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Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1998

12.25 a.m.

Lord Dubs rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th December 1997 be approved.

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I can be somewhat briefer on this occasion than I was in relation to the matter we have just debated.

This is the latest in a series of orders required at intervals of every two to three years to adjust certain statutory financial limits and to deal with other routine financial matters. It may be helpful to your Lordships if I describe briefly the purposes of the order.

The draft order covers two main items. First, it proposes the restructuring of the annual set of central government accounts prepared by the Department of

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Finance and Personnel. The changes will take effect from 1st April 1998, will abolish the accounts of capital receipts and payments; the civil contingencies fund and its account; and the consolidated fund services account. This information will in future be contained in an expanded public income and expenditure account. To allow for all of this information to be included in the account, the time limits relating to the preparation and certification of the account have been extended slightly. The proposed changes, which have the full approval of the Northern Ireland Audit Office, will ensure greater clarity and reduce administrative effort.

As part of this restructuring, it is proposed to abolish the Northern Ireland civil contingencies fund. The fund exists to make repayable advances to Northern Ireland departments for urgent services in anticipation of Parliament approving the necessary funds in an appropriation order. The fund has a fixed capital of only £750,000, which is not sufficient to meet requests for advances. At present the shortfall is made good by advances from the Northern Ireland consolidated fund. From 1st April 1998, repayable advances to departments will be made directly from the Northern Ireland consolidated fund. The criteria governing such advances, as set out in Article 6 of the draft order, will remain unchanged.

The second item in the draft order is an amendment to the legislation governing trading fund accounts. The Financial Provisions (Northern Ireland) Order 1995 requires certified copies of a trading fund's accounts to be laid before the Northern Ireland Assembly.

This is at variance with current practice relating to the accounts of executive agencies which, in the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly, are laid before Parliament. The draft order provides that trading fund accounts should also be laid before Parliament. Should a Northern Ireland Assembly be established, it is intended that all relevant financial accounts should be laid before the Assembly.

I hope that this short summary of the proposals contained in the draft order is helpful. I commend the order to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 17th December 1997 be approved.--(Lord Dubs.)

12.27 a.m.

Lord Alderdice: My Lords, I seek reassurance from the Minister on only one matter. It is a technical order, and is largely the measure of professional advice, with the approval of the Audit Office.

I seek reassurance as regards the extension of time limits for the publication of the income and expenditure accounts. Is there likely to be any

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difficulty about leaving a longer time during which irregularities or difficulties may emerge? There was mention earlier of concerns about moneys going astray, and so on. I wish to be reassured that leaving longer time for the publication of these matters does not also leave a longer time for irregularities to surface. Apart from that, we support the order.

12.28 a.m.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, the Minister has described the provisions extremely helpfully. In the course of his introduction, he has answered the questions that I had proposed to put to him. In another place we did not regard this as a particular late hour of the night. However, I have to tell both the noble Lord on the Woolsack and the Minister, that since they left another place the noble Lord, Lord Jopling, mucked about with it all, and nowadays this hour is regarded as rather late, even in another place! Either way, we are extremely grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has handled all the Northern Ireland business this evening.

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12.30 a.m.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Cope, for those words. Perhaps I may deal with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Alderdice, on the question of the time limit. I am advised that this is required to allow more time for the collection of the relevant information and has no direct implications for the detection of irregularities. The accounts will, however, continue to be audited by the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, who has agreed that the extension is necessary to enable proper accounts to be prepared.

It may not be late by the standards of the other place, but by the standards of the civilised world, it is fairly late.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

London Local Authorities Bill

Reported from the Select Committee with amendments and recommitted to an Unopposed Bill Committee.

        House adjourned at half past midnight.

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