The government of St. Vincent and the Grenadines has admitted to spending over EC$100 million over the past few years without the approval of the Parliament, contrary to the provisions of the constitution.
Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves admitted this in Parliament last week, in response to a question by opposition lawmaker, St. Clair Leacock.
“I don’t want to get into the dancing of legal angels on the head of a pin. So I will simply make that commitment at this point, that those estimates will be brought before this honourable house, bringing us into compliance with our obligations under Article 70 of the Constitution of St. Vincent and the Grenadines,” the finance minister said.
His promise to correct the situation came five months after the expiration of the date on which he had said the requisite law would have been brought to parliament.
Leacock, in response to the finance minister’s disclosure of the amount of money spent without parliamentary approval since 2014, said:
“In essence, we have spent close to a hundred million dollars without the authority of the Parliament. That’s the point. Over a hundred million dollars without the lawful authority of the Parliament; that’s the point I am trying to make,” Leacock said after Minister of Finance, Camillo Gonsalves responded to a question by the opposition member.
Gonsalves reiterated that the supplementary estimates would be brought before the parliament at its next sitting.
Leacock, who is Member of Parliament for Central Kingstown, had asked Gonsalves, who is also Minister of Economic Planning, Sustainable Development and Information Technology, to say what supplementary bills had been brought to Parliament since the Supplementary Appropriation Act No. 17 of 2013 was gazetted.
He further asked Gonsalves what is the total amount of Special Warrants issued for the years 2015 and 2019.
Leacock has included in the question the special warrants for the years 2013 to 2019, but the House Speaker, Jomo Thomas, under the standing orders, excised all but two of the years because Leacock had asked a similar question during the current session of the Parliament.
In response, Gonsalves said the last supplementary appropriation act passed was No. 3 of 2014, dated April 8, 2014 in respect of supplementary appropriation for 2013 financial year, for the sum of EC$30,960,372.
“There has been no further tabling of supplementary appropriation bills for parliamentary approval since that time,” said the finance minister, who took over that post from his father, Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, in November 2017.
The finance minister further said that in response to an earlier question from Leacock, a commitment was made to have the outstanding supplementary appropriation bills for the years 2014 through 2018 tabled last March for consideration by the Parliament.
“And March has subsequently passed, obviously. However, the process, within the ministry, a compilation and then the subsequent review by the executive had taken a bit more time that originally anticipated to be completed. However, I can assure this honourable house that the work is complete and the outstanding bills will be placed before this honourable house at its next sitting,” Gonsalves said.
He told lawmakers that the total amount of special warrants issued in 2015 amounted to EC$16,827,875, while in 2019, it is EC$9,233,488
Asked if he has any reasonable estimates of what the total for 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018 would amount to, Gonsalves said that in 2016 it was EC$22.7 million, in 2017, EC$28.6 million, and in 2018, EC$28.8 million.
The revelation of the figures triggered Leacock’s comments about the government having spent EC$109 million without parliamentary approval.
Leacock returned to the topic on Wednesday during his weekly appearance on New Times, his New Democratic party’s daily radio programme.
He said that it is important, sometimes, to get the government on record in the Hansard in the parliament “so we could broaden the debate”.
He said there is a “credibility gap” in that every year the government keeps putting into the Budget figures for which money is not realised.
Leacock said that in asking the question in parliament last week, he wanted to see, in the eighth month of the year, how far along the government was with those records
“Because, in another month or two, there will be a new Budget and you have to put them and let them hang out to dry for people to see how dishonest and misleading they are in presenting the most important financial document of the people of the country.”
He said that people sometimes underestimate the importance of opposition representation as an oversight body in the parliament.
“And yes, there are different levels because when the oversight relates to constitutionally entrenched provisions, it takes on an even greater life than when it is to just executive functions, where a minister may have mismanaged his portfolio one way or the other. That’s bad enough and you can seek redress. But when you are having excesses which go to the root of contravening the constitution of the country, that is even more serious and this question that we are raising with the supplementary bill speaks precisely to that.”
Leacock said that the Constitution lays out clearly the role of parliament in managing state resources.
“It also identifies the roles in the parliament for the Director of Audit, it also identifies and speaks to the law of the Financial Administration Act and how all these things are executed and then, most importantly, it also speaks to the role of the public accounts committee. All these are constitutional provisions, which, if ignored or left unattended, lead to an erosion of the work in the house.”
The opposition lawmakers said that the Director of Audit, in one report, said, “The ease with which funds can be obtained and spent without the authorisation of the House of Assembly should be reviewed to satisfy the purpose of section 72 (1)&(2) of the 1979 constitution.”
“Government is finding it too easy to spend money without our approval and we already have it on record, which they cannot win, that they did precisely that with the PetroCaribe funds, which did not go into the Consolidated Fund or a special fund for that purpose which the law establish, but they put it into their own fund for which you did not require the signature of the Accountant General and allow all of those monies to be spent ‘til there was no more PetroCaribe funds and to the extent that their hands were now stuck in the cookie jar and a case could have been made for misbehaviour in public office, they came retroactively and gave pardon and forgiveness for all those sins.”