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Held to account: Profile of MLA Michaela Boyle

By Alex Kane

In a largely dysfunctional Assembly, the Public Accounts Committee is a rare example of the democratic values of transparency and scrutiny. And at its head is 46-year-old grandmother and Sinn Fein MLA Michaela Boyle.

Sinn Fein MLA Michaela Boyle – representing West Tyrone – is not one of the party's high fliers in terms of media profile. The 46-year-old grandmother – a former community and voluntary worker – was co-opted on to Strabane District Council in 2008, becoming its first female mayor in June 2010.

She did well in that role, earning praise across the community, so it was no surprise when Sinn Fein selected her as a candidate for the May 2011 Assembly elections.

But, while she still may not be a well-known figure outside of Sinn Fein – and she has been a member of the party since 1997 – it is clear that the party has a high regard for her abilities: she is a member of two of the Assembly's most important committees, the Audit Committee and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), of which she is chair.

In an Assembly that is widely criticised as dysfunctional, lacking in formal Opposition and top-heavy with the sort of checks and balances that hinder rather than help co-operative government, committees are hugely important. It's there, and not in the Executive, or on the floor of the Assembly, that the real opportunity for accountability and scrutiny lie.

There are two main types of committee – statutory and standing.

There are 12 statutory committees, one for each of the 11 ministers and their departments and one for the Office of the First and deputy First Minister.

They scrutinise the work of the minister and the department, call ministers and officials to attend meetings, hold inquiries into issues that they want the minister to take action on and advise and assist the minister to develop policy.

It is essential work, yet given the nature of the Assembly and the fact that the five main parties (all of whom are in the Executive) don't want to play tit-for-tat with their individual ministers, there is an impression that the committees lack teeth and bite.

The standing committees are permanent committees of the Assembly, created under standing orders.

There are currently six of them; the two must important-and interesting from a public/media perspective-being the Audit Committee (which scrutinises the NI Audit Office's spending plans and accounts) and the PAC (which scrutinises the use of resources by departments and government agencies.)

In a report issued on April 18, 2012 PAC concluded that "about 40% of government contracts which involved consultants in Northern Ireland ended up costing more that their original price. Too often, external consultancy was used as an attempt to provide protection for civil servants' decision-making".

The report also highlighted a number of areas where, it claimed, the Department of Finance and Personnel had failed to deliver promised improvements: and singled out a consultancy contract on a new accounting system which extended to 10 times the original budget.

In October 2013, a PAC inquiry into the Northern Ireland Fire and Rescue Service came down on the side of 'whistleblower' Linda Ford, claiming that her treatment (she had been suspended) "caused the service reputational damage and financial loss".

The committee's deputy chair, John Dallat, said that he hoped people would "take comfort from the steps that my colleagues on the Public Accounts Committee have taken to ensure that whistleblowers are protected, that there's proper grievance procedures and reports are prompt. Never again should Linda Ford or anybody else suffer what they suffered." The report went on to accuse senior management of decisions that were "wrong", "appalling", "entirely unconvincing" and "reprehensible".

Two weeks ago, PAC concluded that Account NI (the finance transaction processing service which makes payments on behalf of Government departments and 18 other public bodies in Northern Ireland), which processes more than one million transactions each year, was a "very high cost operation".

Michaela Boyle stated: "It is not acceptable that the public purse is committed to spending millions more on this project without clear evidence that it has delivered, or will in the future deliver, value for money."

Last November, a PAC report criticised the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Arts Council and the Government's own Central Procurement Directorate for a "process", which left the committee with a strong impression that the outcome of a tendering submission for the Lyric Theatre had been "rigged and manipulated".

According to Boyle: "The quality of the rebuilt Lyric Theatre is undisputed; we recognise that it is a highly impressive theatre and that it has deservedly won a number of prestigious awards. However, the end does not justify the means. My committee has found that there were significant departures from good practice in the award of this £11m contract, and this is completely unacceptable.

"It beggars belief that the Central Procurement Directorate – the organisation responsible for providing advice on the tender – did not attend the evaluation meeting for the award of this £11m contract. We recognise that investing in culture, arts and leisure products produces benefits for the whole community. However, this must be accompanied by ensuring that projects adhere to proper procedures and value for money considerations."

Now, while it is clear that the Public Accounts Committee is a good and necessary addition to the Assembly's armoury of accountability and investigation, it is not so clear that it is in a position to insist that its findings be heeded and its recommendations acted upon.

Yes, some changes may follow and staff may be shuffled about or, in some cases, 'encouraged' to stand down, but that's about it. As is the case in most other countries, the buck stops with a minister at some point; and that minister will do his best to defend himself, his department, his staff and his decisions. Ministers do dispute the findings of the committee and then say that they will carry out their own investigations.

But there is a tendency in those instances for the department or public body concerned to batten down the hatches, weather the media storm and wait for the spotlight to shift somewhere else. Unless the PAC returns to the matter at a later point, or a journalist continues to follow up some aspects of the report, or some Freedom of Interest questions manage to ferret out further details, it's hard to avoid the conclusion that the report just joins a pile of other reports on a shelf somewhere.

Again, that may be something to do with the Executive's tendency to follow the policy of 'don't have a go at our minister too much and we won't have a go at yours.'

So it would help if there was a requirement that any report from the Public Accounts Committee be followed by a formal, point-by-point response to both the Committee and the Executive: and maybe to any departmental committee which had been involved in any of the matters mentioned in the PAC report. What, after all, is the point of a report that is destined for a shelf?

The Public Accounts Committee is one of the most important in the Assembly: indeed, there are moments when what it does and what it recommends is more important in its consequences than what the Executive itself does.

It needs to be given teeth. It needs to be able to scare departments and politicians. It needs to be able to demand follow-through, follow-up and, where required, the rolling of heads.

How public money is spent should always be a transparent, honest and thoroughly monitored process: with no place to hide. And the Public Accounts Committee is there to make sure that it is. It's one of the best parts of our governing machine.

A life so far...

  • Michaela Boyle was born in September 1966 and has four children
  • She is a former community and voluntary worker
  • She joined Sinn Fein in 1997
  • She was co-opted onto Strabane Council in 2008 and became the first female mayor in 2010
  • In May 2011 she was elected to the Assembly as an MLA for West Tyrone
  • In 2012 she was appointed chair of the Public Accounts Committee – one of the most powerful Assembly committees

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