Minister within the Ministry of Finance [Bishop Edghill]: Mr. Speaker, thank you very much. Please permit me before I resume my presentation on the Fiscal Management and Accountability (Amendment) Bill 2013 to say that, I have been a member of the People’s Progressive Party Civic (PPP/C) Administration since November of 2011. I would like to declare to this Hon. House and to say to this Hon. House and the public in general that the distinguish men and women that I served with, as imperfect as people might deem them to be, I cannot allow a statement to say that there is a criminal cabal that needs to be removed, without challenging it. I would like to say that the men and women that I serve with, that I have had an opportunity of sitting around the table with, listening to their arguments; they work every day in the interest of the development of Guyana. I would want to assure the Nation that - yes we may find faults, they may not be perfect in all of their doings – these are men and women who serve for the good of this country and that needs to be stated.
In my attempt at responding to some of the points that were made, as it relates to the Bill under consideration, I was attempting to address the issue of independence of Constitutional entities. In the explanatory memorandum that was given on this Bill, the mover is seeking to preserve financial independence of Constitutional agencies, including the Service Commissions. I was making the point that it is my personal experience, having served as a head of a Constitutional commission in this country, that financial independence is not the only thing that needs to be guarded against. We need to develop a culture where we stop the political badgering and hammering at persons who hold Constitutional offices, which literally drives fear in them, in preventing them from carrying out their function without any form of interference. I would want to ensure that we take recognition of that fact because it is a reality that exists in our country.
Independence is well meaning as it is for the efficient functioning of Constitutional bodies, I believe, could never be an absolute because there is always need for cooperation and coordination.
As I read this amendment and try to envisage the new architecture in which agencies will be asked to operate, I still believe there will be need for great levels of cooperation and coordination, of which I will point out, when I come to the specific sections in the Bill.
Properly designed - independence include mechanisms for holding the agencies that we are talking about accountable for carrying out their responsibilities, while allowing it to remain free from interference in its operations. Setting up the proper accountability framework for me, will be considered the balancing act. As well intentioned as the Hon. Member Mr. Carl Greenidge, is in presenting this Bill, I think the balancing act is what needs to be properly addressed.
I believe that institutions must be answerable for the way they manages their budgets; we have to be answerable for the way we manage our budget. We either have to be answerable in advance, when we are going to present the projections and what is required for the operation of that institution or we will have to be answerable and accountable during the budgetary appropriations process to say exactly what is needed or we will have to be answerable at the end by a review of our accounts. Somewhere along the line there must be that accountability framework that allows for a review process.
I want to go proper now to the Bill, as presented. Section 80 (b) (1), on the amendment reads:
“Public Officers responsible for managing the affairs of an agency or such other persons designated by an appropriate authority for the purpose, shall submit budget proposals to the Clerk of the National Assembly and copy to the Speaker of the National Assembly and the Minister of Finance, who shall ensure that those proposals are submitted as presented. In the case of the Audit Office, the budget shall be submitted to Parliament through the Chairperson of the Public Accounts Committee.”
I can be wrong, but in my understanding of this, I am seeing three presentations as it relates to budgets in this House. The Minister of Finance is presenting a budget; the Clerk of the National Assembly is presenting budgets for specific agencies and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee is submitting a budget for the Audit Office. So now we have three presentations of budgets or Estimates to the House for consideration; you have the Minister of Finance, the Clerk and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, based upon this paragraph.
My simple question to the Hon. Member and for us to consider is, if it is the Minister of Finance who will be held accountable and we have heard a lot about this whole doctrine of ministerial responsibility of late in this House, who will actually be responsible for the outcome? Even if there is failure on the part of these institutions when there is mismanagement or not proper accountability. Here it is that we are asking that there be three separate presentations, but the Minister of Finance is still accountable. This is something that needs to be addressed because this paragraph is saying that we have the Minister of Finance presenting a budget, we have the Clerk who is going to present for these agencies that is basically just copied to the Speaker and the Minister of Finance and the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee presenting on behalf of the Audit Office. That is something that needs to be address.
The second question as it relates to the Bill, it will be two. A question will arise in the Committee of Supply, who will be answering or providing clarification as it relates to the request being made by these agencies? Is there no room whatsoever for questioning on the proposals made? If the National Assembly is to vote, a provision by way of a lump sum for these entities, should we do so without asking any questions? If questions are to be asked, who will answer the questions? Would we be bringing here now to the National Assembly heads of the various agencies to answer those questions? That is something that needs to be addressed.
Thirdly, I would like to highlight that it would appear that we are setting up different levels of scrutiny for different entities. While ministries, regions and other State entities are subject to the scrutiny that this Parliament provides for, which is good, useful and is needed to ensure good governance, we are now putting a group of entities outside of that same level of scrutiny or we are establishing a different dimension of scrutiny, which I do not think this Bill has carefully answered. I would like to have answers to that.
At paragraph four: “The format of the annual budget of the Constitutional agencies shall be, as determined by the head of the agency in consultation with the Minister of Finance.” At paragraph five it says: “Detail budgets and appropriations shall be reflected in the annual Estimates, together with the detail Estimates of Revenue and Expenditure of the Constitutional agencies.”
There is a dilemma here because we are asking the Government to engage in approving expenditure for agencies without us knowing where we are getting the money from. When a budget is presented to this National Assembly, the Minister of Finance takes into consideration anticipated and expected income from all various sources. Based upon those projections and fiscal space that it allows, allocations are made for various programmes and activities. Here it is that the role of engagement in determining allocations is being asked at this time to be changed. I said a little early that I believe, independence as necessary as it is cannot be absolute. There is need for coordination and cooperation because I put myself in a position where I headed the Constitutional agency and request was made funding to operate. That request went to the Ministry of Finance and engagements were made and at the end of those engagements the Commission sat, considered the discussion and determined priorities of what could be managed at a particular time and what would go next and based upon that, moneys were released.
I never saw it as a way of interfering with the independence of the Commission because the big question, is if all the moneys are to be released, then we probably will have to have a Bill coming to this Parliament and we could expect that at a particular time by which the entire year’s taxes must be paid because if we are to have money in lump sum to give all of these entities by one particular time, after the passage of the Budget, we must be able to have all the moneys that are needed within the Consolidated Fund for the disbursements. When we are aware that one has to have moneys come in all year based upon how taxes are paid, this is something that we may want to look at and consider. It will put a grave problem as it relates to cash flow and we need to look at that.
We need to consider that while we are seeking to create an environment that says these entities have been provided for and we are making amendments to the Constitution and to the Schedule to facilitate this that they will be able to have a special treatment, it must not be looked at in isolation from all of the other things that I have outlined. For emphasis, as I close, I would want to say: Who would be ultimately responsible? Who will be answering the questions? Who do we seek clarification from? How do we manage it as it relates to the cash flow situation? We have had the experience and I have heard coming from the other side ‘why do you accept a lump sum?’ Yes, there is a voted provision, let us say of $90 million for an entity but moneys are released based upon what you require at a particular time to facilitate a cash flow. That has not been a practice that started now. That is something that has been going on forever because the reality is that one cannot pay out money that is not available. These are some of the things that I would like us to consider and to have the Hon. Member who is asking for this amendment to address so that we would be able to have clarifications.
In closing, it is clear that I believe that the intension of the Hon. Member, Mr. Greenidge, is good. He wants to ensure the independence of institutions and wants to ensure that they are properly placed and the rest of it but we must ensure that we have the balancing act of how we work out the accountability and the framework in which we situate these things. Thank you very much, Sir. [Applause]