Sometimes, Members debate legislation that is not very headline-grabbing. I doubt whether this afternoon’s ‘Belfast Telegraph’ will lead with the debate on financial provisions, and I do not expect it to be a hot topic on ‘The Stephen Nolan Show’ tomorrow morning. I suspect that the technical nature of this legislation is such that even the most technically-minded of anoraks — some of us in the Finance Committee are proud to wear that badge, and I see the Member who spoke previously nodding — would find it difficult to salivate too much over the details of the Bill.
Nevertheless, the debate has thrown up some surprises. Had someone told me this morning that the phrase “social economy” would be mentioned by a member of the Finance Committee, I would have thought that Jennifer McCann or Fra McCann might be favourites, rather than Stephen Farry. However, we have a debate in which social economy seems to be at the heart, and Jennifer McCann is not here, which is a sad loss to the debate.
I welcome the legislation. It falls into two parts. The more technical areas relate to the social economy and provisions for how collection of rates is dealt with within DFP. I echo Mr Farry’s remarks in relation to social economy issues. I assume that legislative provisions are in place to cover other Departments, but it would be helpful were the Minister to clarify that. An issue has been raised, for example, regarding the legal powers of councils with respect to Peace money: that concern may be a red herring, but it would be helpful if clarification were given.
Another issue raised is that of absolute privilege for reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General. That is an important power. As indicated by the Member who spoke previously, it will bring our practice into line with the rest of the United Kingdom and will put the Comptroller and Auditor General on the same basis as Members of the Assembly, for whom absolute privilege is a defence against allegations of defamation. The nature of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s work means that there is always the possibility that such allegations might be made. It is important that the Comptroller and Auditor General is free to bring all the facts into the public domain. Consequently, it is vital that Comptroller and Auditor General reports are covered by absolute privilege, otherwise, unwarranted protection may be given to people and we would be unable to get to the heart of issues. I am not a member of the Audit Committee, but I welcome those provisions.
With such a high level of freedom of expression comes responsibility. However, the nature of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office is such that it is most unlikely that there will be any allegations without supporting evidence of the highest calibre. The Bill is designed to provide a safety net rather than a carte blanche for irresponsibility. It is well-grounded and has been designed to ensure that the Comptroller and Auditor General has an appropriate level of freedom when making reports.
Consequently, I echo the remarks of the Finance Committee, the Audit Committee, and those Members who spoke previously, all of whom welcomed the Bill. I hope it passes.