Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday says that the government spent EC$123 million of the nation’s money “in the dark”, when it failed to abide by the constitutional provision to bring special warrants to Parliament as the law mandates.
“The process engaged in here by this government over the past five years is one where you have expenditures that are basically done in the dark in that the light of Parliament is not shone on it for five years. Why so long?” Friday said.
Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves told lawmakers that under the law passed by his government, the special warrants should have been brought to parliament within a year.
And Friday told Parliament it was not in the contemplation of the constitution or the legislation that it would take years for the special warrant to be brought for lawmakers’ approval.
“…It’s almost embarrassing to think that we are dealing here in this Honourable House today with special warrants that were spent not by this Parliament, not under this Parliament, but in 2014 under a previous Parliament. Legally, a previous government — and we are now dealing with them here in this Parliament. I don’t even know how to consider the legality of that process.
“It appears to me that the kind of laissez-faire attitude that his government had adopted in respect of these matters it’s not a case of being late, it is a case of being negligent or not seeming to care whatsoever that these matters are brought to the Parliament,” Friday said.
“And there is no excuse, simply no excuse or no way in which you could sugar-coat this. This is not a case of being late, this is just a case of not finding [that it is] imperative to comply with the law,” Friday told Parliament.
“There is no other way and I will say, at the outset, there is no way that this can be justified or that the members on this side of the house can condone it by supporting what is brought here today for approval,” he said.
On Thursday, Parliament approved some EC$123 million in special warrants spent since 2014.
A special warrant is used to fund expenditure outside of what parliament approved in the Budget.
The Finance Administration Act says a special warrant can be used “when it appears to the minister that an expenditure of a service not foreseen and not provided for or not sufficiently provided for is required for the public good, and the circumstances are such that the expenditure cannot, in the opinion of the minister, be postponed without injury to the public good…”
During Thursday’s debate, opposition lawmakers raised questions about whether some of the spending met those criteria.
“By telling me that these funds, we can look at them, they are properly expended because we had to do it for litigation, there is some of it you had to do to bring stuff to account, there was some disaster somewhere and you had to deal with it, those are things that are contemplated in the law. That is why you have that flexibility. It doesn’t excuse the conduct here.”
He said that a look through the list raises the question of whether special warrants have become convenient.
The relevant law further says that the total of special warrants issued in any one year must not exceed the amount fixed by resolution by Parliament, which is EC$25 million.
“When you look at the list of items here, you ask yourself what is the unforeseen nature or the urgent matter that required it to be done by special warrant that would do injury to the public good,” Friday told lawmakers.
He said, for example, in 2014, the government used a special warrant of EC$2.3 million for additional funds to facilitate the payment of refund duty to Eastern Caribbean Group of Companies for rice exported during the period 2009 to 2013.
“So, in fact, the liability had occurred even before 2014. Why couldn’t this be dealt with in the normal course of the presentation of a Budget as a debt in the Estimates or to bring a supplementary estimate in the House, debate it so we can know exactly what the monies are going for and you can have a more fulsome debate of it and you vote on it? Why use a special warrant in this circumstance?”
Another example was EC$30,000 for providing additional funds to settle arrears to VINLEC for the years 2009 on behalf of the Family Court.
“Where is the urgency? Where is the unforeseen nature of this? That is abusing the special warrant requirement of the legislation. And it is because there was never the intention of bringing it properly to account that it seems to me that this practice has been going on over and over again.”
In 2015, special warrants were additional funds for electricity bills and telephone services.
“Why haven’t we been paying LIME and VINLEC? … Are these all exigent circumstances that will do harm to the public good?” Friday said.
Special warrants were also issued for contributions and regional organisations
“We don’t know what we owe regional and international organisations at the end of the year to properly budget for it? These charges don’t just jump willy-nilly
“The point I am making is that as we have criticised, quite properly, this administration, it has played fast and loose with the financial laws and procedures of this country.”
The opposition leader said that in 2014 and 2017, the government exceeded the EC$25 million in spending via special warrants that the law allows.
Friday said that the government attempted to hide the 2014 amount by splitting it into two supplementary estimates: one for EC$19.06 million and the other for EC$7.099 million.
In 2017, it was even worse, at EC$28.5 million he said, adding that again, two estimates were presented.
“In two cases here, you have a clear violation of the law that was passed by this honourable house… How can we say that this government is behaving in a lawful manner when it deals with the people’s money?” Friday said.
The government noted in the debate that one of the special warrants was for the fast ferry company.
Friday’s constituents own the company, but he said the principles should apply regardless of the reason for the warrant or the beneficiary.
“I expect you to have the same standard irrespective of whether it affects my constituents or a constituent in the north of the country or in the Southern Grenadines or anywhere else because it is not a matter of convenience or expediency.
“It is not something we can do if we choose to or not. It is a legal requirement. It’s a must and we see it quite clearly in the way in which the government has behaved in these matters,” Friday told lawmakers.
“What we have before this honourable house is really a disgraceful practice of financial management of the business of this country. There is no way to sugar-coat it and the ministers of finance present and past are directly culpable and the senior officers in the Ministry of Finance who are responsible for making sure that these things are done ought to insist, as well, that they are done and maybe we should have a whistle-blower law in St. Vincent and the Grenadines too,” the opposition leader said.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story quoted as EC$115 million the total value of the special warrants issued between 2014 and 2018. The correct figure is $123,053,677.
According to the summary that Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves presented to lawmakers, in 2014, the amount was EC$19,061,041; in 2015, it was EC$16,827,908, in 2016, the amount was EC$22,703,177, in 2017, the total was EC$24,994,071; and in 2018, it was EC$23,954,094, for a total of EC$115,954,572.
However, Leader of the Opposition Godwin Friday told iWitness News that part of the supplementary estimates package excluded $7,099,105, which was the amount of the second supplementary estimates for 2014.
The opposition leader noted that this takes the total to EC$123,053,677.
“Because the maximum was $25 million to be spent by special warrants in a year, when the government exceeded the limit, it divided the total amount and present two supplementary estimates with each being under the $25m limit! Attempt to confuse others and conceal the breach!?” Friday said.