ACCORDING to the World Bank-supported 'Jamaica Parliamentary Oversight of Public Finances' institutional review of operations at Gordon House, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament needs independent technical support, in addition to that provided by the Auditor General's (AG's) Department.
However, that omission should not be seen as the reason why this very important committee, which reviews the annual report of the Auditor General's Department, has only met twice in the six months since the start of the current parliamentary year.
According to information provided by Gordon House, the once all-powerful committee, headed by the Opposition's spokesman on finance — in this case Audley Shaw — last met on July 2, nearly four months ago, and has only met seven times since January.
I spoke to Shaw about the situation on Tuesday and he suggested that the failure to meet is attributable to the inability of the AG's Department to provide work for the committee.
He seemed to be supported by the veteran Government member, Fitz Jackson, who also suggested that the committee was not meeting because it had nothing to do.
However, Clerk of the House Heather Cooke believes that it is really the prerogative of the chairman, and not the AG, to call a meeting.
She referred to Standing Order 77, which suggests that meetings of the Select Committees "shall be held at such time and place as the committee determines. If the committee fails to do so, the chairman shall, in consultation with the clerk of such committee, appoint such time and place".
Shaw suggested that there might be some fear on the part of the public servants about appearing before him.
"They seem to be settling these issues without coming to the PAC," he said, acknowledging that the AG can resolve some of these issues with affected ministries, departments and agencies.
But, shouldn't these resolutions be taken to the PAC when the members are satisfied with the results, and they are aired publicly for the press and the public?
This is important, because when the Auditor General tables her annual report, the media fill the air with news about the irregular activities of the ministries, departments and agencies but when they are settled in silence, the parliamentarians, the media, and the public all remain unaware.
Shaw said that he is planning to have the PAC start dealing with all the audited financial reports of the MDAs tabled in Parliament, to provide work for the committee. Good idea, but the fact is that Standing Order 69 already gives him and his committee that task, except that they have not been doing it.
The Standing Order says that the PAC examines the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted by the Legislature to meet the public expenditure; such other acts as may be referred to the committee by the House, or any such accounts; and all accounts and financial statements laid on the table of the House in respect of statutory bodies, public corporations and public companies in which government holds majority shares are automatically referred for examination and report to the committee.
Is it that the chairman and his committee were not aware of this, and is this why the PAC has not been meeting?
The fact is that the PAC has been focusing solely on the Auditor General's reports when it should have been meeting much more regularly and dealing with these accounts and financial statements currently being tabled in the House and ignored afterwards.
Probably, after the current JLP leadership contest, which is certainly having a toll on sittings of Parliament and its committees, the committee will start examining these accounts. But it seems very unlikely that there will be any meeting until next January.
Incidentally, there is a serious issue concerning how Parliament should handle the Ministry of Finance's Fiscal Policy Paper (FPP), which has not been addressed despite references to it in the Jamaica Parliamentary Oversight of Public Finances report dated June 10, 2013.
The oversight report stated: "The Auditor General has a new responsibility of examining the minister of finance's Fiscal Policy Paper (FPP). The AG is also charged with providing a report to the House on whether
(a) the conventions and assumptions underlying the preparation of the Fiscal Policy Paper comply with the principles of prudent financial management; and
(b) the reasons given pursuant to subsection (5)(d)(ii) are reasonable having regard to the circumstances.
"The Financial Administration and Audit Act (FAAA) does not require the AG to comment on the reasonableness of the assumptions underlying the FPP; this is a subject that requires debate in Parliament.
"The AG's assessment has been made available to PAC members, but the PAC has not decided whether they should review it. In the interest of strengthened monitoring of fiscal activities and transparency, this document should be discussed in Parliament; however, it remains an open question whether or not the PAC is the most suitable body to conduct such an examination."
Under the aegis of the Fiscal Responsibility Framework (FRF), the minister of finance tabled the FPP in Parliament on April 28. The FPP is audited by the auditor general, in accordance with the legal requirements of the Financial Administration and Audit (FAA) Act.
In the inaugural FPP, the minister expressly enunciated the Government's commitment and strategy to achieving the legislated fiscal targets/ceilings, by March 2016, which are: Fiscal balance of 0 per cent of GDP; Debt/GDP of 100 per cent; and Wages/GDP of nine per cent of GDP.
This week in Parliament
Tuesday — Constituency Development Fund (CDF) at 9:00 am; Internal & External Affairs Committee at 10:00 am, and Sitting of the House of Representatives at 2:00 pm.
Wednesday — Public Administration & Appropriations Committee (PAAC) at 10:00 am, and Joint Select Committee on INDECOM at 2:00 pm.
Thursday — Joint Select Committee on Suppression of Criminal Gang (Anti-Gang) at 10:00 am, and Joint Select Committee on Security Interests in Personal Property at 2:30 pm.
Friday — sitting of the Senate at 10:00 am.
Of note: The Joint Select Committee of Parliament set up to consider and report on the soon-to-be tabled Bill entitled 'Security Interests in Personal Property Act, 2013' is inviting submissions from the public on the Bill by Monday, October 28 to be sent to: Clerk to the Houses of Parliament, Gordon House, 81 Duke Street, Kingston, or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Persons making submissions may be required to appear before the committee at short notice, to explain their submissions. A copy of the Bill is available from the Gordon House website (www.japarliament).