EDITORIAL: Public Accounts Committee vital to democracy
THE CURRENT IMPASSE concerning the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament is a most unfortunate development in a year when we are celebrating the 50th anniversary of our Independence granted to us concurrently with our Constitution.
The office of the Auditor General, together with the PAC, are part and parcel of a clearly defined system by which our elected Parliament ought to be able to ensure accountability for the money which it authorises the Government (Cabinet) to spend during the Estimates debates and supplementary estimates during the course of Government’s financial year.
The second stage of the process is that the Auditor General has a constitutional duty to report to Parliament on his yearly audit of the accounts of the several Government departments and to report thereon to the Speaker. So far the system has worked properly up to this point.
Unfortunately, the way this system has worked after this stage or, more accurately, has not worked, has meant that having authorised the spending of money, Parliament has not been able, except for the odd occasion, to account for the disposal of public funds on receiving reports of the Auditor General.
It is then that the Public Accounts Committee takes over, but for one reason or other, there have been obstacles – legal or political – which have worked to frustrate the system even when every effort is being made by those responsible to activate the system.
The problem has a history almost as old as our Independence. Tom Adams, on becoming Prime Minister in 1976, complained about the difficulty he experienced as Opposition Leader in getting regular meetings held because a quorum required the presence of at least one of the members of the Government nominated to sit on the committee. As Opposition Leader, former Prime Minister Errol Barrow also publicly aired his criticisms of the system, and we are aware of the more recent efforts made to straighten out the quorum problems and sort out issues, including whether or not hearings should be public.
Our concern is not to apportion blame, but the public interest demands immediate action to have this situation remedied without further delay. The problem clearly arises at the stage where the committee seeks to summons members of the political directorate or even technocrats to ensure accountability for the disposal of public funds.
Whatever may have been the problems of the past, and whatever may be the arguments for and against this or that rule, we are firmly of the opinion that certain foundational principles must always be part of the Public Accounts Committee. In addition to the chairmanship always being controlled by the Opposition, a quorum should not be dependent on the necessary attendance of the Government. Persons summoned to attend and give evidence before the committee should have their rights protected as indeed they are now, and hearing rules should be crystal clear.
Adequate financial and other resources should always be accorded to the Auditor General and also to the PAC, and serious consideration should be given for lay membership of the committee.
In sum, the accountability of public funds is so critical to our democracy that no stone should be left unturned by both political parties to make sure that this aspect of the public interest is absolutely safeguarded. A serious democracy cannot any longer tolerate the shortcomings of the current situation.