme receiving allowances, and staff being paid off the books. It also found the VEC had been placed at a “significant risk due to the non-adherence to normal procedures”.

Besides paying motor tax and insurance for a bus it did not own, the VEC was found to have overpaid 1,070 tutor hours which were not timetabled. In the academic year 2009-2010, the overpayment could be as high as €60,000. However, there was no suggestion any person or staff member improperly or personally benefited from the weaknesses.

In an alarming development, the townspeople learned in 2010 that a man convicted of raping a woman in Manchester had been hired by Macroom Youthreach, without having his background checked, to drive pupils to and from the centre. Rumbled by gardaí, the Romanian national pleaded guilty at Macroom District Court of failing to inform his employers that he had been convicted of a sex offence.

The effectiveness of Youthreach programmes is widely accepted. However, the risk that the Macroom experience could be repeated elsewhere makes tighter regulation imperative over the way taxpayers’ money is being spent in this area of youth education.

At a time when some of the most vulnerable people in Ireland are being beaten down by swingeing financial cutbacks, it is essential that every euro is made to count. The public must get real value from State funding of community ventures of this kind.

Regrettably, vital facts relevant to the Macroom controversy have been withheld by the Department of Education and could not be obtained under the Freedom of Information Act. The VEC also refused to make minutes of its public meetings or its audit committee available for inspection

This makes a mockery of the principles of openness, transparency and accountability central to democracy. It is time to end the culture of secrecy in State departments, which militate against the public’s right to know.

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Wednesday, January 27, 2021

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