‘Corruption or incompetence’: MP questions failure to set up NI spending oversight body

A Westminster committee chair has questioned if Stormont’s failure to set up an independent spending oversight body is down to a desire to hide corruption or incompetence.

Wednesday, 20th January 2021, 9:32 pm
Updated Thursday, 21st January 2021, 9:32 am
Simon Hoare

The comments from Northern Ireland Affairs Committee chair Simon Hoare came as Secretary of State Brandon Lewis expressed “huge frustration” that Stormont Finance Minister Conor Murphy had not moved to establish a Fiscal Council.

Mr Lewis said without a council, Mr Murphy was unable to prove his contention that he did not have enough money, despite receiving a “pretty much a record uplift” in the Treasury’s recent spending review.

The Northern Ireland secretary said the finance minister could not back up “outlandish comments” with facts due to the absence of a council.

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Stormont parties committed to establishing the council in the New Decade, New Approach deal to restore power-sharing.

The independent body, which was supposed to be set up by July last year, was designed to conduct an annual assessment of executive’s plans to balance its budget.

It also would examine the ongoing sustainability of departmental finances and assess the effectiveness of long term efficiency measures.

During a committee hearing on Wednesday, Mr Hoare said setting up the council was a “no brainer”.

He suggested the Treasury should withhold certain funds from the Executive until it was established.

Mr Hoare said “most civilised democracies” had some sort of independent body to provide budget oversight.

“Should there be an anxiety amongst the people of Northern Ireland, amongst this committee and within the Treasury, at this stubborn resistance to creating this body?,” he asked.

He added: “What are they trying to hide? Is it incompetence, is it collusion, is it corruption, is it silly spending, because unless they create it they go into argue with the Treasury for extra funds with one hand tied behind their back.

“It is a self-defeating stance which they appear to have adopted.”

Mr Hoare suggested the Treasury should stop issuing certain cheques to the Executive until the issue was resolved.

“Is it not time for hardball?” he asked.

“Its absence can only raise suspicious questions.”

Mr Lewis said he could offer no good reason why Mr Murphy had not acted.

On the question of withholding funds, Mr Lewis said Mr Hoare had made a “very powerful point” but he stressed the need to balance the issues and said he was not prepared to deny businesses in Northern Ireland support due to the failure of Stormont to deliver a “core commitment” of the powersharing deal.

“I’ve been pretty clear about the need to see this happen and at the moment I can’t give you a good reason why the Department of Finance has not been able to move that forward,” he said.

In response to the exchanges in the committee, a Department of Finance spokeswoman insisted arrangements for the establishment of the Fiscal Council were at a “very advanced stage”.

“The finance minister will be bringing proposals to the Executive shortly and hopes to make an announcement in the coming weeks,” she added.

“It is expected the Fiscal Council will be in place to fulfil its responsibilities for the 2021/2022 Budget which is currently out to consultation.

“The focus of the Department since March 2020 has been on responding to Covid-19 and ensuring the additional £2.8 billion of Covid-19 funding flows to departments as quickly as possible to ensure our health service is supported, the vulnerable are protected and our businesses are supported.”