Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Anguilla Public Finance Order - My Opinion

PERSONAL OPINION
[1]     When I was appointed Magistrate and Registrar in Anguilla in August 1976, I became head of the Judicial Department.  Ralph Hodge was Accountant General in the Government of Anguilla.  Shortly after I took up the position, the Accountant General called me to his office and explained the financial obligations and responsibilities of the position to me.
[2]     What he told me was that every penny in the Government Estimates of Expenditure and Revenue was assigned to a line item.  These funds had been approved for my Department by the Anguilla House of Assembly.  The line items had to be strictly adhered to.  I was not permitted to shift one penny from one line item to another without authorization.  If I over-spent one penny, it would be deducted from my salary as head of department.
[3]     However, in all the years since then, I have never heard of one head of department being penalized for over- or mis-spending the funds of the Department.  And, what we gather from reading the draft Order in Council is that government departments no longer strictly account for every penny received and spent.
[4]     A few years later, after I had left government, I had a conversation with a Chief Auditor.  I was attempting to secure copies of the latest Audit Reports of the accounts of the Government of Anguilla for an article I was writing.  He told me he was not authorized to give me a copy.  I must try to get a copy from the Accountant General, to whom alone he delivered his reports.  I tried on several occasions to get from the Accountant General copies of the most recent Audit Reports, but was turned down each time, though I had paid several hundred dollars for the copies I had requested.  What I actually received was several hundred pages of the Estimates, not what I had requested.
[5]     So far as I know, no Audit Report of a Chief Auditor of Anguilla has ever been made public.  Each year, they are “laid before the House of Assembly” by the Minister of Finance.  They are then taken away by the Minister and put in his filing cabinet, never again to see the light of day.
[6]     When I complained to the Chief Auditor about the refusal of the Accountant General to give me the copies I had paid for, he told me he was not surprised.  From what he told me, I concluded that not one Government Department kept a proper record of what its revenue was, and where it came from.  Not one Department kept a proper record of what exactly it spent its allocated funds on.  I concluded that there was not one Audit Report in the past 30 years from any Chief Auditor which had given the Government of Anguilla a clean report.  No wonder, then, they wanted to keep the Reports secret.
[7]     From all this, I concluded that each Department in the Government of Anguilla is now allocated what amounts to a giant slush fund by the House of Assembly.  The Minister and his heads of departments can use their budgeted funds more or less as they wish.  This must mean that no longer are all funds ascribed to a line item which is required to be adhered to.
[8]     The likelihood is that, despite recent computerization, there is no proper system of accounting for funds received, or funds spent.  Honesty and integrity in the handling of the public funds of the people of Anguilla would depend today on the personal integrity of the individuals concerned, and not be dependent on proper systems.  There must be many Departments of Government where, from the head down, we can suspect there is widespread mis-handling of public funds.
[9]     On inquiry, I am informed that the Internal Audit officers no longer go around regularly to each Department checking on their adherence to prescribed systems.  If Internal Audit officers have ever investigated any public officer’s mis-handling public funds is not publicly known.  It is not clear to me what, if anything, the Internal Audit Department does.
[10]   From this, we can conclude that despite the repeated recommendations of the secret Audit Reports from the Chief Auditor, no Minister of Finance has ever taken any steps to reform the wide-spread mishandling of public funds revealed by the draft Order in Council.  We can readily believe that no Minister insists on the penalization of public servants caught misappropriating the monies of the people of Anguilla.
[11]   There is little opportunity for us, the public of Anguilla, to find out the truth about what is happening with the public accounts.  There is no Freedom of Information Act in Anguilla to permit questions to be asked, and to force answers to be given.  No Public Accounts Committee has ever called for a copy of an Audit Report from a Chief Auditor, and questioned any public officer about the spending of his or her Department’s funds.
[12]   Despite the comments and observations above, I do not personally favour the passage of the draft Anguilla Finance Order, 2015.  My main objection is based on principle.  We in Anguilla deserve a mature and responsible system of government based on transparency, accountability and integrity.  We need to enforce existing laws and prosecute and punish Ministers and senior public servants who break those laws.  We need to begin to demand and to expect proper government handling of public funds.  We need to do this ourselves.  We need our political and public administration leadership to stop protecting public servants who mis-appropriate public funds.  It is time we began actively, through publicity and criminal prosecutions, to enforce our laws.
[13]   The imposition of a new watchdog institution from London will not help us to grow in financial maturity.  It will only foster resentment and hostility in the public mind.  The objections will be led by those with a political axe to grind, and, perhaps, with an interest in concealing the true state of Anguilla’s financial affairs.  This Order in Council, in my opinion, amounts to a democracy deficit and will be a disaster for good governance in Anguilla.
[14]   If I have mis-judged any aspect of the public accounts of Anguilla in what I have written above, I would love to know.  If you see anything unfair or unjustified in any opinion expressed or comment I have made, don’t hesitate to point it out to me so I can correct it.