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PAC: Tony O'Neill's Comments

Oral Answers to Questions — Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 2:30 pm on 25th October 2016.

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Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP 2:30 pm, 25th October 2016

T6. Mr Swann asked the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs whether she agrees with comments made by Tony O'Neill, Chair of the Agri-Food Strategy Board, at a recent Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Committee meeting, when he said, "Everybody prepares for the Public Accounts Committee before they do the project. They do two projects at once; one to implement it and the other at the same time preparing their defence. Our Public Accounts Committee, I think, has become our greatest weakness." (AQT 401/16-21)

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I thank the Member for his question. I am very much aware of the comments that Mr O'Neill made to the Committee. Regarding the PAC, the Member will be aware that we all work within a framework of good governance and financial accountability for public money. Rules are in place, and we need to abide by those. Regardless of the rules, I suppose that we will be critical of officials and say they are risk-averse, but whether that is a fair criticism is debatable. I do not agree with the comments that he made.

Photo of Robin Swann Robin Swann UUP

Thank you very much, Minister. I am glad to hear that. At the same Committee meeting, Mr O'Neill said there were too many farmers in Northern Ireland. I hope that the Minister does not agree with those comments either. Taking those two examples into consideration, does the Minister still have faith in Tony O'Neill as chair of the Agri-Food Strategy Board?

Photo of Michelle McIlveen Michelle McIlveen DUP

I am very much aware of Mr O'Neill's comment about the number of farmers as well. Mr O'Neill has been challenged on that by the Ulster Farmers' Union. I have also been in his presence since he made those comments and have spoken to him about them.

I am very much focused on championing the position of all farmers in Northern Ireland and not being selective as to whom I support. I want to see the sector grow, be productive and be sustainable. As to whether I have confidence in Mr O'Neill, that is a very loaded question, but the Member will be aware that the tenure of the Agri-Food Strategy Board as a group will come to an end in February next year.