Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 30 August 2014

How all the inquiries are just pouring money down the drain

Hardly a week passes in Northern Ireland without another investigation being launched into some issue of public accountability.

Heaven knows how much public funds are being spent in this tiny province on checks and balances, investigations and inquiries. Does anyone really know the true cost of policing public funds and ensuring that public representatives and servants are behaving properly?

The Robinsons were centre stage earlier this year and we still await the conclusions of the various probes into their behaviour.

When the government’s legal counsel was engaged to examine and determine whether the First Minister had broken any code of conduct, Peter Robinson did not have to foot the bill. We, the public, did.

Similarly, in the long run, Castlereagh Borough Council’s investigation into the Robinsons’ actions will be financed by ratepayers while the other investigations initiated by the PSNI, Westminster and Stormont will also be met from public funds.

Now we have the disquieting case of Northern Ireland Water. A team of outsiders were called to investigate. Presumably some fees were paid to some members. Now some members of the Public Accounts Committee at Stormont, also fully funded by the public, are questioning the inquiry team’s conclusions. Our publicly funded Regional Development minister Conor Murphy has asked his |publicly-funded aides to help clear up this publicly-funded mess. Where and when all this publicly funded investigation will end we know not, other than that the cost will have to be met from the |public purse.

Controversy has also extended to the civil service after the revelations surrounding the suspension of Paul Priestly, Permanent Secretary at the Regional Development department.

Why were contracts in water and electricity services not subject to proper tender? Are there other public services engaged in this practice? What is a senior civil servant doing drafting a letter of complaint for the chief executive of Phoenix Gas?

Whatever the answers, the cost of investigation falls to none of the individuals but rather the public purse. Transparency and openness have become the new buzz-words of government but they come at a cost which cannot be sustained against the savage expenditure cuts facing the |public services.

We have regulators, watchdog bodies, special committees, ombudsmen, auditors, all paid for by the public purse, spending untold millions of public funds, overseeing and questioning how our money is spent or squandered. The Police Ombudsman’s office investigated the Claudy bombings for eight years. The Ombudsman’s annual budget is £8m and he employs 150 staff. This spending pales beside the £200m Bloody Sunday Inquiry, the like of which we can never afford again.

The need for so many scrutiny bodies is down to one simple word — trust, or rather the lack of it in how public funds are administered. We wouldn’t need half the scrutiny and investigative staff if we had more trust in how our money is spent and how public servants behaved.

The past week has brought more concerns. Why was £300m, earmarked for new schools, not spent? Why are some of the schools which were constructed showing flaws? And what of the proposed public funding of the Irish Football Association which is in line for a new £30m grant?

It seems that in the new Northern Ireland we need to keep an eye more closely on every penny. Indeed, it’s a sorry reflection on Stormont that the Public Accounts Committee has a higher profile than some Executive ministers and departments.

If I were David Cameron trying to find savings, I would ask someone to take a long hard look at how much Northern Ireland spends contemplating its navel at Stormont and elsewhere. I’m not saying none of this expenditure is justified, but we cannot complain about the lack of under-funding in, say, health when millions are going on so many |investigations.

Hardly a month passes without some new revelation about the abuse, misuse or neglect of public funds. In our Nanny State, people complain about anything and everything. Do they realise, do they care, that every minute spent investigating their complaints is paid from the public purse?

Maybe the rest of the UK is governed just as loosely and imprudently as Northern Ireland. If so, then David Cameron should be able to finds billions of savings if he knows where to look. But does he? For example, in 2009, the Northern Ireland Civil Service recorded a level of sickness absenteeism which amounted to 11 days per person or more than two working weeks. Think of the saving if that figure could be reduced. Food for thought Mr Cameron?

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