I am grateful to the Minister for presenting the Bill to the House. For some time, the Audit Committee has been concerned about the issue of privilege for the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Those reports occasionally deal with serious issues, such as fraud and impropriety.
Clause 1 of the Financial Provisions Bill has implications for the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports in respect of absolute privilege for the purposes of the law of defamation. The devolution settlement did not give absolute privilege to those reports. Previously, the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland had enjoyed the same absolute privilege as his counterpart in Westminster. During suspension, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports were published in Westminster and were, therefore, privileged.
The Audit Committee and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) are persuaded that it is an anomaly that the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland do not attract absolute privilege. To address that problem in the short term, on 27 November 2007 the Assembly agreed a motion — to which the Minister referred — whereby any report from the Comptroller and Auditor General that was prepared under article 8 of the Audit (Northern Ireland) Order 1987 should be printed and published under the Assembly’s authority. That gave protection to the contents of some of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports.
To date, that measure has been the legislative cover under which the C&AG’s reports have been published. However, the resolution applies only to the current mandate and to reports prepared under article 8 of the 1987 Order. Today, I am glad to give my support, and that of the Audit Committee, to a more concrete provision to protect the rigour of the audit functions in this Administration.
Clause 1 of the proposed Financial Provisions Bill contains a remedy to that short-term situation by extending absolute privilege, for the purposes of the law of defamation, to all reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General that are authorised or required by any statutory provision. The clause is intended to ensure that the Comptroller and Auditor General is free to present to the Assembly all relevant evidence gathered during the course of his studies and audits without having to defend defamation actions. The provision is more wide-ranging than the one agreed in the Assembly’s resolution of 2007 in that it includes reports authorised or requested by any statutory enactment, not just those prepared under the 1987 Order. That will bring the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General into line with those available to his counterparts in Westminster and Wales.
The Committee believes that the provision is fundamental to the practice of public audit and that the Assembly’s auditors should be able to present all significant and relevant findings to the Assembly without the threat of legal challenge from third parties who are involved in the issues covered in the report. The Audit Committee supports the provision.