Stormont’s committees: improving accountability

daithi mckay committee Daithí McKay, Chair of the Assembly’s Finance and Personnel Committee, outlines how the committee system scrutinises the work of government and explains the difference that devolution has made.

The Assembly and its committees play an important role in holding Executive departments to account and influencing the work of government. This central role is part of the overall accountability framework under devolution and was established under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 after the Good Friday Agreement.

Committees influence the Executive, its departments and other public bodies through the work we undertake, including scrutinising primary and secondary legislation, holding inquiries into proposed legislation and government policies, and examining budgets and performance.

After only six years of uninterrupted operation, I believe that there is evidence that the Assembly and, in particular, its committees are having a positive impact on government policy, on the performance of departments and in terms of the accountability of both ministers and senior civil servants. We need to make more progress but we should acknowledge the successes to date.

There has been a step change in terms of the way in which government is now held accountable, compared to what existed before the Assembly was established. For instance, during the 2007-2011 mandate, the Assembly passed 69 bills, with MLAs making 913 amendments. This is in stark contrast to what happened to legislation before devolution where much of the legislation affecting us was made by orders-in-council which could not be amended once introduced in Westminster.

Recently, the Finance Committee has carried out important work on the issues of air passenger duty (APD) and rating reform. An investigation of the impact of APD on the local economy informed the process for devolving direct long-haul rates of APD. The work the committee carried out led to cross-departmental research into the case for reducing or abolishing APD on domestic and short-haul flights and has wider applicability to extending the APD powers and how this might be exercised. On rating reform, the committee was instrumental in shaping parts of the existing relief schemes and is actively considering future rebate arrangements.

One committee which has received universal praise for its role (and one on which I serve as a member) is the Public Accounts Committee. Its work led to dramatic reductions in spending on criminal legal aid and on the use of consultants and, together with the Audit Office, it has saved millions for the public purse in the North through the National Fraud Initiative. It is important to remember that prior to devolution there was scant attention paid by the Westminster PAC, which looked at local issues only once or twice a year.

The Assembly’s Health Committee has been particularly active during this session, calling the Minister and the head of the Health and Social Care Board to account for problems that have become apparent in the Health Service. Over recent times, the committee has investigated A&E waiting times, the deaths of children due to pseudomonas, and the handling of the McDermott sexual abuse case in Donagh. All of these investigations have led to departmental reviews and changes in practice.

The Assembly is growing in confidence and with this, is bringing in new processes which will enhance its scrutiny. One move, which has just been agreed, is the proposed provision of spontaneous topical questions to be asked at ministerial question time. This addition to ministerial question time will give MLAs an opportunity to question ministers on newly emerging and current issues. Crucially, the ministers being questioned will not have advance notice of these questions and we believe that this will improve both oversight and public engagement.

PEYE 140911KB1 069 Committees often have to deal with detailed, technical, complex and sometimes mundane business, which can go unnoticed by the general public but which is no less important. Their influence is not always immediately apparent. Sometimes it is subtle or indirect; by their very existence they can encourage more careful decisions by government.

I have no doubt that the scrutiny role of committees and the wider Assembly will continue to develop and improve but I am equally convinced that they are indeed proving their worth.

Types of committees

The Northern Ireland Assembly has 12 statutory committees, one for each government department:

• Agriculture and Rural Development;

• Culture, Arts and Leisure;

• Education;

• Employment and Learning;

• Enterprise, Trade and Investment;

• Environment;

• Finance and Personnel;

• Health, Social Services and Public Safety;

• Justice;

• Office of the First Minister and

Deputy First Minister;

• Regional Development; and

• Social Development.

It also has six standing committees, each with a particular role:

• Assembly and Executive Review;

• Audit (overseeing Northern Ireland Audit Office);

• Business Committee;

• Procedures;

• Public Accounts; and

• Standards and Privileges.

The Assembly can also form ad hoc committees to consider specific issues (e.g. welfare reform) and concurrent committees (which bring two or more committees together to look at cross-cutting issues).

The Chairpersons’ Liaison Group brings together all the chairs to consider the common interests of the committees and improve their effectiveness.

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