Devolved government in Northern Ireland collapsed in early 2017 and remains suspended, with no resolution in sight. Clare Rice, Queen’s University Belfast, discusses the impact of this institutional hiatus on the Public Accounts Committee in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the scrutiny of public spending.
Northern Ireland has been without functioning institutions for over a year and at the time of writing, there is nothing to suggest that this will change any time soon. In effect, this has resulted in departmental officials taking decisions that would otherwise be the responsibility of appointed ministers, meaning that the machinery of the executive branch has continued to operate despite the absence of elected representatives. The legislature, however, has ground to a halt.
This short piece draws on research which commenced in 2014 and was presented at the PSA Annual Conference in Cardiff earlier this year in considering the potential impact of the current political impasse on parliamentary scrutiny in the Northern Ireland Assembly from the perspective of its Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
By way of summary, PACs are a key way in which parliaments hold executives to account, their task more specifically being to scrutinise how public money is used by government. This is no different in the Northern Ireland Assembly, despite it functioning within a complex and unique institutional setting when compared with its counterparts elsewhere in the UK.
These committees work closely with the legislative auditor and auditing body in carrying out inquiries into public expenditure and in scrutinising accounts. In Northern Ireland, the legislative auditor is the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) who heads the Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO). This relationship has been of intrinsic importance to Northern Ireland’s PAC, particularly in assisting with knowledge and skill transfer to committee members and staff following the restoration of powers to the Assembly in 2007 and in providing expertise and support throughout the years since.
It is in looking at how this PAC conducts its inquiries that the close relationship between it and the NIAO becomes most apparent. PAC selects its inquiry topics based on reports that have been completed by the NIAO; the C&AG and relevant NIAO officials then work closely with PAC as it carries out the inquiry, producing an initial draft of the PAC report; PAC members build on this to produce the final report which is then published; and finally, PAC receives formal acknowledgement of the recommendations it has made from the relevant department, and can choose to undertake follow-up measures with support from NIAO. While brief, this overview shows that in many ways, PAC and NIAO function as two sides of the same coin.
For any PAC, this working relationship is its most important. Examining the Northern Irish example of this is particularly interesting, as the dynamics of this relationship have altered considerably since 2007. What started as a dependence on NIAO in the committee’s early days – as exemplified by the secondment of a NIAO member of staff to the committee support team, the extent of input from officials into preparing members for taking inquiry evidence and the volume of draft materials prepared for committee use, for example – changed to one of support as the committee grew in confidence and took increasing ownership over its work.
Until the collapse of the institutions, PAC had been a true success-story of power-sharing in Northern Ireland. For instance, it successfully navigated the completion of a highly politically sensitive inquiry, culminating in the publication of the Report on PSNI: Use of Agency Staff in 2014. It did not shy away from pursuing lines of investigation that would have major consequences either, as evidenced in the inquiry into NI Water which resulted in a senior civil servant being demoted. It had also commenced an inquiry into the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme before the former deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, resigned in 2017 citing the scandal among his reasons for doing so. PAC had achieved the seemingly impossible in coalescing into a single unit, despite the deep-seated political differences within it which could have undermined confidence between its members and in its work more generally. This achievement cannot be underestimated given the historical and political context of Northern Ireland.
However, the current institutional hiatus poses a serious threat to the progress which PAC made between 2007 and 2017.
For instance, the more time that passes with no prospect of red line negotiation issues being resolved, the greater the pressure has become for MLA wages to be cut or stopped completely. If this happens, elected representatives might become more inclined to seek alternative income and leave their posts as MLAs. While this would not be an issue in the sense that parties could co-opt other individuals into these positions, it could entail a loss of experience and expertise within the Assembly more generally and within PAC more specifically.
The distinct breakdown of trust between particularly the two largest parties, Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party, could potentially also make it even more of a challenge for future PAC members to overlook party political differences to work as a collective. If relationships within the committee are fractured in such a way, then greater reliance is likely to be placed on NIAO as a neutral figure and on committee support staff to foster a workable situation. An additional consequence of this would be that instead of focussing on strategic mid-to-long term development of the committee as has been the case so far, attention would be diverted to shorter-term considerations.
But there is no guarantee that staff expertise will not also be lost as a result of the current political deadlock. There is every possibility that Assembly staff may opt to seek permanent employment outside the institution in the meantime, meaning PAC – as with other committees – could face losing a vast amount of knowledge and skills, which would make transition following a return to normal operations even more difficult.
In a worst-case scenario, therefore, PAC could be facing a situation where neither its members nor its committee staff have previous experience of working as part of this complex, specialist committee.
Of course, none of these things might happen. In a best-case scenario, the impact of the current institutional collapse on PAC might be comparable to the change experienced at the start of a new mandate. It should also be noted that managing stop-start institutions in Northern Ireland is not a new challenge, so a wealth of expertise exists which would help to mitigate the impact of a worst-case scenario situation should it arise.
The more serious issue from a parliamentary scrutiny perspective is that PAC simply will not have the capacity to conduct full inquiries into all NIAO ‘Value for Money’ reports produced during the institutional hiatus in addition to the usual workload when the institutions return to operation. In effect, this will mean that scrutiny of the executive branch on the spending of public funds will be residually weakened by the deadlock for some time after as attention likely splits to include some topics that have arisen during it. Further, the more time that passes without functioning institutions, the greater the potential becomes for regression to a state of affairs akin to that in 2007 – a veritable step backwards in terms of the development of PAC.
Clare Rice is a PhD candidate and Teaching Assistant in the School of Law, Queen’s University Belfast. Follow her on Twitter: @Clare_Rice_