This topic highlights the need for us to be ever vigilant in the protection and maintenance of our democracies, as financial legislative oversight is extremely important to ensure that the monies raised by Parliamentary authority is honestly expended. In Saint Lucia, our processes and procedures, which control and regulate our public funds or our Consolidated Fund, are very well provided for in the Saint Lucia Constitution order.
In our Constitution, sections 77 to 84 adequately provide for the establishment of a Consolidated Fund into which all monies raised or received by Saint. Lucia is to be paid into that fund. The Constitution provides for restrictions and methods of withdrawals from the fund and authorizations of expenditure to be carried out annually by a bill approved by the House, known as the Appropriation Bill.
Section 84 provides: 1) that there shall be a Director of Audit whose office shall be a public office and that 2) the Director of Audit shall satisfy himself (a) that all monies that have been appropriated by parliament and disbursed have been applied to the purposes to which they were so appropriated and that the expenditure conforms to the authority that governs it; and (b) at least once in every year audit an report on the public accounts of Saint Lucia, the accounts of all officers and authorities of the government, the accounts of all courts of law in Saint Lucia (including any accounts of the Supreme Court maintained in Saint Lucia), the accounts of every Commission established by this Constitution and the accounts of the parliamentary commissioner, the Clerk of the Senate and the Clerk of the House.
The Auditor’s report has to be prepared at least once a year and the Minister of Finance is to lay the report before the House “not later than seven days after the House first meets after he has received the report.”
If the Minister fails to lay a report before the House in accordance with the provisions of subsection 4) of this section the Director of Audit shall transmit copies of the report to the Speaker who shall, as soon as practicable, present them to the House.
According to section 84(7) the Director of Audit shall not be subject to the direction or control of any other person or authority. This is to ensure the independence of this office and the work that it does.This is all very well and good and I have no doubt that the civil servants carry out their functions diligently and with due dispatch. But this is nothing close to legislative financial oversight of the accounts of the country. That function has been tasked to one of the Standing Select Committees of the House, the Public Accounts Committee.
But we are here to discuss the PAC and we are aware that all assembled here are Members of Parliament or those who are already thoroughly familiar with the operations of the Public Accounts Committee. I will not bore you by repeating its functions. Instead, I will go straight to the meat of the matter and for the purposes of this presentation I will largely reference my own jurisdiction, Saint Lucia.
The Standing Orders of the House of Assembly in Saint Lucia provide that the PAC shall have the duty of examining: (a) the accounts showing the appropriation of the sums granted by the legislature to meet public expenditure; (b) such other accounts as may be referred to the Committee by the House or under any law; and (c) the Report of the Director of Audit on any such accounts.
In Saint Lucia our experience is that on the commencement of a new session of Parliament the five Standing Select Committees are constituted. The PAC, the first of these, has traditionally been chaired by the Leader of the Opposition with four other members made up of members of the House. Besides what I have read out, and unlike the other Select Committees, there are no other provisions in the SO which govern the business of the PAC. Just like all other Standing Select Committees it shall not be more than five members, and the Committee is to be constituted to reflect the balance of the parties in the House.
This ensures that the membership of the PAC is made up of at least three members of the governing party, and not more than two members of the Opposition Party in the House. It is, I believe, instructive that the PAC is the first mentioned Committee, as I consider it among the most, if not one of the most important of the five. Considering its level of importance, however, it is surprising, baffling even, that this is the Committee that is given the least direction in the Standing Orders. For example, whilst the Standing Orders define with a great degree of specificity who shall be the Chair of other committees, there is no such instruction regarding the Public Accounts Committee.
Notwithstanding, we follow, as do most legislatures, the
tradition of appointing the Leader of the Opposition to chair the PAC. Even as it is the convention that our Public Accounts Committee has always been chaired by the Leader of the Opposition, the stark reality is that this is not compulsory. The fact is that a strict interpretation of the Standing Orders seems to suggest that barring a resignation or suspension/expulsion, no vacancy can exist therein.
Indeed, in Saint Lucia we have a most peculiar situation. The Standing Orders mandate the Public Accounts Committee is to be appointed by the House of Assembly as soon as may be after the beginning of each
Parliament. This was done, and the then Leader of the Opposition was elected Chairman. However, last year a new Leader of the Opposition was appointed within the parliamentary period. As stated earlier, a literal reading of the Standing Orders does not suggest that, absent of a resignation or suspension, a vacancy could arise in the Public Accounts Committee.
Consequently, the Leader of the Opposition is now not a member of the Public Accounts Committee, far less its chair.
The Standing Orders also do not mandate the composition of the Public Accounts Committee. It says simply that “every Select Committee shall be so constituted as to ensure, so far as is possible, that the balance of parties in the House is reflected in the Committee.” By extension, the Government has a natural built-in majority.
But how does this work? Isn’t it the government’s financial management of the Consolidated Fund which the Public Accounts Committee is charged with the duty to be vigorously scrutinized? How is that accomplished when first the government, with its majority votes in the House of Assembly, can use this to appoint a Chair of its choice? It is to be recalled that the Chair need not be an Opposition Member. Second, the Standing Orders allow the Government to have the majority membership on the Committee. So even if the Chair is the Leader of the Opposition, there will be at least three government members on that Committee.
The question is, can that Committee, in such circumstances function effectively? I would respond in the negative. Then there is the size of our Parliaments within the region, with the largest, Guyana, having sixty-five seats and the smallest, Anguilla, having seven. That small size poses a major hindrance to the very establishment and constitutional effectiveness of the work of that Committee. In almost all of the OECS, nearly all of the elected Members of Parliament on the government side are also a Minister of government. It means government nominees to the committee invariably are also members of the executive arm of government. In effect, Ministers will be asked to scrutinize and pronounce on their own expenditure. I think
we can safely all agree that this is not a recipe for good governance.
Still on the small size of our Parliaments, this allows for the possibility of one party emerging victorious in all of the seats. This is not as far-fetched as many outside of the region may imagine, for it has occurred on no less than four occasions: twice in Grenada and once each in Jamaica and Trinidad & Tobago. Following the 1997 general elections in Saint Lucia, the Labour Party was victorious in sixteen of the seventeen seats. In such a scenario, who would comprise the Public Accounts Committee? The make-up of the PAC dictates in effect that the Executive scrutinizes itself.
So with the noblest of intentions, the sad reality, in my country at least, is that the Public Accounts Committee has never fulfilled its obligations. The truth is, it simply cannot.
Because of the small size of our Parliaments and the members forming the government usually also making up the executive branch, it is somewhat of a farce to expect the desired intent of proper scrutiny of the Public Accounts. It is no wonder that in my country the PAC is seemingly ineffective and nonfunctional.
The members who make up the majority are busy attending to their Ministries. Further, the physical infrastructure is lacking to facilitate the meetings, as there are no adequate committee rooms set up. There is only one backbencher on the government side. All other members of the House are also Ministers. So this leads onto another major concern about proper and effective parliamentary representation. Should we have larger parliaments and a maximum number of Ministers with backbenchers being paid equivalent salaries to that of a Minister, to recognize the importance of the work they undergo in their constituencies? Recognizing this, the House of Assembly has taken the decision to undertake the reform of the Standing Orders.
It is the view of Members that our not so unique situation requires unique solutions. To this end, we are contemplating, among other things, the incorporation of non-parliamentarians into the Committees, including the Public Accounts Committee, to promote greater transparency and accountability. There are suggestions that the Director of Audit and even possibly an external accountant are featured within the PAC. I reiterate that these are merely proposals and not concrete steps. Our experiences are not the best, and are wanting in several areas. Indeed, in preparing for this conference it has brought these shortcomings to light, and has aroused a desire to attend to them as soon as possible.
Editor’s Note: The preceding was delivered by House Speaker Peter I. Foster, QC at the Pegasus Hotel, Jamaica, on June 3, 2015.