Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs Fifth Report



Letter from the Chairman to the Secretary of State

The Committee's Third Report, published on 27 April, dealt with the 2000 Departmental Report. It recommended the preparation of a document covering the expenditure of the devolved Northern Ireland Departments, as data relating to these is no longer included in the NIO Departmental Report. At the time, the devolved Assembly was suspended and the matter was therefore within your own responsibilities. The purpose of the recommendation was to ensure that information similar to that available in previous years was available concerning the expenditure of the Northern Ireland Departments, building on the commitment you gave in your evidence to the Committee on 5 April to ensure that the maximum amount of information was available on the work of those Departments.

Shortly before the expiry of the two month period in which Government Replies are normally made to Reports, the Clerk wrote to the Northern Ireland Office seeking information on when the reply would be forthcoming and on progress made towards implementing the recommendation in the period between publication of the report and 30 May 2000, the date when devolved government resumed in Northern Ireland. The Department's response to this letter was to refer the matter to the Department of Finance and Personnel (DFP) in Northern Ireland and to forward a response from the DFP which stated that the matter was now a devolved responsibility.

A further letter from the Clerk, pursuing the question of what was done before 30 May, a period when the matter fell within the responsibility of NIO Ministers, elicited the response that NIO had pursued the matter with the DFP and that Department "was considering what advice to give when devolution was restored and the matter no longer came within the Secretary of State's responsibilities". A subsequent enquiry by the Clerk established that the two letters from the NIO were considered by it to constitute the Government's response to the Committee's Third Report.


I have to say that this is a response which appears to me to be deficient, both in form and in substance. As to its form, I have never before encountered a case where a Government Response is in effect to be implied from a series of letters from two officials to the Clerk. In substance, it is clear that nothing material was done either by the DFP or the NIO between 27 April and 30 May (or, indeed, thereafter) to respond to the substance of the recommendation. Indeed, the DFP appears to have been allowed to act as an independent body rather than a Government Department under NIO Ministerial supervision. Given that the Northern Ireland Executive simply took forward the financial provisions agreed by NIO Ministers prior to the first period of devolution, it should not have been difficult to produce a report of the type sought by the Committee. As a result of the failure to produce one, the House was asked to vote a block of expenditure substantially greater than that of many Government Departments, with minimal direct supporting information.

The Committee will shortly be considering publication of the Government Response to this report and may wish to comment on it. However, before it does so, I should welcome any observations you may wish to make on the reservations I have expressed in this letter about both its content and form.

15 November 2000

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