Proceedings in the National Assembly since resumption of business on 9 January have largely focused on the 2018 National Budget that was presented to Parliament on 7 December 2017.
By John Makamure
Interrogation of the Budget by various portfolio committees and debate in plenary has been quite robust, thanks to technical assistance provided over the years in budget analysis.
The $5,8 billion National Budget, generally welcomed by analysts in terms of its intentions to implement drastic public sector reforms in order to reduce the unsustainable fiscal deficit, has to be passed by Parliament for the financial resources to be appropriated to various ministries and departments for spending.
While it is the duty of the Executive to draw up a financial plan for the forthcoming fiscal year, that plan is subject to approval by the Legislature.
In this regard, Parliament holds the “power of the purse”. Section 305 of the Constitution of Zimbabwe, gives Parliament an obligation to approve all appropriations and taxation measures before they can become effective. It is required to effectively scrutinise, debate the broad terms of the budget proposals and identify potential inconsistencies and possible savings through a detailed analysis of estimates for expenditure and revenue-raising measures.
Coming back to the current proceedings on the Budget, many will question the value of this robust interrogation of the Budget, if it does not influence any changes to the content or prioritisation of spending decisions. They argue that without influencing amendments to the Budget, such debate becomes more of an academic exercise that does not improve people’s welfare.
Of major concern to legislators and the general populace is the increased allocation to security ministries at the expense of critical sectors such as health and child care.
The ministry received $408 910 000 of the total allocation to ministries, compared to $435 471 00 for the ministry of Home Affairs and Culture, and $420 364 000 for the ministry of Defence, Security and War Veterans.
The allocation to the ministry of Health and Child Care comprises 8,8 % of the total budget for all ministries, which is way below the 15% agreed by countries which are party to the Abuja Declaration. Zimbabwe is a signatory to that agreement.
While the argument of parliamentarians engaging in an academic debate of the Budget if they cannot influence changes has some merit, we should not forget that extensively debating Executive proposals brought to Parliament is exactly at the core of parliamentary work.
In-depth analysis and robust debate helps to improve understanding of the proposals that the Executive has tabled. This allows the law-makers to engage ministers and senior government officials in an informed manner. Experience has shown that the Executive is more likely to take on board recommendations from parliamentary committees, if they are well-grounded in research and analysis.
History has also shown that some of the recommendations from parliamentary committees find themselves factored into the following year’s Budget.
The analysis and debate currently going on the 2018 Budget allows MPs to effectively monitor implementation of the Budget. In simple terms, you cannot monitor that which you do not understand.
Section 299 of the Constitution confers on Parliament the power to monitor all State revenues and expenditure.
It specifically says, Parliament “must monitor and oversee expenditure by the State and all commissions and institutions and agencies of government at every level, including statutory bodies, government-controlled entities, provincial and metropolitan councils and local authorities in order to ensure that all revenue is accounted for; all expenditure has been properly incurred; and any limits and conditions on appropriations have been observed”.
This constitutional provision has been given life by provisions of the Public Finance Management Act, which require ministries to submit monthly and quarterly budget performance reports to their respective parliamentary portfolio committees.
Parliament, with the assistance of the Southern African Parliamentary Support Trust, developed budget performance reporting guidelines that will assist ministries in the preparation of reports to Parliament.
The guidelines are intended to equip portfolio committees with detailed, relevant, reliable and timely information in order for these committees to effectively monitor budget implementation.
The guidelines also help to advance the concept of results-based management that government has adopted.
Some ministries have tried to comply with these guidelines when reporting to Parliament. However, the majority are still to fully comply. Parliament has the duty to enforce compliance. Failure to do so means the legislative body is abrogating on its constitutional mandate to ensure all institutions and agencies of the State and government at every level are accountable to Parliament.
We expect MPs under the new political dispensation to pose the following key questions if they are to be effective in monitoring and overseeing expenditures by ministries, agencies and departments: did the ministry spend funds for the intended purposes as approved by Parliament? Was there any under/over-expenditure on any budget line item?
If so, why and the impact this will have on service delivery? Were proper payment procedures and financial controls over the ministry’ spending of public funds followed in all instances? What explanations does the ministry have for any targets that were not met during the quarter? If the obstacles to performance are within the ministry’s competence to overcome, what actions has it taken to overcome them? Were there any reported cases of abuse or misuse of public resources in the ministry?
What corrective action and disciplinary measures were taken to address ineffective or abuse of public resources? What mechanisms exist in the ministry to address and prevent ineffective use or abuse of public resources? Has the ministry addressed observations and recommendations of the Auditor General and relevant parliamentary portfolio committee on its previous financial and performance reports?
Failure by MPs to grill government officials along these lines means the repeated pronouncements by President Emmerson Mnangagwa and Finance minister Patrick Chinamasa that it will no longer be business as usual in ministries, will come to naught.
This will also mean the Auditor General will continue to issue damning reports on the management of public financial resources and assets.