Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fifth Report

Letter from the Chairman to the Secretary of State

Thank you for your letter of 6 December concerning the Government response to the Committee's Third Report of last Session.

The House has charged the Committee with examining the expenditure of the Northern Ireland Office, a responsibility the Committee takes seriously. In the current financial year, Northern Ireland Office voted moneys, at just over £8 billion - slightly more than the Home Office figure - represent a substantial block of public expenditure. Yet the House at present receives only the most rudimentary background information on the seven eighths of this expenditure which is the transfer to the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund. Indeed, the briefest perusal of the Northern Ireland Office Departmental Report highlights this point.

It is a responsibility of the Secretary of State to secure Northern Ireland's share of public expenditure. The information currently provided is certainly insufficient to enable either the Committee or the House to reach an informed judgement as to the adequacy with which this has been discharged. The Committee's two linked recommendations in its Third Report were simply intended to ensure that some detailed information on past and proposed levels of public expenditure in Northern Ireland, similar to that provided in previous years, was available to the House before it was asked to agree the relevant Vote.

In essence, you (and those who advise you) had only a simple question to consider - whether the request of the Committee for further information was acceptable or unacceptable. However, it is clear from Kirsten McFarlane's letter to the Clerk that by 30 May, over half way through the two month period during which Select Committee reports are normally replied to by the Government, neither the Department of Finance and Personnel, nor the Northern Ireland Office, had come to a view on that basic question. In other words, no progress had been made even on deciding whether to produce the information requested, let alone on actually preparing it. The Committee finds it difficult to see how, such a leisurely approach having been taken to considering what advice to offer, a document (which would also, in the circumstances, have been of value to the Assembly) could have been produced in time, even if devolved government had not been restored. Your decision on the merits of the recommendations therefore appears to have been pre-empted by a delay in providing you with advice on the key issue.

As is customary, the Committee will be publishing the correspondence that constitutes the response to the Third Report, together with the subsequent exchanges, in a report in due course. It will, of course, also include any reply to this letter in the published exchanges.

18 December 2000

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