-by Handel Duncan-
Several issues were raised Monday afternoon when the Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly held a special meeting.
Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee, Irfaan Ali said the meeting was part of the PAC’s oversight based on the examination of the Auditor General’s report of the Regional Democratic Councils (RDCs) for 2015 which saw a number of irregularities.
Due to the magnitude of the problems identified, Ali added that the PAC thought it necessary to meet with the Regional Executives from across the country.
Representatives from the Public Procurement Commission were also present at the meeting.
The Chairman of the PAC noted that at past meetings during the examination of Audit reports for some of the regions, there were difficulties by Regional Executives in answering questions and as such Executives were asked to leave and return with the relevant information.
It was disclosed too that there are serious breaches in information provided in keeping with the real situation or the truth.
The Finance Committees in many regions, Ali explained, are not functioning as they should, in terms of their oversight responsibility regarding their budgetary allocations.
The Minutes taken at meetings in some cases reveal a lack of information and more. The improper functioning of Regional Tender Boards and Works Committees also came under the microscope.
Mr. Ali added that there are instances where works were paid for by Bill of Quantity rather than for the specific work done after examination.
Unauthorized payments, substandard works and material, advanced payment and the recovery of monies were among some of the issues highlighted.
Ali went further and stated that there are issues whereby at the end of the year, cheques were processed for suppliers who never worked.
He also highlighted that some of the issues are historical in nature. “It is time we understand the serious of the PAC and the work of the AG in improving transparency”
Auditor General, Deodat Sharma mentioned that there are “Appropriation lapses” at the end of the year primarily.
He told those gathered that if there is an unfinished project at the end of the year, permission is needed to have that project rolled over.
He said that projects cannot be rolled over automatically, and cautioned that any unspent amount has to be returned to the Consolidated Fund at the end of the year.
In dealing with payments to contractors, Sharma encouraged that as far as practical, payments should be made for completed works and materials on site.
The Auditor General noted that a payment of 30% for mobilization should be made but in many instances, there are Regions that are guilty of paying as much as 50 percent. Again, he told the regional officials that they must follow procedures.
Further examining the award of contracts, the Auditor General highlighted that when contracts are not awarded to the lowest evaluated bidder, such should be stated in the minutes with reason given as to why the contract was not awarded the lowest bidder.
Procurement seems to be the cradle of all problems, Dr. Hector Butts of the Finance Ministry noted.
He told the meeting that, “we cannot afford procurement breaches”. Dr. Butts related that sanctions where necessary should be applied.
Permanent Secretary in the Ministry of Communities, Emil McGarrel added that issue of financial management is not only a problem at the level of the RDC but rather it goes deeper and as such the local organs are challenged.
He went further by stating that Regional Financial Management is degrading at all levels.
Staff strengthening of the Regional Accounting Unit was another area listed as critical for the efficient management of finances at the regional level. The regional unit requires some 260 staff but only has some 150, and what was highlighted as alarming, is that there are vacancies at certificate levels.
The Permanent Secretary added that it is not surprising that these issues exist since there isn’t the necessary staff. “Accounts where we require 20 or 40. We currently have 6”
Member of the PAC, Charandaas Persaud, referred to some of the problems as recurring. He called for the problems to be fixed rather than blaming persons.
In the case of overpaying contractors, he suggested that if contractors are overpaid, efforts must be made to get back the money and it should be documented.
It was pointed out that contactors who don’t want to repay monies should be taken to Court.
PAC Member, Pauline Sukhai, pointed out that Accounting Officers who come before the Committee should treat the information they provide with seriousness.
“I have seen some progress with some Regional Executive Officers with respect to how the have put mechanisms in place to address their tenure, but I don’t believe that is enough”, she said.
Ms. Sukhai also noted that the PAC is cognizant that there is a staff shortage but some of the steps taken by some regions can be taken across the board.
Examining transparency and accountability in his region, Regional Chairman for Region 9, Brain Allicock noted that he has never seen the minutes of the Tender Board Meetings in his Region since 2015 even though, he would have written requesting the minutes.
He said he also wrote requesting for Bills of quantity but never got them.
The Regional Chairman added that in 2016 approval to the sum of $2.8M for the supply of batteries for the Sand Creek Secondary School for Solar Units was awarded but to date, those were never supplied.
He added that there are several other cases as well.