Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fifth Report


29. Our Third Report of last Session was produced in April 2000 in the context of the suspension of the devolved administration in Northern Ireland. In view of the reversion to the Secretary of State of responsibility for the Northern Ireland Departments, we called for work to be put in hand on preparation of a public expenditure report, similar in scope to the material previously included in Northern Ireland Office Departmental Reports, covering the devolved Northern Ireland Departments, to be presented to the House in adequate time for its contents to be studied before the relevant Estimate was voted in the summer. We also recognised that if the suspension of the Assembly ended before the report had been completed, it would be for that body to receive any public expenditure report on the devolved Northern Ireland Departments. In this event, we expressed the hope that the Assembly would aim to ensure that appropriate information was available to this House before it was asked to vote the substantial financial subvention in support of expenditure by the Northern Ireland Departments which was being sought in respect of the 2000-01 financial year.

30. In the event, the devolved administration was restored at the end of May 2000. We nonetheless inquired of the Northern Ireland Office, ahead of the evidence session on 28 June 2000, what steps it had taken in response to our recommendations and sought a formal response to our Report. This produced the exchanges of correspondence at Appendix A to this Report.

31. We did not consider this a satisfactory response and have had subsequent exchanges on this matter with successive Secretaries of State. These are reproduced at Appendix B. While we welcome the acceptance displayed by this correspondence that the matter could have been better handled, it is clear that the fundamental problem was that the Department of Finance and Personnel failed to address in a timely fashion, despite pressure from the Northern Ireland Office, our key recommendation, namely, that the information be provided. In other words, when devolved government was restored, some five weeks after our Report had been produced, the Department had still not decided whether or not to recommend to the Secretary of State that he provide the information, let alone started work on preparing it. In the context of the 'two month rule' for replies to Select Committee reports, this was, in our view, far too leisurely an approach for it to take. It seems unlikely that there should have been any difficulty of principle in assembling suitable information, as Mrs Brown had told us[45] that the devolved administration had accepted the existing public expenditure plans for 2000-01, which had been put together prior to devolution.

32. We recognise that the situation in which we made our recommendation was exceptional but, should it recur, we expect to be in a position to consider all matters falling within the responsibilities of the Secretary of State, however temporarily. In that event, we recommend that the Northern Ireland Office issues appropriate guidance to the Northern Ireland departments and, in particular, draws their attention to the conventions relating to the period within which Select Committees expect replies to their reports.

45  Q 92-93. Back

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Prepared 29 June 2001