Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 27 August 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

It's time watchdog took bow for lead role in Lyric theatre spending scrutiny

The Public Accounts Committee's star turn in scrutinising spending here deserves applause from irate taxpayers, writes Michael Wolsey

The Lyric theatre, whose re-build was the subject of a damning report from Stormont's Public Accounts Committee

If the Public Accounts Committee could turn its Lyric Theatre report into a play, it would be a huge success and probably run for weeks in the building at the heart of the story. It has all the elements of a good drama: mystery, intrigue, confrontation... and money.

And it's already had great reviews. "A signal service to the public,'' said the Belfast Telegraph. "An explosive document,'' enthused the News Letter. "A damning investigation,'' declared the Irish Times.

This is not the first time the Public Accounts Committee has enjoyed applause and curtain calls. Since its establishment in 2007, it has been the brightest star on the Stormont stage.

In the absence of proper political opposition, Stormont committees have taken on the role of challenging ministerial authority and public service decisions.

The Social Development Committee – now investigating allegations that DSD minister Nelson McCausland interfered in the awarding of Housing Executive contracts – is a good example of this.

But the committee has led the way, scrutinising the actions and spending of our public bodies and calling them to account in a string of hard-hitting reports.

In 2010, it looked at project management and found that far too many public works were being completed way behind schedule and way over cost.

In the same year, it found that the Planning Service was "not fit for purpose'' and had "consistently failed to meet its targets''.

The following year, the committee turned its attention to NI Water and produced what its chairman described as "a landmark report that exposes serious failings... inappropriate and ineffective governance... and a failure to observe the high standards expected''.

This year, there was a report condemning poor leadership in the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service and another pinpointing "significant failings'' in the management of the Housing Executive.

And now we have the Lyric report, part of a wider look at spending on arts projects in Northern Ireland, which found that a number of developments, including the Lyric, the Mac, the Crescent Arts Centre and the Grand Opera House had, between them, run up construction bills of £103.4m – a shocking 32% more than the original estimates.

The Lyric bore the brunt of the committee's ire.

The construction of the new theatre, in Belfast's Ridgeway Street, cost £5m more than estimated and the committee found "significant flaws'' in the way the major contract was awarded.

The Lyric, it should be said, denies malpractice and there is no implication of wrongdoing by the contractor, but the committee is adamant, nonetheless, that the tendering process "failed to adhere to principles of good practice''.

Apart from the importance of the committee's revelations, the most remarkable aspect of its various reports has been its clear and forthright language.

On the Lyric contract, it formed "a very strong impression that the outcome of the tender process was both rigged and manipulated''.

The Housing Executive management's oversight of that service had been "abjectly poor''. The Fire and Rescue Service was condemned for "poor leadership'' and a report on substitute teacher cover warned that "the Department [of Education] must up its game''.

Such straight-talking is in marked contrast to the utterances of most of our politicians who, though happy to tear strips off each other, resort to indecipherable gobbledegook when asked to explain a policy, or account for a blunder.

Some of the committee's success has been credited to its chairwoman, Michaela Boyle (right), and there is no doubt that both she and her deputy, John Dallat (left), have done a fine job – not only with the reports, but with the efficient way the committee conducts its business, grilling witnesses and keeping them on-track.

But the committee has had others in the chair. All have performed well and stuck rigidly to the principle expounded by Paul Maskey, chairman in 2011, that "we leave our political affiliations at the door of the committee room''. This may explain why the committee is such a bright exception in a political system notorious for its failure to get things done.

The Northern Ireland legislative process is a mess, bogged down by the need for cross-party majorities, tied up in the red tape of petitions of concern, stalled by the road block of public consultations.

The latest example is Stormont's failure to implement welfare reforms which has brought a threat from Westminster of a unilateral cut in grants.

Westminster legislated for the reforms 18 months ago and Stormont was supposed to pass a bill introducing the changes to Northern Ireland with some slight modification.

The plans have been batted from party to party and crossed the desks of three different social development ministers without agreement or progress. Welfare reform is just one of a range of measures frustrated by failure to agree.

They range from a minimum price for alcohol to something as simple and apparently uncontentious as new rules for Belfast taxis.

It is little wonder that the Public Accounts Committee, with its even-handed approach and straight-talking reports, is currently topping the bill at Stormont.

Sometimes it seems to be the only show in town.

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