Northern Ireland

NI Audit Office warns lack of funding could hamper scrutiny of public spending

Chief operating officer Rodney Allen said its recent budget allocations were not sustainable into the future.

Rodney Allen
Northern Ireland Public Accounts Committee Rodney Allen, Chief Operating Officer of the Northern Ireland Audit Office at Parliament Buildings after meeting of the Northern Ireland Public Accounts Committee at Stormont. Picture date: Thursday February 22, 2024. (Liam McBurney/PA)

Northern Ireland’s public audit body does not have sufficient funding to carry out all its functions going forward, an Assembly committee has been warned.

The NI Audit Office’s (NIAO) chief operating officer Rodney Allen told the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) that its recent budget allocations were not sustainable into the future.

He also warned of “unprecedented” challenges in recruiting and retaining staff.

Mr Allen and Dorinnia Carville, the Comptroller and Auditor General for Northern Ireland, briefed members of the freshly constituted PAC at Stormont on Thursday.

The NIAO scrutinises the spending of public money in Northern Ireland.

It audits the annual accounts of more than 150 public bodies, including Stormont departments, their agencies and many arms-length bodies.

Mr Allen said the office was facing several challenges.

“The first one I want to mention is recruitment and retention of staff,” he said.

“That has been on a level that I have never experienced in many years of working in the public sector, and indeed in public audit.

“We are predominantly an organisation of professional accountants trading as auditors, and that marketplace has been incredibly difficult.

“Now, we thankfully have been blessed with many, many, many talented people, but keeping them and attracting and retaining more people has been an unprecedented challenge for us.”

Dorinnia Carville stressed to the committee members the importance of the NIAO’s work
Dorinnia Carville, Dorinnia Carville stressed to the committee members the importance of the NIAO’s work (Liam McBurney/PA)

Mr Allen said he could not avoid mentioning the organisation’s financial position.

He said the office’s budget baseline, which was set by the Assembly’s audit committee prior to the last collapse of powersharing, had been cut by Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris when he assumed responsibility for budgetary decisions during the devolution impasse.

“So, we’ve been operating within a considerably restrained budget,” he said.

“Frankly, that is not sustainable in terms of going forward if we are to deliver the work that we anticipate you and the Assembly will fully expect from us.”

Ms Carville stressed to the committee members the importance of the NIAO’s work.

“That work is of significant importance because it’s an annual assurance that’s provided around the financial management and the good governance of all of those organisations,” she said.