Belfast Telegraph

Editor's Viewpoint: This is no time to waste our money

When Finance Minister Sammy Wilson spelled out the severity of cuts in public spending that Northern Ireland is facing, he made the very valid point that the Executive would have to get its own housekeeping in order before asking taxpayers to share the pain. That means ensuring that the government gets the best value possible for its expenditure.

In the case of Northern Ireland Water which is reported in this newspaper today, there must be serious doubts that best value was achieved on all occasions. For the organisation awarded several contracts to consultants without going through its own established competitive tendering process. Ironically, one of those contracts was to consultants hired to advise on savings from the termination of a major contract.

Now two inquiries are to be held by the Public Accounts Committee at Stormont into how NIW went about its business. It would be wrong to in any way prejudge the outcome of those inquiries. However, this newspaper welcomes the fact that investigations are to be held. In the last week it was revealed that Whitehall departments spent a staggering £1.8bn on consultants last year alone. Taxpayers, justifiably, will wonder if such expenditure can be justified.

While the PAC inquiries at Stormont are into very specific issues involving NIW, they should also be the catalyst for a thorough examination of the work of other government divisions and the growth in the use of outside consultants to perform functions which one would expect the agencies to be able to perform themselves.

We need to break this cycle of bringing in consultants to advise government on practically every issue. It is a lazy way of implementing policy. Taxpayers' hard earned money should not be regarded as an open chequebook by government departments with which to hire expensive 'experts'. There may be occasions where consultants can perform a valuable function but too often, it seems, they are hired as a matter of course, rather than for proven need.

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