Mon | Sep 20, 2021

Trevor Munroe | Status report needed on delinquent public bodies

Published:Sunday | March 21, 2021 | 12:20 AM
Prime Minister Andrew Holness addresses legislators during his Budget Debate presentation in Parliament last Thursday.
Prime Minister Andrew Holness addresses legislators during his Budget Debate presentation in Parliament last Thursday.

Julian Robinson, opposition spokesman on finance, holds a chart showing the rise of prices of basic food items between 2016 and 2021 in his contribution to the 2021 Budget Debate in Gordon House.
Julian Robinson, opposition spokesman on finance, holds a chart showing the rise of prices of basic food items between 2016 and 2021 in his contribution to the 2021 Budget Debate in Gordon House.
Professor Trevor Munroe, executive director of National Integrity Action.
Professor Trevor Munroe, executive director of National Integrity Action.
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As I watched parts of the 2021-22 Budget Debate, I had mixed feelings: on the one hand to commend aspects uplifting good governance; but on the other, to insist on an end to continued chronic, gross violations of transparency and accountability in the management of billions of dollars of the public’s money.

First, the commendations:

• In the context of the surging infection rate and violation of COVID-19 protocols, the prime minister’s commitment to stronger measures to protect our healthcare system and to reduce the likelihood of many more deaths as hospital bed capacity has now been overwhelmed.

• The Leader of the Opposition’s emphasis on the need to correct unacceptable and growing levels of inequity in Jamaica as well as the urgency to adopt special measures to mitigate the impact of this ‘inequity virus’ on the poor.

• The Opposition spokesman on finance’s exposure of the punishing conditions facing the disadvantaged particularly female-headed households and the unbearable burden of escalating prices on essentials in the shops and supermarkets.

• The minister of finance’s positive measures towards modernisation of institutions and strengthening transparency.

• In the Public Investment Map “which allows greater transparency in the execution of Jamaica’s public investment projects” by enabling citizens to “view [online] how much has been spent to date and to see whether the project is ahead or behind schedule as well as the name of the contractor…”

• In the staggering of “the board appointments [to the Bank of Jamaica] such that the entire board cannot by replaced in a single administration” and in the publication of the “minutes of the meetings” of the Monetary Policy Committee. Minister Clarke correctly described this as “a revolutionary nod to policy transparency”.

END TO DELINQUENCY

But alongside this “revolutionary nod”, the minister and the Government need to put an end to delinquency in another critical area of transparency and accountability, namely, the failure of public bodies to report as required by law.

Instead of reversing these violations, the Government announced that billions of dollars under the SERVE Jamaica Programme, otherwise commendable, is being allocated to public bodies grossly and chronically delinquent in disclosing to the public, as required by law, how they are spending billions of dollars of public monies. So gross is this lawless conduct over the years that according to the last annual (January 2019) tabulation on the Cabinet secretary’s website, only one of 164 bodies, that is the Bank of Jamaica, was current in complying with the annual transparency and accountability obligations under the law.

So serious is this continuing breach of law that on the Ministry of Finance and Public Service’s website we find Circular 15, issued on August 24, 2020, under the signature of the financial secretary. This circular reads in part:

“As at 31 March 2020, Annual Reports and Financial Statements remain outstanding for several of Budget-funded public bodies some as chronic as 11 years … in breach of Section 3 of the Public Bodies Management and Accountability Act … Accounting Officers are hereby required to institute measures that will bring the delinquent entities into compliance within the shortest possible time … Ministries are now required to submit … Quarterly Reports on the status of annual reports … the first report due on Wednesday, October 14, 2020.”

The Budget Debate is taking place fully five months after these report were due. Transparency demands that the minister update the public on how far this report reveals continuation or rectification of this chronic delinquency. At the minimum, we need to know how far public bodies now being allocated billions of dollars have become compliant with the law.

Among the delinquent bodies, according to the January 2019 Cabinet secretary’s tabulation, were the Rural Agricultural Development Authority (RADA) – two years delinquent; the Statistical Institute of Jamaica – four years delinquent; the South Eastern Regional Health Authority – seven years delinquent; the Southern Regional Health Authority – five years delinquent; the North Eastern Regional Health Authority (NERHA) – eight years delinquent; the Western Regional Health Authority – nine years delinquent; the National Water Commission – three years; the National Works Agency – seven years delinquent; and the Urban Development Corporation (UDC) – five years delinquent.

With regard to the UDC, in 2020, the auditor general’s “Audit Report has been suspended due to outstanding information from the UDC related to audited financial statements, annual reports, valuation reports, as well as the transfer of lands to the Jamaica North-South Highway Company”.

RECTIFY BREACHES OF LAW

Accountability demands that this delinquency in the reporting by public bodies be corrected or at least credible plans be tabled to rectify the breaches of law at the same time as the billions allocated in the 2021-22 Budget are disbursed.

How can principles of good governance justify the SERVE Jamaica Programme, essential as that programme is, allocating billions to Departments and Agencies when we do not know whether and how far they have reported steps being taken to rectify not only breaches of the PBMAA, but as well deficiencies identified in performance audits conducted by the auditor general? For example, almost $12 billion is allocated to rehabilitate secondary roads and to repair roads across Jamaica. Such an allocation is necessary, however, what are the measures being taken by the Municipal Corporations and by RADA to correct the shortcomings identified in the 2020 report of the auditor general? These included serious deficiencies and breaches relating to the selection of contractors, including lack of transparency and inadequate use of competitive tender.

In order to mitigate obvious violations of Jamaica and the Government’s own principles of transparency and accountability as well as to avoid subverting its own measures towards good governance:

1) The minister of finance, preferably in his closing of the Budget Debate, needs to update Parliament and the public on the extent of correction of the breaches of law by delinquent entities, in particular those now being allocated substantial additional funds. If necessary, the recalcitrant accountable officers should be sanctioned in accordance with law at the same time as we celebrate and commend those who are in compliance.

2) In preparing its Interim Special Report on COVID-19 expenditure and contracts, the Integrity Commission needs to probe and disclose to Parliament the extent of these continuing breaches of relevant law and good practice by these public bodies.

- Professor Trevor Munroe CD, DPhil (Oxford), is principal director, National Integrity Action. Send feedback to info.niajamaica.org or columns@gleanerjm.com.