Sunday 4 December 2016

New grant aid must be handed out fairly

Published 20/11/2011 | 05:00

The Sports Capital Programme is back -- but the largesse of previous years is unlikely to be repeated as the government says it will cap its investment at €30m over the next few years.

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The programme was originally introduced to make funding directly available to sporting clubs and organisations to improve their facilities but as we know it became a political slushfund which was greatly misused by politicians and taken advantage of by those claiming aid.

In the period between 1998 and the shutting down of the programme by the last government, almost 7,500 grant awards totalling over €743m were made.

The new regime has now indicated that the scheme -- which has been closed to new applications since 2008 -- will be reopened next year and that much more stringent controls will be in place.

It emerged in the recently-published Comptroller and Auditor General's report that Basketball Ireland had been sanctioned after it was discovered that a series of grants totalling €1.8m towards the installation of equipment as part of a nationwide community-based project had been misspent. Just 20 per cent of the money awarded by the state was spent on the scheme. The matter has been referred by the department to the Gardaí.

Last week, it also emerged that Athletics Ireland had been forced to repay the department in the region of €110,000 following an inspection in 2009.

The association had received a grant for equipment of €399,300 in 2007 and two years later, €110,478 remained unspent while a portion of that money which had been spent had been used to purchase items such as laptops, digital cameras and even vans and a colour photocopier -- none of which were covered by the initial allocation.

But the Sunday Independent has learned that Basketball Ireland and Athletics Ireland were not alone in this behaviour. In fact, departmental inspections revealed wholesale abuse of the programme by sports clubs, including GAA, soccer and hockey clubs.

Some of the instances uncovered by inspectors include:

•A club submitted a request to draw down funding of €30,000 but could not supply bank statements to support the claim.

•In another instance in which invoices and receipts were supplied as proof in order to collect a grant, the firm whose notepaper was used denied having issued the invoices and receipts.

•Invoices from a company were used to draw down a grant but it then emerged that that company had not done any of the work on the project.

•Inspectors following up on a grant of almost €70,000 to a club discovered that the amount paid to one contractor was less than that claimed in the application.

•One club photocopied invoices and amended the amounts on them to make it appear they had spent more on a project.

•Another club drew down a grant after work had been completed and the contractor was paid but it was later discovered that the contractor refunded the club once it took possession of the grant.

•Another instance referred to the Gardaí by the department concerned a club which admitted to inspectors that invoices marked paid in an application had not been paid.

Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport Leo Varadkar (pictured) said this weekend that he is determined to stamp out these kind of sharp practices when the new scheme begins.

"It concerns me that some national governing bodies and clubs take the view that it's okay to spend public money on a purpose other than the one for which it was granted, on the basis that the money stays within the organisation or club and does not get into someone's pocket," said the minister. "In future, we may need to consider naming and shaming, and perhaps even blacklisting governing bodies and clubs that behave in this manner."

This determination to clean up the grants process is welcome, but it is just as important that the €30m earmarked for the scheme is not used as some kind of re-election fund for government TDs, as was sometimes the case in the past.

Grants must be awarded on merit and some kind of clear strategy -- perhaps on a regional basis -- should be developed to ensure that the money is put to good use. It is important, for example, that the bigger picture be observed so that those areas which lack core facilities are prioritised.

One thing is certain: there should be no constituency maps on the table this time when money is being allocated.

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