About half the Covid-19 support funds given to wind turbine owners in Northern Ireland have not yet been paid back.
Fifty-two wind turbine owners received emergency £10,000 grants last year.
The sector was subsequently ruled ineligible by the Department for the Economy (DfE) and it said it would try to recover the money.
A new Audit Office report said “just over half” had been recovered and DfE is working to recover the rest.
The report found that almost £245m was paid out to businesses under the Small Business Support Grant Scheme.
The auditor general estimates that £13.5m could have been paid to recipients who were not eligible under the scheme rules.
That means just under 95% of the grants were correctly paid.
So far officials have identified:
£5.68m of potentially ineligible payments, including £2m in duplicate payment
£0.7m paid to landlords rather than tenants
£0.5m paid to the wind turbine owners.
To date, £1.76m of this has been recovered and efforts continue to recover the balance, although it is not clear how much will be recouped.
‘Exceptionally challenging circumstances’
The auditor, Kieran Donnelly, said it was worth highlighting that more than £800,000 has been returned by businesses who received the funding but paid it back without any requirement to do so.
He said it was “important to recognise that this scheme was designed and launched under exceptionally challenging circumstances and at an extreme pace”.
However he added that lessons could still be learned: “In particular, I want to highlight the importance of a collaborative approach in developing similar schemes in the future.
“Better early engagement across departmental boundaries and with business representatives would have helped the department target support to those most in need.
“A small amount of additional time at the design stage may have provided more protection to public funds and helped reduce the need for changes to the eligibility criteria after the scheme had launched.”
A spokesperson for Department for the Economy said that the Small Business Support Scheme “was not a routine support scheme delivered in normal times”.
“It was an emergency response to a crisis and, without it, many Northern Ireland businesses may not have survived and many more jobs could have been lost,” said the spokesperson.
“As the NIAO report stated, the scheme was designed and launched under exceptionally challenging circumstances and at an extreme pace.
“While it is important to place the scheme in the context of the unprecedented crisis brought about by the devastating impact of the Covid 19 pandemic at that time, the department will consider the recommendations made in the NIAO report.”
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