The Minister of Finance must act
Stabroek News
November 15, 2001

The Public Accounts Committee of the National Assembly has been meeting recently to examine the public accounts of Guyana and the accounts of ministries, departments and regions for the fiscal year ended 31 December 1999. It is, as usual, a profoundly depressing experience for those involved. The culture of non-accountability and financial depredation that flourished in the Burnham era is still alive and well. The Executive Summary in the Report of the Auditor General sets the tone for the list of irregularities we have become accustomed to since that department started publishing these reports again (there was a long period during the previous government when no reports were published).

Dealing with the cash position of the government the Auditor General notes, as he has done before, that the vast majority of the government's bank accounts have not been reconciled for years by the accounting staff in the relevant ministries and departments. Reconciliation involves checking the deposits made and cheques drawn against the bank statements. How can this gross dereliction of duty be tolerated? Isn't it a most elementary step for any accounting person to take as part of his job? The Auditor General has to work off final balances. In an effort to rectify the situation the Auditor General had recommended that all accounts with positive balances be closed and the balances transferred to the consolidated fund, that in the case of accounts with overdrawn balances a supplementary estimate be presented to the National Assembly so that funds could be voted to liquidate the overdrafts and close those accounts, the opening of new bank accounts for ministries and departments to avoid contamination with previous accounts (the minimum number should be opened for control purposes) and that the new accounts be reconciled within thirty days of the end of each month to avoid a repetition of the old problems. Astonishingly, 145 new banks were opened as a result of these recommendations but the other proposals were ignored so these new accounts were merely added to the old ones and the new bank accounts have not been reconciled since they were opened! How do accounting staff get away with this level of performance? In even the most run down private sector business such staff would not last for three months. No entity can survive with that level of accounting.

The Report refers to other well known abuses such as the lack of tender documents, minutes of meetings and supporting files. Unvouched expenditure is rampant, sometimes for very large sums, and explanations are often not forthcoming. Take one small random example from paragraph 1215 (c) of the Report: "Contract No 165/99 was awarded for the repairs to windows and supplying and installing of doors at the Court of Appeal in the sum of $341,990. However, only one (1) door costing $9,750 was installed. No other work was done on this contract although the contractor was paid the full contract sum."

What is to be done? It is intolerable that this state of affairs should continue indefinitely. Inevitably, as the Auditor General notes, there will continue to be a substantial number of frauds in the public service, some of which end up in the courts. But at the end of the day taxpayers' money is being wasted or at the very least no one, including the Auditor General, can say in many cases whether it is being properly spent because of the lack of vouchers and proper records.

The Auditor General refers in the report to the inadequacy of staffing at the various accounting units in ministries and departments, the lack of suitably qualified and trained personnel and the absence of internal audit departments in large ministries which make an effective system of internal control very difficult "and have contributed significantly over the years to the deterioration in financial management at both the ministerial and central level."

The Minister of Finance should take these problems on board without further delay. He is sure to have the full support of the opposition, one of whose members, Mr Stanley Ming, who sits on the Public Accounts Committee, has told this newspaper that it is intolerable that this situation should continue (see report on page 3). He would also, one imagines, have the support of the Guyana Public Service Union who represent the accounting staff involved but who cannot be happy with this situation and would surely back a constructive all party proposal to deal with it. A solution must, at a minimum, involve an assessment of the accounting staff in each ministry and department, a recruitment or training of any extra personnel needed, and training courses for all involved setting out the basic procedures required ranging from an insistence on vouchers for all expenditure, to the proper keeping of accounts, reconciling bank accounts and so on. The Auditor General and private accountants may well be willing to help in the designing and provision of such courses.