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Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, we received a little more information in Committee regarding the civic forum. But in this amendment the Minister is providing for the cost of the forum to be met by the Department of Finance and Personnel. That is entirely appropriate. However, will the Minister tell the House how much he thinks the cost will be?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not in a position to do so at this stage. The structure of the forum and the way in which it will operate are responsibilities that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are considering. Until they have reached their conclusions, it is impossible for me even to guess how much it might cost.

On Question, amendment agreed to.

6.45 p.m.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 82:

Page 28, line 21, at end insert ("by the First Minister and the deputy First Minister acting jointly").

On Question, amendment agreed to.

Clause 55 [Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland]:

Lord Dubs moved Amendments Nos. 83 and 84:

Page 28, line 32, after ("to") insert ("section 57 and to").
Page 28, line 35, after ("by") insert ("an Act of the Assembly or other").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, these are technical and drafting amendments. They are needed to ensure the continued financing of public services if the Assembly cannot agree funding. They are straightforward and do not present any difficulty. It is very important that we get the provisions relating to the Consolidated Fund absolutely right and that we deal with them comprehensively.

Because there is a great deal of Northern Ireland legislation relating to finance, and because it goes back a long way, we have had some difficulty identifying all the relevant strands. It may be that we shall need to bring forward further amendments at Third Reading. The same applies to audit provisions, about which I shall speak further. I hope that noble Lords will understand the difficulties and be sympathetic to the amendments. I should not normally have wished to introduce new amendments at Third Reading. However, I hope that noble Lords will understand that this is an exceptional matter. I beg to move.

Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, we are given yet more amendments to deal with. We have already left the Scotland Bill behind, with only 300 or so amendments. On this Bill we have arrived at over 450, and there are more to come. I wonder whether the figure will reach 500. We shall have to wait and see.

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These amendments are required to deal with the position should the Assembly not agree to any financial plans. We had some discussion on the matter in Committee. As I recall, I was rather told off for what was described as my pessimism. I was told that it was not a good idea to think that the Assembly might not agree about everything all the time. However, I am glad that we now have another fail-safe mechanism, to use an earlier expression of the noble Lord, Lord Williams. I do not believe that it does imply pessimism. We are properly providing for what should happen in that event.

It is sometimes extremely difficult for bodies to agree on financial provisions. Finance, as we know, is at the heart of politics. This may be one of the most difficult matters that a body such as the Assembly, with much cross-community involvement, has to try to settle. Northern Ireland politicians have not had responsibility for money for quite a long time. They have been let off that particular hook by the fact that other people have conducted the government of Northern Ireland through direct rule. It is one of the shocks to the Northern Ireland system that are to come when Northern Ireland politicians take up financial responsibility once again. It is therefore wise, not pessimistic, to include these provisions in the Bill. I support the amendments.

On Question, amendments agreed to.

Lord Dubs moved Amendment No. 85

After Clause 57, insert the following new clause--

Financial control, accounts and audit

(".--(1) In so far as such provision has not been made, Northern Ireland legislation shall make provision--
(a) for proper accounts to be prepared by the Northern Ireland departments, and by other persons to whom sums are paid directly out of the Consolidated Fund of Northern Ireland, of their expenditure and receipts;
(b) for the Department of Finance and Personnel to prepare an account of payments into and out of the Fund;
(c) for the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland to exercise, or ensure the exercise by other persons of, the functions mentioned in subsection (2);
(d) for access by persons exercising those functions to such documents as they may reasonably require;
(e) for members of the Northern Ireland Civil Service designated for the purpose to be answerable to the Assembly in respect of the expenditure and receipts of each of the Northern Ireland departments; and
(f) for the publication of accounts prepared in pursuance of paragraphs (a) and (b), and of reports on such accounts, and for the laying of such accounts and reports before the Assembly.
(2) The functions referred to in subsection (1)(c) are--
(a) issuing credits for the payment of sums out of the Fund;
(b) examining accounts prepared in pursuance of subsection (1)(a) and (b) (which includes determining whether sums paid out of the Fund have been paid out and applied in accordance with section 55), and certifying and reporting on them;
(c) carrying out examinations into the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which the Northern Ireland departments have used their resources in discharging their functions; and

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(d) carrying out examinations into the economy, efficiency and effectiveness with which other persons determined under Northern Ireland legislation to whom sums are paid directly out of the Fund have used those sums in discharging their functions.
(3) Standing orders shall make provision for establishing a committee of members of the Assembly to consider accounts, and reports on accounts, laid before the Assembly in pursuance of this section or any other enactment.
(4) Subsection (2)(b) does not apply to accounts prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland.").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this amendment reproduces, with modifications, the provisions contained in Clause 66 of the Scotland Bill which lay down the essentials of audit control. It is the core provision of the amendments which we are making to the existing audit controls.

We are not following the Scotland Bill in every respect. The Scots are starting with a blank sheet of paper. Northern Ireland, in contrast, has audit legislation going back as far as 1921. It has a Comptroller and Auditor General and its own Northern Ireland Audit Office. The system has worked very successfully.

When the Bill was being discussed in another place, however, the chairman of the Public Accounts Committee raised a number of concerns about the controls. He pointed to the size of the subvention to the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund (it is around 34 per cent.) and the possibility of paramilitary fraud. He argued that the UK taxpayer deserved stronger oversight of Assembly spending through parliamentary scrutiny.

We reject the notion of parliamentary scrutiny of Assembly spending because it runs counter to the principle of devolution. Parliament will vote money to the Assembly, after debate, and it will then be for the Assembly, answerable to the Northern Ireland electorate--a very important point--to decide how to spend that money. There should be no further control from Westminster.

But we do echo some of the PAC chairman's concerns. Chief among them is the possibility that the Assembly might at some future date dispense with some or all of its audit controls. Audit legislation is transferred and we cannot simply change its status. The Assembly must be free to modify it.

The solution we have adopted is to leave the Assembly free to change its audit controls provided that it keeps the basic standards which are set out in this clause and which, as I have said, closely follow the model adopted for Scotland. We do not seek to lay down the way it does so and we are not requiring it to change any of its existing legislation immediately. But it will not be able to legislate to reduce or undermine the existing controls and at some point it will have to introduce some additional features which are set out in this clause.

The basic standards of control will consist of: the independent Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, who already exists and whose independence will be enhanced by other provisions in this Bill, notably Clause 62(2); the requirement for the preparation of proper accounts of expenditure and

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receipts by direct recipients of money from the Northern Ireland Consolidated Fund, chiefly the Northern Ireland departments; the requirement for the Department of Finance and Personnel to prepare an account of payments into and out of the fund; the requirement for Northern Ireland departments to have accounting officers; the requirement for the accounts of recipients of direct funding from the Consolidated Fund to be audited with full access to necessary documents; and, finally, the requirements for accounts and auditor's reports to be published and laid before the Assembly.

Those controls--which I will again stress have existed in Northern Ireland for many years and have operated effectively; there has been remarkably little proven fraud--should provide this House and, I hope, Members in another place, with the reassurance that the money given to the Assembly will be properly spent and properly accounted for.

In addition to those controls, the Assembly will be required to set up the equivalent of a public accounts committee under standing orders. It will be the duty of this committee to consider accounts and reports of accounts laid before it by the Comptroller and Auditor General. The existence of the committee will enhance the accountability of the Comptroller and Auditor General and I hope that the new committee will follow the Westminster model in a rigorous scrutiny of public expenditure. I beg to move.

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