Government chair for key scrutiny committee

There was another comedy moment in the chamber the other day when John O’Dowd, leader of the Sinn Fein Assembly party asked himself to be Chair of the Public Accounts Committee (scroll 2/3 of the way down), potentially one of the most powerful committees in the assembly since they have to scrutinise the spending of all the ministers. Normally, it is a role for an opposition politician, but with only 10 MLAs outside the Ministerial parties, that has never been the case in Stormont (Alliance is not pleased). The PAC in the Commons has a Tory Chair. In the Dail an FG Chair. And the Audit committees in Holyrood and Cardiff are chaired by a Tory and a Plaid representative respectively. It will interesting to see if John can be seen to act as independently as the job clearly requires.

  • GavBelfast

    Did George Orwell write the script for all this?

  • Ian Williamson

    Not only is John O’Dowd a member of an Executive Party, he is also part of the Sinn Fein leadership, having been announced as Assembly Group Leader.

    Added to the fact that he actually nominated himself for this post, this whole sorry episode leaves a very nasty taste in the mouth.

    Such a move would never be countenanced, let alone tolerated in Westminster, the Oireachtas, the Scottish Parliament or National Assembly for Wales.

    Why should local people be subjected to this potential lack of scrutiny within such an important Assembly body?

  • Democratic-Centre

    Give it to the Greens or Deeny.

  • Whatever Next

    Welcome to DUPSFistan.

  • Mick Fealty

    Too late DC. Ian, potential is the word. I don’t think people should judge the man’s performance before he has had a chance to do the job!

    But I sense there is going to be more to this ‘Opposition’ role than immediately met the eye.

  • SuperSoupy

    Not a cheep from anyone when Billy Bell was chair.

  • Mick Fealty

    Indeed Soupy,

    “…that has never been the case in Stormont”.

    And the man should be given the chance to prove himself. It is worthy of note though. These guys are in government for earnest now, and the PAC is one of the most important breaks on Executive power.

  • Not a cheep from anyone when Billy Bell was chair.

    I think we more than cheeped at the time, Soupy. It was bad government then and it’s bad government now.

  • DC

    Politicians and accountability – are they not two mutually exclusive entities in this regard.

    Besides, how much scrutiny can one person provide in the role as a chair, surely there will be other agents involved in the committee and it’s an argument for title sakes only.

    Therefore, I would never place all my eggs in one basket in terms of relying on one person to the be ‘The Scrutiniser’ of Assembly spending, not least due in part to the large number of civil servants who will also be tasked to ensure that proper scrutiny is delivered to the Chair, in support of his activities and the committee also.

    These chairpersons must be really powerful if the 108 MLAs can do anything about them – chairmanship seems to being cause more fuss than the ministries themselves. I want to run and stand for Chair – the power no-one can stop me now!

  • SuperSoupy

    Sammy,

    If by ‘you’ that means Alliance. You didn’t open your mouths after Bell was appointed.

    The minutes

  • SuperSoupy

    My ‘you’ should be a ‘we’.

  • IJP

    I wasn’t a member of the Alliance Party at the time Billy Bell was appointed, but I gather it was commented on publicly.

    There is an additional issue here that John O’Dowd is a member of his party’s leadership, not just a back bencher.

    Speaking purely personally, I recognize this is still far from a perfect democracy and I wouldn’t be overly concerned about this. However, I would be concerned if people took it as “normal practice”.

    We had a lot of talk of the “end of the peace process” and the “conclusion of peace in NI” this week – the nonsense of having the Leader of a Governing Party chairing Public Accounts indicates that the process towards true democracy still has a long way to go.

  • Mick Fealty

    I’ve no doubt that there was criticism, but in 2002 Seamus Close seemed happy with its workings:

    “The Public Accounts Committee has a very high profile, it is doing good work and is a winning team,” he said.

    “So it has to be questioned, why change a winning team, particularly at this juncture when a number of reports are in the final stages of preparation?”

  • SuperSoupy

    This report on PACs seems to indicate that cross party proportional representation and no government ministers are important factors for the committees. I can’t see any reference to the party membership of chairs being important. It would be a largely irrelevant factor as the proportional aspect ensures, as in all the referenced examples, the committee is dominated by members from the government party/parties.

  • SuperSoupy

    btw if Alliance are using the practice of a non-government party as chair (often but not always implemented) as a way to suggest they should have the role they should remember the norm of proportional representation means they shouldn’t be on the committee and they aren’t.

    So competing norms but Alliance advance the one that would get them a position beyond their level of representation. What a surprise.

  • “The Public Accounts Committee”….was doing a good job.

    The emphasis here rests soley in the work of the chair and decision making.

    Does the chair have some sort of overbearing power that makes the committee itself irrelevant to the point of being no use at scrutinising rendering any legislative influence of the sitting 108 MLAs useless too. If so then I am worried.

    In relation to an imperfect democracy, those who have been harmed either by the consequences of Paisley’s big mouth or by McGuinness’ astute militaristic manoeuvres must ascribe imperfect democracy to the Paisley-McGuinness power-sharing situation firstly; not to the issue of issuing chairs of committees to party individuals.

    For those affected, it would appear that this is one final insult to injury having to watch those with the loudest voices and cruelly effective techniques over the years being placated with power endorsed by democratic means leaving those keen on perfect democracy wondering whether concession-led confliction resolution is worth it. But we all wait and see.

    Alliance typically seems to get stuck in to these minor technicalities whenever it would be better off spending time restructuring its views against the backdrop of changing political circumstances in an attempt to build a more coherent party vision.

  • Mick Fealty

    Proof is in the pudding Soupy.

    The committee should prove itself on product, not the expectation of those in opposition, nor those aligned to government.

  • You didn’t open your mouths after Bell was appointed.

    Wise the bap, Soupy. We said plenty in the press at the time.

    I recognize this is still far from a perfect democracy and I wouldn’t be overly concerned about this. However, I would be concerned if people took it as “normal practice”.

    I think that more or less sums up my own view, Ian. Obviously John has the job and there’s no point crying over spilt milk. I’m prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt but I’ll be watching to see if he gives SF-run Departments too easy a time.

    Does the chair have some sort of overbearing power that makes the committee itself irrelevant to the point of being no use at scrutinising rendering any legislative influence of the sitting 108 MLAs useless too. If so then I am worried.

    Not as such, but any decent chair can make sure the agenda breaks in a way that suits them and can steer meetings that way too.

    Alliance typically seems to get stuck in to these minor technicalities whenever it would be better off spending time restructuring its views against the backdrop of changing political circumstances in an attempt to build a more coherent party vision.

    Yes but no. I don’t think this is a minor technicality and part of the role of Alliance over the next 4 years will be to oppose the Executive parties. For its own sake and the country’s.

    That doesn’t mean that it doesn’t need to refine its vision in the light of changing personal circumstances. Politics without values is meaningless. It can win you power but can’t really achieve anything – look at New Labour for a classic example. Liberal parties should always be on the side of individuals against institutions, and that means in favour of robust accountability for ministers. So if you end up fighting over technical issues, fine, as long as those technical issues have some relevance to your vision and values.

    I think this one does.

  • SuperSoupy

    Sammy,

    ‘wise the bap’

    A bit OTT.

    Mick provided the record of this selection when Alliance raised the issue in the Assembly this time. I provided the link to the last Assembly when Alliance clearly did not object after Bell’s appointment.

    If Alliance raised objections over Bell they certainly didn’t do it in the appropriate forum and the Assembly has no record of it.

    Either way the giving him a chance approach is fair and I’m glad to see you have.

  • Mick Fealty

    Soupy,

    “…the appropriate forum”

    You have a perfectly valid point. But your use here of the definite article is nonetheless very interesting…

  • Sorry, eye off the ball and all that (dirty, Sanchez!).

    I knew I’d seen this one coming, and spent a half-hour of good drinking time trying to locate it. So, thanks for the reminder.

    My assumption had been that the soft, spending ministries (eddicashun and soshal) would be SF’s target, but that the DUP would want to keep a tight grip on the bawbees. A result, as Wilkins Micawber [go and read your Copperfield] scores for the Paisleyites!

    The Public Accounts Committee (provided it evolves on Westminster lines) is silent-but-deadly. Its chair has/should have enormous clout. It is the enforcer. This is waking to the horse’s-head-in-the-bed stuff. So, who will be “Jack Woltz”? And who will be Khartoum? [If that passed you by, think/Google “Don Vito Corleone”].

    And it has gone to an SF аппарáтчик [=”apparatchik”, you ignorant sods]! Or is he? This guy seems to have served his time in local government:
    [Craigavon] Council Account Scrutineer … Policy and Resources Committee and the Development, the Environment and the Public Services Liaison Committees … Craigavon Local Strategy Partnership body[,] responsible for the distribution of European peace money.

    You know, on this basis, there is a glimmering of hope that this thing could actually work.

  • SuperSoupy

    Mick,

    My grammer is weak, what is interesting about my use of ‘the’?

    Maybe I should have used the adjective ‘most’ or ‘more’? I wouldn’t read too much into it.

  • DC

    Sammy, you have chosen to select itty-bitty items to bolster your debate around whether chairpersonship is so important, such as Agenda setting, well to be quite frank, so what about the agenda – as long is scrutiny is given at the uptmost by all and everyone.

    I’ll reiterate below, as you seem to ride roughshod over it by being pedantic in regards to the value of individual chairpersonship and value of it when compared with committee work on the whole, scrutiny and its part in good old democracy.

    “In relation to an imperfect democracy, those who have been harmed either by the consequences of Paisley’s big mouth or by McGuinness’ astute militaristic manoeuvres must ascribe imperfect democracy to the Paisley-McGuinness power-sharing situation firstly; not to the issue of issuing chairs of committees to party individuals.

    For those affected, it would appear that this is one final insult to injury having to watch those with the loudest voices and cruelly effective techniques over the years being placated with power endorsed by democratic means leaving those keen on perfect democracy wondering whether concession-led confliction resolution is worth it. But we all wait and see.”

    Now, is this not more of a problem to society at large than the fact Alliance can’t get chairs that they want? Alliance prides itself on Human Rights but there are those within the Assembly with crimes agaisnt humanity, either directly or indirectly through the pursuit of ideological goals.

    So, I don’t think much of your strong arguing over values now at this late stage of the process.

  • DC (and anybody else):
    Are you missing the significance (rather than simply the status) of committees and their chairs?

    If a political institution is going to work, it really comes down to individual elected members realising that the Opposition sits over there, but your political enemies are behind you, in your own caucus.

    The essential purpose of any representative assembly is holding its executive to account. This means there is a subtle cross-party community of interest between the PBI who sit on the back-benches. Since committees tend not to attract too much public glare, that is where the mingling happens and deals (often barely spoken) are done. Then back to dissention in the open main assembly.

    O’Dowd is now in a very powerful position. If he is to do his job properly, he and his committee will be working with (and against) departmental ministers of all parties. That should be the point of interest from here on in, not picking over the carcass of last month’s meal.

  • Sub-editing error (oops): “dissension”.

    Sorry!

  • DC

    Malcolm,

    In the context of D’Hondt it’s tough isn’t it but to counter your significance argument i’ll go around again so i’ll reiterate:

    “Does the chair have some sort of overbearing power that makes the committee itself irrelevant to the point of being no use at scrutinising rendering any legislative influence of the sitting 108 MLAs useless too. If so then I am worried.”

    Furthermore, are you suggesting that the scrutiny from the media, press and indeed voluntary, community and public sectors will be null and void.

    It is important to realise the context in which this argument is taking place – conflict resolution – with so many awful situations arising the chair issue is a minor sprig of a dirty big weed.

  • Gonzo

    “so what about the agenda”

    Are you serious?

    More importantly will be what is not on the agenda.

    The reason why the chair of a PAC in other parliaments is always a member of the opposition is because PACs must not just be fair, but be seen/i> to be fair. It means the chair – whose power to shape the agenda is more important than some here have made out – of a powerful government watchdog cannot be left open to potential accusations of a conflict of interest.

    The PAC is similar to a judge, ombudsman or a mayor – supposed to be ‘above’ party political influences. Now John might turn out to be a fair guy, but he leaves himself slightly more vulnerable to such accusations than any non-government party member. The fact that he is part of the SF leadership means he will be held up to particular scrutiny himself, in a way that perhaps Billy Bell wasn’t.

    One thing to remember from the last Assembly, however, was that it wasn’t always the committee chairs who became the de facto spokesmen for their committee. It’s not beyond the realms of possibility for parties either to make political capital where they have greater freedom to speak more frankly about something than an Executive party chair could. So all is not lost.

    It’s too late to object to John now, so I guess the proof will be in the pudding. I think Alliance has an excellent case, and are right to bring it up, but it’s probably a subject of interest to relatively few people.

    If there is a diminution of the tribalism that plagued the last Assembly in the new one, then this is maybe not a bad time to be outside an Executive. More bread-and-butter issues that have to be agreed amongst four parties singing off the same hymn sheet might allow the minority Opposition MLAs a chance to punch above their weight.

  • SuperSoupy

    As for Alliance, some of us know how they suppress Nationalism with Unionism in councils –

    Antrim and Lisburn.

    Alliance drop principle when it means power this posturing is transparent.

    Get back to us when your Mayor stops endorsing a council that has never had a SF committee chair.

    Hypocrites.

  • DC

    Gonzo,

    You sound like an Alliance spokesperson, so come out come out who ever you are; but I ll say this, Alliance has an excellent case perhaps in a normal non-consociational model which we don’t have and the opposition therefore is predetermined – unfortunately; however, with the Paisley and McGuinness recent show of brotherhood this is offering up some confusion.

    In regards to Alliance, it’s a world of your own making so, for such slow learners tonight, I will clarify yet again:

    “Alliance typically seems to get stuck in to these minor technicalities whenever it would be better off spending time restructuring its views against the backdrop of changing political circumstances in an attempt to build a more coherent party vision.” A vision which might create a new world endorsed by the people so as to give them the power to change it. Until then – tough.

    And as to “so what about the agenda”

    Are you serious? More importantly will be what is not on the agenda.

    I would say have you seen those two ethnic wind up merchants up on the hill sitting on the embossed leather seats? I don’t like it, let alone John O’Dowd nominating himself, but I’d sure as hell be more concerned with what Paisley and McGuinness are capable of carving up and concocting.

    Cut that cancer out first rather than bottom feeding over somewhat trivial off-shoots to the whole process please.

  • Stifled but Happy

    Will the NIO still be setting the FM’s and DFM’s agenda along with those other stuffy civil servants. Ah its all a big fucking shambles politics isn’t it for god sake give me laissez-faire policy anyday.

  • Gonzo

    DC

    You did read the last two paragraphs, right?

  • DC @ 12.10 a.m.

    You know, there once was a time when I felt I almost understood D’Hondt, Ste-Laguë and Jefferson. Now, I merely reflect on the brevity of life. So, I’ll take what you say on trust.

    In point of fact, I do not greatly differ from your argument. However, I have had enough of the smoked-filled rooms of practical politics to know that (while it’s OK for Buggins’s Turn to make useless Eustace chair of the Allotments’ Panel) there are certain holes you need to occupy with “reliable” rodents. Particularly the ones that can come out of the woodwork at difficult moments. An obvious example is just this one: the Public Accounts Committee. So, the bottom line has to be that O’Dowd is there by design and not merely by arithmetical chance.

    All I was doing was to speculate
    [1] why the DUP leadership did not horse-trade this one (and nobody will convince me that D’Hondt precludes such basic political lubrication). One might have expected the PAC would go to an old-stager, wise in the ways of politics, with tendrils across the civil service, sensitive to the needs of the executive.
    and
    [2] how and why O’Dowd got the nod. There have to be elements of wilfulness here; and amateur Kremlinology amounts to beadily eyeing the pecking order of Lenin’s Tomb.

    So I admit that O’Dowd was a new one on me. I knew he had been successfully climbing the greasy pole/poll in Craigavon. Now he seems to have moved on. Is he one to watch?

  • David Ford

    Super Soupy

    Thanks for posting the link to Hansard at
    http://www.niassembly.gov.uk/record/reports/991215.htm#3

    Try reading the point of order I raised immediately before the appointment of chairs. We objected to the appointment of Billy Bell at the time, but at least he was not a leading member of a government party.

    I am on record as having said that someone like Bob McCartney would have been a good Chair of PAC: it was not just seeking jobs for Alliance. The issue is ensuring independence, and thus public confidence, in the committee.

    There are obvious alternatives, such as having more than one co-chair and ensuring that nobody takes the chair for discussions concerning Departments controlled by a member of their party. But for John O’Dowd to act as Nominating Officer in his role of Assembly Group Leader for SF and nominate himself gave the wrong impression.