Audit Office Act finally comes into force

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The Audit Office Act finally came into force on April 1 2011, almost 16 months after being passed by Parliament and about 12 months after being signed by the President into law.

Some Bills come into operation on the day the President appends his signature.

However, some have provisions which stipulate that they will only come into operation on a date to be fixed by the President through a statutory instrument.

The statutory instrument for the Audit Office Act was gazetted on April 1 2011.

The Audit Office Act is a very good piece of legislation that provides for the additional functions of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, establishes the Audit Office Commission and its functions and provides for the transfer of persons from the Public Service to the Audit Office.

The Act can go a long way in strengthening public finance management provided it is enforced.

The Act tries to deal with the perennial problems of serious delays in tabling annual audit reports before Parliament.

The latest audit report tabled before Parliament was the damning Special Report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General for the first quarter of 2009 that unearthed gross abuse in the management of public funds and assets by senior ministry officials.

The last annual audit report was for the year 2007 that saw most of the accounts of ministries being qualified.

Section 10 of the Act requires the Auditor-General to prepare and submit his/her annual audit report to the Minister of Finance no later than June 30 in each year.

Section 12 compels the minister to lay the same report before the House of Assembly on one of the seven days that the House sits next after the minister has received the report from the Auditor-General.

Simply put, we expect the 2010 audit report to be submitted to Finance minister Tendai Biti by June 30 this year and for Biti to lay it before the House of Assembly during the first week of July provided the House is sitting during that time.

There is a provision in the Act to empower the Auditor-General to transmit a copy of the Audit Report directly to the Speaker of the House of Assembly if the minister fails to comply with the time frames set in the Act.

Like I have already pointed out, these excellent provisions will remain on paper unless they are enforced.

There is need to urgently address capacity gaps in the Audit Office if we are to see any reports being tabled in the House of Assembly within the stipulated time frames.

We hope the transfer of officers from the Public Service to the Audit Office will be accompanied by a commensurate improvement in conditions of service in order to attract and retain highly qualified auditors.

The Act has tried to address this issue by empowering the Comptroller and Auditor-General to contract out audit of government accounts. The person so appointed must be registered as a public auditor in terms of the Public Accountants and Auditors Act.

The person so appointed may carry out an economic, efficienct and effective audit of the accounts.

This is called value-for-money audits. This is most welcome because strong public finance management requires that we not only focus on utilising less resources per unit of output, but also to what extent the decision to utilise resources in that area was right in the first place.

The other important provision I would like to focus on is Section 11 which deals with special reports by the Comptroller and Auditor-General and the powers of the Public Accounts Committee of Parliament.

The Auditor-General now has enhanced powers to prepare special reports if he/she feels that any matter relating to public monies or state property should be drawn to the attention of the Public Accounts Committee.

The report shall be transmitted to the Minister of Finance or any other appropriate minister if it relates to a public entity, designated corporate body or statutory fund. These reports have to be laid before the House of Assembly.

The Public Accounts Committee can now direct the Comptroller and Auditor-General to prepare a special report if it feels that any matters relating to public monies or State property should be reported upon.

These enhanced powers will significantly strengthen the role of Parliament in public finance management provided the committee exercises those powers.

Judging by the recent Special Report by the Comptroller and Auditor-General for the first quarter of 2009 that unearthed serious financial irregularities in ministries, there is a lot of work to be done by the Public Accounts Committee and the Auditor-General.

And when financial mismanagement and the culprits have been identified, action should immediately follow.

Prosecution of the offenders should be the next logical step.

Allowing culprits to walk away scot free-like as happened with the findings of the 2009 First Quarter Special Report cannot be allowed to prevail in a country that claims to observe the rule of law.

Recommendations of the Auditor- General and the Public Accounts Committee should be taken seriously by law enforcement agents.

In Uganda, the Public Accounts Committee has struck a cordial working relationship with the prosecuting authorities such that whenever the committee has carried out an investigation and made recommendations for prosecution, this is immediately executed.

Now that Parliament and the Auditor-General have the legal instrument, let us see them getting down to serious business in order to strengthen public finance management in this country.

The Constitution should be amended to enable Parliament to have a say in the appointment of the Auditor-General.

This is only logical as the Auditor-General reports to both the minister and Parliament. At the moment, the Comptroller and Auditor-General is appointed by the President after consultation with the Public Service Commission.

John Makamure is the executive director of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust. He writes in his personal capacity.