Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 17 September 2014

PAC's role as watchdog is crucial

Jim Allister
Jim Allister

One of the constant criticisms of our unique form of Government in Northern Ireland is the absence of any formal opposition. There are dissenting voices admittedly, for example TUV leader Jim Allister, but they do not provide the breadth of scrutiny and ability to challenge the major parties that would normally be the case in a democratic forum.

It has often been said that the role of opposition falls to an inquiring media, but there is another body which deserves credit for its role in subjecting departmental performances to forensic examination. This newspaper has often championed the role of the Public Accounts Committee, which has produced a number of well-argued and sometimes damning reports on how the administration at Stormont works. And we again congratulate it on its latest revelation.

The PAC says that Account NI, a Government payments body set up to save money, is needlessly wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers' cash annually.

The charge is denied by the Department of Finance and Personnel but the PAC's report makes a compelling case.

At the very least it is holding the department to account and should make it re-examine the work of Account NI and set robust performance targets.

The weight of evidence gathered over a considerable period of time – of which this report is only one part – points to a waste of valuable and scarce public funding. The PAC, under the leadership of Michaela Boyle, has repeatedly pointed out flaws in procedures and processes and proposed methods of greater accountability.

That is an invaluable role, and it is not far-fetched to describe it as akin to an official opposition. In a system of administration where every party is a party of Government, it is important that a body exists to point up inefficiencies and examples of waste.

While we can readily see the work of the PAC, it is more difficult to ascertain if departments and ministers are taking heed of the advice put forward. Perhaps the PAC should re-examine issues already covered to see if any lessons have indeed been learned.

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