Clerk to the PAC of the Welsh Assembly, Fay Bowen, recently returned from a secondment with the St Helena PAC. She shares her thoughts below.
CPA UK’s project to strengthen financial oversight and scrutiny across the UK Overseas Territories (UKOTs) was launched just over year ago. It aims to facilitate improving the effectiveness of Public Accounts Committees (PACs) by sharing knowledge and good practice, and the securing of long-term support networks.
I have been involved with the project since its launch, including supporting workshops at the start of the project with representatives from all of the UKOTs and hosting a visit to of the PAC from Bermuda to the National Assembly of Wales. I was delighted to be offered the opportunity of a two-week clerk attachment to the PAC of St Helena.
Many people I spoke to had never heard of St Helena, which is a small island in the South Atlantic Ocean miles away from anywhere. It was with excitement and trepidation that I embarked on the 5,000 mile journey to reach its beautiful shores.
The PAC of St Helena consists of five Members, three of which are elected and the remaining two independent non-elected Members. The Legislative Council of St Helena is made up of 12 elected Members who are all independent as there are no political parties on the island. Five elected Members sit on the Executive Council and have decision making powers equivalent to Ministers in the UK. However, these members only have two years in office before a vote is put to the full Legislative Council to decide if they should remain in post or not before the next general election.
The political make-up took me a while to get to grips with but almost immediately I found that removal of party politics fostered a very cohesive way of working with a key focus on making collective decisions in the best interests of the island.
The workings of the PAC were no exception and from the moment I met the Committee as a group I observed the excellent team working between them and a strong determination to be the best PAC they could be. The energy and commitment to achieving this was wonderful and inspired by their previous visit to Westminster and the Isle of Man last November. The level of preparation and planning that goes into undertaking their work is something I learnt from and will take back to the PAC at the National Assembly.
From the outset we spent a whole morning together mapping out the Committee’s aims and objectives for my two-week attachment, which ranged from a number of training sessions, preparation for the Committee’s formal evidence sessions and discussions around procedures and protocol. Refreshingly my work would also involve holding discussion sessions with other key stakeholders working with the PAC, including senior government officials, auditors and even a session with the entire Legislative Council. It was a pivotal moment when the Speaker at an informal meeting of the Legislative Council gave a commitment to having quarterly discussions with the PAC and to consider changes to procedures to better facilitate the work of the PAC.
I was struck by the commitment of everyone who comes into contact with the PAC to making it work. Everyone signed up to the core principles of the PACs existence, which are to ensure transparency and accountability to secure the efficient expenditure of public resources. I was delighted with the enthusiasm my work was met with across all sectors of government.
My attachment seemed to spark an interest more widely across the island as word spread through three radio appearances and a newspaper article. We certainly raised the profile of the PAC during my attachment and I discussed with Members various approaches to ensure continued public engagement with the Committee’s work going forward.
The Members of the St Helena PAC are energetic, committed and dedicated to undertaking their work to the best of their ability and this was displayed during the two formal evidence sessions that took place during my visit. The Members felt the sessions had gone very well compared to previous sessions and they were able to draw out excellent evidence by applying different approaches to questioning with their confidence ever growing.
Alongside work I was able to explore what is an extraordinary and beautiful place. Not only is the island rich in natural beauty but its people are the warmest, genuine, kindest people I have ever met. I was made to feel so welcome and it was a pleasure to undertake the attachment, which I hope has made a difference to the PAC on St Helena. I came away knowing that I had made some friends for life, with cherished memories and a long term connection with the island as I will continue to provide as much support and help as I can going forward. I have no doubt the PAC will go from strength to strength and their contribution to good governance will continue on the island for many years to come.