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Public Accounts Committee Reports

Part of Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 4:45 pm on 29th September 2009.

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Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin 4:45 pm, 29th September 2009

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.