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Public Accounts Committee must have more teeth

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The Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is an important committee of Parliament expected to play a prominent role in the way public funds are managed in Zimbabwe. It is a post audit committee in the Parliament of Zimbabwe whose mandate is to examine the financial affairs and accounts of Government departments and State-owned enterprises.

It also examines all reports of the Comptroller and Auditor-General and reports to Parliament. But is the committee effective?

What can the Public Accounts Committee do in the event that irregularities and abuse of public funds are reported such as what happened with the 2009 First Quarter Special Report by the Comptroller and Auditor- General? What can be done to enhance its effectiveness?

Standing Order 163 of the House of Assembly provides for the functions of the PAC as those of “examination of the sums granted by Parliament to meet the public expenditure and of such other accounts laid before Parliament as the committee may think fit”. This is as far as the standing orders go.

These terms of reference in my opinion are not detailed enough. Examination of the sums granted by Parliament does not give the committee enough powers apart from merely reporting to Parliament.

We all know that in most cases ministers do not bother to respond to committee reports, resulting in these detailed reports and pertinent findings and recommendations gathering dust.

For the ministries and government departments implicated in the mismanagement and abuse of public funds, it becomes business as usual because the oversight work of the Public Accounts Committee is not strong enough to compel action to be taken on errant public officials.

Let me remind readers on what happened with the 2009 First Quarter Special Report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General. The report identified massive abuse of public funds and assets in several ministries and government departments.

The Public Accounts Committee rightfully sprung into action and scrutinised the audited report and invited submissions from the accounting officers. The committee then came up with two reports that were tabled in the House on February 3 and October 26 2010.

The reports generated a lot of debate and attracted extensive media coverage. The main summary of the committee’s findings and recommendations was as follows:

“The Committee was appalled by the glaring flouting of rules and regulations in the management of cash, public assets and human resources and lack of accountability by government ministries.

“The Committee’s findings on the Special Report of the C and A G (Comptroller and Auditor-General) for the First Quarter of the 2009 Financial Year is an indication of the breakdown of systems of management, accountability and a culture of non-performance in government.

“The Committee looks at the Special Report as a measure of performance for accounting officers and as such, needed to be taken seriously. In its view, non-performers should be flushed out. Government should take urgent steps to stop the decay.

Implementation of performance management, which has long since been talked of, should be accorded high priority if government is to address irregularities highlighted in this report”.

My major worry is that there has not been any action taken following the committee reports.

The implicated ministers and senior government officials continue to serve in government as if nothing happened.

The Minister of Finance has not even bothered to respond to the committee reports, a development that is surprising given that he is the custodian of public funds.

Surely, how on earth can public officials be allowed to get away with such gross mismanagement of public resources without action being taken?

In another country where accountability is taken seriously, there would have been a huge public outcry and prosecution of the offenders.

In Zimbabwe, it is still business as usual despite the formation of the inclusive government. Parliament itself has not done enough.

The Public Accounts Committee must make follow-ups and demand action to be taken.

There is also need for the other MPs (who are not necessarily members of the Public Accounts Committee) to continue debating such issues of public interest.
It is not the Public Accounts Committee alone that should be seized with the matter.

When a report has been tabled in Parliament, it becomes the responsibility of all members to contribute to the debate.

And our civic society should join in and put pressure on their elected representatives to have more teeth. I am deeply concerned that there was dead silence from civic society when the Auditor General tabled the damning special report.

The work of the Public Accounts Committee should go beyond merely looking at numbers, but determine to what extent there has been value-for-money in the manner in which public funds have been used.

This is what is referred to as economy, efficiency and effectiveness in auditing.

Further training of Public Accounts Committee members is needed for them to tackle value-for-money audits.

Section 6 (b) of the Audit Office Act empowers the Comptroller and Auditor-General to carry out value-for-money audits. The Public Accounts Committee should therefore engage the Auditor- General on this matter.

The Auditor-General’s work is so sensitive that the post is usually a protected one under the constitutions of most countries so that it may preserve the official’s independence and freedom.

In South Africa, the President, on the recommendations of the National Assembly, appoints the Auditor-General for a fixed non-renewable term of between five and 10 years.

In Zimbabwe, there is no Parliamentary involvement in the appointment of the Auditor-General. He/she is appointed by the President after consultation with the Public Service Commission.

Conditions of service are fixed by the President after consultation with the Public Service Commission. In other Parliaments, the operations of the Auditor-General are so bound up with the parliament’s function of financial scrutiny that the Auditor-General is given the prerogatives of an officer of parliament, though not appointed by or subject to its administration.

It is often recommended that the Auditor-General should not be seen as a government auditor but as a full-time officer of Parliament and that the Public Accounts Committee in particular should have the responsibility for guaranteeing his/her independence.

One of the problems for committees involved with scrutiny is that there is often a heavy turnover of members that works against the continued efficiency of such committees.

The reason given with regard to the Public Accounts Committee is that there are few political rewards from its membership, and some countries, in an effort to raise the status of the committee to a position of eminence amongst committees, arrange special remuneration for the chairperson.

John Makamure is the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. Feedback: john.makamure@gmail.com

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