Changes coming for budget review format
SOME fundamental changes to Parliament's current budget review format are likely to emerge from discussions at the level of the Standing Orders committee of the House of Representatives, scheduled to start soon.
Leader of the House Phillip Paulwell gave warning late Wednesday night, at the end of the Standing Finance Committee's deliberations on the 2014/15 Estimates of Expenditure.
Paulwell described the meeting of the SFC, which lasted two days (Tuesday-Wednesday), as "historic", considering it would be the last time that the House would review the annual estimates in the current format.
"We intend to meet very, very soon with members of the committee to review the entire operation. Next year the budget has to be passed before the end of the financial year and, therefore, we have to start much earlier and we are going to have to proceed with greater efficiency," he said.
Opposition Spokesman on Finance and Planning, Audley Shaw, however, indicated that there was no agreement, and there was concern that the process may be compromised. But Paulwell said that the Standing Orders committee would meet very shortly to discuss the proposals, which Shaw accepted.
Although the proposed changes have not been clearly stated, there are indications that the current format of meetings of the SFC, which comprises all 63 MPs, will be changed and that MPs may have to submit questions, and the ministers provide written answers. The current process allows members to ask questions during the meeting and the minister to consult with ministry staff to provide the answers.
But while it is a fact that the current process is slow and tedious, because members often ask questions parochially linked to their constituencies and constituents for which answers are not readily available, this process appears very democratic and in keeping with the cut and thrust of a Parliament which seeks to avoid paperwork as much as possible.
The questions is how much will the proposed new process affect the chances of the Opposition MPs and backbenchers getting answers to the questions which bother them.
The media have been very critical of the current process, in which the SFC meetings have lasted until late nights or early morning (sometimes up to 7:00 am) to complete its review, as well as the current format of the Sectoral Debate, which is often described as "boring". But the fact is that the media also has a duty to protect the right of the 63 MPs to represent the views and concerns of their constituents, otherwise Parliament will lose its legitimacy as a democratic forum for the people to be heard.
I am a strong believer in the rights of the electors to have their views and concerns expressed in Parliament by the people they elect to represent them, even at the expense of boredom, because that is the democratic process.
However, nothing is wrong with seeking to make the process more effective, efficient and certainly more easily assimilated by the public; and that seems to be the point that the Leader of the House has been making.
Another point too, is that in the era of the International Monetary Fund's (IMF) Extended Fund Facility agreement, we have lost some control over our destiny. This is captured in the impact of multilateral bodies, like the IMF and the Public Expenditure and Financial Accountability (PEFA) programme, which often dictate the road we take.
For example, we have seen where a number of critical social bills have been put on the back-burner to accommodate the heavy rotation of economic bills, including benchmarks under the EFF agreement. It is very important that both the Opposition, civil society and even Government backbenchers realise the importance of keeping abreast of these developments and seek to give more balance to it, so that it remains reflective of the people's will.
My understanding is that PEFA, which is made up of several donor countries and institutions, aims at "improving country public financial management (PFM) systems" to strengthen economic growth and government delivery services. It believes that a more representative and effective process would be for greater involvement of committees, like the powerful Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC), headed by Opposition MP Edmund Bartlett, in the budget preview. So by the time the estimates are returned to the House, the process of clarification and amendments would have been exhausted.
However, the question is, will the executive be prepared to give up some of its power over the budget, to a committee comprising Opposition MPs and Government backbenchers?
It will be interesting to see how this pans out and, probably, we could see some indication of where things are headed, when the House makes some decisions later this month on how the Sectoral Debate will proceed.
It is significant that Paulwell, whom we all expected would have participated in the budget debate, considering his ministry's involvement in crucial energy, mining and technological developments, has opted to open the Sectoral Debate in May instead. That probably suggests that he will be ensuring that the sectoral follows a new format.
Throne Speech error
It has become apparent that the statement in the Throne Speech that Jamaica welcomed its two millionth tourist, and earned US$2 billion for the first time during the last season, was not correct.
The issue was raised by Opposition spokesman on Foreign Affairs and Foreign Trade Edmund Bartlett during the presentation by the Ministry of Tourism and Entertainment to the SFC on Wednesday.
What is obvious is that it was not the first time that the country had earned $2 billion from visitor arrivals, and not the first time it had achieved both targets in one season either.
To his credit, junior minister in tourism and entertainment, Damion Crawford, admitted the error during the meeting of the SFC. But the ministry cannot leave it there. It has to issue a clarification for the public records, and apologise to the public for the error in the Throne Speech.
Private budget meetings
Outspoken South West St Catherine MP Everald Warmington, was very much on-the-ball over the two days of the SFC's review of the estimates.
On Tuesday, Warmington raised the issue of the budget for the Jamaica Defence Force (JDF) being discussed privately by a special committee of the House, while all other budgets are openly discussed by the committee.
According to Warmington since taxes are involved, every member of the House should have access to the details of the JDF's budget and be able to ask questions about
"The total Standing Finance Committee ought to participate in the approval of these funds. It is rubbish going into some back room to discuss taxpayers money," he insisted.
However, on this occasion, as on several others, Warmington was warned by both the Speaker, Michael Peart, and deputy Speaker, Lloyd B Smith, that he would be suspended from the sitting for his interferences. But, this did not prevent him from making several other interventions, or engaging in cross-talk with government members who criticised him, which angered the chairmen.
Leader of the House Phillip Paulwell said that the issue of the private meetings on the JDF's budget, could be discussed at the upcoming meetings of the Standing Orders committee on format changes.
The fact is that the details of the JDF's recurrent budget are not included in the estimates book until the following year. However, what was available showed that the JDF has a budget of $11.9 billion this year, compared to $11.7 billion last year, with $9.5 billion going to salaries this year as against $9.8 billion last year.