Examination of Witnesses (Questions 80
WEDNESDAY 28 JUNE 2000
80. So it was as ifto make sure I have
understoodsuspension had not occurred?
(Mrs Brown) Yes.
81. Was a public statement made to that effect
or was that a decision which Northern Ireland Office Ministers
took, in a sense within their own closet?
(Mrs Brown) I am not conscious of a public statement
having been made specifically in relation to financial matters.
Certainly at the time of suspension, the Secretary of State did
say that his aim was to return to devolution as soon as possible.
I am not conscious of anything other than that, that broad political
82. To what extent is the Secretary of State
involved in determining public expenditure bids by the Northern
(Mrs Brown) At the moment he is not. Certainly prior
to devolution he was. Under devolution firstly the amount of funding
coming to the Northern Ireland administration is, by and large,
as we covered earlier, determined by the Barnett Formula but any
negotiations that there need to be, whether inspired by Treasury
or inspired by the local administration, are done on that basis
in the relationship between the local administration and Treasury.
83. In that respect, he is no sense a conduit?
(Mrs Brown) He can be involved in the process if the
Northern Ireland administration wish him to press a case to Treasury
and wish to involve the Secretary of State, hopefully in backing
their case. There is a mechanism for resolution of disputes, if
you like, between the Northern Ireland administration and Treasury
and the Secretary of State would be involved in that, but in the
main process he is not involved. If the Northern Ireland administration
bid for a certain amount, Treasury apply a formula and do whatever
tinkering they want to do and make an allocation. If the Northern
Ireland administration is content with that allocation there is
not a role for the Secretary of State.
84. I do not wish the question to sound in any
way sinister, but would the request by the devolved administration
to the Treasury be copied to the Secretary of State or could it
be occurring without the Secretary of State being in any way aware
(Mrs Brown) We are so early on in the process I am
not clear that we have a marked out procedure for that.
85. I will allow myself the ironic comment that
in the light of everything else the Treasury has prescribed, it
is slightly surprising that the Treasury has not prescribed anything
in this regard?
(Mrs Madden) Well they have.
86. So they have? Right.
(Mrs Madden) In this same document there is a process
for resolution of disputes. The practical outworking of that resolution
we have notyou know, we have had such a very short time
of devolution we have not had in any sense practical examples,
but how any disputes are resolved is by the local ministers going
directly to the Chief Secretary initially and they would pray
the Secretary of State in aid of their position. That is not to
say the Secretary of State would accept their case as signed and
he may actually, if he took a different view, could perhaps align
himself with the Chief Secretary in those disputes. But if that
does not resolve it and that is in a sense a bilateral, then the
next step is for either party to call a joint ministerial committee,
which would have Ministers of the devolved administration, plus
Ministers from the Cabinet and they would resolve any disputes
there. Ultimately it would be the Secretary of State who would
represent the devolved administration at Cabinet level should
the matter go to that level. The practical outworkings of that
mean that for the normal business the local administration and
local ministers would be in direct dialogue with Treasury and
it is only if a dispute was arising that they would inform the
Secretary of State through correspondence and allow him therefore
to be aware that a dispute has arisen and inviting him, as would
the Chief Secretary invite him, to a meeting where a matter of
dispute was going to be discussed.
87. Right. So to make sure I have understood.
If the devolved administration wishes to communicate with the
Chief Secretary and there is no problem with their request, then
there is no reason why the Secretary of State would need to know
about it or indeed would know about it?
(Mrs Madden) He would most likely be informed as a
matter of courtesy if there was a ministerial meeting between
local ministers and the Chief Secretary. He would not be informed
of bilateral discussions at official level; as a matter of courtesy
he would be informed of ministerial contact.
88. Right. Now I think you allowed for the possibility
that the Secretary of State might disagree with the devolved administration
about the desirability of the expenditure? Did I understand that
(Mrs Madden) He is entitled to take his own view on
the case that the administration would be advancing to Treasury
for funding in the particular area, both in relation to the Barnett
Formula but specifically in relation to special cases.
89. No, I am assuming any of this is outside
the Barnett Formula because of the nature of the request?
(Mrs Madden) Yes.
(Mrs Brown) In the case of special pleading the Secretary
of State is entitled to take a different view to the devolved
90. So if, in fact, we reached the point where
it came to Cabinet could we be in the situation where he was representing
on behalf of the devolved administration a view with which he
did not agree?
(Mrs Brown) He would be presenting his own view in
Cabinet and he would explain the view of the local administration
and the case which they wished to pursue for additional funding,
but he would then add his own comments.
91. He would be affording the Cabinet to have
the opportunity of hearing the issue on its merits and he would
separately be declaring what his view was?
(Mrs Brown) Yes, that is correct.
92. Right. One last question before I turn to
Mr Clarke, I am going back to what we have been over a moment
ago. My source is Paragraph 12 of the memorandum where you describe
the current position. I think I am right in saying that the 2000-01
Estimate was proposed during the period of direct rule and Ministers
were presumably therefore involved in its synthesis. Is that accurate?
(Mrs Brown) Yes, as was the devolved administration
in that the devolved administration accepted the existing public
expenditure plans for the coming year, but that was a conscious
decision of the devolved administration during the period of devolution
prior to the spell of suspension.
93. But unless I am mistaken, it makes the Secretary
of State more answerable for those particular figures because
devolved administration was effectively accepting figures which
had been put forward by the Secretary of State or am I misunderstanding?
(Mrs Brown) No, you are right. The Secretary of State
has put forward his figures. The devolved administration signed
up to those figures, but in the process of doing that they became
the figures of the devolved administration and had suspension
not come about and had devolution bedded in first time around,
they would have been responsible for those figures.
Chairman: I see, yes. Thank you. Mr Clarke?
94. Thank you, Chairman. You will forgive me
if I lost my way slightly in the explanation of the various mechanisms
in which the Secretary of State could involve himself in determining
the Estimate. It seemed as if there were lots of if, maybe's,
and could be's, and I think at one stage you said that practically
it probably was not always the case. It is the practicalities
of how detailed and how deep the Secretary of State could be involved.
Would that be fair to say?
(Mrs Brown) By and large the Secretary of State would
not be deeply involved.
95. I thought so.
(Mrs Brown) It would only be in exceptional, unusual
circumstanceswell, we expect they would be unusual circumstances;
we do not have a lot of history of devolution to guide us yetbut
it would only be in the special circumstances where the Northern
Ireland administration was making special pleading for special
funding and the Secretary of State needed to be involved in helping
to try and resolve the outcome.
96. Taking that there is probably an absence
of those exceptional circumstances, I wondered if you could give
a professional view as to whether or not you consider it somewhat
unsatisfactory for a Minister to present to the House an Estimate
that he played no part in determining?
(Mrs Brown) That I suppose would be the case if lying
behind that there were not processes and safeguards in place to
ensure proper bidding for money, proper use of money and so forth
is, on the face of it, it looks rather strange, but that is the
nature of devolution and that is the nature of devolution, not
just in Northern Ireland but in Scotland and Wales. The principle
to bear in mind clearly is that the responsibility for those moneys
lies not with the Secretary of State but with the devolved administration.
97. So the Secretary of State is going very
much on trust?
(Mrs Brown) Trusting that the elected devolved administrations
make the right decisions and there are safeguards also in scrutiny
by the Northern Ireland Audit Office, for example, who will continue
to be completely independent from the Northern Ireland Assembly
and administration to ensure proper accountability.
98. Just to delve into these mechanisms a little
bit further, how would the Secretary of State, through the Northern
Ireland Office or others seek to determine that the Estimate that
he was presenting was reasonable?
(Mrs Brown) I think in that situation we would be
looking to Barnett again and if the amount in the Estimate was
varying substantially from figures of expenditure from the previous
year and that could not be explained by something in Barnett,
then the Secretary of State, as indeed would the Treasury, would
be asking those questions.
Mr Clarke: Thank you, Chairman.
Chairman: I am going to ask Mr Burgon to ask
what is the final question in this particular series. The final
question in this series; you may well have a further question?
99. What responsibility, if any, rests with
the Secretary of State or the Accounting Officer for determining
the regularity of the use of funds transferred to DFP?
(Mrs Brown) The Secretary of State makes the payments
into the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund, but there is no specific
burden of control on him or on the NIO Accounting Officer. So
it really goes back to nothing more than I said previously about
the two responsibilities of the Secretary of Stateto ensure
that the total transferred by way of Grant in Aid does not exceed
what Parliament wished and to ensure that the agreed mechanisms
and procedures for involving Parliament and Treasury are adhered
to; nothing more than that.
Mr Burgon: May I ask a supplementary?
Chairman: Yes, do.