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Public Accounts Committee Reports

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:30 pm on 29th September 2009.

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Debate resumed on motion:

That this Assembly takes note of the Public Accounts Committee Second (23/08/09R) and Third (38/08/09R) Composite Reports and of the following Committee Reports:

Report on Managing Sickness Absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (38/07/08R)

Report on Sea Fisheries: Vessel Modernisation and Decommissioning Schemes (06/08/09R)

Report on Statement of Rate Levy and Collection 2006-07 (13/08/09R)

Report on Delivering Pathology Services: The PFI Laboratory and Pharmacy Centre at Altnagelvin (16/08/09R)

Report on Warm Homes: Tackling Fuel Poverty (18/08/09R)

Report on Shared Services for Efficiency — A Progress Report (21/08/09R)

Report on Brangam, Bagnall & Co: Legal Practitioner Fraud Perpetrated Against the Health and Personal Social Service (26/08/09R)

Report on Road Openings by Utilities (33/08/09R)

Report on the PFI Contract for Northern Ireland’s New Vehicle Testing Facilities (35/08/09R)

Report on Control of Bovine Tuberculosis in Northern Ireland (40/08/09R)

Report on Review of Financial Management in the Further Education Sector in NI and Governance Examination of Fermanagh FE College (41/08/09R)

and the following Department of Finance and Personnel Memoranda of Reply:

Report on Managing Sickness Absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NIA 47/08-09)

Report on Sea Fisheries: Vessel Modernisation and Decommissioning Schemes (NIA 60/08-09)

Report on Statement of Rate Levy and Collection 2006-07 (NIA 74/08-09)

Report on Delivering Pathology Services: The PFI Laboratory and Pharmacy Centre at Altnagelvin (NIA 74/08-09)

Report on Warm Homes: Tackling Fuel Poverty (NIA 91/08-09)

Report on Shared Services for Efficiency – A Progress Report (NIA 91/08-09)

Report on Brangam, Bagnall & Co: Legal Practitioner Fraud Perpetrated Against the Health and Personal Social Services (NIA 110/08-09)

Report on Road Openings by Utilities (NIA 125/08-09)

Report on the PFI Contract for Northern Ireland’s New Vehicle Testing Facilities (NIA 168/08-09) — [The Chairperson, Public Accounts Committee (Mr P Maskey).]

Photo of Jonathan Craig Jonathan Craig DUP

For my sins, I have been asked to speak about private finance initiatives (PFI). The Public Accounts Committee has looked at a number of PFIs in the past year. One of the first PFI contracts that the Committee looked at was the upgrade of MOT centres to the tune of £57 million. The contract was to provide installation and maintenance of new MOT testing equipment. For whatever reason, this was state-of-the-art equipment, and it has been in operation since 2003. However, given the time that the equipment has been in operation, the full test is not being carried out in line with EU requirements, and the targets for test times included in the PFI contract are not being achieved.

It was interesting to note in that investigation that the Driver and Vehicle Agency (DVA) has not claimed or received compensation from the private contractor. One thing that the Committee outlined and underlined in the course of its work was that any future contracts need to be clearly and properly structured and have built-in enforceable penalty clauses to cover circumstances in which the private sector does not deliver on the targets set out in the PFI contract. In the case of the MOT centres, it looks as though the private contractor found a get-out clause and managed to walk away.

However, the Committee welcomed the fact that DVA’s performance against the 18-minute test time in the MOT contract has improved drastically in recent times. Anybody who has had to MOT their car in the past year will fully recognise that the waiting lists are well down. However, that improvement has come with a huge price tag to the public sector. It took £6 million in extra staffing costs to bring about that reduction in waiting lists.

The DVA is considering that it is no longer realistic to conduct an MOT in 18 minutes, and it is looking at a 27-minute period as a more accurate time for each test. All those issues will have a knock-on effect with regard to throughput in all centres.

For example, if MOT centres were to take 27 minutes rather than 18 minutes to complete a test, it would not be possible to inspect the same number of vehicles, and there would be huge cost implications. Huge additional resources would be required, and those resources would no doubt be sought from the public purse.

The Committee considered the Driver and Vehicle Agency to have done too little to resolve its difficulties, and it urged it to complete quickly a full performance review of the entire contract. On my speaking notes, I have underlined the phrase “complete quickly” because that recommendation was made in the then Comptroller and Auditor General’s report three years earlier, and yet that review has never been carried out. That is very telling.

There is wide recognition that, when it comes to MOTs, the standard In Northern Ireland is probably a great deal higher than it is anywhere else. I am very tempted to say that it is higher than anywhere else in Europe — anywhere else in the world, come to that — yet whether we need it to be of such a high standard is another matter. However, the Committee did receive reasonably positive feedback that the situation had improved under the PFI contract.

Another PFI contract that the Committee examined was the contract to build the laboratory and pharmacy services centre at Altnagelvin, a key component of the £250 million redevelopment of the Altnagelvin Area Hospital complex. The project involved the construction of a highly complex newbuild at the site, but, despite its complexity and cost, the Committee was still genuinely surprised to learn that the whole project would not be completed until 2015-16 — more than 20 years after the redevelopment programme was launched. The centre took over six years to be developed and there were inbuilt delays, which caused an increase in the initial cost of approximately £4 million. Those costs were reflected in an increase in the unitary charges over the 25 years of the contract.

However, all the Committee members were genuinely impressed that, despite the complexity of the project and the inbuilt delays of the process, the costs were kept under control. That was the result of the use of exemplar design in the management of the project, and it was quite clear from the Committee’s investigation that the use of that process had enabled the contractors to keep the costs under control, and one of its recommendations was that future PFI projects should make use of that process. The project at Altnagelvin did not meet its projected timescale, but its costs were kept under control, and those costs ultimately would have had to have been met from the public purse.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I also pay tribute to the staff of the Public Accounts Committee, and to the staff of the Northern Ireland Audit Office, without whose assistance we would not be able to function appropriately. Given the recent retirement of Comptroller and Auditor General John Dowdall, who had served for many years, it is also appropriate that Committee members should record our appreciation for his advice and guidance.

Accountability is the key to good management and to the deliverance of good performance. The Northern Ireland Audit Office, and the subsequent scrutiny of its reports by the Public Accounts Committee, holds permanent secretaries and other senior civil servants to account for expenditure. The Committee’s recommend­ations endeavour to prevent the repetition of bad practice so that better use is made of public funds.

During the 2007-08 and 2008-09 sessions, the Committee examined a wide range of reports. Although it normally highlights the need for improvements to be made, the Committee also highlighted some of the good practices that it has come across.

The PFI laboratory and pharmacy centre project at Altnagelvin was mentioned earlier. During the Committee’s investigation it found that, although not subject to a full gateway review, it was subject to a health check to ensure a final appropriate contract specification. It also made use of exemplar design. The views of stakeholders were incorporated so that the final design met the needs of those who would use the service.

The Committee covered a wide range of Departments in its investigation. I have chosen to concentrate on some specific reports where Departments must do more work.

From the perspective of a local councillor — and I declare an interest as a local councillor — I encountered some of the difficulties that arose from the miscalculation of the penny product. Indeed, I, along with other councillors, experienced huge variations in the amounts of money that we could expect to raise during the estimation of our rates calculations for the subsequent years. At one stage, we were told that additional moneys would have to be raised locally, and we were then told that extra money would be coming to us. We found it very difficult to have a stable base from which to plan and work the rates process. Indeed, several councils wrote to the Committee to draw attention to that issue. The Committee addressed those issues in the course of its inquiry, which it followed up recently. Councils have had difficulty in setting an accurate rate, given such variations in the penny product.

The Public Accounts Committee also exposed the scale of the failure of Land and Property Services to inspect vacant property. Surely, that is one of the most basic functions of a rates collection agency. Fortunately, local council staff worked subsequently with Land and Property Services to assist in invoicing an additional £21 million. That money will be available to the Northern Ireland Executive and councils to pay for public services, and it will help to keep down the cost for ratepayers who have been paying their rates. It is important that that aspect of the work is carried out.

During the evidence session, I related to civil servants the difficulty that I had in requesting a rates bill. I had to chase Land and Property Services repeatedly for a bill to pay. That is a very strange phenomenon for an organisation whose job it is to collect money. I assure Members that no business would have such difficulty. That, and other issues exposed by the Public Accounts Committee, contributed to the decision to have the performance and efficiency delivery unit (PEDU) examine Land and Property Services’s operations and the subsequent action plan.

I had a brief look at the action plan, which lists some basic issues: the need for integration between the valuation and revenue functions; the need to focus on its business priorities; a clear sense of purpose for the organisation; strengthening the understanding of and focus on the agency’s key customers; and maximising revenue collection against accurate and timely assessments. Those points are not rocket science. However, the need to have them listed illustrates that Land and Property Services must have lost its way if those basics were not central to what it was doing. I welcome the fact that those issues have been highlighted as key points.

It is hoped that additional moneys will be raised and available for public use. A more timely intervention should reduce rates arrears and bad debt. Regrettably, however, poor past performance will, undoubtedly, result in increased levels of bad debt being declared and less money being available for public use. I hope that there will be significant improvements in that area.

I turn now to the report on managing sickness absences in the Civil Service. It is estimated that the private sector has an average of six days’ absence for each employee each year; the Civil Service in Great Britain has an average of 9·3 days’ absence for each employee; the Northern Ireland Civil Service had an average of 13·7 days’ absence for each employee for 2006-07. Although there are increasing strains on public finance, it is even more critical today to get more value for the money that we spend. Paying for absentee staff is not good value.

The vast majority of civil servants have a good attendance record and others have certified illnesses, but some are abusing sickness entitlement and putting additional pressure on their colleagues.

The Committee’s second recommendation was that the Department should keep a firm spotlight on that and that the reports should be significantly disaggregated to identify absentee hot spots in Departments and agencies. I hope that that will occur. It is important that all managers recognise their accountability and manage the absenteeism of their staff. Equally, there is a role for Committees in that area. During the evidence session we also advised that —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker 3:45 pm, 29th September 2009

The Member should bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

There is no reason why there should be lower levels of attendance in the Civil Service than in the private sector.

It has been a busy year for the Committee, which has covered a wide range of subjects, and regrettably we have had to return to some subjects, but —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member’s time is up.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I wish to focus on the PAC report on financial management in the colleges of further education prior to the reorganisation into six regional colleges in 2007. I will try to explain why I believe that that was a very important report. It outlines a classic example of hands-off bodies stashing money that they do not need and which could be spent on providing educational services that are in great demand and under pressure.

A total of £44 million was in the vaults of six colleges, doing nothing for the people for whom it was intended. It fails me to understand why those colleges could not find a use for that money to improve the educational prospects of people who look to the colleges of further education for a second chance to learn skills that would improve their prospects of getting a job, or, indeed, developing their skills to get a better-paid and more secure job. If those colleges were so well heeled, they could have handed the money back so that it could be used to fund front line services, such as the Health Service, which was starved of money.

The report found that senior management teams in the pre-regional colleges were not equipped with the skills and experience necessary for financial governance responsibilities. That was a damning indictment of the Department, which should have ensured that recipients of public money had the basic skills in how to manage it. If there is any good news from the report, it is an undertaking from the Department — given only last week — that in future, no more than 10% cash balances will be retained. The Public Accounts Committee welcomes that.

In trying to understand how so much money could lie idle in bank accounts, the PAC discovered that the Department was negligent in several ways. Monitoring reports were frequently submitted late with no penalty, and no action was taken when the reports flagged up serious financial practices. The Department, I am glad to say, has given an assurance that improved governance arrangements have been put in place for the six new colleges; however, I have to question that because problems have arisen in the new Belfast Metropolitan College, and the Department has not been able to explain why.

Speaking personally, it is a great source of frustration that, after the PAC devoted a great deal of time and energy to scrutinising reports produced by the Comptroller and Auditor General, we find that our recommendations are frequently ignored. That suggests that greater penalties are needed to ensure that the PAC is fully effective in the job that it does — and does with great commitment.

It would be remiss of me not to spell out how serious the incompetence of the colleges of further education has been and how their lack of financial management skills has affected the people who should benefit from the services that they are supposed to deliver. One quarter of the total population between the ages of 16 and 64 lack basic skills — skills that may just make them employable at a time when unemployment has doubled in the past 12 months. Those who are in employment could have upgraded their skills and gone on to obtain more highly skilled jobs that would be less at risk in the present economic downturn.

I have often said in the Chamber that education is the greatest weapon for resolving inequality and offering political stability. I declare an interest in that I owe my further education to the technical college in Coleraine, and I have nothing but admiration for the people who have delivered vocational education there to many students for more than 70 years.

The case of Fermanagh College of Further and Higher Education, which was covered by the Committee’s report, was particularly worrying. Fundamental breaches of public accountability and basic financial mismanage­ment resulted in the college having to repay more than £1 million of improperly claimed funding. That money had been claimed before class numbers had been finalised. Clearly, there was no clear leadership or sense of strategic direction at the college.

It is gratifying that the Department for Employment and Learning has responded to the Committee’s concerns with a review of governance arrangements. The Department has also undertaken to effectively communicate lessons to all the colleges through a programme of health checks, which are to commence before March 2010, with a workshop for all college senior managers to take place this autumn. Further training programmes are to take place in the future.

I wish to put on record my personal thanks to the former Comptroller and Auditor General Mr John Dowdall for his outstanding contribution to tackling financial irregularities, poor service and, indeed, fraud in public bodies. He was extremely concerned about the rights of the people whom I mentioned at the beginning of my speech, the 25% of people who lack basic skills and who could have their lives transformed if colleges of further education were to make best use of the resources that they are given.

Stashing the money in the vaults was a serious injustice. Let us hope that the publication of the report will mean that never again will that kind of embarrassment hang over the Assembly. In future, let us hope that FE colleges will be known for their students’ successes and that the great history that they have had will be restored. That can happen only if the people who work in those institutions have the financial support and expertise in the future that they clearly did not have during the time that I have just spoken about.

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I have been asked to talk about the general subject of fraud in the public sector, rather than about a specific report.

Fraud is a serious problem, and it is estimated that it costs the public sector in Northern Ireland around £500 million every year. Given today’s economic climate, in which we are in the teeth of a recession, the public sector must be even more vigilant in guarding against fraudulent activity.

The cliché that fraud is not a victimless crime is worth repeating because every pound that is stolen by a fraudster is one pound less for the improvement of public services. I notice that the Minister of Finance and Personnel is in the Chamber; if he were able to get his hands on some of that £500 million, he would be more than pleased. It might make a difference to the figure of £370 million that is being bandied about in the other direction.

The Comptroller and Auditor General has been given powers to deal with the problem. Under statutory provisions that were inserted in the Audit and Account­ability (Northern Ireland) Order 2003 by the Serious Crime Act 2007, the Comptroller and Auditor General has the power to conduct data-matching exercises for the purposes of assisting in the prevention and detection of fraud.

That legislation provides a significant opportunity to tackle and reduce the scale of fraud in Northern Ireland and beyond, and it should provide a strong deterrent against future fraudulent acts. Data matching is a powerful tool in combating fraud, as is demonstrated by the national fraud initiative, which was established by the Audit Commission in 1996. The Audit Commission has so far helped participating bodies to identify around £400 million of fraud and overpayments.

In consultation with the Information Commissioner and other stakeholders, the Audit Office has prepared a code of practice for data matching. On 25 July 2008, that code was laid before the Assembly. It promotes good practice and data matching. It helps to ensure compliance with the law, especially the provisions of the Data Protection Act 1998.

The first exercise was undertaken by the Comptroller and Auditor General as part of the national fraud initiative exercise for 2008-09. The Audit Commission, on behalf of the Comptroller and Auditor General, carried out key aspects of the exercise, including the collection and processing of data.

A total of 70 public sector bodies provided data for the first round of the exercise. They included Departments and their executive agencies; larger non-departmental public bodies; Health Service bodies; and district councils. A small number of other bodies provided data voluntarily.

The types of data sets included information on payroll; pensions; trade creditors; housing benefits; housing tenants; blue badge holders; rates; and the electoral register. Those data sets were gathered in October 2008. The matching exercise took place shortly after that. In February 2009, bodies started to receive their results, which they are now in the process of examining. It is hoped that by the end of 2009, the process will be substantially completed. The Audit Office then proposes to compile a report on the national fraud initiative. We look forward to that report.

The Chairman outlined the Brangam Bagnall and Co inquiry in some detail; therefore, I will not. That inquiry has given me a perspective on public sector fraud, which, certainly, informs my work as a PAC member. In 2007, we looked at a relatively minor case of fraud that involved the Ordnance Survey of Northern Ireland. In 2008, we produced our report on social security benefit fraud and error. In 2009, we have dealt with the inquiry into suspected fraud in the education and library boards.

The Committee has also dealt with certain aspects of a report on Valence Technology, which is due to be published soon. We could not get to the bottom of certain matters. As a result, the Committee has repeated recommendations on counter-fraud policies and the importance of basic checks and supervisory arrangements. Those simple steps can identify and prevent fraud at an early stage.

As is evidenced in the report on Brangam Bagnall and Co, and in other cases to which I have referred, fraud is often simple. It relies on the incompetence of supervisory staff; on basic checks and procedures being lax; and, in the case of Brangam Bagnall and Co, on friendship and trust replacing a businesslike approach and general vigilance. The late Mr Brangam exploited the old boys’ network shamelessly. No one came out of that case with any credit; not even the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety or the Law Society, which were supposed to supervise his activities.

The data-matching exercise reinforces the Committee’s recommendations in its inquiries. Departments must allow information sharing in order to prevent fraudsters from repeating offences. An environment of open communication is encouraged. It contributes to early detection of non-compliance with controls and can help to identify problems early.

It is also a key part of the culture that is required for a robust, whistle-blowing policy to be maintained and fully implemented. During the course of its work on various reports, the Committee has found that, often, whistle-blowers’ allegations, which should be properly investigated, are not.

Many times, as a constituency politician, I have heard misgivings that have been voiced by members of the public, which, when investigated, have led to significant findings of malpractice and conflict of interest, in particular. Therefore, I fully endorse all efforts by Departments to promote a whistle-blowing culture. I commend the national fraud initiative as an example of good practice and robust efficiency. The role of the Public Accounts Committee, as the guardian of taxpayers’ money, is to ensure that no fraud is deemed acceptable.

Earlier, I mentioned Valence Technologies. The report on that case is due to be published on 1 October 2009. Therefore, I cannot discuss it. Let me just say that some reports have been known to highlight matters other than fraud; perhaps, the need to maintain good practice, even under pressure, and to learn lessons from previous experiences and, indeed, previous PAC reports, such as that which was produced on the DeLorean inquiry.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Trevor Lunn Trevor Lunn Alliance

I will finish there, Mr Speaker.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP 4:00 pm, 29th September 2009

The other day, someone asked me to describe the role of a Back-Bencher in controlling the Executive, and I said that trying to control the Executive is like standing jeering at a passing steamroller. To a large extent, that is how one feels about one’s role as an obscure Back-Bencher in this House.

However, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is the one Committee that really seems to have teeth. That is because Departments fear the arrival of the Comptroller and Auditor General in their offices, and they fear the PAC’s reports.

I spent a very happy 15 or 16 months on the Public Accounts Committee; it was interesting to watch it in action. I pay tribute to the staff, particularly the outgoing Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr John Dowdall, who is a remarkable individual. At his farewell meeting with the Committee, I said to him that he has the intellect of an accountant and the voice of an archbishop. He has that resounding air of authority that makes people respect him. I knew that his staff were in very good hands. He has since retired, and on behalf of the people of the Province, I pay tribute to his controlling investigations into the misuse of expenditure. My colleague Mr Craig also congratulates Mr Dowdall on his hard work. I wish Mr Dowdall all the best for a long and happy retirement.

When I was on the Committee, I saw two extremes in its reports. During the Committee’s investigation of the pathology laboratory at Altnagelvin Area Hospital in Londonderry, I kept asking myself what we were doing and why we were there, because the only scandal that I saw was that there was not a pathology laboratory such as that in Altnagelvin in either Newry or Downpatrick. It is an outstanding facility with wonderful staff who do tremendous work. The only crimes that the trust was perhaps guilty of were excelling in patient care and trying to do too much for patients. The laboratory might have run over budget, but the motivation behind that was getting a gold-plated facility for the people of the north-west. I congratulate the trust for that.

I know that the Committee felt obliged to look at that issue. However, I felt that the trust came out of that process with shining colours. I ask that there be similar facilities in Daisy Hill Hospital and Downe Hospital so that the Committee can investigate those as well. My constituents would love to have such wonderful facilities.

That is one extreme of the type of work that the Committee does. I suppose that we must look at the good guys as well as the bad guys to give a sense of balance. The Committee also looked at the issue of absenteeism. I worked for the National Trust for 10 years during the late 1980s and early 1990s. That was a wonderful time; however, not everyone understood my role. I once asked someone to join the National Trust, and he said that his money was with Bradford and Bingley already. Therefore, not everyone understood the role of the National Trust in Northern Ireland.

During my time with the National Trust, I noticed a fact about absenteeism that came out in the Committee’s ‘Report on Managing Sickness Absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service’. I had hourly paid staff who did not get paid if they did not turn up and monthly paid staff who got paid no matter what happened. It was, therefore, no surprise that absenteeism was 14 times higher among the monthly paid staff than it was among the hourly paid staff. Both were doing identical work and hours, but if the hourly paid staff did not turn in, they did not get paid. Will someone explain to me why monthly paid staff can catch a range of plagues, diseases and illnesses when hourly paid staff are as fit as Olympic runners? There must be some reason for that.

Will someone also explain to me why pestilence swept through my office on Friday afternoons and Monday mornings but did not seem to affect the office on Tuesdays and Wednesdays? I never understood that. That report found that discrepancy: in certain workplaces staff got very ill, while in others, staff were very healthy.

I do not know what was going on in DRD or DARD, but staff in both those Departments seemed to be very happy; everyone came in, and nobody got ill. However, Members cannot say that that was because of the Ministers — [Laughter.] The Committee’s report dealt with the pre-devolution situation, so those Ministers, who remain utterly unmentionable, cannot claim that staff were happy because they worked for them.

Why is it that in DARD the absenteeism rate was considerably lower than in DSD, DOE, or other Departments? It may be that the DARD staff were happier in their work, or there may be other reasons. However, there can be no excuse for the fact that absenteeism in some Departments within the Northern Ireland Civil Service is almost double that in certain parts of private industry.

Quite simply, there are some civil servants who, unfortunately, consider that there are a number of days a year that they can take off as what are known as “sickies”. For example, they feel that it is allowable to take a few days off to go Christmas shopping. That is simply not allowable. It is not allowable for MLAs, it is not allowable for our staff, and, therefore, it should not be allowable for civil servants.

We may all laugh about that and it may seem very amusing. However, when you add up the total cost to the Exchequer of absenteeism in Northern Ireland, it equates to several new hospitals or several thousand new nurses. It is important that we get to grips with absenteeism, and, therefore, I think that it was important that the PAC did a report and exposed the difficulties that we face. We must drive down absenteeism to the average of private enterprise. That simply has to be the case. We cannot tolerate the laissez-faire, easy-going attitude that there is.

That said, being a member of the PAC was an enjoyable experience. It is hard to judge, but I think that I have moved on to perhaps slightly higher things. However, I know that the Committee is in good hands, and I welcome the fact that a letter from the PAC calling witnesses to give evidence is still seen as a fearful, torturous process that no permanent secretary wants to experience. The PAC must keep up the good work, keep causing fear within the Departments, and, hopefully, someday, we will do ourselves out of a job. I doubt that that is going to happen in my lifetime. However, Mr Dowdall can enjoy reading and playing golf, safe in the understanding that he has done a very good job for the people of Northern Ireland.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I was not anticipating being called to speak in this debate, but no matter. I am relatively new to the Public Accounts Committee, although it was visited upon me once upon a time before. The notes from which I am reading say “arcane”, but, sometimes, I am not sure whether the PAC is arcane or archaic.

Nevertheless, since becoming a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have attended one briefing and one evidence session. Issues have cropped up in my capacity as an MLA, and I have referred those to the Comptroller and Auditor General’s office. I have to say that when I was previously at the PAC, Mr Dowdall always came across as extremely competent, very approachable, knowledgeable in his brief, and knowledge­able in the method by which one should approach that brief with the backup of his staff.

During the period to which the motion relates, the Committee undertook a report on the financial governance arrangements of North/South bodies. In researching that report, the PAC conferred with the Committee of Public Accounts in the Oireachtas in Dublin. This working year, the two Committees will meet again to cross-reference their findings on North/South bodies and, perhaps, even go so far as to synchronise the launch of their respective reports on those matters. In common with other Members, we look forward with bated breath to that approach.

This year, the Committee produced two composite reports, its second and third, and the subjects dealt with are too many and varied for me to deal with today. For me to even recall them at such short notice would be quite a task. However, I note that that mechanism enabled the Committee to make important contributions to the development of the reinvestment and reform initiative. It is hoped that that will be of particular interest in this time of economic concern.

I note from previous reports that an issue which has been brought to my attention — the involvement of private consultancy firms, and their cost to the public exchequer — has come before the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee. Inevitably, given the more recent revelations, that will come back under the scrutiny of the Committee.

I have looked into the reports that Members will be most aware of; namely, those dealt with by evidence session. In particular, I will discuss the recommendations that the Committee made in its progress report on shared services, which is part of the Civil Service reform agenda to make public services more efficient. Turning to the shared services report, I will give a brief overview of the projects, and comment on the lessons that the Committee drew from its evidence sessions.

The report on shared services was a snapshot of the reform project and incorporated seven initiatives, including Workplace 2010, Account NI, HR Connect and Network NI. The Committee was aware that the reform programme represented a major commitment of resource; it was estimated to have a total value of £3 billion.

As all the reform projects were central to the future organisation and delivery of public services, it was the Committee’s view that projects should be subject to the Gateway Review process at the prescribed stages of their procurement, implementation or service operation. The Committee recommended the approval of DFP Supply before committing resources, which was also a key safeguard in providing assurance to the Assembly that decisions had been subject to independent scrutiny.

The Committee also found that the projects presented an enormous management challenge for the Department and that, although it had taken steps to build capacity and skills among staff through its new Centre for Applied Learning, 2006 research showed that the Northern Ireland Civil Service was ill-equipped to deliver such a varied range of projects. Apparently, the Committee was aghast that one individual was given a key role and responsibility for delivering four of the major shared-services projects.

Overall, it appears that the Department took on a challenging workload and ambitiously initiated the reform agenda only to find that the timetabling for the projects and the resource requirement allocated to them were unrealistic. The Committee was also concerned at delays in implementation and at the suspension of the Workplace 2010 project at the time.

In addition, the procurement of the Workplace 2010 project, which was subsequently terminated, indentified a key lesson that has wider applicability across the public sector. The procurement process was the subject of a legal challenge by an unsuccessful bidder. Although DFP was convinced that it could win the case, after advice from counsel, it settled the case at a cost to the taxpayer of £225,000. However, the full cost to the Department was £1·2 million.

In the Committee’s view, concluding a settlement in cases where Departments are convinced that they will resist legal challenge sends the completely wrong signal to other unsuccessful bidders about the Government’s determination to stand over their tender processes where there is a robust case to do so.

This was a very useful case study by the Committee. By the time of next year’s debate, it says in my speech that I will be a “fully fledged veteran” of the Committee.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I am already encouraged by the role that I see the Committee fulfilling in impartially scrutinising Government expenditure and rolling out recommendations for improved financial governance across the public sector.

From one veteran to another, Mr Speaker, thank you.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I am not sure whether I am a veteran, but I have been a member of the Public Accounts Committee for almost a year.

The Public Accounts Committee has had a varied and busy year of business. I will focus on two reports; one on bovine TB and the other on the sea fisheries scheme for the modernisation and tie-up of vessels. Both of those issues have significant public-expenditure impacts; they impact aggressively on farming and fishing communities in Northern Ireland.

I will initially make my remarks as a member of the PAC. However, I will also speak in my capacity as an elected representative, because, coming from a farming and fishing constituency, I can bring my knowledge of that to the debate.

A quarter ir mair o’ aa the herds o’ kine I Norlin Airlan hae bovine TB an’ the Committee richtly allooed at thon hannlin shud bae leuked intae. Thair wus a bag ris’ i caases this las’ wheen o’ years peakin’ i 1997 aa 13% at bes the heighest level i Europe. I the las’ 10 yeirs the Depairtment hes spent sum 10 million pun oan hit’s programme tae dae awa’ wi’ bovine TB. The airt wurst hit bae bovine TB bes Strangford an’ mid-Down

At least a quarter of all cattle herds in Northern Ireland have had bovine TB, and the Committee correctly concluded that that grave problem merited investigation. Just today, at a meeting of the Agriculture Committee, that matter was raised with departmental officials. There has been a significant increase in cases of bovine TB in recent years; in 1997, it peaked at 13%, which was the highest level in Europe. Over the past 10 years, the Department has spent some £200 million on its bovine TB control programme. The area with the highest incidence in the whole of Northern Ireland is Strangford and mid-Down.

Despite the Department’s investment in controlling the disease, bovine TB can cause considerable economic losses through livestock deaths, chronic disease and trade restrictions.

It is certainly in the taxpayers’ interest to eradicate it, and it has been eradicated in many countries. The Committee was, therefore, staggered to hear the Department concede that its current bovine TB strategy will not lead to eradication. That the Department should spend so much to achieve mere containment is unacceptable.

I am not sure whether anyone from the Department is in the Public Gallery. I encouraged them this morning to come along to the debate, but perhaps the thought of being lambasted by the Public Accounts Committee has made them stay away. However, if they are here somewhere, I congratulate them.

The Department formally reviewed its bovine TB eradication policy between 1999 and 2002. However, we are still no further along. Progress has been slow, and not all the recommendations of that review have been implemented. Similarly, in a review of testing arrange­ments, a range of improvements were recommended by consultants in 2006, and those have still not been acted upon. The officials told us that they will have a wee talk about it for five years. However, the Public Accounts Committee wants action. Such delays are indefensible.

The Committee was also surprised that the Department was not fully compliant with the EU directive on combating bovine TB, and had not, therefore, availed itself of EU funding that is aimed at eradicating the disease. Again, there seems to be a delay in the Depart­ment. At long last, the Department has accepted the Committee’s recommendation to bring itself into line with the directive, which is a welcome step. However, we will wait to see whether the words are turned into actions.

The Committee further recommended that the Department introduces the pre-movement testing of animals to address the risk of purchasing infected animals; that it reaches an objective, evidence-based conclusion and strategy on the impact of wildlife, particularly badgers, on bovine TB; and that herd owners on infected farms are given biosecurity training. Let us see action following the words.

We cannot be complacent about the continuing grip of bovine TB, nor about expenditure of, on average, £20 million a year to contain it. The Department of Agriculture and Rural Development must move urgently, focus on concrete measures, and use good practice from successful eradication policies to end bovine TB in Northern Ireland.

I have often asked questions about the undoubted link between badgers and bovine TB, yet the Department refuses to take the views of farmers and vets seriously. I advocate the eradication of badgers, and I ask the Department to do likewise. I know that the green Member to my right —

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

I will gladly give way to the Member. I am sure that he will have words of wisdom.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

I cannot allow those scurrilous accusations against the badger community to go unanswered. The jury is still out on a link between badgers and bovine TB. Some scientists believe that there is a direct link, and others believe that they have proved that there is no link. There is also a view that attempted eradication simply causes badger communities to disperse, thereby spreading disease among cattle. Although the Member is entitled to his opinion, I ask that he does not quote it as fact. It is heresy.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

It is not heresy; it is fact. The Member has his opinion, and I have mine. I can back my opinion up with scientists’ views. The Member will, of course, have his environmental, green-tinted view, which we also have to accept.

Sea fisheries grant schemes have amounted to £18 million since 1993 to fund three vessel decommissioning schemes and three vessel modernisation schemes. I have often stood up in the Chamber to represent the fishermen of my constituency, and I have helped them to make a living despite EU restrictions and regulations. I know that my colleague who just spoke has done likewise. Europe is so concerned with the so-called scientific reports that say that there are no fish reserves that it will curb fishing completely, which will undoubtedly kill off any chance of fishermen in the Province being able to make a living.

The EU wants to cut fleet sizes and the time that fishermen spend at sea. I was late arriving in the Chamber because I was at a meeting with fishermen of white fish at which that very issue was raised. Many issues need to be taken on board. The Public Accounts Committee examined the issue of help and grant aid to fishing boats. I was hopeful that the outcome would be one of support for fishermen, because there is something wrong when fishermen can see schools and schools of fish but are not allowed to touch them.

The Committee also found that, despite spending £3 million on modernisation schemes, the Department had failed to survey the fleet and identify and prioritise specific modernisation needs. Nor did it observe good practice in allocating only the minimum amount needed for the project to proceed. The Committee has now received undertakings that the Department will address both those points. Again, the Public Accounts Committee has made sure that that will happen.

The Committee addressed other issues —

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

I ask the Member to bring his remarks to a close.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Do I not get a wee bit of extra time because of the intervention?

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Oh, for goodness’ sake.

I accept that. Speaking with my constituency hat on, the Department must step up and handle the issue with greater skill and interest. I hope that the Minister will make that pledge today. As a new member of the Committee for Agriculture and Rural Development, I assure the House that I will remind officials of their obligations on bovine TB and on decommissioning.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

The Member’s time is definitely up.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

This is my first Public Accounts Committee debate, and I am pleased to respond to the valuable, varied, interesting and amusing comments of Committee members and others who have been thrown off the Committee and have, as Mr Wells said, been elevated to higher things.

I have listened intently to Members’ contributions. I will make a few general remarks, after which I will try to deal with as many as possible of the issues that Members raised. I acknowledge the work of the Committee, which has held 12 evidence sessions and made a significant number of valuable recommendations to strengthen financial management and corporate governance across the public sector. Furthermore, I acknowledge the role of the Chairman, Mr Maskey, and the Deputy Chairman, Mr Beggs, who have created a Committee that, as Mr Wells said, engenders fear and trembling in the public servants who are called before it.

I want to add my comments about John Dowdall, who recently retired as Comptroller and Auditor General. I echo other Members’ comments; we owe him a deep gratitude for his work as an accountant who preyed on Departments or as an archbishop who prayed for Departments. I am not too sure which of the two roles he played. I congratulate his successor, Kieran Donnelly, on his appointment to the post of Comptroller and Auditor General. That role is challenging in the current economic climate, when public services are under pressure and when all public servants need to deliver more with limited resources.

I want to outline what I believe should be the role of the PAC and the Audit Office reports. I do not need to remind Members of the financial pressures on us, and Ministers have already taken several measures to alleviate the problems created by the local economic downturn. That downturn has reduced capital receipts through its impact on the property market. The Executive need to address that issue. The Executive must also address the issue of providing support to local households and business through, for example, the deferral of domestic water charges and the new policy on the prompt payment of invoices, which helps small business and gets money out much more quickly. On top of that, we have had to address other pressures such as the cost of swine flu and the efficiency savings from Her Majesty’s Treasury. The list goes on.

In light of those pressures, it is important that public servants work more smartly, more efficiently and more effectively to deliver the best possible services. In doing so, we must not sacrifice proper accountability for public expenditure and transparency for our actions. That is what the debate has been about. However, I want to emphasise that we must be careful not to criticise people for taking reasonable risks and initiatives to deliver on public services. We need to open new ways of working, and staff need freedom to innovate. I know that the Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment answered questions on the independent review of economic policy earlier today.

One of the points made in that review was that Invest Northern Ireland should be allowed more freedom to be innovative. That freedom means not having to go through box-ticking exercises. I want to say something about that, because I fear that, sometimes, we do not get the balance right. There is much that we have to do to find new and better ways of doing things.

‘Managing Public Money’, which is the Treasury’s guide to the use of resources in the public sector, makes an important point. It states:

“It is also important to be aware that excessive caution can be as damaging as unnecessary risk taking.”

That appears to me to strike the right note. Although I believe that the Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee have important roles to play in achieving that balance and in helping public sector organisations to get value for money from the resources that they use, it is right and proper that those who have the responsibility of spending taxpayers’ money are held accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly for the use of the resources that are under their control.

Scrutiny of public spending is in all our interests; not only does it instil confidence in our system, but it allows us to promote good practice in the management of public funds and to expose examples of poor use of resources, and, even worse, as Mr Lunn pointed out, instances of fraud, which can take place in any organisation.

Over the past two or three years, there has been considerable focus on compliance and governance issues. A number of Audit Office reports have dealt with those issues and have led to a significant strengthening of governance in the period. Despite that, however, has the process become more important than the product? I worry that finance directors in Departments and public bodies are spending more time giving the Audit Office what it wants, as regards box-ticking exercises, than concentrating on the better use and best use of resources. We have all had experience of that in our constituency roles.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

I hope that the Minister agrees that it is important to put on record that neither the Audit Office nor the Public Accounts Committee have ever criticised or condemned any Department that had in its criteria the risks that he referred to and that managed those risks properly. The only Departments that have been criticised are those that did not do so.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

Perhaps the Member has missed the point. The importance that the Audit Office has sometimes placed on process has led to the introduction of caution in decision-making, which is not always the best way of using resources effectively.

I am going to develop that point. When the Assembly examines the use of public resources, we use the three “Es” — efficiency, effectiveness and economy. Those should form the central premise that we employ when we consider how resources are used. The process is, of course, important, and the proper procedures must be adhered to. However, I sometimes fear that reports which, by their very nature, concentrate on process and governance either put less emphasis on, or ignore, the principles of efficiency, effectiveness and economy. Perhaps we should ask whether all the scrutiny by the Audit Office and the Public Accounts Committee, and, indeed, my Department, improves performance and ensures that public money is well spent.

I will throw out a challenge to the PAC. Since devolution, that Committee has been very active and has produced a large number of reports. However, does the Committee recognise that it has made over 450 recommendations? I am happy to take interventions from its members about this matter.

Has the Committee thought about the systems and bureaucracy that have sprung up to monitor recommend­ations and to ensure that they have been followed up? Sometimes, the Assembly takes decisions for the best of reasons, but implementation requires the use of departmental resources, whether through manpower, time or capital. We must bear that in mind.

In preparing for the debate, another issue struck me, which was how long ago some of the events addressed in the reports occurred. Some Members referred to that. For example, Mr Dallat mentioned the review of financial management in FE colleges, which goes back to 1998. I do not want to get into the semantics of whether it is in our remit to examine issues that occurred before the Assembly was set up, but the report deals with issues that arose in the early years of this decade. Mr Beggs referred to a PFI contract that was signed in March 2001. The report on the New Deal 25+ that the Committee will consider next month goes back to 1998. The system has learned lessons and has moved on.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin 4:30 pm, 29th September 2009

The Minister has said that the system has moved on. However, in examining the reports, the PAC is seeing that aspects of the system have not moved on. Personnel may have changed, but I assure the Minister that when the Committee asks questions about mistakes that have been made in the past, we want Departments to learn from those mistakes and to ensure that staff in all Departments will not make the same mistakes again.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

That is a laudable aim. No one will disagree with that objective. My point is that some issues go back well over a decade. We are looking at the effectiveness, efficiency and economy of the spending that is being undertaken now; not processes that have been used in the past. We all have a responsibility to ensure that taxpayers’ money is used economically, efficiently and effectively.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The report into the funding of FE colleges that the Minister mentioned covered a period when there was considerable change and reorganisation of the colleges. Does he agree that, given that the FE colleges have gone through an additional review and reorganisation recently, there are lessons from the previous reorganisation that had to be learned and should be applied to minimise losses and poor use of public funds today?

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I agree absolutely. That is not contrary to the point that I am making.

In targeting a subject to investigate, the three “Es” should be considered. The example that the Member has given refers to the effective use of public money. Reports should be seeking to draw that out, but, sometimes, they focus on the processes. The way in which the invest­igations and reports are structured leads people towards making sure that they have ticked the right boxes in order to show that they have dealt with the process as laid down, rather than make effective use of resources. If the latter is the direction that the Committee is taking, and the objective that it has, it should continue to undertake that role.

I will deal quickly with the points that Members have made. First, Mr Wells and Mr Beggs referred to the report on managing sickness absence. Mr Wells made his point in a humorous, but very telling, way. Why are workers in certain Departments and certain parts of the public sector most prone to illnesses on Friday afternoons and Mondays? Why are there higher rates of absence in the public sector than in the private sector? Why are there huge differences in absences rates between people who receive monthly salaries and those who are paid on the basis of turning up for work?

We need to address the matter for two reasons. First, we want to make more efficient use of our resources. Secondly, it is bad for the morale of people who do not take time off to regularly have to cover for those who do. I am pleased that the average level of absence, which was 12·9 days in 2007-08, reduced to 10·9 days in 2008-09. That is still below our target of 9·7 days, but some progress has been made.

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

That progress is commendable, but can the Minister explain why there should be any inherent difference between absenteeism in the public sector and the private sector? Absence levels in the public sector are still 50% above what would be tolerated in a private company in Northern Ireland, yet the work is largely similar. The overall target has to be to reduce the public sector’s average rate of absence to the same level as that of Northern Ireland Electricity, for example, or, indeed, any shop or business in the Province.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I absolutely agree with the Member. It will not be a case of resting once we have reached our target. We will continue our efforts to push absence rates down, and more work needs to be done in all Departments. I note what Mr Wells said about DRD and DARD. I do not know whether workers in those Departments are scared of their respective Ministers, or whether those Ministers give a better lead, as was suggested by Members on the Benches opposite. However, it is good to see, whatever the reason. The variety in absence rates across Departments perhaps indicates that it is a question of management. We need to keep pushing the targets to improve on our current record, and we are committed to addressing the issue on a continual basis.

Mr Beggs and the Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, Mr Paul Maskey, both raised the issue of rates collection. One of the aims of PEDU’s review of LPS was to deal with some of the very issues that are highlighted in the PAC report. I believe, and, indeed, the PEDU report has made it quite clear, that the core business of LPS should be the efficient collection of local property taxes. Resources ought to be dedicated to that.

I do not want to make excuses, but the process of amalgamating four organisations into one, and implementing regular changes to the rating system — indeed, earlier today, we passed more changes in the Rates (Amendment) Bill — is bound to have an impact on the work of LPS. Nevertheless, it is important, from the local councils’ point of view and as regards the Executive’s available revenue, that we have a proper database; that we know where rates should be collected; that those rates are collected; and that we do not find that some people pay rates while others are exempt from doing so. We are working towards addressing that issue.

I will not be able to deal with all the comments that were made by Members. Mr McGlone is not here, so, rather than dealing with the issue that he raised, I will jump to shared services and Mr Shannon’s point about fisheries and the PAC’s ‘Report on Sea Fisheries: Vessel Modernisation and Decommissioning Schemes’.

DARD has already acted on the recommendations of that report prior to the introduction of any new grant schemes through the European Fisheries Fund. It has completed a revision of the fleet futures analysis and carried out a survey of the modernisation needs of the fleet. DARD also carried out a comprehensive review of the economic appraisal and the project evaluation requirements. Based on the PAC’s recommendations, there have been further improvements to the application and assessment and monitoring processes.

Photo of Jim Shannon Jim Shannon DUP

Sometimes, the PAC’s decisions are not about allocating money back to the people; they can also be about returning money to the Department. For example, when the Committee discussed sea fisheries, money went both ways.

Photo of William Hay William Hay Speaker

Unfortunately, the Minister’s time is up. However, I will allow him to respond.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I have not responded to some Members’ points, and I will seek to respond to them in writing. I am sorry that we have run out of time.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I suppose that one feature that maximises the effectiveness of the Public Accounts Committee is that it is not within its remit to criticise Ministers or their decisions. That is the role of the Statutory Committees. Instead, the Public Accounts Committee focuses on regularity, propriety and getting best value for money for public expenditure, and it calls for accounting officers to justify spend on those counts and to defend the systems and controls that they have put in place to safeguard taxpayers’ money. That makes for a Committee that can focus on the common purpose of financial accountability, and rarely, if ever, do party political concerns distract members from the business at hand. Today’s debate demonstrated just that, and I thank and commend my Committee colleagues for their rigour and determination to speak out against waste, fraud and inefficiency.

If I may follow on from where the Minister left off, he is correct to say that the Committee has made some 450 recommendations. That shows the determination of the Committee to strive to ensure that public services here are accountable. I remind the Minister that Members are elected by the people of the North of Ireland to ensure that accountability is enshrined in all Departments. We will tackle the issues.

The Public Accounts Committee allows the public and taxpayers to have faith in the system and, if things go wrong, to have faith that the Committee and the Audit Office will provide scrutiny. We have made 450 recommendations, and I am sure that, over the next while, we will make probably another 450 recommend­ations. That is the poor thing about it, because as the Minister’s colleague Jim Wells stated, the Public Accounts Committee will be in the business of making recommendations until it is no longer needed to do so. The Minister is part of the Executive, and I suppose that it is up to Departments to ensure that the mistakes that have been made in the past are no longer made.

I wish to add a point about risk. I have said on record that the Committee, and I, as its Chairperson, welcome risk taking as long as it is well calculated. For far too long we have seen Audit Office reports that show the absolutely disgraceful expenditure that some Departments were able to get away with for many years. The Minister is right to point out that some of the reports go back a long time. However, for far too long we were, for want of a better phrase, governed by direct rule, and there was very little scrutiny of Departments at that stage. If mistakes were made then, it is wrong to continue making the same mistakes. It is the Committee’s job to drive home the message that risk can be taken as long as it is well calculated.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury)

I appreciate the Chairperson’s point, but does he recognise that risk taking sometimes means that processes may be cut short and, for example, if a quick decision is required, there may not be an opportunity to tick all the consultation boxes? The emphasis on process sometimes reduces people’s willingness to take risks, because, if the risk does not work out and they are found guilty of cutting the process short, they are subject to criticism in Audit Office reports.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

Again, it is about what Departments do with the Committee’s recommendations. Even before the current Public Accounts Committee, when we look at the failings that Trevor Lunn mentioned — which will be in the report that will be published this Thursday — we can see that the IDB did not adhere to some of the recommendations that were made on DeLorean.

In times gone by, Public Accounts Committees made recommendations that Departments failed to implement. That failure is an indictment of Departments, and it means that the same mistakes have been made twice, which is wrong.

I am thankful that the PAC is up and running and challenging Departments. We will monitor the 450 recommendations that we have made so far to determine which of them have been implemented. I must, however, inform the Minister of Finance and Personnel that Departments agreed to most of the 450 recommendations.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow Spokesperson (Education), Shadow Spokesperson (Treasury) 4:45 pm, 29th September 2009

I would be surprised if Departments did not agree the recommend­ations. My point was that when recommendations are made and accepted, their implementation and monitoring by Departments has an implication for resources. Sometimes, those recommendations, because of something that happened in the past, may introduce a note of caution into a Department that militates against the taking of risks to get processes moving, which is what the Chairperson of the Committee wants to encourage Departments to do.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

The Committee is on record as saying that well-calculated risks should be taken. However, how did people benefit from the risks that banks took over the years? We are in the midst of a global financial crisis. I hope that the banks will learn from their mistakes and ensure that we move out of the global financial crisis.

I hope that Departments in the North will learn from the PAC’s recommendations. No one should be afraid of the recommendations that we ask Departments to implement, as they have agreed to most of them. The PAC’s purpose is not to make recommendations for the sake of it but to ensure that Departments learn from the past and that we can move on together.

I hope that the day will come when the PAC is no longer needed, because Departments are working so well. I doubt, however, that that day will ever come, because people will always make mistakes. The PAC aims to minimise those mistakes and to ensure that they happen rarely. That will give everyone, including taxpayers, confidence in the Executive. As the Chairperson of the PAC, my heart is set on instilling confidence in society to have faith in us. We must strive to create that confidence.

I will move on to some of the points that Members raised, but I will not go into every detail. Several interesting points were raised. Jonathan Craig and Jim Wells mentioned the PAC’s visit to Altnagelvin, where we saw facilities that were second to none. The visit to that amazing project in Derry was the first time that the PAC had been outside Belfast.

It is easy to go through reports and to ask questions of Departments and the Audit Office. However, it is only on visiting the projects that it becomes clear that the reports could have been worse. The PAC took an important initiative in travelling to see the first-class facilities at Altnagelvin. I echo the earlier point that the staff in the trust must be highly commended for their hard work.

The Deputy Chairperson, Roy Beggs, talked about public funds and, in particular, the penny product. I am no longer a councillor, although some Members still are. The miscalculation of the penny product had a drastic effect on councils throughout the North of Ireland because staff had been budgeting to progress certain projects. The miscalculation that affected Belfast City Council, for example, was in the region of £4 million.

It set councils back, because they had planned for the future and had ensured that they had put all the checks and balances in place regarding front line services, and yet there was a miscalculation of more than £4 million. That is wrong, and if it is wrong for Belfast City Council, it is wrong for all others. A number of councils were caught out in that regard.

John Dallat referred to arm’s-length bodies as being “hands-off bodies”: that phrase is well known among Committee members. He also said, in relation to further education colleges, that £44 million was, in his terms, lying in the vaults. Some of the reports that have been published concern ensuring that people learn and are educated. If that £44 million had been spent on education, it would have enabled a much greater number of people to be educated and to gain employment opportunities or go back into further education and perhaps on to university.

Trevor Lunn mentioned the national fraud initiative, and he said that fraud is costing in the region of £500 million a year. He informed the Finance Minister that if that money were not being lost, then with respect to the documents that were leaked last week, we would not need to have a conversation about a shortfall of £370 million. Fraud has a detrimental effect on everything.

Jim Wells was a very valued member of the Public Accounts Committee. I think that he said that he served on the Committee for 15 or 16 months. I actually thought that it was longer than that, but it may have just seemed that way. However, he was a very influential person on the Committee and always brought a bit of life to it. On that note, Jim Shannon raised an issue regarding badgers, and I wondered how long it would take Mr Wells to get to his feet and respond. Jim came to the defence of the badgers. From some of the Committee’s conversations, I know that John Dallat used to have a pet badger, so he may have also been offended by that issue.

Patsy McGlone, who is not in the Chamber, is a new member of the Committee. He mentioned the challenges for the Department of Finance and Personnel. As well as those challenges that DFP must address, he highlighted what the Committee could say to the Department about the recommendations that are made.

Everyone who spoke in the debate mentioned the hard work of John Dowdall during his stewardship of the Audit Office. As I said in my opening remarks, we very much appreciate the hard work that was done, and the dedication that was shown, by him and the entire staff of the Audit Office, as well as our clerical team. When we were looking at some reports recently, we noticed that it was a trainee in the Audit Office who highlighted the issue regarding the Nomadic, which is a good sign for the Audit Office going forward. The Minister may not agree with that because he could be challenged by the very trainee who raised that issue.

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for giving way. As a former Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, I put on record my appreciation of the work of John Dowdall during my tenure. I found his assistance and advice invaluable, and the work that he contributed to the Public Accounts Committee allows us, as a local Assembly, to be more efficient in the delivery of our services.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for that intervention. I also thank the Minister of Finance and Personnel for responding to the Committee’s work and to Members’ comments today about the concerns that drive them. I agree entirely that the current economic period is the ideal time for the PAC to work along with the Government to develop a constructive path forward for efficiency in public services. That is a very important note.

People have told me and other Committee members that our Committee is the one that they want to stay clear of. I hope that that represents their desire to work effectively, creatively and efficiently with taxpayers’ money rather than being afraid of the individuals. As the previous Chairperson of the Committee said, this is not a blood sport: it is about ensuring delivery and value for money.

I also thank the civil servants who helped the Minister to prepare for this debate. They are the same officials who assist the Treasury Officer of Accounts in rolling out the PAC’s recommend­ations and in representing the Department’s views on financial guidance. The Committee and I are grateful for their professionalism and support. Go raibh míle maith agat.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly takes note of the Public Accounts Committee Second (23/08/09R) and Third (38/08/09R) Composite Reports and of the following Committee Reports:

Report on Managing Sickness Absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (38/07/08R)

Report on Sea Fisheries: Vessel Modernisation and Decommissioning Schemes (06/08/09R)

Report on Statement of Rate Levy and Collection 2006-07 (13/08/09R)

Report on Delivering Pathology Services: The PFI Laboratory and Pharmacy Centre at Altnagelvin (16/08/09R)

Report on Warm Homes: Tackling Fuel Poverty (18/08/09R)

Report on Shared Services for Efficiency — A Progress Report (21/08/09R)

Report on Brangam, Bagnall & Co: Legal Practitioner Fraud Perpetrated Against the Health and Personal Social Service (26/08/09R)

Report on Road Openings by Utilities (33/08/09R)

Report on the PFI Contract for Northern Ireland’s New Vehicle Testing Facilities (35/08/09R)

Report on Control of Bovine Tuberculosis in Northern Ireland (40/08/09R)

Report on Review of Financial Management in the Further Education Sector in NI and Governance Examination of Fermanagh FE College (41/08/09R) and the following Department of Finance and Personnel Memoranda of Reply:

Report on Managing Sickness Absence in the Northern Ireland Civil Service (NIA 47/08-09)

Report on Sea Fisheries: Vessel Modernisation and Decommissioning Schemes (NIA 60/08-09)

Report on Statement of Rate Levy and Collection 2006-07 (NIA 74/08-09)

Report on Delivering Pathology Services: The PFI Laboratory and Pharmacy Centre at Altnagelvin (NIA 74/08-09)

Report on Warm Homes: Tackling Fuel Poverty (NIA 91/08-09)

Report on Shared Services for Efficiency — A Progress Report (NIA 91/08-09)

Report on Brangam, Bagnall & Co: Legal Practitioner Fraud Perpetrated Against the Health and Personal Social Services (NIA 110/08-09)

Report on Road Openings by Utilities (NIA 125/08-09)

Report on the PFI Contract for Northern Ireland’s New Vehicle Testing Facilities (NIA 168/08-09)