[Friday, 26 January 2018]
At Wednesday’s sitting of the Senate, the General Revenue Supplementary Appropriation (2016/2017) (No. 3) Bill, 2017, was taken through its three readings. The Bill aimed to appropriate “further sums of money for the use of the Public Service of Belize” for the following services:
Capital II Expenditure (CAP II) = $6,643,518
Capital III Expenditure (CAP III) = $7,327,580
The CAP II money was for expenditures approved by the Ministry of Finance between May 2016 and August 2017 for Hurricane Earl assistance (Belmopan cleanup and general aid), hurricane assistance (cleanup Belize City), other hurricane assistance (cleanup and general aid – including house materials, house appliances, beds, transport, phone credit, etc.), emergency management (relief supplies & repair, construct 175 houses damaged by Hurricane Earl), and for Mother’s Day Appreciation Program.
The CAP III money was for expenditures approved in eight tranches between December 2016 and March 2017 for Belize Infrastructure Ltd (BIL) projects. No details were provided about these BIL projects.
Note that this means that the Government of Belize was in effect asking the Senate to approve expenses already approved by the Ministry of Finance and spent in the last fiscal year (2016/17). We are currently 9 months into Fiscal Year 2017/2018.
The Finance and Audit (Reform) Act stipulates different ways that Central Government can issue supplementary appropriations to itself from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. The General Revenue Supplementary Appropriation (2016/2017) (No. 3) Bill that was tabled in the Senate last week comes under the Special Warrant section (Section 5) of the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act, which states:
“If the Minister is satisfied that there has arisen an urgent and unforeseen need for expenditure…, and which cannot without serious injury to the public interest be postponed until the next meeting of the House of Representatives called for consideration of supplementary estimates, he may by Special Warrant under his hand and in anticipation of grants being made by the National Assembly authorize the issue of moneys from the Consolidated Revenue Fund in such amounts as may be necessary to meet that need”.
Clearly, if Government had not quickly moved to approve and disburse moneys to assist in the Hurricane recovery efforts, that would have caused “serious injury to the public interest”. We can therefore not fault Government for very quickly accessing moneys from the Consolidated Revenue Fund. Indeed, it was its duty and obligation to do so.
However, Section 5(3) of the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act also applies:
“(3) All authorizations by Special Warrant shall be reported to the House of Representatives at its next meeting where practicable, and at the next meeting of the House of Representatives called for supplementary estimates the Minister shall ask the House of Representatives to confirm the appropriation from the Consolidated Revenue Fund by enactment of a Supplementary Appropriation Act, Provided howsoever that all such authorizations by Special Warrant must be reported to and confirmed by the House of Representatives within three months of the date of any such Special Warrant.”
In this case, the General Revenue Supplementary Appropriation (2016/2017) (No. 3) Bill was taken to the Senate 10 months after the end of the 2016/2017 Fiscal Year and 17 months after Hurricane Earl made landfall in Belize.
The following facts are relevant:
• The first tranches for hurricane relief were approved by the Ministry of Finance in August 2016. As such, a Supplementary Appropriation Act should have been approved by the House of Representatives by November 2016.
• Notably, approximately $210,000 for Mother’s Day Appreciation Program was approved by the Ministry of Finance on May 2016. This expenditure was slipped into the supplementary moneys needed for the period September 2016 to March 2017 which ostensibly should have been for hurricane relief. This begs the question: If Government had not moved as quickly as it did to provide these “Mother’s Day Cheers”, would that have caused “serious injury to the public interest”?
• The Fiscal Transparency and Responsibility Regulations, 2010 (SI No 95 of 2010) requires the Minister of Finance to present to the National Assembly the Fiscal Outlook and Mid-year Report on or before November 15 of each fiscal year. The purpose of this report is to “provide updated information and establish fiscal targets to allow for the assessment of the Government’s fiscal performance against the fiscal strategy set out in its current Fiscal Strategy Statement. In addition, it shall provide an early indication of the Budget”.
In the Committee of the Whole Senate, the Financial Secretary confirmed that the Government was very delayed in its presentation of the General Revenue Supplementary Appropriation (2016/2017) (No. 3) Bill, 2017. It follows that the Government did not comply with Section 5 of the Finance and Audit (Reform) Act.
The Financial Secretary also reported that Government did not prepare the Fiscal Outlook and Mid-year Report and will instead present an end-of-year report in the form of the Budget, and that Government has not prepared a Fiscal Outlook and Mid-year Report since 2010.
It is convenient for the Attorney General to dismiss all constructive comments, concerns and criticisms as partisan and unwarranted, because this helps to detract from the real issues at hand. While it is also convenient for the Attorney General to state that everyone has the opportunity via the Freedom of Information Act to obtain information from the Government, it is a known fact that in practice this route to access information can be very frustrating and time-consuming. Government must not provide additional information only when requested or forced to do so. It should be a matter of course that the general public and the Senate be afforded the opportunity to review all details related to approvals of supplementary appropriations for the sake of transparency. We must not forget that this is the people’s money we are talking about. As Belize moves further along with the implementation of UNCAC, such measures would certainly assure the public that the Senate in particular is not just a rubber stamp body, but that it is treated with the respect due to the Upper Chamber of the National Assembly.