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Two Toothless Tigers

Dr Frances Chandler

Two Toothless Tigers

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It seems that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC)has finally woken up. Barbadians were appalled by the findings revealed regarding the National Housing Corporation (NHC) during a recent  meeting ofthe committee.
But such irregularities are nothing new. The Auditor General has reported irregularities with Government Ministries and Departments year after year. The questionis “what is done about these findings and who is held accountable for any infelicities revealed?” It seems the answer is often  nothing and no one. The pot boils up, the stove is turned off and the pot boils down until the procedure is repeated.
The mission of the Audit Office is to strengthen public accountability through fair and independent reports after careful examination of accounting records and use of resources. I have always admired the Auditor General forhis candid reports but he must be one of the most frustrated people since the reports usually seem to be ignored.
For instance, according to the  2011 Auditor General’s report over $5 million was released by the treasury to the VAT office and not accounted for. What became of these funds? What was the outcome of the investigation?
Shouldn’t we be told why the contractor responsible for remodelling 13 stalls near the Speightstown Bus Terminal was paid the full contract price when towards the endof December 2007 work had only commenced on sixof the stalls?
Who was held accountable for the fact that since 2001the Ministry of Transport and Works purchased a weighbridge which was never installed but left to deteriorate in the elements? Since 1990, the Ministry purchased threebrake testers, but it took nine years before a testerwas fully installed.
There is a report of fines totalling $2.5 million imposedby courts but warrants not issued to defendants, so fines remained outstanding.
According to the Auditor General “there continues to be challenges with reconciling bank statements at the treasury. There were large unresolved differences on these statements . . . the absence of bank reconciliations could lead to errors or fraud going undetected.” Scary, to say the least.
What is the point of having a department which costs in the vicinity of $4 million per year if there is no follow upand no one is held accountable for irregularities discovered?
The Public Accounts Committee Act states that it must meet every six months but I understand that between 2008 to 2012. the PAC?met on average once per year and as far as I recall during the period 2003 to 2008, the frequency was no better. How can the very people who make the laws flout them?
As Caswell Franklyn notes “our society is in swift decline because people are following Government’s lead in ignoring the law”.
The Auditor General’s report is to assist Parliament in carrying out its responsibility to hold Government agencies accountable for the management of public resources. The duty of the PAC is to review the report and report to both Houses of Parliament on any matters arising. However, inhis report of 2011, the Auditor General notes that the committee had not reviewed any of the annual or special reports for the past four years.
I can well understand that after listening to the PAC proceedings last Monday. The entire meeting was spent quibbling about the need for regulations to govern the meetings and to determine if publication is allowed. Imagine after at least ten years of existence, there is still some doubt about regulations! Despite the vigorous contentions to the contrary, this can only seem to the public as frustratingthe proceedings.
But what are the powers of both the Auditor Generaland the PAC? We are already borrowing to employ a larger than necessary public service and we have often questioned their productivity.
Can we afford to add squandering of resources to the equation and have to stand idly by because these two  “toothless tigers” seem only able to report and recommend rather than to ensure that justice is done?
It is good that the PAC meetings are now being streamedso that the public will be more aware, but I think that apart from enacting legislation to empower the PAC, the politics needs to be taken out of its functioning by making it a bodyof independent people.
• Dr Frances Chandler is a former Independent senator. Email [email protected]