Julius Espat and Conrad Lewis discuss Public Accounts Committee on Rise & Shine

Conrad Lewis, Former Clerk of the National Assembly and Hon. Julius Espat Area Representative for Cayo South and Chairman of the Public Account Committee were guests on this morning’s Rise and Shine. The two spoke about The Public Accounts Committee which has the duty of examining, considering and reporting on sums of money granted by the National Assembly to ensure that the monies granted were used responsibly and effectively.
Julius Espat – Chairman of the Public Account Committee:
vlcsnap-2013-05-06-20h14m19s163The role of the Public Accounts Committee is just to make sure that once the money has been allocated for a specific use, that we are there to make sure that it is spent efficiently and that it reaches its final destination. Secondly, this Public Accounts Committee is not set up to be a witch-hunt to go after any Minister of Government.  It is not the role of the Public Accounts Committee to go after any minister that has done wrong-doing. That is the Governments role, through a special select committee, if they want to go look at that type of auditing.  What the Public Accounts Committee should be doing is to make sure, for example, ten million dollars is allocated in the Ministry of Finance to build a school.  The role is to make sure that during the process of that, that we are aware of the contract, that the contract goes to bidding, and we have no control who gets it and that’s not our role. Once the contract is given, we want to know first advance payment is given, how much work will be done? Second advance payment is given, how much work is done?  At the end of the day, we want to make sure that that ten million dollars, based on the contract, is properly done.

According to Lewis, there is nothing inherently wrong with the standing order, rather it’s the political culture which stands invasive in Belize that disallows the system in place to work.

Conrad Lewis – Former Clerk of the National Assembly:
vlcsnap-2013-05-06-20h14m35s87We have a political culture where short term political expediency succeeds the national good. Because of that the Public Accounts Committee moribund and impotent.  So, what Honorable Julius Espat is trying to achieve is to ensure that the committee functions, and to carry on its mandate as prescribed by the Standing Orders.  The Public Accounts Committee is such an important committee that it cannot be easily dismissed, you know. A serious Government, a Government that is truly sincere about reform, would ensure that the Public Account Committee functions, because it provides transparency as to how Government is handling the people’s resources.

Julius Espat, who currently sits as the Chairman of the committee, is trying to move forward to reform the current standing order and make the process a more meaningful one. Espat says that if the government side is willing to make sure that the committee functions as it should then there would be absolutely no problem.

Julius Espat – Chairman of the Public Account Committee:
You can’t have the rat minding the cheese. It is basic human nature that we cannot have sitting Ministers, either PUP sitting Ministers, or UDP sitting Ministers, being on a committee that determines if the money that they are spending is being properly spent. Maybe only Jesus Christ and Mohammed would be able to have that ability.  We don’t as human beings.  We understand that has not worked.  So what we have done with Conrad and other people within the party, we have gone out and studied the American system.  We have gone out and studied the Commonwealth system, and we have looked at our system,and it is flawed. What we are saying now is, we cannot depend on politicians to be able to make a decision while they are in power to check themselves, because somehow, all of a sudden, you don’t have time, you’ve got other things to do, and you don’t put your emphasis on where it belongs. 

Two members of the opposition make up the Public Accounts Committee while the remaining four seats are filled by the ruling party. According to Conrad Lewis, the structure of Belize’s Public Accounts Committee is different from those around the world; which makes it impotent.

Conrad Lewis – Former Clerk of the National Assembly:
In the US, you have a Presidential system where you have clear separation of powers, the Executive, the Judiciary,  and the Legislative, are clearly separated.  In Belize we don’t have a  clear separation of powers, you know.  We have a system what you call the fusion of powers, where the Executive and the Legislative are one and the same. But to be more precise, the Executive is a sub-set of the Legislature. That means the Executive is extracted from the Legislature. So therefore these are two players in the two different branches of Government, but they are one and the same. Now, that is the same system in the United Kingdom.  But the thing with the United Kingdom is that they have almost 600 members in the House of Commons, and it is about a small fraction of the 600 who are Ministers. So you have a large backbench from the Governing side, and then you have a large opposition.  So therefore they are able to provide scrutiny.  But here the system is tortured in such a way that the Cabinet is selected to be the majority of the Legislative Branch.  So once you have Members of Cabinet, who form the majority in the Legislative branch, you cannot provide scrutiny, check and balance, because the very people who are making the policies, and who are implementing to policies, will be the very people who scrutinize themselves.  It cannot work that way .

Espat explains how he envisions the newly drafted standing order proposal would work.

Julius Espat – Chairman of the Public Account Committee:
Three members from the opposition, one of those members be the Chairman of the Public Accounts Committee.  Two members from Government and those two Members, as much as it can be, are backbenchers, because if you have a small majority like what they have right now, everybody’s a Minister.  So in that specific case you can’t have that, but as much as possible the two Members from Government be backbenchers. And then we’re inviting the Senate to be able to have our social partners be a participant in this oversight.  We are proposing that a Member from the Senate, which is a representative of the Churches be there, [and the Senator representing] the business community. That gives you three Member from the Opposition, two members from Government, that is five, and two Members from the Senate.

The proposal is to be presented at the next sitting of the National Assembly.

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