Draft Audit and Accountability (Northern Ireland) Order 2003

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Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): Welcome to our exciting deliberations, Mr. Hood, as we seek to run the whole of Northern Ireland by a series of statutory instruments. Let us hope that that does not go on for too long.

Judging from the debate in the Assembly, the order was pretty well received before suspension. As far as I can gather, no amendments to it were tabled. The Minister has outlined fairly comprehensively what he intends the legislation to do. Seamus Close, who spoke for the Alliance party of Northern Ireland at the time, said that we should always ask the following question about taxpayers' money:

    ''If it were my money, would I spend it in that fashion?''

With the possible exception of investing a little more money into tracking asteroids and investigating the threat of impacts, and therefore giving a little more money to the Armagh observatory, the Assembly was on the whole spending money quite wisely. It is important that we never give the impression that we must have this kind of legislation because the state sector is fundamentally corrupt. We do not do enough to reassure the public that, by and large, Governments are honourable and that the Northern Ireland Assembly is no exception to that. Although the legislation is helpful, it is evolutionary work and no one should be suspicious that we are trying to right a heinous wrong that has been uncovered by the Government or anyone else.

2.46 pm

Mr. Eddie McGrady (South Down): I should explain my presence as a non-member of the Committee and thank you, Mr. Hood, for your graciousness in permitting me to speak under the Standing Orders of the House. The usual channels informed me that that was the process and I took that as a form of encouragement in relation to representation on the Committee. After all, there are 22 former Northern Ireland Bills—some very substantive—going through the House as orders. Many of the opinions expressed in the Assembly during the partial course of the Bills' progress will not be expressed in debates by Order in Council because of the paucity of Members from Northern Ireland parties.

Mr. Taylor: It has always been a Standing Order that somebody not selected for a statutory instrument Committee may attend and speak, but may not vote. I am not sure whether that is widely known among Northern Ireland Members; I ask the hon. Gentleman to reassure the Committee that he will not go and tell them, because otherwise we will never get through the statutory instruments.

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Mr. McGrady: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention, but, alas, he is much too late. An official notification has gone out to all and sundry—to all 18 Northern Ireland Members—indicating that, according to the Standing Orders, their attendance and participation would be welcome. That is why I am here.

David Winnick (Walsall, North): Does the hon. Gentleman realise how important this sitting is? I have received at least three messages from the Whips telling me that I must attend, and that I am on a three-line Whip and heaven forbid if I do not appear.

Mr. McGrady: I regret that I cannot assist the hon. Gentleman by acting as a substitute for him, because I do not have a vote.

On a more serious note, my party, as part of the Assembly, welcomed the strengthening of the accountability arrangements in Northern Ireland and the transfer of certain functions and powers to the Comptroller and Auditor General's Office. One of the most valuable aspects of Northern Ireland's experience under the Assembly was the effectiveness of elected representatives in holding Departments to account for their expenditure and actions. I imagine that that was something of a culture shock to the civil service in Northern Ireland, which had some three decades of less detailed scrutiny. The shock still reverberates in the corridors of administration of such establishments.

The Public Accounts Committee of the Assembly carried out some 20 detailed investigations in its short existence and examined bodies such as the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, the local enterprise unit and the fire service. Detailed scrutiny of the financing of administration of roads, water and sewerage—very big spenders—was most welcome. An element of transparency has been introduced into the deliberations.

The order will help to give the public confidence in the way that money is spent in Northern Ireland, particularly by funded non-departmental public bodies. How many of us have stood on our feet in various legislatures and criticised the money that has been thrown at the entire health service without knowing how effective it was or how delivery of the service had been improved by it? That is particularly the case in Northern Ireland.

It is also interesting to note that the chief finance officers group in Northern Ireland, which represents the finance departments of all 26 district councils, welcomed the transfer of audits to the CAG's Office as an efficient means of providing services and creating additional professionalism.

Mr. David Wilshire (Spelthorne): If I understood the hon. Gentleman correctly, he said that by reviewing the accounts and knowing where the money goes, the service will become better. May I disabuse him of that opinion? In Great Britain, we have a Government who throw vast amounts of money at public services. We know where it goes, but we are not seeing any

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improvement in the services. I do not want to raise his hopes that this dreadful Government's making more money available will mean better services—it will not.

Mr. McGrady: My eloquence did not stretch to giving the hon. Gentleman a clear understanding of what I was actually saying, which was that the transfer of investigative, audit and accountancy responsibilities to the CAG's Office will bring greater professionalism to scrutiny and many quangos and all of local government and health into the system, which was not so before. Audit responsibilities were scattered among many Departments and quangos. Now that they are centralised, there will be uniformity of qualifications, standards, effectiveness and professionalism. That is what I was saying, and that is why we welcome the order.

An order such as this one—as good as it is—and the CAG's Office are no substitute for scrutiny by the elected Members of Northern Ireland through the Public Accounts Committee. That point that was made by the hon. Member for Solihull (Mr. Taylor), and I endorse it. The Public Accounts Committee did a magnificent job in many areas, but we are now throwing light on matters and allegations that have been left unresolved for many years. I hope that the CAG's Office will report on consequences of its 20-odd inquiries, thereby making it and us more effective.

I thank you, Mr. Hood, and the Committee for allowing me to participate in the deliberations today. I regret that I am not able to relieve a particular hon. Member from his duties under the onerous three-line Whip.

2.54 pm

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Hood. It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Down (Mr. McGrady). He spoke in a unique capacity this afternoon and took advantage of the opportunity given those who are not members of a Committee to address it. That is not done frequently. Indeed, I cannot recall attending a Committee in which that has happened. We have been aware of the possibility for some time, but Northern Ireland Members have rarely taken advantage of it, so I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on doing so. I am not sure of the procedural aspects, but I suspect that his presence does not count towards the quorum of the Committee. I must therefore tell the hon. Member for Walsall, North (David Winnick) that he remains chained to his chair until we conclude the proceedings.

David Winnick: In case my remarks were misunderstood, I place on record that I am very pleased to be here, even more so in view of my involvement in Northern Ireland affairs.

Mr. Trimble: I am happy to acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's interest in Northern Ireland affairs, of which we have been aware and have appreciated for many years. I was merely sympathising with him because of the restrictions and the burden placed on him by his Whips on this occasion.

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This is the first time that I have been on a Committee considering an Order in Council relating to Northern Ireland since the suspension of the Assembly. Of course, this is not novel because I attended such Committees during the long years of direct rule. On such occasions, and when Orders in Council were debated on the Floor of the House, we always registered objections to the procedure of making primary legislation for Northern Ireland through delegated legislation.

I shall not be doing that in quite the same terms today because there is a difference between those orders and this one—and others that have been considered or are going through the House at the moment. The Order-in-Council procedure is now being used to give effect to Bills that had come before the Northern Ireland Assembly, and which the Assembly wanted on the statute book before the prorogation that would have occurred in late March. After suspension, we were anxious for that legislative programme to be carried out, and the only means to do that in the time scale was through Orders in Council. We appreciate the work that the Northern Ireland Office has done since suspension to recast those Bills as Orders in Council and to take them through this House as quickly as possible. I hope that, come the end of March, the whole legislative programme that the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive had planned will have been carried out.

Like other Members present, I hope that it will not be long before the Assembly is reconstituted. This task can then return to the elected representatives of Northern Ireland. However, perhaps the hon. Member for Solihull will permit me to demur slightly from what he said earlier. I thought that he was unnecessarily bashful when he said that he would not presume to give advice on or participate in decisions relating to Northern Ireland. As a Member representing a Northern Ireland constituency, I would not feel so bashful about issues relating to Solihull or other parts of the United Kingdom. We consider ourselves, with the hon. Gentleman, to be Members of this United Kingdom Parliament. By virtue of that status, we are all perfectly entitled to express views, and participate in decision making, on any part of the United Kingdom. We appreciate the thought behind the hon. Gentleman's remark, although we disagree with the way in which it was expressed.

As has been noted, the content of the order was on its way through the Northern Ireland Assembly. It had had the equivalent of Second Reading and was unopposed; it was welcomed by all concerned. It was part of the Executive's legislative programme, and I presume that I chaired a meeting of the Executive at which we approved it. I must confess that, although I must have chaired such a meeting, which must consequently have approved the Bill, I did that on advice received, without actually perusing the measure in detail. Consequently, I am especially grateful to the Minister for the very clear exposition that he has given of the order. He has given me an understanding of it that I did not previously have.

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