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Tuesday 28 March 2017

Basketball saga sums up flaws in funding

John Greene

John Greene

In the Dáil last week a question was tabled about the government's future plans for the Sports Capital Programme, which was shut down in 2008. It was not the first time in the last three years the question has been posed, and despite the ministerial comings and goings, the answer hasn't changed: no decision has been taken yet.

During the boom years, the programme paid out over €700m to somewhere in the region of 7,400 projects. And while it undoubtedly achieved much good, it was tainted by the whiff of political interference. Too many projects were financially supported chiefly because of which constituency they were in.

The scheme arguably also served to widen the gap between the stronger and better resourced sporting bodies and their smaller rivals in that the former were always better equipped to tick all the boxes when it came to completing the layers of paperwork needed to successfully draw down funding. But while political interference, favouritism and elitism were rife in the programme, it had other failings too.

As we have seen over the last two years, there were extraordinary levels of waste in public spending over the last decade. This, coupled with a lack of transparency and accountability in government departments, and, in many cases, dreadful inefficiencies, cost the country dear.

And the administration of the Sports Capital Programme was no different, as highlighted by the question marks which hang over money given to Basketball Ireland between 1999 and 2006.

Over this period, the association received a total of €1.8m for an initiative called the Community Hoops Programme which, quite literally, did what it says on the tin, installing basketball hoops in community facilities around the country. Except, it now appears, it didn't do exactly what it says on the tin.

Basketball Ireland was responsible for purchasing the equipment and making it available to community groups who were then responsible for putting the new gear in place. However, of the €1.8m Basketball Ireland received from the State for its hoops programme, only 20 per cent of the equipment for which the money was given was put in place. In other words, the government paid for 1,720 sets but it is estimated that only 345 have been accounted for, according to the Comptroller and Auditor General's annual report for 2010.

As the report points out, it is a fundamental requirement of public accountability that money is spent for the purposes intended. The department became aware in 2008 that there was an issue when it discovered that equipment to the value of €300,000 which it had funded in December 2006 had yet to be purchased. Following several queries, Basketball Ireland informed the department in April 2009 that as a result of cutbacks there would be no installations of hoops that year or in 2010.

Of course, we know now that the association was terribly in debt. At the end of 2008, its balance sheet showed it owed €1m and as its finances deteriorated further, Basketball Ireland took the drastic decision in February 2010 to scrap its senior men's and women's international teams because of its debt, which by then was said to be €1.2m.

Clearly there are serious question marks over Basketball Ireland, particularly in relation to how its debt spiralled so out of control that it ended up spending large sums of public money it received for a very specific community project on other schemes.

There are questions too for the department. In the case of Basketball Ireland, its debts must be paid -- the department is seeking reimbursement of that €300,000 -- and it is ultimately answerable to its members, to the department itself, and also to the Irish Sports Council, from which it also receives funds. (Indeed the ISC had its concerns and ordered an audit in July 2009 of Basketball Ireland's financial control arrangements.)

But who is the department accountable to? The Comptroller and Auditor General's report notes that "there was a prolonged failure to detect the fact that a significant proportion of the grants paid was not being used for the purposes intended" and that "the absence of on-the-ground inspection of the Community Hoops Programme facilities until 2008 contributed to this".

True, the report acknowledges that a lesson was learned following this and an improved system is in place but, like so many other stories which have come to light in the last two years, it is a painful one for the taxpayer.

Basketball Ireland was not alone. Indeed, prompted by this case, a round of inspections by the department last year yielded further issues. In a review of just 80 grants to sports bodies, seven instances emerged of money not being spent on its intended purpose. Furthermore, two cases were reported to the Gardaí following inspections in 2008 and 2009.

So, if and when the Sports Capital Programme returns, in some form or other, the government must ensure it is administered to the highest possible standards, and that recipients are both deserving and scrupulous.

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