The Private Government of Northern Ireland
Article for "SCOPE" Magazine (Northern Ireland)
It's no surprise to find the new Assemblies - and the Scottish Parliament - crying out for more budget information. That directly challenges the whole Westminster tradition where the absence of systematic and timely parliamentary information is a notorious farce. But devolution is about democracy. So early in the game the Scots signalled their intention to avoid importing this parliamentary impotence from Westminster. After two disappointing years they still seek better information. The Northern Ireland Assembly's record on this front is no better - and new dangers now threaten progress.
Of course "Direct Rule" was never a preparation for open government - and most senior NI officials were still schoolboys when it began. Then the suspension of the Assembly also interrupted scrutiny (of inherited NIO budgets) and so the chance for actual Assembly participation didn't come along until the Executive's first budget of October 2000. But this was a traditional Whitehall presentation of largely aggregate totals where the constituency or sectoral implications are quite unclear.
So with this and the largely aspirational "Programme for Government" the Assembly Committees had little to bite on; they had little chance for close examination or a systematic response. Two Statutory Committees had insufficient time to participate at all and the Assembly extracted a promise that in future the process would start in early spring. At the time of writing it looks as if this may be more like the end of June. In the meantime, new forces have arisen that change the whole nature of the debate.
Last year a major row broke out at Westminster over the "Government Resources and Accounts Bill" (GRAB). Senior MPs naturally felt this had something to do with "accountability" and how Parliament provides the Executive with money to run the country. The Government said they just wanted to change from cash accounting to the sort of resource accounting used in the private sector. But given sustained complaints and demands from cross party Westminster committees the Government set up a review of central accountability by the Liberal Democrat Peer, Lord Sharman.
When Northern Ireland's own GRAB was published last October the "Explanatory Memorandum" misleadingly stated that since the Bill was a UK-wide initiative "it was not considered that general consultation was needed". When the Finance and Personnel Committee asked me for written evidence I was able to point out that this shift to resource accounting demanded no less than a new financial dialogue whereby Executives would have to explain their programmes and achievements to parliaments, assemblies and indeed the public!
Following advice to Westminster from the National Audit Office, this boiled down to just two requirements. Firstly new performance reporting ("Public Service Agreements") should be on a statutory basis; that is it should require Assembly validation as opposed to a bureaucratic proliferation of top-down targets. Secondly the Assembly's Comptroller and Auditor General should be able to follow public money wherever it goes.
When the Executive resisted both these proposals all the NI political parties (DUP to SF) on the Finance and Personnel, Public Accounts and Audit Committees vigorously advanced their own amendment insisting on their auditor's "right to roam". That was splendid! But the Executive wanted to await Lord Sharman's verdict. Then when Lord Sharman supported both the above reforms, Finance Minister Durkan promised to "re-visit" the matter in an Audit Reorganisation Bill this autumn.
Unfortunately the amendment was withdrawn even though Mark Durkan's case against the extension of scrutiny is quite shocking. He said it "could undermine the confidence of existing and potential investors" by "an unwarranted right of interference with the private sector". He added that "honest mistakes could lead to unwelcome publicity", and private firms might be discouraged if "open to inspections that they do not particularly want" (Official Report: 20.02.01).
So beware the hidden agenda! The Treasury wants "to make the public sector a better client" and see both central and local government as purchasing agencies procuring all services from the private sector. This "privatised and voluntary state" means further fragmentation but it fits in with global liberalisation where exclusion of "anything burdensome to business" becomes a spineless abdication of accountability. Direct Rule's "budgetary haze" will soon be an unaccountable fog if, as a bottom line, public auditors cannot even see what is happening to public money. Goodbye democracy!
(714 words: July 2002)
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