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21st January 2019

Is the Sierra Leone Parliament Effective in Protecting Tax Payers' Money?

Asks Mahmud Tim Kargbo (07/01/19)

Matters of public money are filled with great promises and fraught with deep disappointments. Are parliamentarians able to man it?

This paper begins from the premise that until Parliament increases its ability to influence the estimates and the supply process, real scrutiny and accountability of government will be impossible. It reviews the record of frustration for parliamentarians in the scrutiny of the Estimates and suggests some reforms that might allow parliamentarians a greater role in this area.

The estimates are, of course, about public money. And public money talks. It speaks to the great public purposes of society and the way governments pursue them. It also speaks to the concerns - both real and fabricated - of citizens, taxpayers, members of parliament and the media about the way public money is spent or misspent.

Most parliamentarians, expert observers, and other Sierra Leoneans believe that Parliament is not effective in holding governments accountable for how they spend taxpayers’ money. A former House of Parliament Clerk observed that the Parliament has almost abandoned its constitutional responsibility of supply.

Parliamentarians however, have not been sitting on their hands waiting for the accountability police to round up the local suspects. Quite the contrary, over the last few years Parliamentarians gave support to the Anticorruption Commission and produced some very important, but not widely read outcome.

Years ago a commissioner on the public service observed: "Supplies are duly voted in the customary course, often at the end of the session in one of the small offices by jaded members in a tired House...." The resulting commissioner concluded that parliamentary control over the government’s proposals for expenditure was negligible. This was 2008.

One member of parliament, while fully engaged in debate on supply put the matter rather eloquently: Over the years, there’s no adequate procedure by which we may put ourselves in a position to deal intelligently with the amounts submitted to us for our approval.

Year after year, and this year again, I have heard criticism of the government for having the estimates dealt with so late in the session and in such large amounts. But no matter at what time they are dealt with, the weakness I suggest would still be there.

I am going to vote that this item before us be approved by the committee, but I am not in a position to judge whether or not the amount asked for, or an amount somewhat less, might be sufficient to carry on adequately and properly the work of the department. That was 2012

A leading international research student of Parliament summarised the criticisms of our Parliamentarians: "There is no part of procedure in the Sierra Leone House of Parliament which is so universally acknowledged to be inadequate to modern needs as the control of the Parliament over public expenditure." That was 2014 and that was W.F. Dawson. "...the record of the Sierra Leone House of Parliament in the scrutiny of executive expenditures is not good."

Parliamentarians have described the process of supply as time consuming, repetitive, and archaic with claims that it does not permit effective scrutiny of the estimates, does not provide the House with the means of organising meaningful debate, and fails to preserve effective parliamentary control over expenditure. That was 2007.

Years after the procedures were amended, chairpersons of some Oversight Committees lamented to me that, "...MPs in a majority Parliament have effectively lost the power to reduce government expenditure." They went on to explain that, "Members are therefore making the very rational calculation that there is no point devoting time and effort to an exercise over which they can have no influence." That was 2008 and since that time the pace of criticism has quickened.

Two years later in 2010, the situation as reflected was that from all sides the view is the same: the review of the Estimates is often meaningless. Members of Parliament reflected a profound degree of dissatisfaction about the Estimates, describing it as futile attempts to bring about change, not a particularly useful procedure and a total waste of time.

More recently, Parliamentarians said to me that the supply process is not taken seriously, is overly politicised, and Members of Parliament do not devote sufficient time and attention to the expenditure of public funds. That was in 2016. Some Parliamentarians have admitted that they are simply overwhelmed and that “the traditional notion of holding government to account’ is no longer feasible. In their words “there are too many expenditures, too many reports and too many de- partmental programs to review.... That was 2017.

This is not a happy state of affairs. Underlying these criticisms by MPs, there are historical reasons and traditions to explain why, in our democratic systems of government, legislatures have played very limited roles in influencing the budget and the Estimates.

Overtime with appropriations being voted after the fiscal year was underway, Parliament came to merely endorse spending that had already occurred.

Second, the adoption of a standing order from State House on Presidential trips within and outside the contraption almost codified a practice that exists to this day, namely, the President directly ask the Finance Minister to Finance his trips without the approval of Parliament and in most cases Parliament is unable to ascertain the whether monies demand for such trips worth the purpose.

One of the purpose of Parliament is to ensure tax payers monies are wisely use by restraining the Executive and its irrational for the Parliament to allow the Executive Arm to withdraw money that had not been approved. Parliament is therefore barred by State House to dig in to these standing orders and initiate investigations to ascertain whether these Presidential trips expenditures worth it.

And by not tracking these drain pipe expenditures, by the reality of politics from denying Parliament to approve these requested funds, Parliament power over the public purse is greatly reduced.

Courtesy: By Mahmud Tim Kargbo

TRIBUTE: Alpha Shaw

Journalist, Student Activist, Leader, 1958-1980

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