Public Accounts Committee Reports and Memoranda of Reply

Committee Business – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 3:00 pm on 26 June 2012.

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Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party 3:00, 26 June 2012

The Business Committee has agreed to allow up to two hours for this debate. The proposer will have 15 minutes to propose the motion and 15 minutes to make a winding-up speech. All other Members who wish to speak will have seven minutes.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

I beg to move

That this Assembly takes note of the following Public Accounts Committee Reports: Report on Campsie Office Accommodation and Synergy e-Business Incubator (01/10/11R); The Management of Substitution Cover for Teachers: Follow-up Report (20/10/11R); The Administration and Management of the Disability Living Allowance Reconsideration and Appeals Process (25/10/11R); Report on Arrangements for Ensuring the Quality of Care in Homes for Older People (39/10/11R); Measuring the Performance of NI Water (37/10/11R); Procurement and Governance in NI Water (40/10/11R); Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy (60/10/11R); Report on Managing Criminal Legal Aid (NIA 20/11-15); Report on Reducing Water Pollution from Agricultural Sources – The Farm Nutrient Management Scheme (NIA 21/11-15); Report on Creating Effective Partnerships between Government and the Voluntary and Community Sector (NIA 24/11-15); Report on the Use of Locum Doctors by Northern Ireland Hospitals (NIA 37/11-15); and the following Department of Finance and Personnel Memoranda of Reply: Report on Campsie Office Accommodation and Synergy e-Business Incubator; The Management of Substitution Cover for Teachers: Follow-up Report; The Administration and Management of the Disability Living Allowance Reconsideration and Appeals Process; Measuring the Performance of NI Water; Procurement and Governance in NI Water; Report on Arrangements for Ensuring the Quality of Care in Homes for Older People; Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy; Report on Managing Criminal Legal Aid; Report on Reducing Water Pollution from Agricultural Sources – The Farm Nutrient Management Scheme; Report on Creating Effective Partnerships between Government and the Voluntary and Community Sector; Report on the Use of Locum Doctors by Northern Ireland Hospitals.

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. On behalf of the Public Accounts Committee, I thank the Business Committee for allowing this take-note debate.

It is fitting to bring this body of work to the Assembly, as the Committee has been extremely busy since the previous such debate in 2010. I am proud to have held the post of Chairperson for the past four years and I am proud of the Committee’s work during that time, so I am glad of the opportunity to speak for the Committee today for the last time.

I am grateful for the support of the members of the Committee, past and present, who have worked so hard together and made our work meaningful and my job as Chairperson easier. The Committee staff have been second to none and have done a fabulous job, for which I thank them all.

If you will permit me to put a more personal slant on things, a LeasCheann Comhairle, I am proud to say that I was elected by the people of West Belfast. I do not need to stress to the Chamber the high level of socio-economic need in that area and the amount of work that has been done in the community to generate opportunities, jobs and investment, to develop skills and direction in the community, and to address trauma and poverty.

This has given me a particular sense of purpose as Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee. The Minister of Finance and Personnel sometimes says that I preach about our work, but I have been sent here by our people, who have experience of not having a great deal of money or the luxury of deciding how to spend it. That has given me a very human perspective on how taxpayers’ money should be spent responsibly. I have to speak the truth to enable their views to be heard and to deliver for them.

As you can see from the motion, the Committee has completed a wide variety of inquiries and reports in the past two years, ranging from the quality of care in homes for the elderly to the use of capital funds to prevent environmental impacts in agriculture. The members of the Committee and, I hope, other interested MLAs will focus on a selection of those reports.

Of course, we spent a considerable amount of time on performance, procurement and governance in NI Water, which I will come to shortly. In light of my earlier remarks, however, I will start with the inquiry into the effectiveness of partnerships between government and the community and voluntary sectors. In that inquiry, the Committee went out to the premises of NICVA in north Belfast, which is another area of social need and deprivation, to hear how government was using the community and voluntary sectors. I worked for many years in the community sector prior to my life in the Assembly, and I was concerned at what I heard from people in the sector about the impact of cuts on their organisations. It was already difficult to get sustainable core funding for the sector, and now, as I said at the evidence session, there is such uncertainty around funding that the sector is haemorrhaging good staff.

During the inquiry, we heard of instances where organisations have had to put staff on notice simply because public bodies were so slow in processing funding applications and releasing funds. In other cases, some staff worked without pay for a number of months while waiting on letters of offer to be signed and money to be released. It was evident to the Committee that there is an urgent need for a joined-up approach by public bodies and agencies, particularly in relation to funding. That will require new ways of thinking.

The Committee has recommended that all public sector bodies should move towards the adoption of long-term funding arrangements, stipulating that, where funding is dependent on the outcome of an evaluation, this must be planned for, completed and decisions communicated to the organisations three months before existing funding contracts run out. The Committee also commented that payments to sector organisations must be made in a timely manner, whether they are for the provision of contracted services or in respect of grant or grant aid. We understand that prompt payment arrangements are currently different for grant than for commercial goods and services contracts with government, but we have asked for those to be brought, as far as possible, in line with one another.

The Committee welcomes the proposed arrangement to report annually on the working of the concordat, and sees that as an opportunity to drive forward change and improve accountability. It has earmarked the report as high priority for follow-up, and will return to it in a year from the memorandum of reply (MOR) to see how progress is being made on the Committee’s recommendations.

The Committee’s investigation of procurement and governance in NI Water resulted in a landmark report that exposed serious failings in procurement, inappropriate and ineffective governance arrangements, and a failure to observe the high standards that are expected of senior public servants. We found that, at all levels in NI Water, there was a deeply embedded culture of thought that it was acceptable to bypass proper procurement rules. Between 2005 and 2010, procurement failures totalled £46 million. Abuse of single-tender awards was widespread, a large number of contract extensions went unapproved, and official controls were circumvented. The rules are there to ensure that contracts are awarded fairly and that they provide value for money and minimise the potential risk of fraud and corruption. Failure to follow the basic procurement rules is inexcusable.

We also found that the governance arrangements that were established by the Department for Regional Development (DRD) for NI Water represented the worst of all possible worlds. The governance model was devised for a self-financing commercial company; it was inadequate for a body whose income derived mainly from public funds. Departmental oversight of NI Water was also deficient. For example, for a significant period, DRD had no right to access key audit information about NI Water. DRD approved the appointment of the NI Water chair as interim chief executive, in direct contravention of the fundamental principle requiring the separation of roles and responsibilities at the top of any organisation. Proper oversight by the Department is essential for a public body that delivers a service of fundamental importance to the people here.

In January 2010, DRD’s permanent secretary and NI Water’s chief executive commissioned an independent review team to investigate governance arrangements at NI Water in light of procurement problems that were identified in a number of audit reports. Following the review, four of the five NI Water non-executive directors were dismissed. At our evidence session in July 2010, some members raised their concerns about the actions of the permanent secretary and the chief executive and the independence of the review team. The Committee then received correspondence from a member of the review team that criticised what they said was the Committee’s disgraceful line of questioning. It later emerged that the permanent secretary, Paul Priestly, had a role in drafting that letter. The conduct of Mr Priestly, in seeking to undermine the Committee, was utterly disgraceful. Mr Priestly was suspended from his position by the head of the Civil Service, and, following a disciplinary process, he was demoted and is currently on secondment to the private sector.

The actions of a number of senior officials in that case undoubtedly undermined confidence in the integrity of the public sector. In fact, it impacted on the relationship between the Committee and its witnesses; a relationship that I have always sought to develop through constructive engagement when problems arise. It is crucial that the Committee can count on having good faith and completeness from accounting officers, and it was of great concern that that standard had been compromised and breached. The Committee worked with the Finance Committee to ensure that systematic change could result from the case and improve the accountability arrangements between the Senior Civil Service and the Assembly. The Committee was not happy with the secrecy around the arrangements made for the official and sent a strong message that confidentiality agreements should not be made where the use of public money is concerned.

Transparency since the Freedom of Information Act is a reality that renders much of the old way obsolete, and that is good for public administration. I believe that we have brought issues of transparency and accountability into the light of day and made serious points about the expectations that the Committee must be able to rely on. The Committee has discussed with the head of the Civil Service his programme of accountability training for the Civil Service, and that is being rolled out. That is very welcome. I know that a strong public service ethic drives most people in the Civil Service, and I hope that cases that come to PAC are rare failures in a professional service. However, the pressure is on those at the top to lead by example and apply the highest standards in public life, and I hope that these tough conversations will give a solid basis for good work by government together with the PAC in the difficult economic times ahead. I look forward to the rest of the debate.

Photo of Paul Girvan Paul Girvan DUP

You would probably need a lot more than seven minutes to go over the issues that we have had to discuss. Some of the reports that we have received are on sensitive issues, such as the one on locum doctors. How that has been managed and dealt with has created a problem. The appointment of internal locums is one point, but external locums are also brought in by private contract. The report alluded to that and identified that the locum approach did not necessarily give patients the best cover and care. It also identified that the costs associated with doing it far exceeded its benefits.

We felt that the locums who were appointed had no buy-in to keep continuity between the care that the patients were receiving. They could be in one hospital today and in another tomorrow. Therefore, some continuity was lost, and the care that patients received could be compromised because of that. The report also identified that some doctors who were working in a hospital could be brought back to act as a locum during another time when somebody else was off. Therefore, they could be creating a problem for themselves because they worked to what is called a European working time directive, which was to ensure that they did not exceed their hours of work. However, there was no mechanism to measure that, and it was up to the doctors to police it. Some — we are not saying all of them — probably far exceeded their working time directive, and they could have been working in one hospital on a shift and then moving to another hospital to do locum work. We identified a number of problems because of that.

The spend for the four years up to March 2011 was £74 million for the external and £35 million for the internal. It was extremely difficult to get a breakdown of that because trusts did not necessarily have the full information on where those costs came from, and it was not easy to extract some of that information. That was a way forward.

One of the recommendations was the introduction of a regional management and medical locum service. That has been taken on board, although there is a bit of a delay in its delivery. We believe that that should have been working internally, as trusts built up their own pool of locum doctors who could work and be called upon.

Registration was another key issue that caused major concern. We have all heard the horror stories about doctors coming in to work as locums who have been struck off or who have had malpractice cases go against them. That has created problems, not necessarily in Northern Ireland but in other areas. There were risks to patient safety from improper registration and details being held, and that had to be tightened up.

The PAC dealt with so many reports on which we could go into detail. We did a report on the farm nutrient management scheme, which seemed to be a way of driving public money. Under that scheme, someone estimated the value of a piece of land at £200 million and built a business case on why the slurry storage systems could be built to that value to spend that money. It was identified that that valuation was, more or less, done on the back of an envelope.

Comments were made to the Committee that showed that people were playing fast and loose with public money, and it is very dangerous that that happened. A number of reports are still to be totally signed off. The report on creating effective partnerships between government and the voluntary and community sector identified many good areas that are delivering for communities but which do not necessarily link up with the funding. All of the reports were very welcome. Some other reports will probably come forward, and it is necessary to have a further debate on a number of these issues or table a take-note debate. There is the Excess Vote, benefits take-up by pensioners, and one that was really was very interesting on the use of consultants. We did a report on reducing criminal legal aid, and all I will say is that some of the legal aid claims that went in were criminal. It seemed horrendous that you could decide whether a case was big and whether or not it would be a serious case to determine the level of legal aid required.

All in all, the reports that were conducted in the PAC produced a good body of work. I congratulate the staff on their work, and the evidence sessions definitely brought out some very glaring irregularities and areas that need to be closed up. The Committee made recommendations, not all of which were taken on board by the groups and the bodies that we were working with. The majority of the recommendations were accepted and will have some merit in the future.

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP 3:15, 26 June 2012

The price of a bottle of bleach is, give or take, £1. I will come back to the significance of that statement later. At some stage, everyone in this Chamber will have had some experience of handling other people’s money, whether as the treasurer of a Masonic, Orange or Hibernian lodge, a church group or a community group. You know the situation as you approach the annual general meeting. You have had your accounts audited, and you stand up and present them. You think that you are getting away with it when someone at the back puts their hand up, leading to an interminable discussion, generally around a very small amount of money.

Imagine my surprise, coming from a business background into this new world, where some money is real and other money is not. In a community group or a small organisation, money, generally small amounts, that is owed or unaccounted for properly is pursued to the utmost of the law. At the other end, tens of millions of pounds seems to be spent irregularly and in questionable circumstances.

I learned phrases that I had never heard before. “Flipping” appears to be where you buy something with money that you have not got on behalf of someone else and sell it on on the same day — a wonderful procedure. There was the lawful procurement, if that is the right word, of a system of computers for £971,000, which, subsequently, totalled £10·5 million. Then there is the daddy, forgive me, of them all, which was an evidence session regarding a scheme that has been alluded to. It began, strangely enough, with the description of a clerical error — a clerical error that was subsequently held not to have been committed by a clerk, which was strange; it involved a four, a five and seven zeros and a plus sign instead of a minus and gave rise, I believe, to a variance in the budget of £90 million. The explanation for that did not take that long and, to be honest, I was not very much wiser after I heard it than I was before it started.

If I remember correctly, and I do not want to be unfair to anyone, we then went on to a description of a scheme that solved a problem that nobody was really sure existed, and expended somewhere between £100 million and £200 million of money that was not available before they realised that they had not got it. That gave rise to a necessity to acquire money. As Mr Girvan said, a valuation was acquired on the basis of a telephone call, I understand, from a Department to Land and Property Services asking the value of building land in the centre of Belfast. The answer was £2·5 million with planning approval. Based on that, a valuation was placed on a piece of land of around 86 acres in the amount of £200 million, which was, subsequently and mysteriously, inculcated into the budget and the transaction took place. Shortly afterwards, it was discovered that it was not, unfortunately, £200 million; it was closer to £2 million — a substantial difference.

There is a requirement incumbent on all of us on this Committee, and I pay tribute to the Committee Chair, who has had a lot to put up with, to be quite frank, and has discharged the duties in a fair, just and appropriate way. He has remained attentive and, on occasions, interested and kept us on the straight and narrow.

The issue that I have is that, in certain quarters, there appears to be a reluctance to be straight with us as we attempt to be straight with those who we bring before us. They appear almost to resent the questions that we put to them, and skilfully give us answers that do not answer the questions that we are asking. That tends to lead to a degree of inquisitiveness on behalf of the members, which I fully understand, endorse and support.

The reason why I quoted the price of a bottle of bleach was that I have knowledge of a small community group that, following the flooding some years ago, purchased an amount of bleach. That amount of bleach was more than the community group would normally have been expected to use, and there was an investigation into the amount of bleach.

It strikes me that there are two different types of pound — well, there are three. There is the pound that may be misspent or incorrectly accounted for by a small community group or a private citizen who, perhaps, has an overpayment of housing benefit; there is the pound that exists in this place; and there is the pound that is used here but does not really seem to exist. The importance of each of those is treated differently. The responsibility that we have here, and which we exercise through the Public Accounts Committee, is quite simple: it is to ensure that the public money we handle is properly, lawfully and justly apportioned. It is the public who pay for this by their taxes and contributions, many of them struggling and being told that they must take their share of the pain in solving a problem that they did not create.

Last night, I saw the chief executive of a nationally owned bank explain that there was really nothing to worry about, that his bank had very broad shoulders and could stand any loss. I am not surprised: he just comes to the Government to get money when he needs it.

There are some in the higher echelons of non-elected government who look somewhat fondly at the days of direct rule when they were, to coin a phrase, kings. I think that they are possessed of the notion that, in discharging its duty towards the Assembly, the Public Accounts Committee sticks its nose where it does not belong. However, I have to tell them that direct rule has gone, and those who subscribe to its continuance or linger for its pleasant memories will, like that system of government, be consigned to history. I learned two things in business about the first principles: follow and control the money, and control the stock. Exactly the same thing applies in here. If Departments are guilty of spending money inappropriately, they must be treated in exactly the same way, no matter the vastness of the amount. That is not done in an attempt to harass, annoy or find people out, but quite simply to ensure that we discharge our duty in handling the money that we hold on behalf of the people who send us here. We should not and will not be distracted from that —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Will the Member bring his remarks to a close?

Photo of Michael Copeland Michael Copeland UUP

— in any way.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

At the outset, I pay tribute to the Committee Chairperson, Mr Paul Priestly, who is leaving us — [Laughter.] Paul Maskey certainly deserves a total and absolute apology for that mistake. Paul, I am so sorry.

Before Paul, we had Mr Billy Bell — I got his name right. Both Chairpersons have been outstanding. [Interruption.] Both have been —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

— very much above party politics. That is the strength of the Public Accounts Committee.

I want to mention two reports briefly. The first is the inquiry into NI Water, which has already been referred to twice. The second is the inquiry into literacy and numeracy. Although the person whom I have just mentioned, Mr Priestly, drafted the letter, it was sent by Mr Peter Dixon, the chairperson of the independent review team and one of the highest-earning people today, who suffered no penalty as a result of that disgraceful act. There can be no doubt that a number of senior officials have undermined the confidence and integrity of the public sector. That said, it is equally important to emphasise that the majority of officials, at all levels in public bodies, are good and honourable people. The Public Accounts Committee, despite criticism, has sought to give credit where credit is due. I hope that that is noted by all.

As a result of the Public Accounts Committee inquiry, we know that the board of NI Water was badly let down by senior executives. Managed information was poor, and the internal audit of procurement was and continues to be deficient. The PAC report clearly laid down the ground rules for ensuring that the mistakes, inefficiencies and downright irresponsibility of the past should never be repeated. The report could not, however, clear up many of the outstanding issues. That is another avenue that I hope is pursued to its very end, because four non-executive directors were shamefully dismissed on the back of a so-called independent review headed up by Mr Dixon.

Several years ago, one of the first investigations with which I was involved while serving on the Public Accounts Committee was into literacy and numeracy. The issue affected 24% of the population. I will put that in human terms: 250,000 adults. It is not fully appreciated that a further 30% — 313,000 people — were considered able to deal only with the most simple material. Between 2001 and 2011, the Department for Employment and Learning spent some £70 million on essential skills qualifications. I am happy to acknowledge that that reduces the overall level of illiteracy and innumeracy. Some 51,000 people gained an essential skills qualification. However, it should be noted that those with particularly poor skills have not yet been engaged. We have not been able to get in touch with them. Clearly, a great deal of work is still to be done if there is to be a material overall improvement in the foreseeable future.

The Committee considers that there is a fundamental need for a major cultural change in Northern Ireland, whereby education becomes much more highly valued throughout the population. The Committee believes that tackling the adult literacy and numeracy problem is not only about improving education but about tackling much wider social issues that impact on our economic, health and justice systems.

I believe that many of the problems that have beset this part of the world over the past 40 years could have been prevented if we had acknowledged that our education system is not the best in the world and that it fails so many young people. Many of them leave school without the ability to read, write or understand the basic instructions that would allow them to be employed. If many of those young people had been caught in the safety net, they would not have ended up in the grip of criminal groups. Such involvement resulted in many of them spending the best part of their life in jail, where the current literacy and numeracy problems affect up to 80% of the prison population. Surely, that is a damning indictment on all of us.

In conclusion, I acknowledge the work of all my colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee and the staff who have, at all times, put their work on the Committee before party political considerations. It is important that the PAC continues to get the full support of the Assembly. Anyone who intentionally or unintentionally undermines it is doing themselves no favours and is certainly not acting in the best interests of the public, who, as a result of the PAC, have more accountability and a better standard of service. Surely, in these times of austerity, there have to be particularly important rules, because we all accept that our public services are under increasing strain and that any waste is not acceptable.

Finally, I pay tribute to the Audit Office, and I want to defend it. Any attacks on the Audit Office are not doing anybody any favours whatsoever. My experience, as I said, as the longest-serving member of the Committee, is that the Audit Office is entirely independent. The Members who have served on the Public Accounts Committee, many of whom I have served with, have always been above party politics. The Audit Office is independent, and I sincerely hope that there is no attempt to take away the independence of that institution, which has done Northern Ireland proud in the worst of times and will, hopefully, in the future, in the best of times.

Photo of Alex Easton Alex Easton DUP 3:30, 26 June 2012

The Public Accounts Committee has done a wide and varied range of reports. Two that have stood out for me are the reports on the farm nutrient management scheme and on the safeguarding of Northern Ireland’s listed buildings.

The agriculture industry in Northern Ireland is a significant industry, and it provides many people with employment. It has long been noted that agriculture can have a negative impact on the environment, if not managed properly. In fact, it has been seen that the agriculture industry has been a principal contributor to a number of serious water quality problems. In 1991, the nitrates directive was introduced by the European Commission. In order to comply, DARD implemented the farm nutrient management scheme. The scheme provided grant support for farmers to build additional storage that would be required under the directive, and when, in 2007, the budget was increased to £144 million, it became one of the largest grant schemes run by DARD.

The scheme has had a number of shortfalls, which are highlighted in the report. In my view, the most serious was the gross overvaluation of the Crossnacreevy site. The initial valuation of £200 million was the basis for securing an additional £89 million of capital funding from DFP. In fact, a subsequent survey set the value at between £2·28 million and £5·87 million, with additional costs associated with the sale. The financial benefits of selling the site were nowhere near the original estimate. It seems that the estimate was written on the back of some toilet paper and every time the individual went to the toilet, the costs were flushed down. The handling of the proposed sale was flawed from beginning to end, with little cross-departmental interaction sought from the relevant personnel in DARD.

The second major concern highlighted by the report was that such a large amount of money had been spent — the total given in the report was £121 million — without any evidence of the extent to which it had contributed to improving water quality in Northern Ireland. Worryingly, there is also a high potential that a substantial proportion of farms could be found to be in breach of the nitrates action programme. Obviously, that casts a great deal of doubt over the entire scheme’s effectiveness. In 2010, the breach levels were detected at 21%, which is one in five of the farms that were inspected. Sixty eight of those breaches were discovered on farms that had received grants under the FNMS. That highlights a real need to be more proactive in tackling non-compliance.

The report highlights a catalogue of failings by DARD, not only in the implementation of the scheme, which was funded by the taxpayer, but in the openness and transparency of some officials called to the Committee to give evidence. The reluctance by some has meant that evaluating and assessing the scheme has taken longer than necessary, again costing the taxpayer more money than necessary.

The lack of SMART targets and outcome measures has meant that it has been unable to give an accurate picture of the capacity of slurry storage in Northern Ireland before the scheme, the increase as a result of the scheme and the potential for under-capacity. The report highlights a number of important lessons that should be learned by all involved in the scheme.

On the second report, it is important to ensure that we have the wisdom to acknowledge that the gifts we have from our past can strengthen our future. In ‘Safeguarding Northern Ireland’s Listed Buildings’, it has been acknowledged that, while there was an effort in 2007 to undertake the complex task of completing a survey to identify buildings that would be suitable for listing by the Northern Ireland Environment Agency, and although there were a number of difficulties in identifying the practical aspect of conducting such a survey, there were still a number of failings identified around the methods initially used, which meant that the project was not identified as being one that gives value for money.

One of the main findings, which identified a waste of scarce resources, was that approximately 60% of buildings surveyed in 2010 were identified as being unsuitable for listing. While it was anticipated that a number of buildings would fall into that category for a plethora of reasons, the high rate of buildings being consigned to that category was wasteful to a cost of approximately £1·1 million. It is also a concern that the NIEA did not act quickly enough to address that issue.

Grant schemes should have performance indicators built into them to ensure that they are delivering on their objectives. There was no objective measuring tool included in the development of the historic buildings grant scheme, which makes it difficult to assess how effective the scheme actually was. While the pattern shows that the expenditure over the past five years has been directed to the most important and rare buildings, that has happened more by accident than real design. It had the potential therefore to go the other way, and it does not appear that there was any control in place to prevent that from happening.

A targeting mechanism was drawn up in 2009, but the report identified that that was not used, as applications to the grant scheme were not oversubscribed. Added to that, there is a target for the removal of 200 properties from the built heritage at-risk register by 2016, and there is still not a prioritised list of what the NIEA wants removed, nor is there any mechanism identified to direct grant aid to the most urgent or important cases.

Those are just a small number of the criticisms that were contained in the report, and, as Members can see, there are a lot of areas of concern around ensuring that money is not wasted and that we maintain these historic buildings in a way that future generations can continue to enjoy them.

Some of the main recommendations that were contained in the report include the following: improved arrangements built into the current contract for targeting survey work; a formal weighting and scoring mechanism for assessing grant applications; and that the NIEA undertakes a review to clearly establish the full range of management and costing information. If the NIEA accepts and implements those and the other recommendations contained in the report, we can be sure that many generations in the future will be able to continue to enjoy our valuable heritage. It will also mean that the government bodies will be held accountable for their responsibilities to the buildings that they own and operate from. Through this more collaborative working, we will ensure that our historic buildings will continue to survive into the future.

To conclude, I thank the Public Accounts Committee staff, who have been invaluable in helping us with not just these two reports, but many others. I do not know how they are able to do it all, but they have done a fantastic job. I also praise the Chair.

Photo of Mitchel McLaughlin Mitchel McLaughlin Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. It has to be recognised that retrospectively going over spending programmes and poring over Audit Office reports, particularly where they flag up problems, invites a certain dynamic, which can be quite negative and defensive at times. I have to say that that has been very much the exception during my time on the PAC. Very often, even very critical reports were accepted for what they were: a rigorous and forensic examination of the information to try to establish the circumstances in which anomalies or mistakes were made and, in the interests of ensuring full accountability and achieving best value for public money, to make recommendations that would address and resolve the issues. Time after time, we found that Ministers, Departments and accounting officers in fact recognised the positive value of that interaction.

Over the past number of years and, indeed, across the mandates since the re-establishment of the Assembly, the Committee has had to deal with a significant backlog of work. The reports listed in the motion follow on from a similar debate that we had in the previous session, and they show the volume of work across all Departments and spending areas. I think that the reports very often demonstrate the human quality of government in respect of the prevailing mood. At times, the delivery of projects — although they may have had a certain political or economic imperative — resulted in safeguards that were carefully developed over a period being set aside. Although that is inexcusable, I think that it is necessary to recognise that there are different prevailing pressures on officers to deliver, which can result in people taking shortcuts.

We heard other Committee members give examples, some of which had much more serious implications than others. We as a society are in transition, as is the system and the permanent Government. For some, it has been a difficult process. I believe that the direct rule system very often invited bad practice, because we were dealing with Ministers who were here, perhaps, for 48 hours in any given working week, covering two or three portfolios. Quite clearly, there was a huge reliance on the Senior Civil Service cohort and the middle management structure. In some instances, we have found that that has been less than what people might necessarily and ordinarily expect. It is quite remarkable that they survived that experience, and I think that most of them have developed good working relationships during the transition.

We could be excused in some circumstances for being cynical about the type of answers and responses we get. However, I think that the Public Accounts Committee, in its membership and leadership from the Chair — I, too, pay tribute to Paul, who is the second Chair of the Public Accounts Committee whom I have had the privilege of working with — gels on these issues, and party political interests are set aside to come up with the best resolution or response to the circumstances that are very often based on Audit Office reports in which the factual content is not in dispute; it has been accepted. It is then a question of drilling down to find out the how and why, and to come up with responses that will help to avoid mistakes in the future. It is that kind of productive dynamic that I draw on. It is on that basis that I can say that, of all the Committees on which I have sat from 1998, the Public Accounts Committee is the best. The exercise of auditing efficiencies, money and wastage, and of addressing all those issues actually amounts to quite a remarkable contribution to the better management of public money.

The specific report that I would like to address is that on teacher substitution, and I declare an interest in education. The Westminster Public Accounts Committee drew attention this issue some considerable time ago, in 2002. In 2010, there was a follow-up report, based on an Audit Office report that investigated the issues of managing teachers’ sickness leave, the substitute cover in those circumstances and prematurely retiring teachers who were sometimes brought back into service fairly quickly. That did not give the best outcome in value for money, or give newly-trained teachers opportunities for acquiring the necessary experience and expertise on coming out of teacher training. In many circumstances, a revolving door was created, and the system was feeding on itself. The problem had worsened between the publication dates of the two reports. We are obliged to draw attention to that and do something about it. The fact that the report focused on it resulted in a short-term efficiency that reduced the cost of teacher substitution, but the problem is a long way from being solved and we must return to that subject yet again.

Photo of Sydney Anderson Sydney Anderson DUP 3:45, 26 June 2012

It is some time since we had a debate on a motion such as this. If I am correct, the last such debate was in November 2010, under the previous mandate. I am, therefore, glad that we have an opportunity to consider this wide range of reports on a wide range of subjects, as outlined in the motion, all of which reflect the hard work of the Committee.

All the Assembly Committees have important scrutiny roles, but the Public Accounts Committee has a particularly important one. Its remit is wide and can touch upon almost any area of government and administration. It is our task to do all we can to ensure that limited resources are deployed in the most efficient and cost-effective manner possible. The motion is a reminder that, under devolution, levels of scrutiny are very much higher than those under direct rule, and that can only be good.

I also wish to record my thanks to the Comptroller and Auditor General and his staff, who have an excellent working relationship with the PAC, and thanks to the Committee Clerk and her staff for all their good work. As a member of the PAC, I have taken an interest in all the various reports and discussions involving it. However, I want to focus my remarks on the ‘Report on Managing Criminal Legal Aid’, which was completed on 26 October 2011. I have also been involved in that particular area as a member of the Justice Committee, and it is an issue that I feel strongly about. It is also worth pointing out that it is the first time that the Public Accounts Committee has looked into the justice issue since the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Assembly in April 2010.

At the outset, let me say that legal aid plays a crucial part in making sure that everyone has fair, equal and open access to justice. It is only right and proper that such an arrangement exists, but, for one reason or another, the cost of legal aid in Northern Ireland has been allowed to go through the roof to such an extent that the whole thing has become scandalous. Over the past decade or so, spending on criminal legal aid has been spiralling out of control, costing the taxpayer over £400 million since 2001, with no comparable increase in the number of cases. It is one of the most expensive systems in the world, and that is certainly not a record that we should be proud of. It is important just to remind ourselves that legal aid is public money. Vast sums of taxpayers’ money were thrown at the private sector, to barristers and others in the legal profession who were, to put it mildly, doing very well indeed.

In May last year, it became clear that a group of 200 barristers’ and solicitors’ firms received — I did not say “earned” — almost £70 million in legal aid in the financial year 2010-11. The identity of some of those very rich people was made public a few months ago. In one case that I raised in Committee, a barrister had claimed £832,255, and when that was assessed by the taxing master, it was reduced by over half to £411,250. I accept that that may have been an extreme case, but it illustrates the point. When we probed officials on the matter in some depth, we got some helpful answers, but we did not always get absolute clarity as to precisely why costs had soared in the way that they had.

As the Committee gathered evidence, we were very taken aback by some of what we learned. We were shocked to hear of some of the practices over the last 10 years. For example, almost £23 million had been spent on complex cases, known as very high cost cases, which never actually went to trial or lasted more than 25 days in court. An extra £10·5 million was paid to lawyers who appealed their fees for Crown Court cases. It is significant that defendants in Northern Ireland are represented by two barristers in over half of cases, whereas in England and Wales, it is just 5%. That obviously has financial implications. We recommended that new procedures be introduced and that all cases be subject to much stricter scrutiny than in the past. As a result, I am glad to say that tangible savings have now been achieved.

The Committee also heard that the Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission has overspent its budget every year since it was set up in 2003, requiring almost £150 million in additional funding. Such poor financial management cannot be allowed to continue. The Committee expects the Department to work with the commission to improve forecasting and bring spending within budget. That is a priority. Perhaps most disconcerting was the fact that the commission was unable to prove that legal aid has not been claimed fraudulently, either by applicants or practitioners. As a direct result, its accounts have been qualified every year since its establishment. To make matters worse, it had no cohesive counter-fraud strategy in place. The Committee has told the commission to identify the risks of fraud in legal aid and to establish proactive counter-fraud arrangements to manage them. That work has begun, and the Committee will continue to monitor its progress.

The Committee received an assurance that the criminal legal aid reforms, which were due to be completed by 2007 — five years ago — will now be implemented fully by June next year. Members will certainly agree with me that further delays are simply not acceptable, and I can assure the House that the Committee will be keeping a close eye on that progress.

There are other key areas of concern, and the Committee has reached a number of important conclusions that I will now share with the House. What is clear above all is that no one emerged with any credit from the review. The Department and its direct rule predecessors created an inherently flawed and complex system that was not fit for purpose. The Court Service introduced a series of defective remuneration schemes. The commission did not administer the system successfully, and the legal aid profession exploited loopholes in the system and, by the accounting officer’s admission, and as has been referred to by my colleague, played “fast and loose” with public money.

Overall, our message is simply this: public confidence in the system must be restored. Significant improvements have to be made to the arrangements for delivering criminal legal aid, and spending must be brought under control. Although access to justice is paramount in a fair society, the Committee made it clear that that cannot come at any cost.

Finally, I should mention that the Committee for Justice has also been progressing the issue since we cross-referred our report for further scrutiny. That is to be welcomed, and it is an example of how two Assembly Committees can work in a joined manner for the greater good of the taxpayer.

Photo of Ross Hussey Ross Hussey UUP

I am also pleased to contribute to the debate on the work of the Public Accounts Committee. I begin by paying tribute to the staff who work with the Committee and to our Chairman, Mr Paul Maskey, who will be leaving the blue Benches of this House, possibly for the green Benches of somewhere else, in the not-too-distant future.

I will focus on an issue that sits closely with my role as a member of an Assembly Committee and as a member of the Policing Board: the criminal legal aid system, to which Mr Anderson referred. Following the publication of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s report on 29 June 2011, the Committee, in its first inquiry since the devolution of policing and justice powers, took evidence from officials from the Department of Justice, the Legal Services Commission and the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service.

Criminal legal aid plays a vital role in ensuring that there is fair and equal access to justice. It pays for legal advice and representation for those who could not otherwise afford a solicitor or barrister. However, providing criminal legal aid in Northern Ireland comes at a significant price. Mr Anderson referred to the fact that it cost the taxpayer over £400 million. Unlike most other public services, criminal legal aid is a demand-led service, and the budget is not cash limited. It is delivered exclusively by the private sector, making it all the more important that it is managed and controlled properly. Until recently, expenditure was rising every year, with costs trebling over the past decade, with no comparable increase in the number of cases.

The Northern Ireland Legal Services Commission was set up in 2003 to control expenditure and implement a programme of reform by the autumn of 2007 that would lead to tangible cost savings. However, it has delivered neither of those objectives. The reform programme remains significantly behind schedule and those reforms that relate specifically to criminal legal aid will not be implemented fully until 2013 at the earliest, as Mr Anderson pointed out.

The current system for providing criminal legal aid in Northern Ireland is one of the most expensive in the world. That is something that we should be ashamed rather than proud of. The Department accepts that the current system is complex and not fit for purpose. Although the judiciary decides who receives criminal legal aid and the Northern Ireland Courts and Tribunals Service determines policy, the commission has been left to pick up the bill. As a result, no one is wholly accountable for the large sums of public money spent on criminal legal aid. The Department has acknowledged that the current system is fundamentally flawed and not fit for purpose.

The Committee is highly critical of the very high cost case regime that existed between 2005 and April 2011. Fees for these cases were paid at a significantly higher rate than for standard cases, and were decided only when the case was concluded. However, the rate of payment was not the only cause of concern with very high cost cases. In Northern Ireland, the qualifying threshold was a trial that lasted 25 days, but in England and Wales it was 40 days. The Department conceded that 25 days was too low a threshold as it resulted in three times more very high cost cases coming through the system than expected. Also, even if a very high cost case did not eventually go to a trial that lasted for more than 25 days, legal practitioners were still paid at the higher rates.

Another important inquiry that the Committee completed looked at the use of locum doctors in Northern Ireland’s hospitals. Mr Girvan raised this issue, but I feel it must be commented on again. As a Member who represents the people of West Tyrone, this inquiry was particularly relevant since the area is serviced by the Western Health and Social Care Trust, which has a significant reliance on the use of locum doctors.

As well as the potential negative impact on patient care and satisfaction, there is a significant cost to the public purse. The demand for locum doctors has risen in recent years due to workforce issues such as increased difficulty in filling vacancies and the impact of European legislation governing working hours. In the four-year period to March 2011, almost 8% of trusts’ overall medical staffing expenditure related to locums. Payments to external recruitment agencies for locums totalled £74 million, while payments to substantive staff working over and above their contracted hours totalled over £35 million.

The Committee considers that trusts need to get better at managing the potential risks to patient safety of using locum doctors. They need to be more consistent in how they screen and induct locums and in the way that they manage their performance. In the Committee’s view, one failure to rigorously follow procedures is one too many. In particular, the Committee was very concerned that compliance with the controls for sharing information about poorly performing doctors between trusts has not been sufficient to allow a hospital intending to engage a locum to make an informed decision as to whether it is appropriate to employ a doctor. For a planned, flexible workforce strategy to be successful, trusts need to improve their understanding of the use of locum doctors through greater use of data and better demand forecasting.

I look forward to the introduction of the regionally managed medical locum service, which should provide a more co-ordinated and consistent approach to the management of the locum appointment process.

Photo of Adrian McQuillan Adrian McQuillan DUP

I am pleased to contribute to this debate on the work of the Public Accounts Committee. I wish to refer to the Committee’s examination of the reconsideration and appeals process for disability living allowance. Many members will be familiar with the difficulties and complexities of that benefit. The application process itself is a challenge, with an application form some 38 pages long, especially for those who are already vulnerable and suffering from disability. These difficulties are exacerbated further by the appeals process that applicants must go through if their claim process has been unsuccessful. That process can be gruelling for anyone, never mind the most vulnerable in our society.

Having heard from DSD and the appeals service, the Committee decided to hold an additional evidence session during that inquiry to take evidence from the president of the appeals tribunal. This seemed crucial and, indeed, essential for the Committee to properly assess the accountability of the process as it also involves a judicial element. The Committee’s examination of the DLA reconsideration and appeals process highlighted that it was taking an excessively long time for appeals to be heard and concluded. No target was set for the end-to-end process so, of course, one of the Committee’s key recommendations was that such targets should be put in place.

We were encouraged to note that, following the Northern Ireland Audit Office report, the average time taken from an appeal being received in the Social Security Agency to the issue of the tribunal’s decision had fallen from 31 weeks to 22 weeks. Although that is a definite improvement, there is still room for further progress with that time frame.

It was clear from our investigation that the Social Security Agency, the appeals service and appeal tribunals needed to co-operate much more effectively, by adopting a more constructive and efficient approach and working more closely in partnership. Co-operation with the customer is a vital and fundamental issue that also needs to be addressed.

Although the Committee agreed that the independence and integrity of the appeal process should be maintained, it also found that improvements in administration and communication between the bodies was required to ensure that the service is as efficient and effective as possible and that appellants are not subjected to any more stress than is necessary. As Members will know, this is a customer-facing service, and yet our experience demonstrates that, quite often, consideration for the customer seemed to be severely lacking in the whole process. Issues such as holding appeals in appropriate places that are not intimidating or daunting to the customer: courthouses have been used as venues for appeal hearings, which, in my opinion, are not suitable venues. Their use only adds undue stress to the customer. They are appealing and should be made to feel comfortable in their surroundings. Indeed, I have had constituents wanting to withdraw their appeals because they felt overwhelmed by the thought of their appeal being heard in a courthouse. This is a service in which the welfare of the customer is paramount, and yet their consideration and needs have not always been at the forefront.

The Committee’s recommendations covered a number of important issues, including improvements to the DLA application process, the timely production of the president of appeal tribunals’ annual report and agreement on the attendance of agency staff at tribunals. The Committee also recommended that the process should be improved by obtaining feedback from appellants on the appeals process, ensuring consistency of decision-making on appeals and reviewing the reasons for the postponement and adjournment of hearings.

The investigation concluded that contentious issues such as the attendance of SSA staff at tribunals, the notification of appeals and the setting of an end-to-end target for the appeals process had to be resolved. For too long, those issues have deflected the bodies concerned from focusing on the needs of appellants and the delivery of an efficient and effective appeal service. Those are important themes that the Committee will continue to pursue in its future work. I will also continue to gather feedback from my constituents in order to monitor the process.

For me as a constituency representative, the inquiry was incredibly significant. I spend much of my time engaged with the service on behalf of my constituents, whether to speak on their behalf, to facilitate their appointments or to help them arrange the supporting evidence and records they need to provide. As a result of the inquiry, I feel that I and the Committee have achieved real improvements that will have a positive bearing on the lives of local people, as well as achieving greater efficiency in the provision of an important public service.

This is, of course, only one aspect of the important work that the Committee has been occupied with over the past year. However, I wanted to focus on the issue today as I frequently deal with it in my constituency, as I am sure many other Members do also.

I want to express my thanks to the Chairman for the way in which he has chaired the meetings. I want to especially thank the Clerk and her staff for their help and support to me, and their dedication to the Committee as a whole over the working year. I also add my thanks to the Northern Ireland Audit Office for its help in the Committee process during the year.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I do not know whether I can fill those shoes. I doubt it very much, but I will make my contribution nonetheless.

I greatly welcome the debate. My only regret is that, within the short space of the debate, we have to debate so many reports. I say to the Committee that, in the main, these are excellent reports, and it would, to me not as a member of that Committee, have been far more beneficial if each one of them, or two or three of them, were brought to the House for debate so that they could get the examination they deserve, rather than bringing an omnibus collection of them for a debate such as this. Indeed, when I look back over the past year and think of some of the issues that we debated, many of them were a lot less deserving that many of the matters that lie at the heart of the reports. Therefore, in future, it would be much better if we had fewer Committee reports brought for debate more often.

Given the time that I have to speak, I have to choose which report I will speak to. I was probably most intrigued by the report that dealt with the farm nutrient management scheme. That is not least because, as an MEP, I was close to and familiar with the issue. I well remember and was involved in all the arguments about what was causing the eutrophication in Northern Ireland’s waters. It was always clear to me that the issue was not one of nitrates but of phosphates. Yet we went head over heels into extravagant requirements under the nitrates directive, putting huge burdens on the farming community.

I was not all surprised to read in the report — having experienced from many constituents how the farm nutrient scheme was handled — that the Committee reached the view:

“that, in a number of key aspects, the ... Scheme was poorly planned and badly managed.”

It also had a “piecemeal approach”, and:

“The quality of the Department’s Economic Appraisal ... was far below the standard required”.

That certainly equates with any experience that I ever had of the report.

I suppose, though, that the most intriguing part of the report is when it deals with the magical mathematics by which funding for the scheme was obtained, under the guise of the Crossnacreevy lands in Castlereagh. We had this wheeze whereby, to draw down another £85 million, we had on paper a fictional notion that there was a £200 million valuation on the Crossnacreevy lands.

I find many things about that interesting, one of which is that the Minister of Finance at the time, who — with the then Agriculture Minister — took that proposition to the Executive, was not someone ignorant of the value of land in Castlereagh. He was not somebody who represented Strabane or Fermanagh who might not have been tuned into the nuance of value in Castlereagh. He was Mr Castlereagh himself: Mr Peter Robinson, who knew the value, if I may say so, of every blade of grass in Castlereagh; so much so that he knew that a blade of grass at one end of the constituency could be worth £5. Indeed, he purchased land for £5. The fact that that assisted him to sell his back garden for £460,000 is, we are told, neither here nor there.

This Minister knew, with great precision, the value of land in Castlereagh. Yet, remarkably, while land in one part of the constituency was worth a fiver, land in another part was worth £200 million. With a straight face, the Minister carried that proposition to the Executive table — a Minister who knew all about the value of land in Castlereagh; knew that Crossnacreevy was greenbelt land; had followed the debates, interrogations and investigations of the Belfast metropolitan area plan and the efforts to get land at Crossnacreevy into development. He also knew the interest of certain developers in that regard. Yet that Minister allowed this wheeze of land allegedly worth £200 million, which it patently was not, to go to the Executive. It was worth £2 million because, in this context, it was never coming into development and required £6 million to relocate, so the land was of negative not positive value.

Therefore, this is not just a matter of civil servants valuing land inefficiently and inadequately. We heard from the Member for East Belfast how it was done, but this was civil servants picking a figure for the generic value of development land in the development limit and multiplying that by 80 for land that was not in a development limit. That is quite an astonishing way to proceed. However, this was a situation where a Minister who knew so much about the value of land in Castlereagh was in charge yet apparently lent himself to this wheeze. I think that the PAC maybe did not fully explore that, and maybe it is something that the Minister would like —

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Would the Member draw his remarks to a close, please?

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Maybe today’s Minister would like to explain how it could be that a Minister of Finance and Personnel could take a proposition based on such a fallacy to the Executive table.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and can I say that, once again, it is a great joy for me to respond to this fourth debate on the Public Accounts Committee reports — at least my officials have told me that. At the very start, I should say to the Chairman, whatever his name, that I wish him all the best. I do not know where he is going — Sinn Féin has maybe imposed a confidentiality clause on his eventual location, but I wish him all the best anyway. Maybe I will see him at Westminster sometime, but then, maybe cows will fly. Who knows — after tomorrow, anything is possible.

This debate is about how we ensure that we get value for money when spending government finances. We have to remember that the main aim of government, which takes money from the public and then uses it for various items of expenditure, is to ensure that, when that money is taken, it is used as efficiently and effectively as possible. Of course, we have our roles to play in that. The Executive have their part to play, because they have to give the leadership, establish the structures and set the vision and the targets for the direction in which we want to go. Of course, that is set out in the Programme for Government. Departments and public bodies are under the direction of Ministers, and they have to be responsible for implementing that programme. They have to do so within a defined governance and accountability framework, and they have to ensure that they operate within the appropriate guidelines. I think that Mr McLaughlin made the point that, although we have to have guidelines, we also need the flexibility to ensure that we use money effectively, efficiently and in an innovative way. Mr McLaughlin put that point more gently than I have in the past, but I think that we have to be very careful that, when we are looking at accountability and examining the ways in which money is spent, we do not finish up creating a straitjacket that means that we lose the flexibility that we want in the delivery of public services.

Indeed, the foreword to ‘Managing Public Money Northern Ireland’ states that:

“Public sector organisations can and should innovate in carrying out their responsibilities, using new technology and taking advantage of best practice in business efficiency.”

Given that that means going into new territory, it sometimes involves taking risks. The one thing that we have to ensure in all this is that we avoid laying down a framework that stops officials being prepared to take that risk. Indeed, PAC evidence sessions highlighted those various issues, and its report on creating effective partnerships between government and the voluntary and community sector focused to a large extent on the need for fresh thinking and implementation of those new and innovative practices, as well as on the importance of avoiding the kind of bureaucracy that some Members mentioned, where we get so stifled by accountability and red tape that we allow community groups almost to wither on the vine while they wait for decisions to be made about the way in which money is to be spent. If people have had a bad experience with one group or a bad report from the Public Accounts Committee or the Northern Ireland Audit Office, they perhaps become afraid to take some risks to keep groups alive. We have to bear all that in mind and get the focus right.

It has been said in the past that we need to ensure that there is value for public money and that officials themselves act innovatively. I am very pleased to advise the Committee that a recent training initiative will see senior civil servants receive training in their role of ensuring public accountability and good governance. The head of the Civil Service has agreed that the training will be mandatory. The initiative will include training in personal accountability and responsibilities; on the practical application of managing public money; and on the role of the Public Accounts Committee. I am sure that the Committee Chairman will be pleased to hear that. It is not that we are always wanting to fight with the Committee; rather, we want to know its role. The training will also include examples of the key lessons learned from recent PAC hearings and reports. Moreover, it will be designed to instil ethical values and high standards of corporate governance and accountability in our Departments and key public bodies.

Before addressing the specific issues raised by contributors, I will say a word or two about two issues. I am sure that the Chairman and the Assembly would be disappointed if I did not raise them. I may have already mentioned the first one, but I want to caution against what can easily become an unhealthy preoccupation with the processes and procedures, almost turning governance into an industry or an objective in its own right. We must not lose sight of the real objective, which, in all the reports, should be how we achieve the best delivery of services across the public sector.

I could cite examples from a number of reports, but I have to say that the recommendations that come from them are sometimes more concerned with processes. An example might be picked from one particular case, after which the Public Accounts Committee automatically thinks that it can be applied across the whole public sector. That is not always the case. I make that point in the round but also with regard to the Executive memorandum of reply. I fully understand why the Committee is sometimes frustrated when we note recommendations rather than accept them. I would rather accept recommendations and move forward positively, but sometimes it is important that we simply note when we do not believe that the recommendation can be applied, and applied effectively, across the service. The recommendation may be too vague or too wide-ranging, or it may not consider the wide varieties and variations that there can be across the whole system. That has detrimental knock-on effects.

Secondly, I wish to speak about memorandums of reply. I do not know whether the Committee understands their use. There has been a consistent pattern in recent years of the PAC seeking to challenge the responses provided in MORs. There has been ongoing correspondence between the Committee and the Treasury Officer of Accounts on the matter, and I know that it has been discussed with the Treasury Officer of Accounts regularly. I wish to make something clear: the MOR is the Executive response to the Assembly, not to the PAC. If the PAC is unhappy with the response, it is up to it to raise questions in the Assembly. Recently, the Committee decided to write to a number of accounting officers in relation to MORs that it disagrees with. That disregards the position that I have stated, which has been communicated and clarified to the Committee. It is not acceptable that that action has placed accounting officers in the difficult position where they are in conflict with the stated view of me as Minister and the demands of the Public Accounts Committee.

I can advise the Committee that the accounting officers will not be responding. I reiterate that, if a member of the Committee wants to raise a matter of concern about an MOR, they should do so with the appropriate Minister in this Chamber. That is the proper place to do it.

The other issue I want to raise concerns the Audit Office. Mr Dallat has already raised this: that if I criticise the Audit Office, somehow or other it is tantamount to interference with its independence or public accountability. Let me make it clear: it is not. I simply want the Audit Office to abide by the same standards of transparency and accountability that there should be across the rest of the public sector. Members will be aware that there have been significant changes to audit services in England and that changes are under consideration in Wales. I hope that the Assembly will consider having the same review.

I turn to some of the comments on the reports. Mr Maskey raised the issue of the partnership with the voluntary and community sector. The Committee’s report rightly states that the Government’s relationship with the sector is complex. If it is not properly managed, we can have approaches that are bureaucratic and risk-averse and fail to focus on what should be delivered. Those are not just words; they have practical implications for groups. It is important that there has been a positive response to the report from DSD: it is now working towards a programme of work that is geared toward building efficient partnerships with the key elements across the sector. The Department’s project is to identify improvements that will reduce the bureaucracy and to have a new concordat between the Government and the sector, which will help with transparency and accountability.

There is also the issue that Mr Maskey and Mr Dallat raised about the governance of Northern Ireland Water and DRD. Again, it is clear from the Committee’s report that DRD and Northern Ireland Water needed to take some urgent action. I have been informed that the process of looking for the weaknesses, identifying them and dealing with them is under way and that, specifically, there is a new management statement and financial memorandum put in place between DRD and Northern Ireland Water, which will provide greater clarity in respect of the governance arrangements. They are also undertaking a project to regularise the identified irregular contracts, which is to be completed by December. There will also be a procurement committee established by Northern Ireland Water, which will be able to make recommendations on the award of contracts that exceed £1 million for operational costs and £2 million for capital costs.

Mr Girvan and Mr Hussey raised the issue of locum doctors in Northern Ireland, and I have been advised that DHSSPS is working to agree the optimal split between the permanent staff and the locums for each trust. Hopefully, that will help to reduce the need for locums and, more importantly, offer potential savings. There is also to be a new, regionally managed medical locum service implemented by September of this year, which will consider the weakness in management information.

As far as the compliance with the European working directive is concerned, DHSSPS has advised that the cost of introducing a system for monitoring the hours worked by doctors would be prohibitive, particularly in the current financial climate. However, it is to look at the options that might be available.

On the issue of adult literacy and numeracy, DEL has informed me that it continues to address the absence of the necessary numeracy and literacy skills by mainstreaming essential skills provision in all its programmes, including initiatives such as learner access and engagement, the union learning fund, Steps to Work and the wider support for work-based provision. In the academic year 2010-11, 57,492 people went through essential skills, which was a 12% increase on the previous year. Of course, it is not just the number of people who go through the programmes; it is, as a number of Members have pointed out, the quality of what happens, and that is what we will have to judge it on at the end.

Mr Allister, Mr Easton and Mr Girvan raised the issue of the farm nutrient management scheme. DARD has accepted that aspects of that scheme should have been handled differently. I understand that DARD has re-examined and revised many of its procedures and internal processes, so it should be able to implement another major scheme and will be placed to ensure that it will operate more efficiently and effectively.

I will not have time to go through all the rest of the issues. I am sorry; I do have time. I thought that I had only 15 minutes, but I have 20 minutes.

Members also raised the issue of Crossnacreevy. Mr Allister gave us the benefit of his knowledge of land prices in Crossnacreevy and Castlereagh, and the knowledge that the First Minister, then the Minister of Finance and Personnel, would have had about that. I would have much preferred to hear about Mr Allister’s experience and knowledge of the legal advice and support services involved, the cost of those and the way in which barristers have been able to use them very efficiently to line their pockets. I know that we would have had a more interesting debate had he stuck to his area of expertise on that particular issue.

All I can say about Crossnacreevy is that —

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I will, since I mentioned the Member.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

The Minister could also, of course, share his experience of the use of the legal system.

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

I probably could. I am trying to think what experience I have of the use of the legal system. I am sure that I have had some use of it on occasions. The one thing that I know is that any time I have used it, it has cost me an arm and a leg and it has not been on legal aid either. [Laughter.]

Photo of Sammy Wilson Sammy Wilson Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Treasury)

The valuation of the Crossnacreevy scheme was done on the basis that there was land that the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development intended to sell, with planning permission, and, had it been sold with planning permission, it reflected the value of land with development potential at that particular time. The fact that it was not sold and could not be sold at that price makes no difference to the operation of the Department any more than the depressed value of land and assets at present makes to the efficient running of government in Northern Ireland in the current recession.

Mr McLaughlin raised the issue of the management of substitute cover for teachers and the Committee’s follow-up report. The Department of Education (DE) has informed me that the introduction of the new streamlined framework for reporting teachers’ sickness absence is providing employing authorities and schools with reports on absence rates and substitution costs.

The good thing about this system is that it has had two effects. First, teacher absence days have gone down considerably from 9·5 days to 7·2 days. That is still too high, but, nevertheless, that monitoring has led to that. Secondly, the introduction of the flat rate of pay for substitution cover and the undertaking of other initiatives has meant that the number of days worked by permanently retired teachers has fallen by 63% between 2008-09 and 2011-12, and it now accounts for only 6% of the total number of substitute days worked. That offers new opportunities for young teachers who are just coming out of college. Nevertheless, Mr McLaughlin said that there is still much to be done. Given the fact that the teacher substitute bill still runs to £57 million, there is work to be done there to save money in the education budget.

I will now turn to the management of the criminal legal aid scheme. The Department of Justice has informed me that many important changes have taken place to control criminal legal aid. The first thing is that subjective assessment has been removed from Magistrate’s Court and Crown Court cases. They are now paid in accordance with standard fees that are set out in legislation.

There is also an increasing use of standard fees, and many of the very high cost cases have been removed, which has helped to increase the accuracy of forecasting. A new accounting system will be introduced, which will further improve the commission’s ability to manage expenditure more effectively. The implementation plan for legal aid reform should all be completed and delivered by 2013, which is the target.

I think that I have addressed most of the issues that Members raised. As I said, it is important that we have proper accountability when we spend public money. We may differ on occasions as to how that is best achieved. It is right that we should debate how that is done, but I am sure that, at the end of the day, all of us who have contributed to the debate and who contribute to the discussion on making sure that there is effective and efficient use of public resources have the same aim and view. We will have our disagreements and discussions about how it is best done, but I think that we all aim for the same objective.

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin 4:30, 26 June 2012

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I thank all the Members for taking part in today’s debate. I think that the previous one was in 2010, and a number of reports have been done since. I commend all the Committee members for taking the time to go through them and for having the patience to do so, and I commend them for all their hard work and dedication. I also commend the Committee secretariat, which has been invaluable to me and the rest of the Committee members. In addition, I commend the Audit Office, which, through its joint work with the Public Accounts Committee, has saved government tens of millions of pounds that can then go into front line services. In some cases in the past, as you see when you look at the other reports, that might have been squandered or badly spent; it certainly was not value for money. The collaboration between the Public Accounts Committee and the Audit Office, along with the staff in the secretariat, has meant that tens of millions of pounds have been saved over the past number of years. That should be welcomed and recognised instead of being criticised on some occasions. That is where we are. I hope that the Public Accounts Committee will continue in that regard in the future.

I will probably touch on all the points that were raised, but I do not intend to spend a lot of time going into them. The fact is that one senior civil servant said that they were playing fast and loose with public money. That is one of the worst comments that I have ever heard from a civil servant. The fact that they were playing fast and loose tells you that they did not care about the money; it was not theirs. The point that I raised at the start of my opening comments —

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

Will the Member give way?

Photo of Jim Wells Jim Wells DUP

The phrase “fast and loose” was used in the report on the legal aid budget. The overspend was £150 million, which is the equivalent of six new schools. Nobody was disciplined or sacked. In fact, nobody was even spoken to about that overspend. Does the Member agree that that is a disgraceful situation?

Photo of Paul Maskey Paul Maskey Sinn Féin

The fact is that there was no fraud at that stage; we could not find evidence of fraud. However, Mr Wells’s sentiment is 100% right. That is the difficulty. I will refrain from speaking about somebody being sacked or not; that is not the role or remit of the Public Accounts Committee, which is there to ensure that money is being spent well. That role is for Ministers and the head of the Civil Service with regard to their civil servants; it is not a role for the Public Accounts Committee. We should not get lost in that. Once the Public Accounts Committee goes down that road, it leaves itself open to being criticised for not doing its job as it should be. However, it is a big issue.

I am Paul Maskey, by the way. Maybe John does not realise that.

The Minister touched on MORs in his contribution. That has a serious consequence. You said that MORs are the response to the Assembly. The PAC is doing the work of the Assembly. That is where those responses should be made, and they should be made very clearly. If that is the role of the Public Accounts Committee, that certainly should be the role of the Department of Finance and Personnel, and the others Ministers should also go down that road.

Mr Jim Allister, in fairness to him, said that a lot of good work and good reports are being done. However, he said that we are here today to speak about a lot of different reports, and some of them should be brought forward sooner. I do not think that some of your Executive colleagues, Minister, would want every report produced by the Public Accounts Committee to be brought to the Assembly when they are published, because it would give them more work to do. We concentrate on senior civil servants, and the whole beauty of the Public Accounts Committee is that we do not mention Ministers. That allows us to leave our political baggage at the door and to not bring it into the room. Looking at the Ministers is up to the Assembly and the ministerial colleagues in the Executive. So, I think that you should think that over, Minister, and talk to some of your Executive colleagues, because they may not agree on that approach. It is entirely up to the new Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee, who will come in very shortly, and the rest of the Committee to decide that. I wish them luck with that.

I will go back to some of the comments that were made. Paul Girvan spoke after me about the recommendations on locum doctors. Mr Girvan raised major concerns that some doctors in other places could have been struck off but could get a job as a locum doctor because that accountability mechanism is not place. That is a very worrying concern that came out of that report, because people on the outside are looking in and expecting a first-class service from our health service. They are not looking at locum doctors, but they need and want to see a doctor.

Michael Copeland started off by talking about the bottle of bleach and the community group. I was very tempted to ask whether that bottle of bleach was to make sure that all the civil servants are squeaky clean, but I will not go down that road. Mr Copeland said that he heard the word “flipping” in the Committee, and that is about buying a piece of land and flipping it on again on the same day. I have heard worse terms for it, but I will not go into that. Some pieces of land were being valued originally at £200 million and being let off and then sold for just over £2 million. That is absolutely crazy.

John Dallat, the longest-serving member of the Committee, quite wrongly announced me as Paul Priestly. He had the good wisdom to come up and apologise and say that that is worst thing that he could ever say to anybody. I appreciate that. John majored on NI Water, but he honed in on the skilling up of our young people in the basic skills of literacy and numeracy. All members of the Committee very much agreed with that.

There may be something about toilets — Alex Easton mentioned toilet paper. I am not sure if that goes hand in hand with the bleach that Michael Copeland was using. Mr Easton made that point when talking about the costings. The reality of it is that, in some cases, it looks like, when people are marking up costings for different projects, it has been done on a piece of toilet roll or a cigarette box because no other way could explain it. If it had been done properly, those mistakes would not have been made.

Mitchel McLaughlin looked back on a number of reports and touched on the work that Ministers have done. He mentioned the direct rule Ministers and that some pressures on civil servants can lead to shortcuts. That is why the PAC is needed now and will always be needed, because, when shortcuts are being taken, mistakes can be made. However, the point of it all, which we raised on many occasions, is that we are not opposed to risk and are not risk averse. We encourage risk as long as it is well calculated and well managed, but we hope that some of those mistakes are never made again because they are too costly.

Sydney Anderson touched on legal aid. Ross Hussey spoke about me leaving the blue Benches of Stormont and probably going to the green Benches somewhere else. I hope that the green benches that you were talking about are in the Falls park, because those are the only green benches that I will be sitting on. [Laughter.] He also said that 8% of the overall budgets in some trusts was spent on locum doctors. That is a crazy amount of money, given all the checks and balances, and that goes back to Mr Girvan’s point.

Adrian McQuillan spoke about the fact that the appeals process for DLA takes too long. I totally agree. We all deal with the issue of DLA in our constituency offices, and it sometimes takes 20-odd weeks for an appeal to be heard. You have to ask who is making money out of all this. Some appeals are postponed for a long time. I remember a Committee member saying that some appeals were held in courthouses in which murder trials were also being conducted. People who were ill and had their appeals turned down perhaps had to face the trauma of making another appeal in a courthouse.

Jim Allister was the last Member to speak before the Minister. I am glad that he welcomed the fact that the Committee produced some excellent reports. I know how hard everyone who was involved in the reports worked. The issue is about ensuring that we receive value for money, that there is good governance and that government works to deliver for all people in our society, including those living in some of the worst and most deprived areas. In some areas that are represented by me and by Sue Ramsey, who is sitting beside me, people are crying out for good governance and value for money. They sometimes do not see the benefits of government when it is not working, and they are the people whom it hurts most. I urge all Members to continue to support the Public Accounts Committee reports, and I thank you all.

Question put and agreed to.


That this Assembly takes note of the following Public Accounts Committee Reports: Report on Campsie Office Accommodation and Synergy e-Business Incubator (01/10/11R); The Management of Substitution Cover for Teachers: Follow-up Report (20/10/11R); The Administration and Management of the Disability Living Allowance Reconsideration and Appeals Process (25/10/11R); Report on Arrangements for Ensuring the Quality of Care in Homes for Older People (39/10/11R); Measuring the Performance of NI Water (37/10/11R); Procurement and Governance in NI Water (40/10/11R); Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy (60/10/11R); Report on Managing Criminal Legal Aid (NIA 20/11-15); Report on Reducing Water Pollution from Agricultural Sources – The Farm Nutrient Management Scheme (NIA 21/11-15); Report on Creating Effective Partnerships between Government and the Voluntary and Community Sector (NIA 24/11-15); Report on the Use of Locum Doctors by Northern Ireland Hospitals (NIA 37/11-15); and the following Department of Finance and Personnel Memoranda of Reply: Report on Campsie Office Accommodation and Synergy e-Business Incubator; The Management of Substitution Cover for Teachers: Follow-up Report; The Administration and Management of the Disability Living Allowance Reconsideration and Appeals Process; Measuring the Performance of NI Water; Procurement and Governance in NI Water; Report on Arrangements for Ensuring the Quality of Care in Homes for Older People; Improving Adult Literacy and Numeracy; Report on Managing Criminal Legal Aid; Report on Reducing Water Pollution from Agricultural Sources – The Farm Nutrient Management Scheme; Report on Creating Effective Partnerships between Government and the Voluntary and Community Sector; Report on the Use of Locum Doctors by Northern Ireland Hospitals.