Mon | Apr 22, 2019

Editorial | Did the finance ministry do the audits?

Published:Wednesday | March 6, 2019 | 12:21 AM

On the general principle of accountability, Everald Warmington is right. Like all government ministries and agencies, the Auditor General’s Department ought to be subject to regular audits.

What Mr Warmington, and the finance minister, Dr Nigel Clarke, may, however, not be aware of, or perhaps missed, is that this is a requirement under Jamaica’s Constitution, with the obligation, therefore, as was the case with his predecessors, resting with Dr Clarke.

Any failure, therefore, to conduct audits of the financial management of the Auditor General’s Department, and to make those findings public, wouldn’t be the fault of that agency or its head, Pamela Monroe Ellis.

In any event, while the immediate matter of accounting reviews of the Auditor General’s Department has relevance, what, in our view, should be the larger import, to which Dr Clarke should set his mind, is a new, updated governance structure for the agency. He need not attempt to reinvent the wheel.

The auditor general is a powerful, constitutionally tenured post that gives its holder the authority to conduct audits of ministries, departments and agencies to ensure that they are prudent and accountable with taxpayers’ resources. Indeed, the auditor general’s annual report on how the Government has managed its affairs is tabled in Parliament and reviewed by the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

This week, in the House, Everald Warmington, a junior minister in the Office of the Prime Minister, reprised his insistence that Mrs Monroe Ellis’ agency should be subject to the same scrutiny as other government departments.

“We can’t have a government agency funded by taxpayers’ money and there is no accountability,” said Mr Warmington.

Dr Clarke responded: “I will ensure that we have the Auditor General’s Department subject to an audit.”

There are two important observations with respect to these statements. One is that Dr Clarke wouldn’t be reinventing the wheel. Such audits should be routine.

Section 122 (4) of the Constitution says: “The accounts of the department of the auditor general shall be audited and reported on by the minister with responsibility for finance, and the provisions of subsections (1) and (2) of this section shall apply in relation to audits and reports made by the auditor general.”

Those subsections refer to the requirement of audited entities to make all their information available to Mrs Monroe Ellis’ auditors and for the audit reports to be sent to the Speaker of the House for tabling in Parliament. The same, therefore, would apply to the Auditor General’s Department.

The second point is that in March 2017, when Mr Warmington previously raised questions about the auditing of Mrs Monroe Ellis’ agency, Audley Shaw, then the finance minister, disclosed that one was under way and that its findings would be presented to Parliament.

It is for Mr Shaw and Dr Clarke to disclose if that, or other audits, was completed, and if they were, why the reports weren’t tabled in Parliament in accordance with the Constitution.

It is an intriguing question whether, if there have been breaches of constitutional obligations, citizens could seek legal redress against errant finance ministers.

UK REFORMS

On the issue of a new governance model for the Auditor General’s Department, Dr Clarke may well consider the United Kingdom’s reforms of the 1980s and 2000s that established the National Accounting Office (NOA), headed by the Comptroller and Auditor General (C&AG), a position roughly analogous to Jamaica’s auditor general, and the arrangements for its oversight.

The NOA is accountable to a nine-member commission of the Commons called the Public Accounts Commission (TPAC), which is separate from the standing Public Accounts Committee. The TPAC sets the NOA budget, oversees its performance and appoints external auditors. Additionally, the TPAC appoints five non-executive members of the NOA’s nine-member board, whose role is to provide relevant advice to the TPAC and support to the C&CG and the NOA in carrying out their statutory functions.

Changes in Jamaica would require constitutional tweaks, but it is a conversation worth engaging in.