The Parliament Accounts Committee (PAC) is just a lapdog, which cannot harm anyone.
This is despite displaying the aggressiveness of a bulldog, Botswana Guardian has learnt. As things stand the committee is at the mercy of the executive who may decide whether to act on its (PAC) recommendations or not. Chaired by Member of Parliament for Lobatse Nehemiah Modubule-a Botswana Movement for Democracy (BMD) member-the committee for the past few weeks has been Permanent Secretaries’ worst nightmare and a stopover for headline writers. However beyond the hard-hitting questions in a quest to get answers on why a Thebe has not been accounted for, or why government is under-spending parliament’ standing committee’s tough government financial watchdog role is limited, thanks mainly to the laws of the country.
Asked in a wide-ranging interview with the Botswana Guardian on Tuesday whether his committee has teeth and enough powers to guard against wasteful management of public funds Modubule said: “PAC does not have teeth, that is why our report is only to parliament.” Changed to its current status of a standing committee from a sessional one in 2011 the committee examines public books after every financial year.
Modubule, who became its first chairman following the change in the Parliament Standing Orders in 2011, to have the committee chaired by an opposition MP, explained that after examining the books and once they have identified problems the 10 member committee then puts up a report, which will be tabled at the National Assembly. That is where the committee’s work ends. Then it will be up to the executive to decide whether to take action on the PAC recommendations or not. And by the look of things action is not being taken. If action is not taken the PAC keeps on reporting the matter on and on. It is a complete cycle. Modubule explains that there is what is called the Memorandum of Progress, which means, “we look at the issues which were raised in the last PAC meeting and if nothing has been done we keep on reporting to parliament.” For instance, his committee is currently still dealing with an issue, which dates back to the National Development Plan 7, which was between 1991 and 1997. The matter, which involves the Ministry of Sports and Culture, is about the design of Botswana’s National Library headquarters.
During NDP 7 the ministry spent over P800 000 on the project. In NDP 8 (1997-2003) over P6 million was used and P9 million was spent in the next NDP 9 (2003-2009). During NDP 10 (2009-2012) over P10 million was used. But there is a catch. All this money, which amounts to over P21.4 million, was spent just on the design of the project. “This is worrisome,” notes the chairman.
The matter has been included in the past PAC reports but no action has been taken. Modubule moans: “If things were going accordingly we could not be having these bulk of books before us. Some of the things we are looking at are from previous years.” He concedes in defeat that, “under a normal democracy the executive has to act on our report but for us we just hope it will act.” However Modubule is taking solace in the fact that the Southern Africa Development Community Organisation of Public Accounts Committees (SADCOPAC- which the Botswana parliament is a member is working on ways to empower PACs in the region. “We are discussing within the region on how to make sure that the PACs does have teeth.” He noted that in advanced democracies PACs do not only report to parliament but also have powers to follow up issues. He gave an example of the Eastern Block countries where ministries are given 14 days to act on PAC recommendations.
In Australia ministers appear before the committee as accounting officers not Permanent Secretaries as the case here. “SADCOPAC is trying to come up with a standard way of looking at things as PACs in the region. We need to be more aggressive.” The PAC adopts its year-old resolutions only after the financial statements for the following year have been tabled before parliament. Some argue that this does not help government departments improve on their financial management calling for a year-on-year resolutions by the PAC. But Modubule defended the way PAC conducts its business. “PAC does a post mortem. The Parliament’s Finance and Estimates committee is the one which is supposed to be looking at the ministries’ budgets but the committee is only looking at the supplementary budgets,” he argued.
But because the Finance and Estimates committee is not part of the budgetary process he said it becomes difficult for parliament to intervene. “It is the PAC’s view that before the budget is tabled before parliament the Finance and Estimates committee should look at it.” Asked if there is corruption within government in so far as government resources are used, the PAC chairman said there is misappropriation of funds by government departments. “I think corruption is a bit strong but misappropriation yes.” But he expressed worry that his committee does not have access to some departments’ audit and organisations such as the Directorate of Intelligence Services (DIS) and the Botswana Defence Force (BDF). Having worked as a banker at the First National Bank (FNB) up to the level of Resources Manager and trained in Accounts and Business, Modubule is frustrated that he is not able to know how these two departments (DIS and BDF) account. “It’s a bit difficult to know what is going on in there.” Though the committee is still midway through its examinations, Modubule expressed worry at the problems with government ministries budgetary processes. “We have a problem here, that is why we have an overall under-expenditure of P4 billion. We cannot say there is recession yet, ministries return so much to the government coffers.” Issues of unauthorised expenditure and accounts being opened without authority are some of the worrying trends in government.