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Public Accounts Committee Reports

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

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 3:30 pm, 29th September 2009

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 —