A good precedent was made in Parliament this year when the 2011 National Budget was passed with amendments to the Finance Bill recommended by the Senate.
A Money Bill can only be amended by the House of Assembly, according to provisions of our Constitution.
The Senate can only recommend and it is up to the House of Assembly to accept or reject those recommendations.
It is not the purpose of this article to discuss the merits or demerits of the changes. Suffice to say what happened this year is a very good start that Parliament should build upon in terms of meaningful participation in the budget process.
The passage of the budget paves the way for the next crucial part of the budget process, that of monitoring its implementation. This is one area that Parliament has been very weak at over the years.
Many have argued that since our current government system makes it very difficult for Parliament to reject the budget, maybe the main focus should be on closely monitoring how the resources approved by legislators are being used.
And when monitoring execution of the budget, emphasis should be on efficient and effective utilisation of public resources. Efficiency is to do with maximising output per unit of inputs while effectiveness is about deploying public resources to do the right things.
During heated debate on the 2011 National Budget, Finance minister Tendai Biti denigrated legislators and accused them of lacking capacity. His remarks did not go down well with members across the political divide. The truth of the matter is that it is in ministries where capacity is a huge problem.
This largely explains why ministries have not been able to submit to Parliament monthly and quarterly reports on budget performance as required by the Public Finance Management Act. It is high time that members of Parliament demonstrated to Biti that they have the requisite capacity to expose Executive shortcomings in budget implementation.
The Ministry of Finance and its line ministries have not complied with provisions of the Public Finance Management Act that makes monitoring of budget implementation by Parliament and its portfolio committees easier.
Apart from the lone voice of Paddy Zhanda, the chairperson of the Budget Committee, the other portfolio committees and individual MPs have been virtually silent on the matter. Because the oversight role of Parliament is mainly carried out through the budget process, silence therefore weakens parliamentary oversight.
Section 32 of the Act requires every director of finance in ministries to prepare annual financial statements and submit such statements to the accounting officer in the ministry and to the Accountant General within 30 days of the year concerned.
This means by end of January 2011, all financial statements for the 2010 fiscal year should have been finalised. Audited reports should be ready and sent to the accounting officer by end of March 2011.
Given capacity constraints in ministries, this is certainly a big ask. It is the duty of Parliament to question ministries and ensure that these capacity gaps are addressed.
Section 33 (2) of the Public Finance Management Act requires every accounting officer to prepare quarterly financial statements and reports that will be submitted by the ministers to the appropriate parliamentary portfolio committee.
This has not been done to date. Section 33 (3) of the Act requires the Accountant General in the Ministry of Finance to prepare consolidated quarterly financial statements for presentation by the Minister to the House of Assembly and the appropriate parliamentary portfolio committee within 60 days of the end of the respective quarter.
The appropriate portfolio committee in this case is that of Budget, Finance and Investment Promotion. However, not a single report was submitted to the committee in 2010 – a clear violation of this provision. The first quarter report for 2010 should have been submitted to Parliament by May, the second quarter by August and the third quarter by November.
The last quarter financial statements and reports should be submitted by February this year. The committee must therefore seek explanation from the minister and enforce the law.
Section 34 of the Act is almost the same as Section 33. The only difference is that it deals with the submission of monthly reports by ministries to portfolio committees within 30 days of the respective month and that the consolidated monthly financial statements shall be published in the Government Gazette within 30 days of the succeeding month. Publication in the Gazette is a good way of promoting transparency in the utilisation of public funds.
There is also the issue of the audited reports by the Comptroller and Auditor General. Section 35 (12) of the Public Finance Management Act requires that the Minister of Finance submit to the House of Assembly audited consolidated annual financial statements within 180 days of the end of the financial year.
We know that in Zimbabwe the submission of audited reports before Parliament has been seriously delayed. Apart from the special reports by the Auditor-General of 2009, what they call latest reports are more than five years old. Certainly, this is not good for closer monitoring of budget execution by Parliament.
The six-month provision in the Act can only address this problem provided capacity problems in ministries and Auditor-General are addressed and the law enforced.
In the event that in 2011 we see reports being submitted before Parliament in line with provisions of the Act, these reports must be meaningful enough in order for MPs to properly track expenditures.
As representatives of the people, MPs must question the outputs, outcomes and impact of public expenditures.
The resources must make a difference to the delivery of public services. Portfolio committees must therefore request details on expenditure plans, the timelines for delivery of planned programmes and what the expected outputs, outcomes and impact are.
Such information will assist them to assess and determine to what extent set targets have been realised.
It should be an exciting 2011 if portfolio committees organise themselves properly to understand the provisions of the Public Finance Management Act and closely monitor budget execution.
The momentum created in 2010 should be sustained if the public is to take Parliament seriously.
John Makamure is the Executive Director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback: firstname.lastname@example.org