SPEECH TO CPA BY GREGORY CAMPBELL
I want to speak to you today about how it can be possible, following a long period of conflict, for a Public Accounts Committee to be fully effective within an elected legislative body.
I also want to demonstrate how political representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly from two totally different political viewpoints were able to meet some of the challenges facing a deeply divided society.
The Northern Ireland Assembly was first set up in 1998 under the terms of the Belfast Agreement. It was made up of 108 elected Members - six from each of the 18 Westminster constituencies. It was established in December 1999 and operated until its suspension by the UK Government in October 2002. It was reconstituted in 2007 following further negotiation on a number of key issues.
The Belfast Agreement between the Governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland followed the deaths of some 3500 people, thousands more maimed or injured, almost 30 years of relentless violence, a concerted campaign of bombings and murders by the IRA, numerous sectarian killings and an almost total breakdown in the relationship between the two main religious communities in Northern Ireland.
My party, the Democratic Unionist Party, had vigorously opposed this agreement on a wide range of issues, not least on the basis that violence was still widespread and not all of the parties who would form the Executive were exclusively committed to peaceful and democratic means. We were however determined to exercise our democratic right to take up positions in the Executive and as Chairpersons and members of the statutory and other Committees.
We did this to provide a platform to voice our continued opposition to the Agreement but more importantly to ensure that we were in a position to fully represent the day to day needs of our electorate. We did this successfully as Executive Ministers who did not sit in Executive meetings and as effective Chairpersons and members of Committees. An example of how we fulfilled this role within the Assembly can be demonstrated by the important work carried out by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) which comprised of 12 members nominated by the 5 main political parties in the Assembly. Two members from my party were prominent members.
The Committee’s Initial I mpact
What was so important about the PAC to the work of the Northern Ireland Assembly during the turbulent period of its first mandate from December 1999 to October 2002?
- It became recognised as the most high profile, effective and productive Committee in the Assembly.
- It enabled locally elected politicians, for the first time in 30 years, to consider the important reports published by the Northern Ireland Audit Office.
- It provided a framework for elected members, despite their political differences, to be seen to objectively and effectively scrutinise the administrative and financial failings within public sector bodies and make recommendations for improvement.
- It tackled fraud in the public sector in a robust and consistent manner.
- It promoted awareness and an acceptance within the public sector that increased accountability could only assist in the pursuit of the highest possible standards of control, and of greater economy, effectiveness and efficiency in the use of public money.
- It enhanced public confidence in the ability of locally elected Members to put aside party political differences to serve the best interests of the taxpayer and the most vulnerable in society.
Working with the Audit Office
The PAC’s role was set out in simple terms in the Northern Ireland Act 1998 which provided for devolution of powers from Westminster. The Act provided that the Committee should operate on the Westminster Model and that its role would be to consider accounts, and reports on accounts, laid before the Assembly by the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland.
I can understand how anyone looking at this provision could easily come to the conclusion that the work of the Public Accounts Committee would consist of a series of meetings that would continually become bogged down in the study of a range of complex and detailed departmental accounts, and that little would be achieved. Such an assumption could not be further from the truth, and there are several reasons why that was so.
Firstly, we were fortunate that we had a Comptroller and Auditor General (Mr John Dowdall) and the Northern Ireland Audit Office both of whom were experienced in working with Parliament at Westminster. They were well placed to provide independent assurance, information and advice to the Assembly and the PAC on the proper accounting, regularity and propriety of expenditure, revenue and assets and on the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which public sector bodies used their resources.
Secondly, the Comptroller and Auditor General's independence was fully safeguarded in the Northern Ireland Act 1998.
The Act made it clear that he would be totally independent in the exercise of his functions and could not:-
"be subject to the direction or control of any Minister or Northern Ireland department or of the Assembly".
The importance of that provision cannot be overstated. The Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland was insulated from party political pressures and could play a key role as Assembly Members sought to come to terms with our new responsibilities under devolution.
The work of the Public Accounts Committee in the early years of devolution concentrated on value-for-money reports, which the Northern Ireland Audit Office had produced, based on its assessment of the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which public sector bodies had used their resources. Usually, 10 to 12 such reports were produced annually, which before devolution were sent to the UK Parliament at Westminster only for most of them to gather dust on its shelves. Many members of the first devolved PAC were convinced that all of those important reports were not fully acted on during the previous 30 years. Fortunately, with the advent of devolution, that situation changed.
PAC was instrumental in bringing about that change. Shortly after its establishment, the Committee decided that all Audit Office value for money reports would be considered in detail. That consideration would be carried out either by correspondence with the relevant accounting officers or by taking oral evidence from them in a public session.
This approach was particularly effective and enabled PAC to consider a wide range of Audit Office reports on important social, environmental and financial issues that had not been examined by the Parliament in London. These included an investigation into the very high number of deaths on our roads compared to the rest of the UK, administrative failures and errors in the payment of benefits within the social security system, poor control of pollution in our rivers and inland waterways, low levels of achievement in numeracy and literacy skills within our education system, poor delivery mechanisms in the allocation of EU funding for rural development and widespread fraud and suspected fraud within the EU funded National Agriculture Support Scheme.
The Committee’s Reports
During the period from 2000 to 2002 PAC published 20 hard hitting reports based on evidence sessions with Departmental Accounting Officers and Chief Executives. These reports clearly had the benefit of local accountability in that they demonstrated the in-depth knowledge and personal experience Committee Members had of the issues involved. Each of the Committee reports set out a number of conclusions and recommendations for improvement and also the need for Departments to follow rules and procedures that had been carefully drawn up centrally to ensure the proper, efficient and effective use of resources.
The PAC in its reports reinforced the need for improved financial management and need to develop strategies and programmes to tackle the problem of widespread fraud.
Departments, in conjunction with the Department of Finance, were required to give detailed responses to the PAC’s recommendations for improvement. Almost all of the PAC’s recommendations were accepted and acted upon. Clearly the need for accounting officers to defend their actions was having an effect.
Where lessons needed to be learnt on a wider scale from a particular case, PAC worked closely with the Department of Finance, which had overall responsibility for public expenditure, to ensure this message also went out to all government departments. In the same way PAC used this process to promote any examples of good practice that it found.
A further reason for the Committee's early success was the hard work and dedication of its members. They were prepared to make a considerable effort to ensure that they were well briefed for evidence sessions and in developing their forensic skills in questioning witnesses. These characteristics still stand the Committee in good stead today.
A crucial aspect which I feel that I need to clarify is that PAC did not scrutinise policy or the allocation of resources. Ministers and the Executive were accountable directly to the Assembly on those issues. The Committee was therefore not questioning the policy itself. Instead, it reviewed the implementation of policy by the civil service through calling the various Heads of Department to account. I firmly believe that this enabled members, some of whom were diametrically opposed to each other in political terms, to agree that party political issues should not come before the interests of the taxpayer or the general public. To have scrutinised policy issues would have almost certainly have caused division. It is interesting to note that all the reports produced were unanimously agreed by members from all parties. No dissent was recorded. That was not because of fudge or any constructive ambiguity in the wording of conclusions or recommendations, but as I have said because Members were able to keep the interests of the taxpayer and the public to the forefront of their deliberations. The unanimity of PAC reports meant that Departments and the Executive were faced with conclusions that were difficult to ignore or avoid.
Selection of Topics for Investigation
It is important for a PAC, in its early days, to select issues where it is relatively easy to achieve a consensus among the parties. One of the most worrying issues to emerge in the course of the early work of PAC was the scale on which fraud and suspected fraud existed in the public sector. This had increased significantly over the 30 years of conflict and all parties could agree it was a massive waste of scarce resources. Fraud existed throughout many Departments, and it seemed to be tackled differently by each Department.
The first hearing on fraud involved three cases under the EU National Agricultural Support Scheme administered by the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development. The first two cases involved an over-declaration of land by the applicants and a subsequent over-claim for livestock subsidies. In both cases the police were unable to pursue a criminal prosecution because of serious shortcomings in the Department's systems. The Committee was astonished to find that subsidies for grazing were being paid for land that consisted of flower beds, golf courses and car parks. Amazingly the maps used as part of the payment process were up to 64 years old and led to the Department being unable to prosecute.
The third case related to several claims made by the same family. It was suspected that livestock subsidies were being claimed for animals that came from a source outside Northern Ireland. PAC had grave concerns that existing controls did not detect this fraud until 5 years after the scheme was introduced. The Department was, again, not able to prosecute - a common theme that PAC heard from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
The experience and local knowledge of 2 members of the Committee, who came from a local farming background, proved invaluable during questioning of the Accounting Officer and his senior officials. They were left no opportunity to waffle or put forward evasive answers. Members in their report also highlighted the dangerous links between fraud and animal health, as was demonstrated by the spread of Foot and Mouth disease to Northern Ireland in 2001 through illicitly traded sheep – a fraud that could have jeopardized the viability of the entire Northern Ireland livestock industry.
As a result of the PAC report the Department reviewed all of its processes for the payment of grants and subsidies and its anti-fraud measures. Its Anti Fraud Unit adopted a much more pro-active role, including development of a strategic overview of agricultural fraud, identifying trends, enhancing targeting etc. It drew up a counter fraud strategy based on zero tolerance which included targets for reductions in the levels of fraud against agricultural grants and subsidies.
PAC emphasised that there could be no acceptable level of fraud and that the public sector needed to tackle fraud with a renewed vigour . As a result of PAC recommendations the Department of Finance accepted that it needed to take a clear lead in ensuring that combating fraud was given increased priority across all departments, that anti fraud strategies were put in place, that lessons were learnt and that best practice and information was shared.
The Watchdog Beginning To Bark and Bite
As the PAC members gained experience and confidence, Departments recognized that scrutiny of public expenditure by locally elected members, acting in a professional and objective manner, was a much more frequent, daunting and career threatening process than dealing with a remote body operating in London. The public evidence sessions were kept formal to dispel any notion that the hearing was simply an informal discussion about the issues. The use of the impressive Senate Chamber in Parliament Buildings for hearings added to the importance and seriousness of the Committee’s deliberations. Witnesses were left in no doubt that they should treat the proceedings and the Committee with the utmost respect.
Accounting Officers in Departments sat up and took notice. They spent considerable time and effort in their preparations for an appearance before PAC. This was something I was very much aware of during the period I served as Minister for Regional Development from July 2000 to November 2001. Indeed on one occasion another Minister actually made a complaint to the Chairman of PAC that preparations for an appearance before PAC by his Permanent Secretary had virtually brought day to day work in his Department to a standstill, as all his senior officers were involved in drawing up briefing papers for the accounting officer. The Committee was not impressed by this approach.
On many occasions accounting officers engaged in what members described as pre-emptive strikes. This involved coming to the hearing and announcing that the Department had already taken action to correct the many major failings highlighted in the Audit Office report. The Committee welcomed these statements as they indicated that action was being taken quickly to correct failings.
The message quickly spread that the new PAC meant business and that members were determined to ensure that significant improvements could be made in the way the taxpayer’s money was spent.
Accounting officers, having been subject to a PAC evidence session for the first time, soon made it clear to their staff that they did not want to face the ordeal again. As a result processes and procedures within departments were generally reviewed and strengthened. Greater importance was attached to the need to follow the rules and guidelines laid down by the Department of Finance.
The work of PAC was beginning to bring about significant improvement in standards of control, and of greater economy, effectiveness and efficiency in the use of public expenditure.
Within a short time PAC had proved that it was a watchdog that had bite and that it would be persistent and effective in carrying out its role. But more would be needed if it was to be fully effective.
Making a Public Impact
At its initial meeting PAC members agreed that it would be essential to obtain maximum publicity for its work.
All of its evidence sessions would be held in public and be televised. A comprehensive communications strategy would be drawn up.
The Committee was satisfied that the process of communicating key messages and recommendations to those Departments subject to scrutiny was robust and soundly based. The PAC would take evidence and produce its report. The Department would be required to produce a detailed memorandum of reply, in conjunction with the Department of Finance, setting out how it intended to comply with the PAC’s recommendations. Improvements in performance would potentially follow.
This process, however, was not enough for members. Their work needed a wider audience.
All government departments needed to know that a more rigorous regime of accountability was now in place. Fraudsters needed to know they would have no hiding place. The Treasury at Westminster, EU funders, the business community and the general public in Northern Ireland needed to know that local politicians, despite their political differences, had the capacity, drive and determination to deal with the serious failings in public administration that had developed during the previous 30 years of rule from London. Public confidence needed to be built and maintained in the benefits that a locally devolved administration could bring.
Initially PAC concentrated its activities around the publication of its reports. A press conference was held on the day of publication of the first report, targeted press releases with a clear hard hitting message were issued, press and media briefing packs were widely circulated and TV and radio journalists were briefed on an individual basis on the importance of the issues raised by the PAC.
At first it proved difficult to attract interest from the press and other media. The first Press conference on the Road Safety Report was poorly attended; coverage of the PAC’s work in the media was patchy and uninformed and there seemed to be little or no understanding of how important the work of PAC could be to the lives of the general public. It appeared that the 30 years of direct rule had created a generation of journalists and observers who had lost a cutting edge and had become reliant on a feed of information from departmental press officers determined to project a continuous positive message and avoid any reference to failures, of which there were many.
It wasn’t until the PAC was able to work in conjunction with the Belfast Telegraph, one of Northern Ireland’s main regional newspapers, to increase coverage of the work of PAC that things changed. It only took a short time after the appointment of an investigations journalist and the appearance of attention grabbing headlines in the Telegraph that other media outlets began to catch up.
TV, radio and the press began seeking information about PAC activities. Requests for interviews with members of the Committee on PAC reports became the norm and members did not disappoint in putting forward hard hitting views which caught the public’s attention.
Local TV and radio news programmes headlined the findings of all PAC reports on the day of publication. Feature length programmes were broadcast on major issues of public concern.
The PAC had achieved its short term objectives despite the wider political difficulties faced by the Assembly.
It succeeded, during that short 2 year period of the first mandate, in improving the quality of administration in the public sector and in reducing fraud. It built confidence that a locally elected devolved Assembly could be effective in holding the Executive to account on public expenditure issues. It was successful in drawing the public’s attention to important every day issues of accountability that seemed to have been ignored for years. It encouraged society to engage with the Assembly as we moved slowly towards a society that would not be dominated by news of death and destruction.
To conclude – If I was asked what the most important requirement would be for members of a PAC in a region coming out of conflict - my answer would be - that Members of the Committee should seek to agree that their primary responsibility is to ensure that services are provided to their communities and the tax-payer in the most economical, effective and efficient way. Party political or other sectional interests should always take second place.