Office of the Prime Minister Takes a Position on PAC- Julius needs to work! Print E-mail
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Thursday, 22 August 2013 00:00

Julius EspatBelmopan. August 21, 2013
 The Office of the Prime Minister (OPM) announces that the Cabinet of Belize has carefully noted the positions taken by the Belize Chamber of Commerce and Industry (BCCI) and by the National Trade Union Congress of Belize (NTUCB) on the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of the House of Representatives. Cabinet considered the call of both bodies for the PAC to be converted into a Special Joint Select Committee of the House and Senate, and for that new Select Committee to comprise a membership that would include all three social partner Senators. Cabinet remains convinced that such a proposal is fundamentally inconsistent with the spirit and letter of the Standing Orders of the House. The radical and serial amendments of the Standing Orders that would be required for the transformation of the current PAC into the creature envisaged by the BCCI and NTUCB would render the proceedings of the new Committee both expensive and impractical. For all three social partners, the Opposition, and the Government to be on the proposed new body; and for the fundamental Standing Orders principle of Democracy, which requires the Government to be the majority on all Standing Committees, to be maintained, would result in an unwieldy and top heavy Committee and greatly ratchet up the costs associated with Committee hearings. Cabinet cannot, therefore, agree with such a proposal.

Further, Cabinet considers that the present Public Accounts Committee of the House provides a perfectly workable and efficient formula for conducting the business assigned to the Committee. Cabinet insists that it is only the game playing and grandstanding of the Hon Julius Espat as Chairman, which has frustrated the Committee and prevented it from functioning. But Cabinet points out that the Standing Orders provide for any two members to requisition and convene a meeting of the PAC if the Chairman fails to do so. Accordingly, the Government side of the Committee will insist now that the Chairman calls an urgent meeting of the PAC to agree to a schedule for consideration of all the outstanding Auditor General reports. Such a schedule should see the work divided into two: examination of pre-2008 reports; and examination of post-2008 reports. In any given week when the Committee meets, it should do so on two days of that particular week. The first day should be given over to the first set of reports, and the second day to the second set of reports. If the Hon. Espat as Chairman refuses to get things moving in this fashion, the Government will use the provision of the Standing Orders to have its members convene and conduct the meetings so that the work of the Committee can get done. The hearings will, in any case, be held in public.

Finally, the OPM points out that it was the Constitutional Amendments that were passed by the UDP in 2008 that enshrined into our highest Law the mechanism that obliged the Minister of Finance to lay the Annual Reports of the Auditor General before the House; that provided for the Auditor General to ensure laying in any case where the Minister failed to do so; and that provided for the punishment of the Auditor General for violation of the obligation to produce the Annual Reports. It was all these amendments that prevented the recurrence of the pre-2008 situation where the PUP Government had failed to lay or otherwise ventilate Auditor General Reports for nine years up to 2007. These UDP Constitutional Amendments were only part of a much wider set of reforms promulgated by the UDP to ensure accountability. These included passage of the Financial Transparency Regulations; legislating that the Finance and Stores Orders of the Public Service would have the force of law; amending the Finance and Audit Act to provide for the prosecution and punishment of Ministers and Public Officers that violated the law; and amending the Freedom of Information Act so as to outlaw any provision for secrecy in Government contracts.

Given these and other legislative advances it is hard to see, the OPM concludes, how the NTUCB-for instance-can claim that the current Administration has not moved far and fast enough in the direction of openness and accountability.