Northern Ireland

Housing Executive 'broke rules' over Lurgan homeless scheme

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Media captionThe centre in Lurgan, also known as Mount Zion House, provided accommodation for scores of young people

The Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) broke its own regulations, impacting on a housing scheme for the homeless that eventually closed, a report suggests.

The internal audit of the Supporting People programme said the executive failed to carry out inspections.

The audit said it also failed to communicate with those who ran the Lurgan Foyer housing project.

The charity has accused the executive of using "bullying tactics".

Wilson Freeburn said the executive were not professional in how they had behaved.

"We were financially viable, we were needed in the community and we had produced an action plan. In the end it came down to bullying tactics - the words they used were 'close or be closed'," Mr Freeburn said.

The Department for Social Development (DSD) has also raised what it called "significant concerns" with the NIHE on the audit findings and management's response.

The Lurgan Foyer housing project provided temporary accommodation for up to 28 vulnerable adults. It closed in December after the Housing Executive withdrew annual funding of more than £200,000.

The Housing Executive said it was concerned about the organisation's finances and that standards were not being met.

However, a Housing Executive internal audit, seen by the BBC, has found a litany of executive failings - including a lack of oversight of the charity's work and a five-year gap between obligatory validation visits.

Image caption Wilson Freeburn said the executive did not behave "professionally"

The auditors found NIHE failed to follow proper procurement procedures and did not act on an independent review that cost the taxpayer almost £20,000.

Janice Bunting, chief executive of Shankill Lurgan Community Projects (SLCP), which ran the homeless project, said the organisations felt let down.

"They have treated us shabbily. They did not follow their own contract management programme and failed to follow their own regulations. Those are the words of their own internal auditors," Ms Bunting said.

"We wanted to change and to adapt, but were not given the opportunity to do that."

The Lurgan project was also used by the Southern Health Trust which referred young people needing temporary accommodation.

The internal audit report was carried out after the SLCP asked the DSD for an independent review of the decision that it should close, appealing directly to minister Nelson McCausland.

In a statement, the department said: "The Housing Executive and its board are responsible for the management of contracts and the audit makes it clear that there are issues with the management of the Supporting People programme.

Image caption Janice Bunting said the organisations felt "let down"

"The department has asked for these issues to be addressed with urgency and has sought further assurances on the implementation of the audit recommendations. The department has also emphasised the need to urgently review the service provision in this area."

In a statement to the BBC, the Housing Executive admitted the issue could have been better handled.

"The Housing Executive has accepted that these failures occurred and is currently implementing the report's recommendations," the statement said.

"First, that a needs assessment for young vulnerable people in the Lurgan area needs to be carried out and second, that there needs to be a review of contract monitoring arrangements for the Supporting People programme."

The executive said that while it stood by its original decision to close the unit, it accepted that there were shortcomings in how it handled the process.

"The Housing Executive accepts there were shortcomings in the processes surrounding the termination of funding and these are regretted. However... it remains of the view that the decision to withdraw funding from Lurgan Foyer was correct," the statement said.

An independent accountant, Daly Park Accountants, and auditors also reviewed Lurgan Foyer.

The audit highlights that the review of SLCP's financial position "presented a different analysis in respect of SLCP from that identified by Supported People".

SDLP MLA Dolores Kelly said Lurgan Foyer was a lifeline to young vulnerable adults.

"We took this to the minister to the floor of the assembly, we want answers and action. £19,500 was spent on an action plan which was totally ignored by the Housing Executive - I think their actions have been reprehensible."

NICVA said it was "very concerned" about how the Northern Ireland Housing Executive has treated Shankill Lurgan Community Projects.

"On the face of it Shankill Lurgan Community Projects has been treated very badly by NIHE who have cut off financial support for no demonstrable reason," he said.

"The NIHE's own internal audit report into the decision explicitly questions the NIHE's decision-making process and the veracity of its conclusion. Yet the Housing Executive is sticking to its original decision.

"NICVA calls on the NIHE chief executive or the board to review its decision and put in place a reasonable remedy that is fair to all - not least the homeless young people affected by the closure of the Lurgan Foyer facility."

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