09 August, 2007

Public Accounts

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Constitutional Discussions 19: The Public Accounts Committee. One of the most important safeguards against waste of public funds is transparent accounting and reporting of government expenditure. The Auditor General in an Overseas Territory such as Anguilla is an external auditor. The word “external” suggests that he is free of influence from our politicians. He is appointed by the Governor without control from any local body such as Cabinet. This ensures that he is independent of our politicians. He reports only to the Governor. The Governor ensures that his Report is laid before the House of Assembly. The committee of the House that works with the Auditor General’s Report is called the Public Accounts Committee, or the PAC. What happens to the Auditor General’s Report after that varies from Territory to Territory. In the case of Bermuda, it is used by the PAC to examine how public funds were spent. Questions are asked. Inefficiencies can be highlighted. By this means, civil servants are encouraged to resist pressure from the Minister to spend funds in a manner that was not authorised by the House when the Budget was passed. For this oversight system to work, there has to be a vigilant and active PAC. It is a notorious matter that the PAC has never functioned in Anguilla. A similar complaint is heard about the PAC even in independent Commonwealth Caribbean countries. That it works well in Bermuda is a credit to the sophistication of that community.

In Anguilla, the PAC is not mentioned in the Constitution. It is referred to only in the Rules of Procedure of the House of Assembly. The Rules provide that the Leader of the Opposition is to be the Chairperson of the PAC. At paragraph 126 of its Report, the Constitutional and Elections Reform Commission made recommendations for the PAC to be strengthened and for it to function more efficiently. One of these recommendations was that the Leader of the Opposition should no longer be the Chair of the PAC. It should be the Speaker of the House or someone appointed by the Speaker. We in Anguilla well know the reason why this should be. There are two principal objections to having the Leader of the Opposition chair the PAC. The first is that the PAC is not meant to be a political weapon. It is meant to be a tool for ensuring transparency and good government. In a highly politicized society such as ours, it is frequently not thought a good political strategy to point out to the government of the day that they are wasting public funds. It may be more politically expedient to permit them to waste funds, and then to use the waste, when elections are next due, as a political weapon in the election campaign. There might as well have been no audit for all the good that does. The second problem is that, with such a small Assembly as we are likely to have for the foreseeable future, we may continue to have a situation where the members of the Opposition are unable to agree on who is to be the Leader of the Opposition. That is the reason why this office has remained unfilled for the past two years. The result is that the PAC cannot be constituted. It ceases to exist.

It is a matter for regret, therefore, that, at its recent caucus at the Limestone Bay Café, the members of the House of Assembly disagreed with the recommendation that the Leader of the Opposition cease to be the chair of the PAC. They agreed that the powers of the PAC should be strengthened. They want to retain this office as one of the perks of the Leader of the Opposition. This even though they know they have never had a PAC that has functioned!

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  1. The Bermuda Public Accounts Committee, which claims to operate in the interest of the people, bars both the people and the press from its secret meetings.

  2. In welcoming Governor Andrew George to Anguilla last year, Eddie Baird called on him to ensure good governance on the island by encouraging transparency and accountability in Government and the functioning of a Public Accounts Committee.

    When Eddie was Leader of the Opposition he couldn't be bothered to call a meeting of the Public Accounts Committee. One wonders if his reason was as you suggest, or simply because, as Hubert has pointed out, Eddie is "a lazy boy" who spent his time "frolicking at Herbert's."

  3. The House of Assembly is "entirely ineffective in scrutinizing government’s policy and administration to any real degree. This is partly because unlike Westminster there are no established oversight committees which are empowered to review the work of government. Although we have established the public accounts committee some ten years ago which is supposed to review government’s expenditure in various departments, this committee to my knowledge has never met." --David Carty, when he was Chair of the Constitutional Review Committee


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