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I am in the unique position of sitting on the Committee for Finance and Personnel and on the Audit Committee, so I have been at both ends. I support the Second Stage of the Bill. It is largely technical in nature, and, as much as some Members would wish to engage in debate on the issue, I fear that that will be extremely difficult. The Bill is, essentially, a tidying-up exercise, which happens every few years, and it is important that we treat it in that regard.
I have only two points to make. First, I support the extension of full and absolute privilege to the Comptroller and Auditor General. That happens elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and Northern Ireland is in an anomalous position. Therefore, we are out of line on the issue rather than the rest of the UK.
Members are aware of the work of the Public Accounts Committee and of the number of important cases that have been highlighted. No doubt, other challenging reports will need to be addressed and brought to public attention in the months and years to come. It is important that the Comptroller and Auditor General has the freedom and confidence to tell us the awkward truths that we need to hear for the sake of the public’s interest and that they are not overly inhibited through fear of the consequences of their actions.
It is also important that the Northern Ireland Audit Office is at arm’s length from the Assembly. However, the Assembly has an Audit Committee that has a relationship with accountability. There is also financial accountability through the Assembly in the allocation of resources. Therefore, that relationship is fine, and it is balanced. It is right and appropriate, we should welcome it, and the extension is worthy.
Secondly, I want to address the social economy powers. In some respects, I am surprised that the issue has not yet been addressed through legislation. We are all conscious of the importance of the social economy, particularly in the context of an economic downturn when the emphasis may shift from foreign direct investment to more indigenous activities. In that context, the role of the social economy becomes more important, and, if the legislation can enable that to be developed further on a more sound and legal basis, that is to be welcomed. Is the Minister satisfied that those powers need to be clarified only in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI)?
Thus far, much work on the social economy in Northern Ireland has been delivered under Peace II, with the involvement of other sponsoring Departments, including the Minister’s own Department. Are we satisfied that there is full legal authority for the work that has been done under Peace moneys up until now? I am aware of the legal toing and froing over some aspects of the absolute legal framework. Perhaps that matter could also be clarified.
Overall, the Assembly should accept that this is a routine piece of legislation. The Alliance Party is more than happy to see it go forward.