Second Stage

Part of Executive Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 11:30 am on 3rd March 2009.

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Photo of Nigel Dodds Nigel Dodds Shadow Spokesperson (Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform), Without portfolio, Shadow Spokesperson (Justice), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Without Portfolio) 11:30 am, 3rd March 2009

I thank the Members who have taken part in this short debate. I welcome the remarks of the Chairperson of the Committee, and I thank the Committee for its deliber­ations. If the Bill is passed today, I give a commitment that my officials will continue to work with the Committee when the Bill is in its Committee Stage. As has been said, the Bill is a short but necessary piece of legislation.

Several Members raised a number of points. Mr McCrea, Mr Farry and Mr Weir talked about the Comptroller and Auditor General and his reports. It is worth bearing in mind that until devolution, his reports were published with the presumption of parliamentary privilege, which is a long-standing practice at Westminster. It is one of the principles of public audit that an auditor of a legislature, a Parliament, or an Assembly should be able to present all relevant evidence to that legislature without threat of legal proceedings. Absolute privilege for reports is intended to ensure that the Comptroller and Auditor General will be able and free to present to the Assembly, without having to defend an action for defamation, all relevant evidence that has been gathered during the course of his studies or audits.

An audit has to deal with issues such as fraud and impropriety, and it needs to report fully on such matters, even when the evidence that is available is not to the highest judicial standards. Without absolute privilege, there is the potential for third parties who are involved in report issues to take legal action that will impede or delay the Assembly’s access to full knowledge of cases in which there will be a significant degree of public interest. That could be seen as inhibiting the Comptroller and Auditor General from reporting freely and frankly to the Assembly. Through an earlier decision, the Assembly has provided absolute privilege to the Comptroller and Auditor General already. Therefore, the purpose of this provision is to put that into statute on a permanent basis.

Mr Farry also raised the issue of the social economy.