The Public Accounts Committee is back in the news again. Before we get to the question of whether the persons summoned should or should not attend or what should happen to them if they don’t, we will do a refresher course.
The Committee is established by section 3 of the Public Accounts Committee Act, Chapter 10A and is comprised of six senators and seven members of the House of Assembly with the Chairman being the Leader of the Opposition.
Pursuant to section 5, the Committee must meet at minimum once every six months and five members of the Committee constitute a quorum. As with all things in our system of democracy, majority rules in relation to the Committee’s decisions with the Chairman having a deciding vote in the event of a tie.
Section 7 sets out the duties and responsibilities of the Committee. These include examining the audited financial statements of government bodies and statutory corporations and reports of the Auditor General, and reporting to the Senate and the House on any matters arising from such examination “which the Committee thinks should be drawn to the attention of Parliament.”
The Committee’s duties and responsibilities also include conducting inquiries into any matters relating to the public accounts which are referred to it by Parliament. Section 10 requires that the Committee take all evidence in public. Matters which are secret or confidential, since we are after all dealing with matters of state, may be heard in camera.
The evidence is taken on oath or affirmation and the Chairman of the Committee is a person authorised by section 10(3) to administer such oath or affirmation to the witnesses. Witnesses are summoned to appear similarly to how a court operates and the offence of perjury is also applicable in relation to evidence given before the Committee. The crime is punishable by a fine of $25,000.000 and/or imprisonment of up to two years.
There was previously an issue concerning a seeming conflict between the Act and the Standing Orders of Parliament. Section 50 of the Constitution provides that “Subject to the provisions of this Constitution, each House may regulate its own procedure and for this purpose may make Standing Orders” which have in fact been put into place.
Standing Order 59 provides for a Committee of Public Accounts which shall consist of “not more than seven members” while section 3 of the Act provides for a Public Accounts Committee which is a joint committee of Parliament comprised of 13 members.
It still remains our opinion that the words of the Act are clear and that there is no question of the legitimacy of the Committee created by the Act. So, what is to be done about non-attendance by those summoned? Section 14 of the Act states that “Where a person upon whom a summons under section 11 has been served fails to appear or, having appeared, fails to continue in attendance in obedience to the summons, the Chairman or the Deputy Chairman shall report the matter to the House and the House may order the person to attend the Committee.”
Section 15 goes on to state that “A person upon whom a summons under section 11 has been served shall not, without reasonable excuse, proof whereof shall lie upon him, fail to appear or to continue in attendance in obedience to the summons.”
Section 21 outlines the penalty for such disobedience as being $25,000 or two years’ imprisonment or a combination of the two upon summary conviction (in a magistrate’s court).
So, we have Members of Parliament disobeying Parliament’s own laws which the rest of us are forced to obey and just a lot of noise in the newspaper. The real question is whether the Chairman or Deputy Chairman of the Committee has the “testicular fortitude” to make the requisite report and to ensure that the relevant criminal charges are laid.
(Alicia Archer is an attorney-at-law in private practice)