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Assembly Speech- Financial Provision Bill 3/3/2009

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Mr Speaker / Deputy Speaker

I rise today as the Chair of the Audit Committee.

The Audit Committee has been concerned for some time with the issue of privilege for the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General.  These reports occasionally deal with serious issues such as fraud and impropriety.

Clause 1 of the Financial Provisions Bill has implications for the issue of privilege of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports, in respect of absolute privilege for the purposes of the law of defamation.

The devolution settlement did not provide absolute privilege for the purposes of the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports.

Previously the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland had enjoyed the same absolute privilege as his counterpart in Westminster.

During suspension, the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports were published in Westminster and were, therefore, privileged.  The Audit Committee and the Public Accounts Committee are persuaded that it is an anomaly that the reports of C and AG for Northern Ireland do not attract absolute privilege.

To address this problem in the short term, a motion was agreed by the Assembly on the 27th November 2007 whereby any report of the C and AG which was prepared under Article 8 of the Audit (NI) Order 1987 should be printed and published under the authority of the Assembly.  This gave protection to the contents of some of the C and AG’s reports.

To date, this measure has been the legislative cover under which the Comptroller and Auditor General’s reports have been published.

However, the resolution applies only to the current mandate and to reports prepared under Article 8 of the Audit (NI) Order 1987.

So today, Mr Speaker, I am glad to give my support and that of the Audit Committee to a more concrete provision to protect the rigour of the audit functions in this Administration.

The proposed Financial Provisions Bill contains at clause 1, a remedy to this short-term situation by extending absolute privilege, for the purposes of the law of defamation, to all the reports of the Comptroller and Auditor General that are authorised or required by any statutory provision.

The clause is intended to ensure that the Comptroller and Auditor General is free to present to the Assembly all relevant evidence gathered during the course of his studies and audits, without having to defend defamation actions.

The provision is more wide ranging than the Assembly resolution of 2007, in that it includes reports authorised or requested by any statutory enactment and not just those under the Audit Act.  This shall bring the powers of the Comptroller and Auditor General into line with those available to his counterparts in Westminster and Wales.

The Committee believes that is fundamental to the practice of the public audit that the Assembly’s auditor should be able to present all significant and relevant findings to the Assembly, without the threat of legal challenge from third parties involved in the reports issues.
Mr Speaker, this provision has the support of the Audit Committee.

 

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