RHI scandal shows need for triple lock on finances

Posted By: January 09, 2017

The Public Accounts Committee has a very important

role but it generally kicks in after the horse has bolted

John Dallat is a former vice-chair of Stormont’s Public Accounts Committee. 

Picture by Margaret McLaughlin

 John Dallat.Irish News. Belfast. Monday, January 9, 2017

(John Dallat is a former SDLP assembly member and vice- chair of the Public Accounts Committee).

IN the 13th century King John had a triple lock on his chest of money so that he could be sure it wasn’t squandered. It meant three people had keys which were required before the chest could be opened.

Given recent experiences, I am not sure that Stormont has any locks on its finances, and if they do they are certainly not working very well given the “cash for ash” scandal and many others.

Whatever happens in the future, there must be a mechanism which prevents any minister handing out the meager resources, whether to community groups (and especially those linked to paramilitary groups) or indeed to unscrupulous people who will exploit the absence of a triple lock for their own selfish ends.

The Public Accounts Committee, of which I was a member for 18 years, has a very important role but it generally kicks in after the horse has bolted and the only action possible is to make recommendations for the future hoping it won’t happen again.

If the public is to have any confidence in this assembly, whatever the outcomes of the present crisis, neither the DUP nor SF should be in a position to dole out millions of pounds

without it being scrutinized thoroughly by an internal ‘public accounts committee’ whose role is to ensure that such embarrassments are never repeated.

Currently, the assembly does have a liaison committee made up of chairpersons of the different parties, but it clearly has neither the resources nor the ability to spot when there is a train wreck coming down the line.

Far too often ministers of both parties, acting in cavalier-style, made announcements involving millions to the media without even consulting the scrutiny committees or indeed making a statement in the Assembly chamber.

Hundreds of questions to the First and Deputy First Minister went unanswered. It was, quite frankly, disgraceful, undemocratic and smacking of dictatorship. It could not and cannot continue.

So whether the current disagreement between the DUP and SF is a pillow fight or for real, neither party is in a credible position to claim they are trustworthy to be in charge of vast sums of public money without mechanisms which will prevent that money being squandered in the disgraceful way it has in the past.

The public won’t wear it and no matter how they seek to recover the multi-million-pound pellet-burning scandal they must never again be in a position to do that again.

Interestingly those who in the recent past were highly critical of the independent Northern Ireland Audit Office (NIAO) were none other than Arlene Foster, Sammy Wilson and to a lesser

degree Simon Hamilton, the very people who are now center stage in the row over the cash for ash scandal.

These are the people who advocated a cut in the budget of the NIAO, which they did successfully, and, as I understand it, would have subscribed to the view that its independence should end and NIAO be brought back under the control of the Department of Finance.

The NIAO is key to ensuring that the notion that it is Christmas Day every day at Stormont if you happen to be in the know must end and it must have the resources to do so. But, as I have said, this won’t prevent the horse bolting when the stable door is left open or deliberately thrown open.

All the parties are entitled to know what plans are afoot to spend the money in the treasure chest and given that there is a distinct lack of trust among the parties and even less trust among the most important people of all, the public, the days of Arlene or Martin gaining access to massive amounts of money and mortgaging future generations with debt has to be over for good.

Yes, we have moved from the 13th century when King John carted his treasure chest about with him, but we clearly have not moved from the need for a triple lock.