Accountability is the underpinning principal of civilized societies. For the stability of any human society it is imperative that there is a compact system of accountability in place. Thus a system to check public accountability like the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) of Parliament has been identified as an important prerequisite for the proper and effective delivery of public service by governments all over the universe. It is said that the overall progress of any country owes itself largely to accountability and transparency in its dealings, be it internal or external.
PAC signifies one of the essential constituents of Parliamentary Dominion which is the culpability of Public money. The examination of Auditor General’s Reports for the Ministries, departments, agencies, and other Independent and Semi- Autonomous bodies, is one of the main functions of the PAC.
The Public Accounts Committee under the Seventh Parliament of Ghana, on Monday 7th August 2017 begun its second public hearings to consider financial infractions in the Auditor General’s Report and will rap-up its activities today, Friday, 18th August, 2017. PAC is one of the 11 Standing Committees of Parliament.
PAC like all other Committees of Parliament derives its existence from Article 103 of the 1992 Constitution of the Republic of Ghana which states that “Parliament shall appoint Standing Committees and other Committees as may be necessary for the effective discharge of its functions”. In accordance with this provision, the PAC was established by Order 151(2) of the Standing Orders of the Parliament of Ghana.
The Committee, according to Order 165(1), must consist of not more than 25 Members and under the chairmanship of a member who does not belong to the party which controls the Executive branch of government and for that matter the “Public Purse”.
By this practice and convention, the Committee has since the beginning of the Fourth Republic been chaired by the Leader of the officially designated Minority Party in Parliament. However, during the 4th Parliament the Minority Leader relinquished this responsibility to another senior member of their side.
The composition of the Committee, like any other Committee of the House, must as much as possible, reflect the different shades of opinion in Parliament as required by Article 103(5) of the Constitution. In terms of numbers this means that the composition of the Committee reflects the numerical strength of different political parties, however, it is not clear whether the numerical strength also reflects the caucuses in Parliament such as the caucus on Women and Children, caucus on Health, caucus on Population, caucus on Environment, etc. In carrying out its functions, the Constitution in
Article 103 (6) grants the PAC, like any other Committee of Parliament, the powers, rights and privileges of a High Court in relation to: enforcing the attendance of witnesses and examining them on oath, affirmation or otherwise; compelling the production of documents; and issuing of a commission or requesting to examine witnesses abroad.
The primary function of the Committee according to Order 165(2) is to examine the audited accounts of government showing sums granted by Parliament to meet public expenditure and of such other accounts laid before Parliament. Chapter thirteen of the 1992 Constitution, which deals with finance, grants Parliament extensive powers in financial management of the country.
It is only Parliament that gives approval or otherwise for the imposition of taxes and it is only Parliament that determines the waiver or variation of any taxes imposed on individuals and businesses (Article 174); it is only Parliament that grants approval for the withdrawal of funds from the Consolidated Fund to meet the expenditures of government through the passage of the Appropriations Act (Article 178).
Having authorized the withdrawal of monies from the Consolidated Fund, Parliament exercises control over the expenditure of such monies through its PAC. It is for this reason that the Standing Orders preclude Members belonging to the political party controlling the Executive power from chairing the Committee. The rationale behind this arrangement is to ensure that the Executive is not a judge and a prosecutor in its own cause. The Minority (Opposition) taking charge of the Committee is to minimize the possibility of MPs sympathetic to the executive branch of government unduly influencing the parliamentary oversight of finances of the state.
Article 187(2) of the 1992 Constitution states that: “The public accounts of Ghana and of all public offices, including the courts, the central and local administrations, of the universities and public institutions of like nature, of any public corporation or other body or organization established by an Act of Parliament shall be audited and reported on by the Auditor-General”.
It is the financial transactions (including efficiency and cost effectiveness) of these Institutions together with the foreign exchange transactions of the Bank of Ghana referred to in Article 184 of the Constitution, which invariably come under scrutiny during the operations and functions of the PAC.
It appears from the provisions of the Constitution and the Standing Orders detailed above that the Committee’s work is limited to examining only reports presented by the Auditor-General (A-G).
Even though there have been some successes chalked by the committee, many Ghanaians including Civil Society Organisations (CSOs) believes the Auditor General’s report comes under the scrutiny of PAC a little too late for any lasting impact because of rigid systems. For example the 2nd sitting of PAC under the 7th Parliament is perusing the AG’s Report as far back as 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 in 2017.
However, many have also questioned if it will not be proper for the PAC to carry out pre-emptive investigations and sanctions in the performance of its function as a watchdog Committee of Parliament in matters of public finance.
Per the current structure of PAC, the committee does not have to power to prosecute wrong doers. The highest it can go in terms of bringing corrupt officials to book is proffers recommendations. Standing Order 165 of Parliament assigns to PAC, the examination of the audited accounts showing the appropriation of funds granted by Parliament to the government.
In all of this one may ask if the PAC has achieved its goal of guarding the public purse?
The Auditor General has without fail, albeit sometimes late, presented its audited reports of Ministries, Departments and Agencies as well as Metropolitan, Municipal and District Assemblies to Parliament. The PAC has also religiously queried heads of these institutions and individuals cited in these reports for financial irregularities.
It is thus puzzling that upon all these queries and recommendations by the PAC after its sittings, the same financial lapses keep recurring in the annual reports on majority of the state agencies.
Recently, the PAC reports of some of its past deliberations presented to the Parliament showed some key findings by the Auditor General on these institutions were outstanding debts, irregularities bordering on cash, payroll, payment of un-earn salaries, contract, procurement and tax.
I’m of the view that time is of the essence when dealing with these reports because some of the culprits sometimes pass away or transferred before we get the AG’s report, we would never get to the end of this thing if the backlog issue is not sorted.
The fact that the PAC’s report on the audited accounts of public institutions for the years 2012, 2013, 2014 and 2015 are being presented to Parliament in 2017 speaks for itself. This goes to show that the timely presentation of the audited accounts by the AG to parliament and the speedy hearings of the PAC on these reports will go a long way in getting the much-needed answers and retrieval of monies from the relevant officials.
Given that the committee is dealing with reports from two years ago or more, it is believed that, attempts at proper accountability were likely to evade the committee.
For instance the Chief Director, who is the spending officer over the past two years or so, may have been shifted or has been taken away so who should speak to the accounts? The accountants who did the spending may have retired or died or gone somewhere, so time is of the essence when we are dealing with reports like these.
It is becoming problematic year-in year-out, when people who knew nothing about a rot or how funds were used come to the fore to answer questions on events or thing they have no knowledge of.
If we truly believe that we want to fight corruption to the core, then Parliament should come up with laws which will make it mandatory for spending officers to appear before PAC in person to atone for their sins.
The accountability systems must be made more flexible to among other things, perhaps ensure that critical personnel in various agencies are made to give account before leaving office.
Article by Franklin Asare-Donkoh