An opposition lawmaker says that the fact that special warrants were not brought to Parliament for five years represents a “serious systemic failure” in St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
Last Thursday, Parliament approved EC$123 million in special warrants spending, some of which date back to 2014, during the lifetime of the previous parliament, which ended in November 2015.
“And when we look at what has taken place here, Mr. Speaker, it is a serious systemic failure of institutions, officers, processes and procedures, culminating in tonight’s embarrassment before this Honourable House,” Member of Parliament for Central Kingstown, St. Clair Leacock said during Thursday’s debate.
In presenting the bills for lawmakers’ approval, Minister of Finance Camillo Gonsalves admitted that his government had taken too long to do so.
Gonsalves had promised lawmakers that the situation would not be repeated, even as he noted that previous ministers of finance over various administrations had made similar commitments.
In his response to legislators’ contributions, however, Gonsalves cautioned against attacking the independence of certain constitutionally independent offices.
Leacock said he accepted the finance minister’s contribution, adding that this was important going forward.
The opposition lawmaker said the finance minister had accepted the point that the society has institutions.
“And in our cross talk, I also make the point of individuals, officers and processes,” Leacock said.
He pointed out that Prime Minister Ralph Gonsalves had noted that there is a role for the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
The PAC, which, traditionally, is chaired by the leader of the opposition, has not met in the 18 years Gonsalves’ Unity Labour Party has been in office.
Leacock, however, noted that when the PAC attempted to hold a meeting in 2010, the government members stonewalled the meeting, saying that the rules had not been approved by parliament.
He said that since then, the government has done nothing to have the rules approved.
But Leacock said the issue with the special warrants arose because of the realities touching two other important offices, namely the director of audit and the accountant general.
He acknowledged that there was also tardiness in the completion of the director of audit’s reports under the former New Democratic Party.
He, however, noted that the last audited accounts were for 2012.
“Why not start doing 2016, let’s say — I pull a year — or 2017 so that we are working to get as close as possible to currently and at the same time working backwards? So we are catching up but we are current?” he said.
Leacock questioned when the most recent years’ accounts will be audited at the current pace.
“Those accounts would probably not be up to date until the year 2026 or thereabouts, when they are virtually irrelevant,” he told lawmakers.
“So we have taken little or insufficient action to have current audit information before us so that this Parliament could be properly advised.”
“But therein lies the rub as well, Mr. Speaker,” he said, adding that the director of audit cannot do his or her work unless the accountant general prepares the national accounts for audit purposes.
“I impute no negative attributes to the accountant general,” he said.
Leacock, however, reiterated an observation in the 2011 director of audit’s report.
In that report, the director of audit said:
“There are no notes to the financial statements and as such the statements do not provide adequate information for the proper interpretation of the account. In addition, the narrative in the account was sometimes insufficient to determine the exact nature of the transactions.”
Leacock said that if that observation by the Director of Audit is applied in the context of the special warrants to several of the transactions before the House, “they are woefully inadequate as to what the special warrants’ purposes were for…”
He said that was the case except where the minister of finance explained that EC$300,000 could not simply be for the demolition of a house, as had been stated, but additional expenses connected to its reconstruction.
“But he can go through and carefully do that for several other transactions and one has to assume that they are deliberately vague in a number of these transactions.
“So that’s what I meant when I spoke earlier today when he said the Estimates and Budget is one of most important documents that come to the house and that it credibility has been called into question and so too, its integrity.”
Leacock also repeated what the director of audit had to say with respect to the Budget:
“The government should consider reviewing the total estimates for capital expenditure since these large shortfalls in capital revenue have implications for the credibility of the capital budget…”
“And this is long, long time ago. Long enough that we could have corrected it.”
He said the situation would repeat itself in the 2020 Budget.
He noted the minister of finance had said the Budget contains an EC$1 million surplus on the current account surplus.
Leacock, however, said that to the extent that every year there is in excess of EC$25 million in special warrants, there is no current account surplus.
He said the government balances the budget by under-spending.
“But the chicken has to come home to roost because this society needs hope, it needs jobs and opportunities for our people and they will only come when you provide real and factual information to manage the affairs of this country,” Leacock said.