THE Fiscal Management & Accountability (Amendment) (FMA) Bill, presented by Finance Minister Winston Jordan was passed yesterday in the National Assembly. The Bill, which will be put before President David Granger for his assent, complements the recently passed Constitution (Amendment) Bill, and will grant further financial autonomy to
constitutional agencies, allowing them to draw directly from the treasury, with little interference from the executive arm of the government.
Like the Constitution Bill, the FMA Bill suffered a similar fate in the 10th Parliament, whereby it was approved by the then A Partnership for National Unity (APNU) and Alliance For Change (AFC) opposition parties, which held a majority in the Assembly, but were rejected by former President, Mr Donald Ramotar, who withheld his assent.
The objective of the Constitution (Amendment) Bill was to allow constitutional agencies to carry out their constitutional functions without interference from the government.
Those agencies include the Public, Police, Teaching and Judicial Service Commissions; the Public Service Appellate Tribunal; the Supreme Court; Office of the Ombudsman; and Guyana Elections Commission (GECOM).
The minister went on to cite the infamous quote by renowned Guyanese poet, Martin Carter, “The mouth is muzzled by the hand that feeds it,” as the justification for the legislation.
“Constitutional agencies exhibit three distinct features,” the Finance Minister told the Assembly last night in the absence of the Opposition People’s Progressive Party/Civic (PPP/C). “They are constitutionally created, and hence may not be abolished by statutes.”
He noted that those constitutional bodies are given functions which cannot be reduced by legislation, and finally, those bodies are expressly independent.
“These bodies are expected to institute their mandates without fear or favour, affection or ill-will… without regard for the overpowering and sometimes oppressive presence of ‘Big Brother’,” Jordan said.
There are some opinions however that such legislation will see some abuse from budget agencies, but this opinion was supposedly laid to rest by Minister within the Ministry of Finance Jaipaul Sharma, who took to the floor in the National Assembly to speak on behalf of the proposed legislation.
Sharma spoke directly in his address about a clause in the principal act which states that officials who “conspire to defraud or knowingly permit a breach of the FMA Act are guilty of an indictable offence, and liable, on conviction, to a fine of $2M and imprisonment for three years.”
He noted that in the previous Act, which was amended last night, accountability for ministers was not expressly spelt out.
But in the amendments, he said, “Under this Government, Ministers of Government found guilty of an indictable offence under section 85 (of the principal Act) will be liable to conviction to a fine of $2M and to imprisonment for three years.”
Finance Minister Jordan sought to clarify to the Assembly that it is not that the legislation seeks to place some agencies outside of the budget process, but that the legislation seeks to enhance the independence of the constitutional agencies while giving them complete control of finances.
There are, he continued, “built-in mechanisms that safeguard against abuse of this new- found freedom, consistent with the constitutional imperative which imposes on such bodies, a duty to manage subventions in conformity with financial practices and procedures approved by the National Assembly.
“These agencies will be prevented from opening commercial bank accounts and depositing the lump sum into interest-bearing accounts. They will be required to return any unspent balance to the treasury at the end of the year,” the Finance Minister continued.
He said, too, that the agencies will be required to keep records and charts as customary. The Finance Minister will have the authority solely to comment in a timely manner on the total of funds requested by agencies as opposed to line-by-line scrutiny.
These measures, according to Jordan, are to prevent the administration from micromanaging and stipulating what should be given, and when it should be given to agencies that should function separately from the executive.
Only in special circumstances where the economy is in a dire situation and the operations of all Government agencies are expected to be scaled back, will the constitutional agencies be expected to do the same, the Finance Minister assured.
By Derwayne Wills