Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves, on Thursday, essentially admitted to Parliament that his government broke the law when it failed to bring to Parliament EC$123 million in special warrants dating back to 2014.
He said that under the Finance Administration Act that his government passed into law, the special warrants should have been brought to Parliament within one year after being issued.
“Under section 28, the special warrant was properly issued and we are now before the Parliament, only that we are delayed in bringing them here. That is not a hanging offence,” Gonsalves said.
The prime minister — having handed over, in 2017, the finance ministry to his son, Camillo Gonsalves, who is Member of Parliament for East St. George — was finance minister when many of the special warrants were issued.
He told lawmakers that “in each case, the expenditure is not foreseen and is not provided for or not sufficiently provided for and that it’s required for the public good”.
The prime minister was quoting the circumstances in which the government is permitted to use a special warrant.
“Every single one of these; every single one of them. The Honourable Leader of the Opposition may have an opinion on it and in the circumstances that the expenditure in the opinion of the minister cannot be postponed without injury to the public good,” he said.
Gonsalves was speaking during the debate after which Opposition Leader Godwin Friday launched a scathing criticism of the government’s use of special warrants.
“…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,” Friday said.
“It appears to me that the kinds of laissez-faire attitudes that his government had adopted in respect to 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.
“We have heard all the talk about transparency and good governance but what does the record say on this most fundamental aspect of good governance?” he told lawmakers.
In rationalising his government use of special warrants, Gonsalves said:
“So if you owe VINLEC arrears for 2009 and it is not included in the Estimates and the Appropriation Bill…, the circumstances are created for a special warrant to be issued”
He said the opposition was tendering an opinion without the relevant facts.
“I would want to know, if, for instance, a lawyer gets a judgment and the lawyer writes the attorney general and the attorney general says well there is a judgement and the lawyer says if the judgement is not paid they will bring an action in the court to compel the government to pay, and particularly the minister, the attorney general will tell the cabinet it is an urgent matter and the client and lawyer has to be pay.”
The prime minister noted that during the debate it was suggested that the Budget include a sum the honouring court judgements against the government.
“Obviously, there is a provision but it is not sufficient,” the prime minister said. “Because when you are doing your budget, you are not contemplating that you might have to pay $3 million or $4 million in any one year.”
Gonsalves noted that when the special warrants are passed, they morph in the supplementary estimates and the supplementary Appropriation Bill, adding that in doing so, his government is following the law.
The prime minister said that the debate might have a positive effect on public servants.
“But I will tell you this, one thing I am glad about — this debate is that the person in the Ministry of Finance — I am not blaming them — would make a very special effort to ensure that come December or January, whenever the budget is presented, that they will have the supplementary estimates and the supplementary appropriation for the year 2019.
“… I want them to hear me. There are a few items in the supplementary estimates which come early which, to be sure, are unforeseen but we take special care that we must have as few special warrants as practicable in all the circumstances, particularly in the early part of the year so that we cannot in the question of accountability but to make sure we husband the finances better.”
But the opposition leader rose and told lawmaker it was “disingenuous of the prime minister to suggest it is some minor official in every ministry that brings these special warrants forward.
“Each ministry is headed by a minister,” the opposition leader said.
“That’s where the buck stops and the ultimate minister is the minister of finance so you have to take the responsibility; don’t pass it off to some minor official in the ministry are bringing the special warrants. They don’t,” Friday said.
The special warrants approved last Thursday amounted to in excess of EC$23 million.
And, in two of the years since 2014, the government has spent in excess of EC$25 million annually via special warrants, in contravention of the law.