As the Public Accounts Committee started yet another of their meetings this week, top in the members’ minds will be the recommendation they have already made to parliament: to consider limiting the powers of the Finance Minister under the Finance and Audit Act.
Another key observation recently raised by the PAC is the tendency by cabinet to use parliament as a rubber stamp to “construct” and sustain a philosophy agreed by cabinet but not shared with parliament in as far as budgeting is concerned.
This week the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee started calling permanent Secretaries and other Accounting Officers to examine the public accounts for the year 2004/2005 ÔÇô the third such meeting in less than twelve months.
The PAC has had to go without sitting in 2004 as it was an election year, which meant that when they resumed their business after the General Elections, they had a full year government accounts backlog with which to catch up, thereby having to sit twice in one year.
Key observation is that the committee’s stature is fast improving.
This week the Committee started by calling in Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Agriculture Marthias Chakalisa.
In their last two reports, the PAC under the Chairmanship of the Member of Parliament for Mmadinare Ponatshego Kedikilwe has been particularly scathing at how the Ministry of Finance and Development Planning handles its budgetary systems.
In their 2002/2003 Accounts report published last year the PAC observed that the Budget Division in the Ministry of Finance had to avoid including in the budget estimates figures which are not realizable.
This was after a number of Ministries among them the Ministries of Education, Local Government, Transport and Health had failed to recover the money they were supposed to recoup under the estimates.
The Ministry of Education was supposed to recover P150 million, but ended up recovering nothing.
The Ministry of Local Government was supposed to recover P50 million but brought nothing to the government coffers, as were the Ministries of Transport and that of Health.
“This has the effect of distorting government revenue estimates,” observed the Public Accounts Committee. In her official response as to why her Ministry failed to recover the money as indicated in the estimates, Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Health Ms Batatu Tafa wrote back saying her ministry’s cost recovery proposals had not yet been approved by cabinet “as a result these cannot be implemented until approval is given,” a response to which the PAC took serious exception.
In their latest report (2003/2004) released last week the PAC requests parliament to give specific attention to the legal and regulatory procedures of government budgeting.
Clearly not happy with the extensive powers given the Finance Minister by the Finance and Audit Act, the PAC asks parliament to reexamine and scrutinize the issuance of a withdrawal warrant, under which the minister of Finance is legally enabled to change budget provisions already made by parliament.
“The assumption is that all stakeholders in the national duty of budget management will be on the same wave length of understanding and should possess requisite information,” says the report in scoffing at the two withdrawal warrants made by the Ministry of Finance as a way of avoiding budget deficit without referring the matter back t to parliament which had already approved the budgeted figures.
The PAC then took issue with the executive’s process of trying to deliberately “construct” ways of avoiding a budget deficit.
“The above suggests a deliberate decision by the Executive not to have budget deficits. The decision whether or not to have budget deficits is a matter for debate with stakeholders so that the assessment of accounts is consonant with philosophies informing the budget and consequent ramifications. What is not debatable though is unauthorized expenditure in an attempt to avoid budget deficit. It is worse for the legislature to be used through supplementaries to sustain philosophy agreed by the executive but not shared with parliament. This trend occasions the tendency to ignore contractual obligations and it underrates the sanctity of personal emoluments as well as special expenditure allocations for the simple reasons of balancing the budget,” said the PAC.
It remains to b seen how cabinet will respond to the PAC’s biting criticisms and recommendations.
After the previous report was presented to parliament, an attempt was made to derail the PAC by removing its Chairman, a move that was decidedly rejected by both opposition as well as the ruling party back benches.
Opposition threatened to boycott the Committee which would not only have reduced its legitimacy but also turned parliament into a defacto rubber stamp of the executive decisions.