POLITICS

Nova Scotia oversight of aquaculture sites may miss disease outbreaks: auditor

06/17/2015 08:09 EDT | Updated 06/17/2016 05:59 EDT
HALIFAX - Nova Scotia's auditor general says the province can't adequately monitor fish farms and is calling on the government to improve its ability to identify outbreaks of disease in the industry.

Michael Pickup says in a report released Wednesday that the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture follows its policies in issuing licences, leases and renewals.

But he says the department relies on the federal government or companies to volunteer information about disease outbreaks.

The findings are in the auditor general's latest report to the legislature, which says the Department of Health and Wellness also doesn't know if prevention and treatment programs for problem gamblers work.

"Many Nova Scotians who need help with problems related to their gambling do not reach out to provincial services," Pickup says in a statement. "Health and Wellness needs to figure out why this is and focus on getting more of those people to look for help."

Pickup looked at government procurement policies too, determining that while the government generally follows its rules on buying professional services in the six departments that were audited, it needs to ensure what it purchases has been properly approved.

Here is a look at some of the auditor general's findings:

AQUACULTURE MONITORING NEEDS IMPROVEMENT

Pickup says fish farms aren't required to report disease outbreaks to the province and that should be changed.

In his audit, Pickup found the province doesn't have clear policies on the number of routine visits needed to monitor the health of fish.

He is recommending that the Department of Fisheries and Aquaculture determine which fish diseases it needs to monitor and establish an appropriate reporting process.

The department says new regulations will require operators to identify and report diseases as they are phased in over the next 18 months.

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EFFECTIVENESS OF PROGRAMS TO HELP PROBLEM GAMBLERS IS UNKNOWN

The auditor general says the latest estimates show about 7,000 people in Nova Scotia experience harm due to excessive gambling, while another 12,000 were at risk of developing problems.

However, Pickup says those figures need updating and the Health Department doesn't know if its programs to prevent and treat problem gambling are working.

The report also says standards for programs aimed at preventing problem gambling — such as providing information in casinos on where to get help — began in 2008 and still weren't complete by the date of the audit.

As well, a help line for problem gambling sometimes responds slowly to callers and doesn't follow up in some cases, Pickup says.

Pickup says the department should establish goals to determine if prevention efforts are reducing the harm from excessive gambling.

The department agrees and says it will set goals, but there may be "limited" improvement due to the complexities involved. It also pledges to complete standards for prevention and treatment that were started more than seven years ago.

Pickup's report questions why the province failed to adopt an expert panel's recommendation that it consider a replacement for the My-Play system for video lottery terminals. The system allowed video lottery terminal players to track their spending and set limits, but was cancelled last fall after the Nova Scotia Provincial Lotteries and Casino Corp. found it was not used as intended.

Health Minister Leo Glavine says the government decided against bringing in an alternative system and he didn't see a need for it.

"For now, we're comfortable with where we are," he told reporters on Wednesday.

Pickup would also like deals that are negotiated with First Nations to include rules on responsible gambling, saying agreements between the province and 13 First Nations bands don't include any method to ensure gambling on reserves complies with provincial laws, such as rules on advertising and age limits.

The Department of Aboriginal Affairs says it will try to include provincial gaming laws in the deals it makes with First Nations in the next round of talks.

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GOVERNMENT PURCHASING OF PROFESSIONAL SERVICES NEEDS TIGHTENING

The auditor general found that while the government generally follows its rules on buying professional services in the six departments that were audited, it needs to make sure what it purchases has been properly approved.

He says in eight out of 22 contracts examined, the deals were signed after work started.

Pickup found times when there were no penalty clauses for the work not being done. The contracts also lacked dispute resolution clauses.

The Department of Internal Services agrees with Pickup's recommendations, adding that over the next two years the suggested clauses will be developed.