Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee has approved new rules to govern its proceedings, including the way evidence is taken from civil servants and other witnesses.
But the effort, which represents a victory for the Opposition Barbados Labour Party, could yet come to nought because the full membership of the House of Assembly now has to say “aye” or “no” to the rules.
The procedural guidelines were adopted by the PAC today when it met in the Senate chamber under the chairmanship of Leader of the Opposition Mia Mottley. At the previous session Government and Opposition members had clashed on the way PAC meetings were to be held.
Major contention at that time surrounded whether the PAC Act passed in 2003 should supersede Parliament’s Standing Orders, if the PAC’s proceedings should be reported by the media before a report is made to Parliament, and the rights of witnesses to legal representation.
While concerns were again raised today, the rules were adopted after some amendments. Speaking moments before the meeting was adjourned sine die, Mottley said the guidelines passed today “will now stand as the procedural guidelines for the operation and functioning of the Public Accounts Committee”.
With a special report on the matter to be presented to the House of Assembly tomorrow, Mottley and company now have to wait to see if the Lower House and the Senate will also give the rules their approval.
The BLP leader said, however, that whether or not this took place the PAC’s work would not be stopped.
One of the major issues surrounded the suspension of Parliament’s Standing Order 61, which dealt with how PAC meetings should be reported by the media.
“In the event that the House of Assembly says it is not suspending the standing order it will not go to the Senate it will just come back to us for us to continue our work. But we would know that members of the media cannot publish any evidence then without it going as a formal report to the House of Assembly,” Mottley said.
“For the avoidance of doubt, the Public Accounts Committee cannot take any decision inn relation to Standing Order 61 without the decision of the … House of Assembly and The Senate.
If, however, and I would not imagine that this would ever happen, the House does not take a vote on Standing Order 61 for two months then it is open to the Public Accounts Committee to meet and to proceed as if Standing Order 61 still obtains rather than having its business stymied because a vote has not been put in the Honourable House of Assembly.
“So what we are doing is seeking guidance on Standing Order 61 from the House of Assembly, but we are not agreeing that our work should forever cease in the event that no vote is put in the House of Assembly. I would never imagine that that would happen, but in the event that it did, this Public Accounts Committee would be able to meet even if it adheres to the interpretation that we disagree with but which the government contends,” she added. Among the concerns raised today were those related to the rights of witnesses called to give evidence, with Government member St. James South MP Donville Inniss querying the rights of witnesses to legal representation, and the extent to which hearings would be public.
“The question will be asked elsewhere who will foot the bill. It may not be a matter for the committee itself to answer, but for all practical purposes a public officer who appears before the committee and feels the need for counsel shall that public officer be expected to foot the bill?” he asked.
Mottley responded: “As is the case now that public officer is entitled to legal redress at any stage, but under the Constitution there is no right to paid legal advice and to that extent therefore they have and stand the cost of carrying their own expenses, unless there is a decision by the head of department or the ministry for whatever reason, that that person should be so provided with counsel.
“But it cannot be the duty of the Public Accounts Committee to provide legal advice to persons appearing before it. So it’s no different from the rest of Government where the Constitution gives you a right to legal advice but not a right to paid legal advice.” (SC)
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