Sunday 26 January 2020

John Greene: Wasting what little we have is so wrong

John Greene

For anybody who has any experience of trying to fund sporting activity at any level – from elite all the way down – some of the recent revelations on the extraordinary amount of waste of public money in the system should be sickening.

When the amount of public money for sport is cut, one of the most frequent arguments put forward is that giving millions of euro to the Irish Sports Council to distribute across all levels cannot be justified when hospital wards are closing and beds are being taken out of the health system. This, of course, is lazy and self-serving. Apart from the fact that common sense tells us that the healthier people are, the less strain is placed on a health system struggling to cope, there is a greater flaw with this argument. If the HSE stopped wasting vast amounts of money, there can be no doubt it would adequately survive on its current budget of €13.4bn, and probably even less.

Sport, meanwhile, is told to make do with €44.5m.

So when you hear of this waste, and compare it to the level of funding that would be required to bring about real improvement in Ireland's sporting landscape, particularly in terms of growing participation levels, it is enormously frustrating.

Which is why it is disappointing that there was not much more of an outcry following the publication of a report by the Comptroller and Auditor General into the controversial National Health and Local Authority Levy Fund. It is surprising that sporting bodies – and indeed other interest groups in the arts and so on – did not draw more attention to the lax approach taken with the distribution of public money.

The C&AG explained this fund as follows: "Over the period 1998 to 2009, money was allocated by a number of public bodies for social partnership initiatives involving health sector and local authority sector staff. A bank account entitled the SIPTU National Health and Local Authority Levy Fund Account (the Fund) was set up to hold the money provided. The Fund was administered by a senior official of SIPTU."

The controversy surrounding this fund began when it first emerged that it was used to finance a host of foreign trips. Beneficiaries of these trips included trade union officials and officials from a number of government parties. Over the period covered, from the late 1990s to 2010, just over €1m was spent on travel and accommodation, hospitality and marketing promotions and, according to the report, "it is not possible to identify the extent of the contribution they may have made to the development of partnership". In other words, it is difficult to find a justification for this level of expenditure.

Ultimately, the net cost to the taxpayer of activity surrounding this fund since 2002 has been estimated at €3.15m. For much of this time it was under the direct control of two individuals with strong ties to SIPTU. And here's the rub. The C&AG made an informed surmise that the fund "may have acted as a mechanism for public bodies to avoid unused money allocated for partnership purposes being surrendered back to the Exchequer at year-end".

Other "inappropriate financial procedures" that "could have been prevented had appropriate financial controls been put in place" included invoices totalling €98,000 being submitted twice to public bodies in support of reimbursement claims, no documentary evidence to demonstrate that goods and services which were paid out of public funds were procured in a competitive and fair manner, and cheques drawn for cash to the value of €11,700 vouched with invoices that did not contain any supplier details.

Indeed, "the development and operation of the Fund raises a number of issues of general concern in relation to the administration of grant funding by public bodies".

How's that for a wake-up call? It was more important to some department officials to throw large sums of money into an account that served no real purpose – certainly not for the good of the State at least – than to see it spent on something that really matters. And yes, sport does matter.

This episode is just one example of the kind of cavalier attitude to public money that has prevailed in some of those charged with putting it to proper use – there are many more, across many government departments.

So if you find little to be enraged about when you read that sport this year experienced a cut of €2.5m, perhaps it's worth thinking again. Yes, we are an indebted nation, but that does not mean we cannot afford it – only that we cannot afford to waste it.

Decade-long bet comes in

When David Moyes was confirmed as the new manager of Manchester United last Thursday, it brought the curtain down on more than just Alex Ferguson's hegemony of British football.

Plenty has been said and written in the last few days about the dominance exerted by Ferguson over his rivals as they came and went, particularly since the breakthrough league title in 1993, and also about his accomplishments and all that.

But there have also been some interesting side stories linked to his retirement. One which caught my eye concerned Betfair, the betting exchange firm founded in 2000, 14 years after Ferguson arrived at Old Trafford. In December 2001, over a year after it was set-up, Betfair matched its first bet on who would be the next manager of Manchester United. A punter placed the bet on David O'Leary (pictured), and it was matched at 28.0 (27/1). A bet placed on Bryan Robson three months earlier was not matched.

And so, the appointment of Moyes in May 2013 finally ended the longest running market on Betfair. In the intervening 12 and a half years, bets were matched on 76 different candidates. Stand-out bets include former United assistant manager Carlos Queiroz (1/10) and Dutch manager Louis van Gaal (1/7).

The first bet placed on David Moyes was on December 16, 2001 and the price taken was 21/1 but he was later available at 99/1 which one punter happily put €3 on.

There was a flurry of activity in the 24 hours after Ferguson's announcement and when the market was finally settled, over €1m had been matched.

For those interested in that sort of thing, the longest running market on Betfair now is 'Next Conservative Leader'. Boris Johnson is currently favourite at 10/3.

Irish Independent

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