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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.