Audit bill welcome
March 22, 2004
The Audit Bill 2004 which seeks to enshrine the independence of the state audit office will be a welcome addition to the compendium of laws when passed. It has been sent to a Select Committee of Parliament for further consideration prior to third reading. It is hoped that it will benefit from the input of all the opposition parties on the committee considering that the PNCR boycotted the second reading of the bill. These PNCR boycotts are proving counter-productive to the business of Parliament and to that party's own constituency.
Any law that seeks to fortify the independence of the audit office must be welcomed and hopefully the Select Committee can improve upon it. There is one particularly troubling clause which should receive careful attention. Clause 4(2) permits the government to cause an additional audit to be conducted by an auditor other than the Auditor General where an agreement entered into between the government and an international financial institution so dictates. Lest this clause becomes a means of subverting the role of the audit office it should be made clear that any second audit should be for the purposes of the external agency only and would not in any way be recognised as the official audit of the project/public agency or be used to undermine the original audit undertaken by the audit office.
The problem also subsists in clause 4(3) where the Minister of Finance can approach the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) for an additional audit to be done by someone other than the Auditor General.
Apart from these, there are worthy new additions to the armoury of state auditing. Among these is the long sought value-for-money auditing which will put the evaluation of many state agencies under a different light i.e. are they using resources and executing their activities "economically, efficiently, and with due regard to ensuring effective internal management control" as clause 24 (3) states.
Clause 26 sets out clearly that the audit office may pursue special audits at its discretion and prepare special reports. On the conclusion of any audit, clause 27 requires the Auditor General to provide the relevant head of the agency with a draft report including findings and recommendations and that head must provide a written response within 30 days which will be included in the report laid before parliament.
Several aspects of the bill strengthen the ability of the audit office to discharge its obligations. Clause 30 requires the agencies under audit to ensure that the Auditor General has access to documents and they must provide reasonable space for state auditors to do their work. The audit office can also request regular accounts of the transactions of any agency.
Clause 31 empowers the audit office to ask any public entity, its officers or employees for documents under their control or to provide the auditor general with information while clause 32 authorises the Auditor General to request evidence either orally or in writing from any relevant officer.
Interestingly, clause 33 will enable the Auditor General to examine or audit the account of any person in any bank if the Auditor General believes that money belonging to a public entity has been fraudulently or wrongfully paid into that account. A warrant would have to be obtained from the courts for this to happen. Several years ago when the audit office had investigated the shenanigans on the Essequibo Road construction these powers would have been particularly useful though those engaged in corrupt practices have a habit of finding ways to circumvent these checks.
Clause 34 entrenches powers to enter the premises of public entities and to search for documents and make copies.
These provisions should help to improve further the valuable services rendered by the audit office over the years and the government should be applauded for presenting this bill for approval.
Amnesty a bad idea
The one-week amnesty announced by the Commissioner-General of the Guyana Revenue Authority (GRA) Khurshid Sattaur for those who were named in the investigation of the remigrants concessions scam was a bad idea. In the circumstances where the state is attempting to maximise revenues, enforce rules and deal condignly with corruption, Mr Sattaur's amnesty sent a signal which is sure to encourage more attempts at the type of fraud which was uncovered. The man/woman in the street will also feel that the well-heeled and the well-to-do who were caught up in this scam have been let off lightly. All of those who were engaged in practices aimed at defrauding the state should have been prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.
Where is the justice and evenhandedness? Why should the public officers who betrayed the public trust be the only ones to face charges? What about those who helped to corrupt these officers? By granting this amnesty won't it also have to be extended to those who it might be discovered obtained concessions illegally in the period prior to August 2003?
On a case-by-case basis the GRA could have decided whether the circumstances warranted a simple paying up of the additional duties or the application of penalties. A full report should be made available to the public by the GRA of all those who have benefitted from this amnesty and under what terms.