Absence of audit reports puts public accounts watchdog on tight leash
Leader of the Opposition, Godwin Friday has signaled his intentions to take seriously his position as chair of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The PAC is a constitutionally required body of lawmakers representing the parties elected to Parliament and is intended to hold the government to account in terms of its spending of public funds.
However, the PAC has not functioned as intended under the leadership of its former chairman, past leader of the opposition, Arnhim Eustace.
Friday, who became opposition leader and PAC chair last November, told reporters at a press conference in Kingstown on Wednesday that his New Democratic Party (NDP) has always taken the role of the PAC very seriously.
He, however, said the fact of the matter is that the PAC relies on the report on the Public Accounts that the Director of Audit prepares.
“And we are now seven years behind,” he said.
Friday said that the office of the Director of Audit has not submitted audited accounts of the central government for the years 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 and 2016.
He said he raised this during a June 23 meeting that he and Eustace held with Director of Audit, Dahalia Sealey and her deputy, Joan Browne, at the Audit Office.
“… I asked the Director of Audit about this. And we are hopeful that the 2011 report will be out soon. But that still is 2011. And it hampers the work of the Public Accounts Committee to be able to deal with matters as they arise when something can be done, when there is a greater public interest in them, where the evidence and the ameliorative measures can be done at the time when it is effective. And we want to be able to have the Public Accounts Committee perform its role as it is required to do constitutionally and that is what we are striving to do.”
Friday said he was very encouraged in the meeting that Sealey said that, as part of their own operations, they wish to have a meeting with the PAC to put their strategic plan to them.
“That is something I encourage and I hope that that meeting takes place very soon. From that, there would be an exchange of information and expectation from the Members of Parliament, from myself as the chairman of the committee and, on the other hand, the Director of Audit, as to what her needs are to perform her functions and what the limitations and present problems are.
“But, yes, the Public Accounts Committee must do its duty, but we, too, are hampered in the same way by the fact that the reports are so far behind,” Friday said.
Speaking at the same press conference, Eustace said that only the 2009 and 2010 reports from the Director of Audit are available.
He further said that when a meeting of the PAC was convened a few years ago, government lawmaker, Sen. Julian Francis raised the point that he was not aware that the rules for the PAC have ever been approved by Parliament.
The Clerk of the House of Assembly was told to research the Hansard and no record was found of those guidelines having ever been approved by Parliament.
“So the Public Accounts Committee can’t even meet at the present time until that matter is resolved,” Eustace said.
The government is yet to remedy the situation, even as it has noted that the PAC is a constitutional requirement.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves has said that he used the same rules when he was in opposition and chair of the PAC to conduct his meeting.
It is not clear, therefore, why his government has objected to the same rules being used by the PAC and is yet to take any steps to rectify the situation, in the interest of transparency and accountability.