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The matter of accountability is fundamental and critical, as it goes from the top to the bottom of the business of government. It crosses all sectors and it connects to everything else that happens in the business of ‘running the country’. The lack of accountability erodes public confidence in government.
The Unity Labour Party government has demonstrated over the years that it lacks accountability. Therefore, it has little or no regard for our laws governing financial accountability and financial management. We recall the problems associated with the Petro Caribe funds; where $112 million was left off the books according the International Monetary Fund. And immediately following the 2015 general elections, the government brought legislation to parliament to correct the problem. There was also the lack of accountability during the construction of the Argyle International Airport.
During this year’s budget debate, we heard the Honourable Leader of the Opposition, Dr. Friday, raised the issue where the government has been abusing the Overdraft facility. He also dealt with it extensively at his recent press conference. In his budget debate, Dr. Friday also addressed the issue of the Special warrants where the Minister of Finance has disregarded financial accountability in the way he has abused the use of Special Warrants by not bringing them to parliament in a timely manner; up to five years late, by exceeding the limit set by Parliament and by paying for things that could have been properly budgeted for and were not unforeseen as required by law.
The following are excerpts of Dr. Friday’s budget presentation where he dealt with the abuse of the Special Warrants: During the years 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017 and 2018, the government spent over $100 million under Special Warrants and failed to come to parliament in a timely manner to get approval for the money. Even all the way back to 2014 under a previous government. What a sloppy, messy way to manage government finances. And they would not have brought the matter to parliament had the Opposition, through a question from the Member for Central Kingstown, Major, the Hon. St. Clair Leacock, raised the matter in this House.
It is generally agreed that the expected practice is that Supplementary Estimates are required to be brought to the House within six months after the date the special warrant was issued. Yet, this government took up to five years in doing so (re 2014 special warrants). That negligent practice violated the law. (Section.28 of Financial Administration Act, and Section. 70(3) Constitution).
Secondly, the amount that could be spent by special warrants in a given year was set by Resolution in this Honourable House most recently to be $25m. Yet, in three of the five years for which the Supplementary Estimates were finally brought in October last year, the government exceeded that amount. For example, 2014: $26.2; 2017: $28.6; 2018, $28.8m. So, the government also violated the law here too. Here too, scant regard for the law was shown. They came to Parliament and set the limit at $25m and then they turned around and spend more than they were authorised to spend. On what authority? What a lawless government!
Also, we saw in October 2019 in the debate of the Supplementary Estimates and related Supplementary Appropriation Bill how the special warrants were abused by being used for things that it could seriously be said were “not foreseen”, as the law required. For example, paying old VINLEC bills. You did not know you had those bills. Yet, they were bought and paid for via special warrants.
Further, the Director of Audit disapproved of the way the Special Warrants have been used and abused in a Report: “the ease with which funds can be obtained and spent without the authorisation of the House of Assembly should be reviewed to satisfy the purpose of section 70(1)&(2) of the 1979 constitution.” If the government would not listen to us on this side of the House, it should at least listen to the Director of Audit and change its lawless ways. But the Director of Audit lacks resources.
St. Vincent and the Grenadines has become a lawless country. And it starts from the top. You have heard us complain about the failure to meet the standards of financial accountability. The Minister of Finance continues to disregard the laws and practice that have been put in place to keep the government accountable to the people and hold them to account.
The government has been behaving unlawfully in the way it manages the finances of the country. It is a lawless government. It does not follow financial accountability laws in the Constitution, Financial Administration Act and the Audit Act. We have spoken about this for years and I have addressed in outside this chamber. The public now knows how this government malfunctions.
It has abused the use of special warrant by not bringing them to parliament when required by law to do so; by not limiting the use to genuinely unforeseen expenditures; and by exceeding the limit of $25m set by Resolution of this House. And, by recklessly abusing the overdraft facility provided for by the Financial Administration Act and Resolution of the Parliament by exceeding again the limit, by not paying it off during the financial year and by converting a large part of it into an ongoing loan without prior approval of Parliament!
If this is not a lawless government, I don’t know what is. The existing legal guardrails are clearly not a guide or deterrent to this government. Maybe it is time that we do like Grenada and get a Fiscal Responsibility Act or some similar legislation to promote greater transparency and more responsible practice in management government’s finances. The fiscal responsibility framework at the end of the Budget Address cannot do it. It has no teeth; it must be law.