Watchdogs Must Have Teeth

Northern Ireland is a place of many contradictions. On the one hand we have a new, supposedly accountable Assembly, but on the other, millions of pounds are being lost through bad administration. To add further insult, paramilitaries and mafia-style gangsters are raking in millions through criminal activity.

I have always advocated openness, transparency and accountability, and I firmly believe that devolution will – eventually – make those ideals a reality. But we are at the start of a long journey and the road ahead is a rough one.

The first steps along that road have already been taken. For my part, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, I have not held back in my criticism when Government departments and agencies have squandered hard-earned taxpayers’ money. Furthermore I have strongly supported the Financial Investigation Order, which aims to ensure that those suspected of profiting from illegal dealings are deprived of their ill-gotten gains.

When the Northern Ireland Auditor’s Report on Accounts landed on my desk last week I was shocked to find that he had qualified or questioned – in some cases not for the first time – six accounts during 1999-2000. However, when I read the reasons behind the qualifications, my shock turned quickly to outrage.

The Public Accounts Committee recently had the opportunity to question the Chief Executive of the Social Security Agency (SSA) on the Administration of Income Support. During that session it was found that the SSA had made overpayments on Income Support estimated at £51m. Now we are told that overpayments across all benefits administered by the SSA total some £65m – an appalling waste!

The Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG) also reported that he was unable to fully test Disability Living Allowance payments of £43m to Motability Finance Limited – a shocking claim. The SSA obviously has a long way to go in persuading me, as a member of the Public Accounts Committee, that it excercises good financial control and those deserving in our society are getting the benefits to which they are entitled.

However, such poor management is not limited to SSA. In the Water and Sewage Account, the C&AG reported that an ex-gratia payment – that is a payment of compensation – of some £450,000 had to be made to the successful bidder of a Public Finance Initiative project who was engaged to build a Waste Water Treatment Works. However, due to the Water Service’s inability to secure land acquisition, planning permission and environmental impact assessments, the project was unable to progress.

To go forward with a project without having fully addressed such fundamental issues was questionable. I hope that the Water Service has no other projects in the pipeline that results in taxpayers’ money going down the drain!

Since devolution, the Accounting Officers have been held more closely to account for their actions. The C&AG’s reports will no longer gather dust on the shelves. The Public Accounts Committee has the opportunity to take such reports and it will be seen that this committee is no poodle – but will demonstrate the characteristics of a Rottweiler where necessary!

With regard to the Financial Investigations Order – its aim is simply to strengthen the authorities’ powers and ensure criminals don’t profit from illegal activity. After all, when the man in the street sees known paramilitaries or their associates driving around in expensive cars he can rightly ask – where on earth did the money come from?

I have always strongly backed the Good Friday Agreement. It was a new beginning, a new opportunity. True, there was pain involved for many of us – particularly for the victims of paramilitaries, who had to stomach the fact that convicted killers were back on our streets.

But the public was prepared to pay a price for the opportunity of peace and normality, as can be seen in the result of the referendum on the Agreement. What they didn’t want to see were paramilitaries and gangsters flaunting their wealth, taking holidays to sunnier climes, driving around in their expensive cars wearing designer clothes, dripping with jewelry – but with no visible means of support! With no war to fight, gangsters have turned on their own communities, destroying them with drugs, and using extortion and rackets to fund their activities, before laundering the proceeds through so-called legitimate businesses. They are no local heroes; they are destroying their communities like parasites.

We must prevent criminals from profiting from their crime. The proceeds of crime are often used to finance further crime; it has a multiplier effect. That must be stopped, or we may be accused of being insincere about what we are endeavouring to do. Most crime is motivated by profit, so we must do all in our power to reduce and eliminate the profit motive.

There is a growing culture of lawlessness in Northern Ireland which we must tackle head on. Criminals are becoming increasingly sophisticated at hiding their money, and the authorities must be given the necessary means to combat this growing threat.

The new legislation is a step in the right direction. Whilst concern has been expressed about human rights and the relationship between client and solicitor, I believe that the human rights of the law-abiding citizen must be protected at all costs and a proper balance restored between the suspected criminal’s right to privacy and the state’s duty to prevent criminals bleeding society dry.

Personally, I can’t think of any reason why criminals should be allowed to live off the misery of others.

We must ensure that the law is strengthened if we genuinely want to create a safe and just society. The existing law has been described as draconian, yet it is failing us. If proof is needed look at the drugs seizures which have escalated by a hundred-fold over several years. Quite simply, the law is inadequate and needs to be strengthened if we are serious about producing the type of society that we want.

It is essential that criminals are deterred from their inclination to commit crime. The only way we can ensure that that will happen is to send out the strong and unambiguous message that crime does not pay. Any reasonable person can see that the law, as it exists, is failing. It is failing the law-abiding, and thus it appears to be assisting the criminal. That must end.

Accountability and transparency must be the focus of all our endeavours. Watchdogs must have teeth.

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