PAC critical of management at agri research body

The Northern Ireland Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (DARD) has failed in its responsibility for proper oversight of the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute (AFBI), its research and development arm.

This is according to Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee in a report published this morning, which heavily criticised the financial management of the institute saying it continuously failed to deliver value for money.

The AFBI was established as a non-departmental public body in April 2006 and carries out research and development for DARD. In the six-year period from 2006-07 and 2011-12, AFBI spent £316m sterling and received total income of £321m sterling; £253m sterling (79 per cent) of this income was grant-in-aid from DARD.

AFBI’s work is important in a number of respects. It facilitates diagnosis and control of animal and plant disease outbreaks, detects changing disease patterns and the emergence of new diseases, provides assurance on food product safety and helps to maintain healthy fish stocks among other functions.

In its report the Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee said it was “deeply disappointed that proper costing systems were not introduced by AFBI until almost seven years after its establishment, and believes this delay was characterised by a lack of foresight and inaction”.

The absence of these basic systems meant that AFBI did not have any proper tools for assessing its operational efficiency, it noted.

The efficiency and effectiveness of its scientific testing also came under scrutiny. The committee said it was disappointed that there was limited unit costing and benchmarking of costs for this testing, and cannot therefore understand how DARD can have any idea whether its significant investment in this area is delivering value for money.

The committee also welcomed AFBI’s success in substantially increasing its level of non-DARD income, but did have concerns regarding staff royalties.

“This (increase in non-DARD income) has been significantly assisted by royalties from patents filed following scientific discoveries by the former Science Service. However, the committee was extremely concerned to learn that seven employees (or former employees) have received very significant shares of these royalties.”

It continued: “The committee demands all public sector bodies to exercise utmost scrutiny over employee claims for shares in intellectual property, and to obtain the best deal possible for the public purse.”

In terms of the management of the DARD-funded R&D programme it said this had been “very poor”.

According to the committee, AFBI has acknowledged the 125 R&D projects examined by the Comptroller and Auditor General did not have budgets ‘as such’, and that it did not subject 39 projects to the required full appraisal.

“We views this as symptomatic of inadequate project management,” it said.

It also raised concerns on the extent of overspends and time overruns on these projects to have been alarming. It found total overspends amounted to at least £12.7m sterling, where projects lasted five years, compared with estimates of 1.5 to 3.5 years.

Among the recommendations by the NI Public Accounts Committee is for the implementation of a clear efficient cost savings financial benchmark system, review its fee setting procedures, establish a structured scientific testing costs as a matter of urgency and prepare robust budgets for all DARD-funded R&D projects.