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Stormont's watchdogs get their teeth into new powers

What is the point of Assembly committees? Do they have an important role in holding Executive departments to account? And can they really influence the work of Government? The answer to these questions is an emphatic Yes.

Statutory committees form part of the accountability framework under devolution and were established under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 after the Good Friday Agreement.

Committees influence the Executive, its departments and other public bodies through the work we undertake, including scrutinising primary and secondary legislation, holding inquiries into proposed legislation and Government policies, and examining budgets and performance.

The impact can be difficult to measure. But the Assembly is a young institution with only six years of uninterrupted operation and it is still evolving its role.

Notwithstanding this, I believe the Assembly and, in particular, its committees, are having a positive impact on Government policy and the performance of departments. We need to make more progress, but we should acknowledge the successes to date. There has been a step-change in terms of the way in which Government is now held accountable, compared to before the Assembly.

For instance, during the 2007-2011 mandate, the Assembly passed 69 Bills, making 913 amendments. This is in contrast to what happened to legislation before devolution, where much of the legislation affecting us was made by orders in council which could not be amended once introduced in Westminster.

With the squeeze on public finances, the finance committee has focused on the need for Government departments to manage budgets to achieve maximum impact from available resources.

This has included an emphasis on achieving genuine efficiency savings, while protecting frontline services. The committee's work has also helped end the culture of underspend, which saw departments handing back large amounts of unspent money to the Treasury each year prior to devolution.

Recently, the finance committee has carried out important work on the issues of air passenger duty (APD) and rating reform. An investigation of the impact of APD on the local economy informed the process for devolving direct long-haul rates.

The work of the committee led to cross-departmental research into the case for reducing, or abolishing, APD on domestic and short-haul flights. On rating reform, the committee was instrumental in shaping parts of the existing relief schemes.

The committee which has received universal praise – and one on which I serve – is the public accounts committee. Its work led to dramatic reductions in spending on criminal legal aid and on the use of consultants and, together with the Audit Office, it has saved millions through the National Fraud Initiative.

Prior to devolution, there was scant attention paid by the Westminster PAC, which looked at local issues only once or twice a year.

Like most developing institutions, however, the Assembly can probably be best described as an improving organisation. Decisive measures are being taken to enhance the Assembly's scrutiny role.

One move, which has just been agreed, is the proposed provision of spontaneous topical questions to be asked at ministerial question time. This will give MLAs an opportunity to question ministers on newly emerging and current issues.

Crucially, ministers being questioned will not have advance notice of these questions; we believe that this will enhance both oversight and public engagement.

Committees often have to deal with detailed, technical and sometimes mundane business, which can go unnoticed by the public, but which is no less important.

Their influence is not always immediately apparent; sometimes it is subtle, or indirect. But I have no doubt the scrutiny role of committees will continue to develop and improve.

Belfast Telegraph