Opposition under fire over PAC matter
The Deputy Clerk of Parliament Richard Byer is upset that details of a recent summons issued by the Mia Mottley-led Public Accounts Committee (PAC) to three members of Freundel Stuart Cabinet have ended up in the public domain.
In fact, an upset Byer told Barbados TODAY it was nothing short of an “illegal act” to have the affairs of the PAC bandied around in the Press. Therefore, he said he had absolutely no intention of contributing to “the stupidity that is going around”.
He was responding to a request made to him by Barbados TODAY in his capacity as clerk of the PAC, to clarify the process by which Members of Parliament are summoned to appear before that parliamentary accountability body.
While confirming that as clerk of the PAC he was best placed to explain such matters, Byer outrightly refused to do so, charging that the matter was one for the PAC alone to consider.
However, it has already been revealed that Minister of Finance Chris Sinckler, former Housing & Lands Minister Michael Lashley and his successor Denis Kellman are to appear in person before the parliamentary committee on December 15, in light of concerns raised by the country’s Auditor-General Leigh Trotman about financial spending by the National Housing Corporation (NHC).
At issue is the employment of 47 people over and above the approved staff complement for the statutory agency; the auditing of accounts and the laying of those accounts before Parliament and the awarding of contracts for the Exmouth, Coverley, Grotto, Bushy Park and Country Park Towers housing projects.
However, two senior parliamentary officials today sought to pour cold water on the move with one dismissing it as nothing more than “political grandstanding”, and the other accusing the Opposition Leader of “picking on” the three ministers in the hope of toppling the Government.
However, neither felt the move would gain any traction.
One official argued that since the three ministers were already members of the House of Assembly, it was foolhardy to talk about “summoning them to appear before a committee of the House”.
“You don’t have to summon a minister to appear before the House. If there is evidence of ministerial impropriety, produce the report,” the official said, pointing out that the late Branford Taitt was never summoned to appear before the PAC.
However, the official recalled that the PAC had met to review his case and had submitted a report to Parliament, which was used as the basis for bringing action against him as a former minister of health over his handling of the affairs of the St Joseph Hospital.
“Therefore, if this committee has any evidence against any of the three ministers, it should bring a report before the House and bring a motion of no confidence against them,” the official said, while pointing out that the Financial Administration and Audit Act included provisions for the sanctioning of rogue ministers.
“ . . . it is theatre,” the official stressed, adding that the move was contrary to the laws of natural justice and akin to the Director of Public Prosecutions calling an accused person to give evidence against himself.
Another official, who is very familiar with the inner workings of Government, was at pains to point out that while ministers were responsible for public policy, it was the permanent secretary who was really the accounting officer in terms of departmental spending.
Therefore, the official said, “a clear paper trail would have to be established to show that the minister was advised and still required that it [the questionable or inappropriate spending] was carried out”.
The official warned that even though the ruling Democratic Labour Party administration had lost favour with the people, the Opposition Barbados Labour Party (BLP) would better spend its time trying to give the electorate a reason to vote for them, rather than simply hoping that they will vote the Government out.
The official drew a comparison between the BLP’s 1994 campaign slogan of ‘Job No.1 is Jobs” and United States president-elect Donald Trump’s promise to “Make America Great Again”, while stressing the need for the Opposition to make its message resonate with the people of Barbados if it is to be assured of victory in the next poll.
So far Mottley has not spoken publicly on the PAC move. However, both she and her party have recently been in the forefront of claims of financial irregularity surrounding the Grotto and Valery low-income projects, which have so far been rejected by top officials of the Freundel Stuart Government.
While Sinckler and Lashley remain mum on the PAC matter, Kellman has already shouted “witch-hunt”, while also casting doubt on the work of the PAC, saying, “any committee that is not legally done, I don’t worry about”.
Today, his comments were supported by another senior Government official, who questioned both the process used in “summoning” the ministers, as well as the terms on which they were being requested to give account of their actions.
The official also pointed to the current construct of the PAC, which is made up of both elected MPs and non-elected members of the Senate, arguing that unlike the Australian House and Senate, which are both made up of elected members, there was no basis on which a committee with senators could order ministers to report to them.
The Government representatives on the 13-member committee are Richard Sealy, Donville Inniss, Dr David Estwick, Senator Maxine McClean, Jeptor Ince, Darcy Boyce and Adriel Brathwaite, while in addition to Mottley, the Opposition members are Santia Bradshaw, Jerome Walcott, Kerrie Symmonds and Wilfred Abrahams, with Independent Senator John Watson completing the membership.
The official said even though Government is represented on the PAC, its members have not been attending its meetings, which would seemingly absolve them from the latest move that has been blamed on the Opposition.