Concerns about PAAC oversight issues

Inside Parliament

With Balford Henry

Sunday, June 22, 2014

THE annual report of the Public Administration and Appropriations Committee (PAAC) of the House of Representatives is expected to be tabled shortly.

The PAAC oversees the management of government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs); the adequacy of allocations for them to carry out their programmes; and makes half-yearly and annual reports to the House of Representatives on its work.

Reports from the Parliamentary budgetary oversight are mainly dealt with by: (i) the standing finance committee, a committee of all 63 MPs, where ministers are called to defend the budget allocations which have been tabled for consideration; and (ii) the PAAC, which meets weekly to update itself on the performance of the MDAs in meeting the targets of the medium term economic programme.

But there is some concern as to whether the PAAC has been doing an effective job in overseeing the performance of the MDAs, in the context of the obscured responses from civil servants, and the failure of the committee to ensure that individuals/bodies it would wish to question, in person, respond to their requests to make an appearance.

An example of this is the case of China Harbour Engineering Company (CHEC), the company owned and operated by the Chinese government which has been extremely vague in how it responds to questions pertaining to the closure of the Jamaica Infrastructure Development Programme (JDIP), by the last government, and commencement of its successor, the Major Infrastructural Development Programme (MIDP), which has now strode two Throne Speeches but has not been fully launched.

In order to clarify the issues, the PAAC has requested the presence of CHEC's management on two occasions, without success.

On the last occasion, none other than the venerable Minister of Transport, Housing and Works Dr Omar Davies, who has challenged everything from the Office of the Contractor General (OCG) to the Office of Utilities Regulations (OUR), wrote the PAAC suggesting that it was not a good idea to summon CHEC.

"Whilst I appreciate the desire of members of the PAAC to have full responses to the claims by contractors, I would suggest that the summoning of CHEC to appear before the committee would set a bad precedent," Davies said, in response to a proposal from the PAAC that CHEC appear to clarify the issue of some $700 million in delayed fluctuation payments owed to Jamaican sub-contractors who had been involved with JDIP.

"Notwithstanding, in recognition of the need for answers to questions being posed by members of the PAAC, I undertake, as minister, to meet with all parties in order to be able to provide you and the other members of the PAAC with full and complete responses to your questions," Davies wrote.

However, despite his assurance, the issues are still not cleared up and we are hearing arguments that the debt may have blown up to as much as $1.5 billion, and may be the main reason the Government has been unable to activate MIDP since last year, apart from a $630-million Jamaica Emergency Employment Programme (JEEP)-related project, under which each member of parliament was given $10 million towards constituency projects.

We asked chairman of the PAAC, Opposition MP Edmund Bartlett (East Central St James), whether he felt that the PAAC's oversight was fully effective, and he admitted that there were some critical issues which must be addressed this year. He said that these include the continuous late tabling of annual reports by the government's MDAs, and the lack of follow-up on issues which come to the attention of the committee during its deliberations.

Generally, annual reports must be submitted to Parliament by public bodies, by law, on their performance within a year. These reports include audited accounts and information on the operational performance of these bodies, as well as the salaries of the senior officers. They are tabled for information, but no votes are taken on them. However, members who wish to raise particular matters of concern may move substantive motions for debate on the issues.

But MDAs have been tabling reports due from as far back as 2005, which means that it is sometimes into the third administration under which some of the reports are due that they are actually being tabled. Most reports are so late that they make no sense to the media or the public when they are tabled, because the matters included are either too stale to make the news, or have been resolved in the meantime.

For example, I was extremely surprised to the see the 2009 copy of the annual report from the Office of the Public Defender, such a critical social agency, being tabled a month ago. It is therefore a major setback that the PAAC, which deals with the MDAs on a more regular basis, has not been following up, and allowing the MDAs to conceal from the administration, Parliament and the public important information which really should be public knowledge.

Bartlett said that he agrees that Parliament has to take a much stronger stand on the issue of the late tabling of reports by the MDAs, and that this year his committee will be making efforts to improve on its oversight and follow-up capabilities.

"We really need to take a stronger stand in Parliament on the statutory bodies who are failing to table their annual reports on time, and strong measures are needed to ensure that they stop the practice, because it makes a mockery of the whole process when the reports are so late," Bartlett said.

"And we have to make a stronger and more determined effort to ensure that there is rigorous follow-up to our queries in the committee, and to make sure that the undertakings given by the MDAs to provide us with additional information that we have requested are met. In fact, we have written the MDAs for responses resulting from a number of requests that are still outstanding," he added.

* The sectoral debate resumes Tuesday at Gordon House with: Minister Without Portfolio with responsibility for Sport Natalie Neita Headley; Opposition spokesperson on Local Government and Urban/Rural Development Desmond McKenzie; and Government MP Keith Walford (South West St Ann).

It continues Wednesday with Minister of State in the Ministry of Local Government and Community Development Colin Fagan; Opposition spokesperson on Youth, Sports and Gender Affairs Olivia Grange; and Opposition MP Rudyard Spencer.




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