Public Accounts and all Standing Committees are public!
A technical gaffe may have caused Monday’s botched Public Accounts Committee (PAC) meeting, but that does not change the reality that meetings of all Standing Committees are “always public,” Mr. Gian Ghandi, legal advisor to the Minister of Finance, confirmed Wednesday this week.
Ghandi corroborated the government’s position that at PAC’s inaugural meeting on Monday, October 1, 2012, the matter of opening the committee meetings to the public was merely discussed.
“No decision was taken then,” he said.
That decision, Ghandi explained, was to be made at Monday’s meeting under the “Establishment of Meeting Procedures” agenda item, which PAC Chairman and People’s United Party (PUP) Cayo South area representative, Julius Espat, listed under “New Business.”
Ghandi made reference to May’s Parliamentary Practice— an authoritative parliamentary book that serves as a guide to countries that employ the United Kingdom (UK)’s Westminster System.
Mays Parliamentary Practice states that “All Standing Committee meetings are public all the time.”
Also called the “Parliamentary Bible”, the book, written by British Constitutional theorist and former Clerk of the House of Commons, Thomas Erskine May, it is often used to settle parliamentary disputes even in Belize, which operates on the principles of Parliamentary Democracy based on the Westminster System.
Mr. Ghandi explained that the text reflects the in-practice traditions of the House, and that the hotly debated Standing Order 72 (3), which says, “Members of the public shall be allowed sufficient opportunity to present their views at the meetings of all Standing Committees” is to be interpreted in accordance with May’s work.
Ghandi said it was just a formality that the members meet to agree on this matter. However, Monday’s meeting never made it that far, because it reportedly digressed into a bitter back & forth between the four United Democratic Party (UDP) PAC members and Espat from the onset, when UDP’s Hon. John Saldivar ordered the eviction of Toledo West Area Representative Hon. Oscar Requeña, Toledo East’s Area Representative Hon. Mike Espat, and a member of the media from the National Assembly building, where the meeting was to be held.
At an impromptu PUP press conference on Tuesday afternoon, Requeña said: “When he [Hon. John Saldivar] arrived, he was obviously upset, in my opinion, that we were present. And he said: ‘Well, I want to make you all know that no meeting is taking place with these people in here.”
Conrad Lewis, a former Clerk of the National Assembly, also chimed in on the matter at the PUP press conference, to say that the meetings of Standing Committees should be and are always public.
A few hours after Tuesday’s press conference, Saldivar issued a “clarification” statement in which he rebutted several of the points raised.
He said: “The first misconception of the Chairman is the assumption that the meetings of the Public Accounts Committee are to be at all times in public.
“The attention of the Chairman and the general public is called to Standing Order 79(9) which states quite clearly: “Subject to any order of the House or resolution of the Committee, the meeting of a Select Committee shall be held in private.”
“This means that only by order of the House of Representatives or by resolution of, in this instance, the members of the Public Accounts Committee can the Committee conduct its proceedings in public,Saldivar declared. He went on to state:
“No Chairman or member of any committee can usurp the powers of the committee … to declare a public meeting of the committee without the prior approval of its members. …
“ It is my firm belief that the Chairman … erred in inviting members of the public and the media to a purported public meeting of the Public Accounts Committee without a resolution of the committee.”
It should be noted, however, that Standing Orders Section 79, which Saldivar quoted, sets out the procedures for Select Committee meetings, not Standing Committees, which are regulated by Section 72 (3).
“Section 72 (3) states:
“Members of the Public shall be allowed sufficient opportunity to present their views at the meetings of all Standsing Committees.
According to Standing Orders, Section 76 (1), “A Select Committee other than a Standing Committee shall be known as a Special Select Committee.” .”
Relying on Mr. Ghandi’s and Mr. Lewis’ advice, Espat declared: “We are insisting that future meetings of the Public Accounts Committee be held with the public.”
He went on to say that he intends to schedule the next PAC meeting for Monday, December 3, 2012.
The Public Accounts Committee is one of 13 Standing Committees set up to examine, consider and report to the House on all proposed legislation, messages, petitions, reports, motions and other matters that fall within their specific portfolios.
The Public Accounts Committee, according to Standing Orders Section 74(1), is to oversee the appropriation of public funds, especially as to how they are used to meet the country’s expenditure.
It is also to function as the Auditor General’s main link to the House.
The Public Accounts Committee has been inactive for several years, and Espat says it is necessary to ensure that the PAC becomes functional, especially in light of the recent Auditor General’s report which cites several irregularities in the use of public funds.
He said on Tuesday: “The Auditor General, [Ms. Dorothy Bradley] has made her presentation. It is a public document. …. It says: “As a result of the significant material errors and omissions identified in the financial statements received from the Accountant General, I [Bradley] am withholding my opinion on the statements.’”
Prime Minister Hon. Dean Barrow has said that he supports the principle that the Public Accounts Meeting should meet in public.
“We will support….. because there is nothing to hide,” he said. “The current Auditor General’s report speaks to some difficulties and challenges in Government. It doesn’t indict any UDP politician, and what Mr. Espat needs to recognize, and what I need to point out to the media and the public now is this, there are several Auditor General reports, going back to 2000, or something like that, and you will treat these things in the proper sequence.”
The Publc Accounts Standing Committee is the only Standing Committee chaired by a member of the Opposition. Its current members are Hon. Julius Espat, Hon. Rodwell Ferguson, Hon. Patrick Faber, Hon. John Saldivar, Hon. Michael Finnegan, and Hon. Erwin Contreras.