Friday, December 15, 2017

Time to bell this cat

Express editorial logo428

Mark Fraser

Not for the first time, but evidently worse than ever, the Auditor Generalís Report 2013 details a shocking state of affairs in the expenditure of public funds by various ministries and agencies of the government.

The astounding lack of accountability for billions of dollars of public money presents a picture of yet another administration that is oblivious to its responsibility to account for every cent spent from the public purse. The situation has now reached catastrophic levels because of the failure of successive governments to toe the line and respect the constitutional requirement for financial accountability.

It would be a travesty if this latest report from the Auditor General were allowed to pass into history without action. And yet, if history is to be any guide, this is exactly what should be expected as year after year, the Auditor Generalís red flags are ignored by those entrusted with the responsibility to account for money spent from the treasury.

This time, the public expects Parliament to do its job and send a message. To whatever extent possible, the Public Accounts Committee should give consideration to referring matters to the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions (DPP). It is only when people face the prospect of being hauled before the court that the lesson of accountability will sink in.

For years, the Auditor Generalís report has been raising concerns about unaccounted for expenditure without follow-through action. As long as public officials are not penalised for flouting accounting regulations they will continue the sins of commission and omission that produce the chaotic mess that the Auditor General has to wade through annually to produce audited accounts for Parliament. Ultimately, the buck stops with Parliament. It is not enough for MPs to make noise and cast blame. What is needed is for Parliament to use whatever teeth have been provided to it under the Constitution. The Office of the Auditor General cannot continue to be undermined by public officials who are either refusing, or are unable to supply critical documentation in support of their expenditure.

Following the 2012 Auditor Generalís report, the Minister of Finance told Parliament that several cases that had been flagged as delinquencies had been either settled or discounted by the time the report was made public. Perhaps public embarrassment is more effective in getting information from office-holders than a request from the constitutionally empowered Auditor General whose report is replete with complaints about missing invoices, contracts and other documents to validate the expenditure of large sums of public money.

Some of the most worrying issues raised by the Auditor General relate to the blatant lack of documents for big ticket items and employees. Permanent secretaries have a lot to answer for in terms of giving their approval for purchases of goods and services outside the scope of regulations. Clearly, the cat needs to be belled and we might as well begin now.