Fi­nan­cial Over­sight: The St. Lu­cia Ex­pe­ri­ence

The Star (St. Lucia) - - COMMENT - By House Speaker Peter I. Foster, QC

This topic high­lights the need for us to be ever vig­i­lant in the pro­tec­tion and main­te­nance of our democ­ra­cies, as fi­nan­cial leg­isla­tive over­sight is ex­tremely im­por­tant to en­sure that the monies raised by Par­lia­men­tary au­thor­ity is hon­estly ex­pended. In Saint Lu­cia, our pro­cesses and pro­ce­dures, which con­trol and reg­u­late our public funds or our Con­sol­i­dated Fund, are very well pro­vided for in the Saint Lu­cia Con­sti­tu­tion or­der.

In our Con­sti­tu­tion, sec­tions 77 to 84 ad­e­quately pro­vide for the es­tab­lish­ment of a Con­sol­i­dated Fund into which all monies raised or re­ceived by Saint. Lu­cia is to be paid into that fund. The Con­sti­tu­tion pro­vides for re­stric­tions and meth­ods of with­drawals from the fund and au­tho­riza­tions of ex­pen­di­ture to be car­ried out an­nu­ally by a bill ap­proved by the House, known as the Ap­pro­pri­a­tion Bill.

Sec­tion 84 pro­vides: 1) that there shall be a Di­rec­tor of Au­dit whose of­fice shall be a public of­fice and that 2) the Di­rec­tor of Au­dit shall sat­isfy him­self (a) that all monies that have been ap­pro­pri­ated by par­lia­ment and dis­bursed have been ap­plied to the pur­poses to which they were so ap­pro­pri­ated and that the ex­pen­di­ture con­forms to the au­thor­ity that gov­erns it; and (b) at least once in ev­ery year au­dit an re­port on the public ac­counts of Saint Lu­cia, the ac­counts of all of­fi­cers and author­i­ties of the gov­ern­ment, the ac­counts of all courts of law in Saint Lu­cia (in­clud­ing any ac­counts of the Supreme Court main­tained in Saint Lu­cia), the ac­counts of ev­ery Com­mis­sion es­tab­lished by this Con­sti­tu­tion and the ac­counts of the par­lia­men­tary com­mis­sioner, the Clerk of the Se­nate and the Clerk of the House.

The Au­di­tor’s re­port has to be pre­pared at least once a year and the Min­is­ter of Fi­nance is to lay the re­port be­fore the House “not later than seven days af­ter the House first meets af­ter he has re­ceived the re­port.”

If the Min­is­ter fails to lay a re­port be­fore the House in ac­cor­dance with the pro­vi­sions of sub­sec­tion 4) of this sec­tion the Di­rec­tor of Au­dit shall trans­mit copies of the re­port to the Speaker who shall, as soon as prac­ti­ca­ble, present them to the House.

Ac­cord­ing to sec­tion 84(7) the Di­rec­tor of Au­dit shall not be sub­ject to the di­rec­tion or con­trol of any other per­son or au­thor­ity. This is to en­sure the in­de­pen­dence of this of­fice and the work that it does.This is all very well and good and I have no doubt that the civil ser­vants carry out their func­tions dili­gently and with due dis­patch. But this is noth­ing close to leg­isla­tive fi­nan­cial over­sight of the ac­counts of the coun­try. That func­tion has been tasked to one of the Stand­ing Se­lect Com­mit­tees of the House, the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee.

But we are here to dis­cuss the PAC and we are aware that all as­sem­bled here are Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment or those who are al­ready thor­oughly fa­mil­iar with the oper­a­tions of the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee. I will not bore you by re­peat­ing its func­tions. In­stead, I will go straight to the meat of the mat­ter and for the pur­poses of this pre­sen­ta­tion I will largely ref­er­ence my own ju­ris­dic­tion, Saint Lu­cia.

The Stand­ing Or­ders of the House of Assem­bly in Saint Lu­cia pro­vide that the PAC shall have the duty of ex­am­in­ing: (a) the ac­counts show­ing the ap­pro­pri­a­tion of the sums granted by the leg­is­la­ture to meet public ex­pen­di­ture; (b) such other ac­counts as may be re­ferred to the Com­mit­tee by the House or un­der any law; and (c) the Re­port of the Di­rec­tor of Au­dit on any such ac­counts.

In Saint Lu­cia our ex­pe­ri­ence is that on the com­mence­ment of a new ses­sion of Par­lia­ment the five Stand­ing Se­lect Com­mit­tees are con­sti­tuted. The PAC, the first of these, has tra­di­tion­ally been chaired by the Leader of the Op­po­si­tion with four other mem­bers made up of mem­bers of the House. Be­sides what I have read out, and un­like the other Se­lect Com­mit­tees, there are no other pro­vi­sions in the SO which gov­ern the busi­ness of the PAC. Just like all other Stand­ing Se­lect Com­mit­tees it shall not be more than five mem­bers, and the Com­mit­tee is to be con­sti­tuted to re­flect the bal­ance of the par­ties in the House.

This en­sures that the mem­ber­ship of the PAC is made up of at least three mem­bers of the gov­ern­ing party, and not more than two mem­bers of the Op­po­si­tion Party in the House. It is, I be­lieve, in­struc­tive that the PAC is the first men­tioned Com­mit­tee, as I con­sider it among the most, if not one of the most im­por­tant of the five. Con­sid­er­ing its level of im­por­tance, how­ever, it is sur­pris­ing, baf­fling even, that this is the Com­mit­tee that is given the least di­rec­tion in the Stand­ing Or­ders. For ex­am­ple, whilst the Stand­ing Or­ders de­fine with a great de­gree of speci­ficity who shall be the Chair of other com­mit­tees, there is no such in­struc­tion re­gard­ing the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee.

Notwith­stand­ing, we fol­low, as do most leg­is­la­tures, the tra­di­tion of ap­point­ing the Leader of the Op­po­si­tion to chair the PAC. Even as it is the con­ven­tion that our Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee has al­ways been chaired by the Leader of the Op­po­si­tion, the stark re­al­ity is that this is not com­pul­sory. The fact is that a strict in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Stand­ing Or­ders seems to sug­gest that bar­ring a res­ig­na­tion or sus­pen­sion/ex­pul­sion, no va­cancy can ex­ist therein.

In­deed, in Saint Lu­cia we have a most pe­cu­liar sit­u­a­tion. The Stand­ing Or­ders man­date the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee is to be ap­pointed by the House of Assem­bly as soon as may be af­ter the be­gin­ning of each Par­lia­ment. This was done, and the then Leader of the Op­po­si­tion was elected Chair­man. How­ever, last year a new Leader of the Op­po­si­tion was ap­pointed within the par­lia­men­tary pe­riod. As stated ear­lier, a lit­eral read­ing of the Stand­ing Or­ders does not sug­gest that, ab­sent of a res­ig­na­tion or sus­pen­sion, a va­cancy could arise in the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee. Con­se­quently, the Leader of the Op­po­si­tion is now not a mem­ber of the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee, far less its chair.

The Stand­ing Or­ders also do not man­date the com­po­si­tion of the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee. It says sim­ply that “ev­ery Se­lect Com­mit­tee shall be so con­sti­tuted as to en­sure, so far as is pos­si­ble, that the bal­ance of par­ties in the House is re­flected in the Com­mit­tee.” By ex­ten­sion, the Gov­ern­ment has a nat­u­ral built-in ma­jor­ity.

But how does this work? Isn’t it the gov­ern­ment’s fi­nan­cial man­age­ment of the Con­sol­i­dated Fund which the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee is charged with the duty to be vig­or­ously scru­ti­nized? How is that ac­com­plished when first the gov­ern­ment, with its ma­jor­ity votes in the House of Assem­bly, can use this to ap­point a Chair of its choice? It is to be re­called that the Chair need not be an Op­po­si­tion Mem­ber. Sec­ond, the Stand­ing Or­ders al­low the Gov­ern­ment to have the ma­jor­ity mem­ber­ship on the Com­mit­tee. So even if the Chair is the Leader of the Op­po­si­tion, there will be at least three gov­ern­ment mem­bers on that Com­mit­tee.

The ques­tion is, can that Com­mit­tee, in such cir­cum­stances func­tion ef­fec­tively? I would re­spond in the neg­a­tive. Then there is the size of our Par­lia­ments within the re­gion, with the largest, Guyana, hav­ing sixty-five seats and the small­est, An­guilla, hav­ing seven. That small size poses a ma­jor hin­drance to the very es­tab­lish­ment and con­sti­tu­tional ef­fec­tive­ness of the work of that Com­mit­tee. In al­most all of the OECS, nearly all of the elected Mem­bers of Par­lia­ment on the gov­ern­ment side are also a Min­is­ter of gov­ern­ment. It means gov­ern­ment nom­i­nees to the com­mit­tee in­vari­ably are also mem­bers of the ex­ec­u­tive arm of gov­ern­ment. In ef­fect, Min­is­ters will be asked to scru­ti­nize and pro­nounce on their own ex­pen­di­ture. I think we can safely all agree that this is not a recipe for good gov­er­nance.

Still on the small size of our Par­lia­ments, this al­lows for the pos­si­bil­ity of one party emerg­ing vic­to­ri­ous in all of the seats. This is not as far-fetched as many out­side of the re­gion may imag­ine, for it has oc­curred on no less than four oc­ca­sions: twice in Gre­nada and once each in Ja­maica and Trinidad & Tobago. Fol­low­ing the 1997 gen­eral elec­tions in Saint Lu­cia, the Labour Party was vic­to­ri­ous in six­teen of the sev­en­teen seats. In such a sce­nario, who would com­prise the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee? The make-up of the PAC dic­tates in ef­fect that the Ex­ec­u­tive scru­ti­nizes it­self.

So with the no­blest of in­ten­tions, the sad re­al­ity, in my coun­try at least, is that the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee has never ful­filled its obli­ga­tions. The truth is, it sim­ply can­not.

Be­cause of the small size of our Par­lia­ments and the mem­bers form­ing the gov­ern­ment usu­ally also mak­ing up the ex­ec­u­tive branch, it is some­what of a farce to ex­pect the de­sired in­tent of proper scru­tiny of the Public Ac­counts. It is no won­der that in my coun­try the PAC is seem­ingly in­ef­fec­tive and non­func­tional.

The mem­bers who make up the ma­jor­ity are busy at­tend­ing to their Min­istries. Fur­ther, the phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture is lack­ing to fa­cil­i­tate the meet­ings, as there are no ad­e­quate com­mit­tee rooms set up. There is only one back­bencher on the gov­ern­ment side. All other mem­bers of the House are also Min­is­ters. So this leads onto another ma­jor con­cern about proper and ef­fec­tive par­lia­men­tary rep­re­sen­ta­tion. Should we have larger par­lia­ments and a max­i­mum num­ber of Min­is­ters with back­benchers be­ing paid equiv­a­lent salaries to that of a Min­is­ter, to rec­og­nize the im­por­tance of the work they un­dergo in their con­stituen­cies? Rec­og­niz­ing this, the House of Assem­bly has taken the de­ci­sion to un­der­take the re­form of the Stand­ing Or­ders.

It is the view of Mem­bers that our not so unique sit­u­a­tion re­quires unique so­lu­tions. To this end, we are con­tem­plat­ing, among other things, the in­cor­po­ra­tion of non-par­lia­men­tar­i­ans into the Com­mit­tees, in­clud­ing the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee, to pro­mote greater trans­parency and ac­count­abil­ity. There are sug­ges­tions that the Di­rec­tor of Au­dit and even pos­si­bly an ex­ter­nal ac­coun­tant are fea­tured within the PAC. I re­it­er­ate that these are merely pro­pos­als and not con­crete steps. Our ex­pe­ri­ences are not the best, and are want­ing in sev­eral ar­eas. In­deed, in pre­par­ing for this con­fer­ence it has brought these short­com­ings to light, and has aroused a de­sire to at­tend to them as soon as pos­si­ble.

Editor’s Note: The pre­ced­ing was de­liv­ered by the au­thor at the Pe­ga­sus Ho­tel, Ja­maica, on June 3, 2015.

Saint Lu­cia’s House Speaker Peter I Foster, QC: Isn’t it the gov­ern­ment’s fi­nan­cial man­age­ment of the Con­sol­i­dated Fund which the Public Ac­counts Com­mit­tee is charged with the duty to be

vig­or­ously scru­ti­nized?

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