NITB’s New York Bills

Oral Answers to Questions — Enterprise, Trade and Investment – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 30 September 2002.

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Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance 2:30, 30 September 2002

3. asked the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, pursuant to AQW 389/01, how many of the New York hospitality bills listed were paid with the credit card issued to NITB’s New York manager.

(AQO 190/02)

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

None of the bills referred to were paid with the credit card that was issued to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s New York manager.

Photo of Seamus Close Seamus Close Alliance

I am delighted to hear that. However, can the Minister advise the House as to how he is so certain that that is the case? As I understand it, thousands of pounds worth of unaccounted bills are still outstanding, for which no receipts have been issued?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

The bills were paid either through the Northern Ireland Tourist Board’s cheque journal, in accordance with normal supplier payment arrangements, or through expense claim forms, which were then processed in accordance with normal procedure. The payments have either been repaid centrally by the Tourist Board or subsequently claimed and repaid through the normal process. That is how I am able to give the Member that particular answer.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

The Minister will agree that chairmen of public bodies and those charged, as accounting officers, with safeguarding the use of public money have a particular duty of care in incurring substantial expenditure on hospitality, such as that which occurred in New York. He will further agree that it is essential that such expenditure is fully in line with best practice guidance and that it can be fully defended as regards value for money.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Get to the question.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

I do not need to be prompted. Are you coming to a question, Mr Dallat?

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Yes, indeed. I find it rather interesting that such anxiety is expressed from across the Floor about this question.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Get on with what you were going to say, ye bigot ye.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

This really is unfortunate.

Photo of Jim Wilson Jim Wilson UUP

Mr Dallat, I was right to call you to order.

I ask Mr Kennedy whether he cares to withdraw that remark.

Photo of Danny Kennedy Danny Kennedy UUP

Mr Deputy Speaker, the remark is withdrawn.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Is the Minister satisfied that the chairman and accounting officer met expectations during the visits and events detailed in his answer to question AQW 389/01? What criteria were used to assess that?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

I am not absolutely sure that I quite understand what the Member is getting at. He said that accounting officers and chairmen have a duty of care for public expenditure. I entirely agree. The purpose and rationale for having an accounting officer is that there is a person designated as being responsible for the dispersal of public funds. I entirely accept that, and it is absolutely appropriate that such a person is clearly identified.

The Member also mentioned substantial expenditure on hospitality. That must be put into perspective. Going back to 1997, there were amounts of $123·13 and $27·54, up to larger amounts such as $3,689·24. However, we are talking about the promotion of Northern Ireland in New York, which is a very expensive city. Even at its peak, average expenditure was $500 a week. At that time, Northern Ireland was a very difficult place to promote. People forget just how far we have come since then.

People must have some sense of proportion. Whether it is $27 or $3,000, accountability must remain quite clear. In the first part of my answer, I said that the accounting officer must be answerable for, in this case, every cent that is spent from the public purse. However, we must also remember the purpose of spending that money. We are up against heavy expenditure from other places. I am not altogether sure if amounts of that scale would be subject to questions in the Irish Parliament — maybe they are. However, it is important to keep everything in proportion.

The chairman and the accounting officer must ensure that the Department’s policy on expenditure of public moneys is adhered to, and, if it is not, that those involved are answerable to the Department. I am absolutely clear about that. However, as I said to Mr Close, I have been informed that in this case there was clear accountability and that the credit card in question was not used. There was a "shock, horror" reaction to the use of credit cards. Many car drivers use credit cards to pay for petrol; they are a perfectly legitimate means of dealing with public expenditure provided the procedures are in place to ensure accountability. We should not get ourselves into a twist about the use of credit cards or charge cards, because they are a good way to settle bills without using cash. The core issue is to ensure that the people who use them are accountable and answerable.

Photo of David McClarty David McClarty UUP

Am I correct to say that any manager who uses credit cards must submit receipts for any expenses claimed? Does the Minister agree that the number of questions that are being asked about the use of credit cards has reached epidemic proportions? Some of the questions are extremely petty. How much does it cost the Department, and thus the people of Northern Ireland, to answer those questions?

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

Other Ministers and I have a clear obligation to answer, to the best of our ability, any question asked by a Member, irrespective of the number of questions asked. However, perhaps Members do not always appreciate fully how much time is devoted to answering questions. I do not know the exact cost of answering questions on the use of credit cards, but I would be happy to try to find out.

I am more concerned by the fact that certain sections of my Department have to deal with many Assembly questions, which means that at peak times a client executive can spend up to 50% of his or her time answering them. That is a huge problem for the Department because it means that the officer is unable to work on other matters — [Interruption].

Photo of Reg Empey Reg Empey UUP

Irrespective of the question asked, I will continue to endeavour to give as full and frank an answer as possible. However, there comes a point when cost-effectiveness has to be taken into account.