I do not share the excitement of the media and the public about the revelations in the Auditor General’s 2010 report supplying further evidence of the excesses, mismanagement and improprieties which have become routine under Dr Ashni Singh’s stewardship of the Ministry of Finance. For persons who pay taxes and advise others to do likewise this is more than a titillating news story. Accordingly, I cannot be enthused to read that the Contingencies Fund continues to be abused several years after it was first pointed out. I am not at all pleased that this Auditor General cannot see the forest for the trees, and that he is more concerned about some overpayment of $1,167 than about hundreds of millions of dollars in special funds not being audited; or that he focuses on vehicle log books not maintained while scores of government vehicles cannot be accounted for or are misused.
If our financial architecture is designed to be dysfunctional, which by any measure it is, then no amount of post-transaction audit would remedy the defects. There must be concern about the placing of square pegs in round holes, persons holding positions across the arms of the state without the requisite expertise and qualifications.
One of the most effective tools of financial oversight is a well-resourced internal audit mechanism headed by at least one qualified accountant. Our Fiscal Management and Accountability Act bears some resemblance to the Australian Act, but with notable exceptions. That Act which goes back to 1997, six years before the Guyana Act, provides for fraud control plans and audit committees in each agency, and applies the criminal code of that country to the misapplication, improper disposal or improper use of public money. Unlike our Act, the Minister is not exempted from such sanctions.
Under the Australian Act any borrowing of money not authorized by an Act of the National Assembly is invalid. Our relevant legislation seems far more permissive and even that is being abused with several loans and other financial agreements entered into not tabled in the National Assembly. Their Parliament must be notified of any involvement in a company by the state or a prescribed body. In Guyana, Dr Singh’s NICIL (he is the Chairman of the Board with Dr Luncheon and other Cabinet members) can form companies and use them to siphon off state resources or enter into questionable transactions. Even if, as seems probable, that had been done at Mr Jagdeo’s behest, it would not exonerate the Minister nor the Auditor General from investigating these.
A financial infrastructure
No properly managed structure would allow the Audit Office to decide that it would no longer report on concessions given by the administration, in clear violation of statute. Or to accept a self-serving opinion from a cabinet member that public moneys do not have to be put in the Consolidated Fund. The least a self-respecting audit office would do is seek an independent opinion.
Nor would a proper financial infrastructure allow the offices of Accountant General and Auditor General to be held over several years by acting appointees, or require the latter to report to the executive, contrary to the constitution. I am concerned that the Public Accounts Committee has not asserted itself, content to make less than consequential statements than address the fundamental problems facing the financial administration of the country. Concerned too that the Audit Report reflects no work on the transactions of the Office of the President except to refer approvingly to the Lethem to Providence E-Government Project, one of the immediate beneficiaries. Some $846.451M was expended on that project in 2010 which is only partly completed.
It seems to me a national disgrace that the government can decide that it will so frustrate the establishment of the Public Procurement Commission in order for cabinet to control all significant tenders. Or use the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act as cover to bring constitutionally independent persons under the Ministry of Finance. With all the excesses, I am not aware that any public official has ever been brought before the court for breaches of the Act.
In the days of Anand Goolsarran, before we had the Act and before we had several years of training in forensic and Value For Money audits, we could rely on the Audit Office to tell us about the stone scam, the milk scam and poor public infrastructural works. Now the Audit Report is more noted for what it leaves out than what it includes. The media – both print and electronic – constantly depress the nation with stories and pictures of shoddy multi-million works that have gone bad. The Audit Office looks at the Palms but not at NICIL, Pradoville 2, or those projects that have robbed the nation of billions. For all the controversy with the Amaila road awarded by NICIL, or the many concessions valued at billions of dollars, the Audit Office has been noticeably silent.
We must not forget that whatever the 2010 Report’s significant defects, the report was delivered within the statutory deadline for the first time since the current holder has occupied the office. But to ensure that the abuses played no part in the elections, the report was not released until four months later.
What makes for a more depressing picture is that the Opposition in the National Assembly chairs the Public Accounts Committee but is overwhelmed by the executive and people like the Financial Secretary, who is the Head of Budget Agency with responsibility for compliance with the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act and the protection of public moneys and property.
The PAC too, has constitutional responsibility to nominate the members of the Public Procurement Commission, but for ten years has failed to do so. For whatever reason, the commission has not been appointed and its constitutional functions are shared between the cabinet and the National Procurement and Tender Administration. The members of the administration are appointed by the Minister of Finance who determines the salary and allowances they receive and to whom they report.
Past reports show the continued disdain this Minister has for the Audit Office which he once served under Goolsarran. Every year we are told that the Ministry of Finance (the Minister and the Finance Secretary) did not include explanations of any significant differences between the annual estimates of revenues and out-turn of the revenues. And that the ministry did not provide explanations for the impact of (a) movements in the underlying economic assumptions and parameters used in the preparation of the annual budget proposals; (b) changes to revenue policies during the year; and (c) slippages, if any, in the delivery of the budget measures. Because of the stubbornness of the ministry we can never be certain of the completeness, accuracy and validity of the amounts shown in the Statement of End of Year Budget Outcome and Reconciliation Report (Revenue) required under Section 68(1) of the Fiscal Management and Accountability Act 2003.
Singular contempt for the Audit Office and by extension the Public Accounts Committee and the country is demonstrated with the reaction and response to the reports of abuse of the Contingencies Fund. Responsibility for this fund lies solely with the Minister of Finance and in the past five years the amounts which the National Assembly was called upon to reimburse the fund because of expenditure under the Ashni Singh Ministry of Finance was a whopping $14 billion. Yet, as Dr Singh has shown by his behaviour over Bill # 1 of 2012, both he and the Financial Secretary Mr Nirmal Rekha appear to be in a state of denial, or arrogance. Their response to the comment by the Audit Office in 2007 about the Contingencies Fund advances not meeting the criteria provided by law, was that since Parliament subsequently passed the supplementary appropriation to cover the advances, the advances could not be contrary to the Act!
Here are a couple of other cases of bad financial management.
Two loan liabilities of $51M in 2004 were allowed to grow to $211M because of the failure of Ministry of Finance to act on them. The increase is all as a result of interest on the loans.
No deposit fund account has been established as required by section 42 of the FMA Act which requires the Minister to “establish one or more Deposit Funds into which public monies shall be paid pending repayment or payment for the purpose for which the monies were deposited.” Deposits received during year 2010 were paid directly into the Consolidated Fund (Account № 407), and related payments made therefrom.
I will close this week with a reference to the state of the country’s principal bank accounts. As at December 31, 2010, there were balances of $4.4B in static and inactive accounts and other accounts that should have been transferred to the Consolidated Fund. Indications are that these are now being transferred to plug the deficits brought on by the non-arrival of the Norway funds and excessive spending by the government.
There has been no reconciliation of amounts of maybe $46 billion held in the old Consolidated Fund which the Audit Office has been recommending be closed, but only after the impossible task of completing proper bank reconciliation – the mathematical equivalent of trying to square the circle. Meanwhile the report does not make clear whether the new account for the Consolidated Fund which was opened to bring some order to the government’s bank balances has gone the same way. It certainly seems to be in overdraft.