Public Accounts Committees are a common feature of Westminster-style Parliamentary democracies worldwide. At their best, they are supposed to provide a check on government’s financial management, limiting corruption and the use of public funds for purposes other than which they are intended. As Pelizzo writes, “legislative oversight is the process through which governments are kept accountable…and therefore strengthening of legislatures and their oversight capacity is a condition…for the reduction of corruption and the promote of development.” (Pelizzo and Kinyondo 2014 p. 80).
In practice, as noted by Pelizzo and others, in a number of countries significant weaknesses such as lack of political will to pursue accountability issues, lack of quality technical staffing to support the committees, and limited powers of committees can undermine the effectiveness of their work. Other factors which can have an impact on the effectiveness of committee work include the size of committees, the leadership and presence of opposition on the committees, and the level of access that the committees have to witnesses and the Auditor General.
For the case of Uganda, Parliament has three very active accountability committees providing oversight on the issues raised in the Auditor General’s reports. Yet despite their high level of activity, relatively generous support from Parliament and donors, and presence of experienced and committed Parliamentarians on the committees, the accountability committees continue to face challenges in considering reports, getting their reports tabled and adopted, and receiving a response from Government in a timely fashion. The lack of completion of the cycle of accountability work means that their high level of activity does not bear the fruit it should in terms of tasking government to account fully for its management of public expenditure. In this report we will look at the reasons why the accountability committees continue to face challenges as they seek to use the reports of the Auditor General to hold government accountable.
Legal Framework of the Budget and Audit Process
The Constitution of the Republic of Uganda places upon the President the duty to cause the budgetary estimates for each financial year to be prepared and laid before Parliament not later than 15 days before the financial year begins which starts on 1st July. The Ministry of Finance Planning and Economic Development (MFPED) is then mandated to coordinate and drive the budget process. The MFPED prepares macroeconomic projections and produces sector ceilings on the basis of which ministries agencies and departments produce budget framework papers (BFPs).
The budgetary estimates are laid before Parliament. An appropriate Parliamentary committee (sectoral committee/sessional committee) discusses the estimates and makes relevant recommendations to the entire Parliament in plenary. The House in plenary passes vote on account to ensure continuity of government programs during the budget process.
Parliament approves the budget, monitors, and evaluates the performance of the budget through its various committees. The Parliamentary budget committee carries out day-to-day monitoring of the budget while accountability committees like Public Accounts (PAC) and Local Government Public Accounts (LGAC) evaluate the performance of the budget by reviewing the Auditor General’s reports (discussed in more detail in the next section). The sessional committees also occasionally carry out field monitoring and evaluation visits and research on the performance of government programs and projects.
After end of each financial year, the accountant-general prepares and submits to the auditor-general and the minister documents of the cash flow for all public funds and other entities wholly funded through consolidated funds showing the revenues, expenditures and financing for the year within four months or any longer period Parliament may by resolution appoints.
Each accounting officer prepares and submits to the minister and the auditor-general, with a copy to the accountant-general, in respect of the financial year and in respect of the votes, revenues, resources and moneys for which the accounting officer is responsible.
Once these are submitted, the Auditor General mandated by the National Audit Act, 2008, audits and reports on the public accounts of Uganda and all of public offices including the courts, the central and local government administrations, universities and public institutions of a similar nature, and any public institutions of a similar nature, and any public corporation or other bodies or organizations established by an Act of Parliament. The Public Finance and Accountability Act require that the audit process be completed within nine months.
According to Article 163 (4) the Constitution of the Republic of Uganda, the auditor general shall submit to Parliament annually a report of the accounts audited by him or her for the financial year immediately proceeding.
Article 163 (5) of the Constitution then provides that Parliament shall, within six months after the submission of the report referred to in clause (4) of this article, debate and consider the report and take appropriate action.
Once Parliament has tabled, debated and adopted the reports submitted by the accountability committees, the minister responsible is supposed to provide a report in form of treasury memoranda to Parliament detailing government’s action in response to the report.
Article 13 (f) of the National Audit Act then requires the Auditor General to audit the treasury memoranda as the final stage to complete the budget and audit cycle.
Accountability Committees in the Parliament of Uganda
The Public Accounts Committee in Parliament as currently constituted draws its legal standing from the Constitution, and the Rules of Procedure of Parliament, and has been active in this form since 1995. According to the Constitution, the Auditor General is required to audit and submit annual reports on public expenditure to Parliament. Parliament is mandated to consider, debate and adopt these reports within six months after they are received from the AG.
The Public Accounts Committee is established under the Parliamentary Rules of Procedure as a Standing Committee with tenure of two and a half years, chaired and deputized by Members of the Official Opposition Party. The Committee has 30 members, based on the proportional party membership in the House. Its mandate is to review and report on the Auditor General’s report relating to Central Government.
The Local Governments Accounts Committee, established in 2001 to relieve the workload of the Public Accounts Committee, and with a similar setup, is charged with reviewing and reporting on the AG’s report on Local Authorities.
The Committee on Commissions, Statutory Authorities and State Enterprises fulfils a similar mandate for the Statutory Corporations, the institutions under its jurisdiction.
The main function of the accountability committees is to consider the Annual Reports of the Auditor General on Central Government; Local Authorities; Statutory Corporations; and Value for Money Audits. For the first three reports they each are referred to the committee with the relevant mandate. The Value for Money Audit Reports are referred to PAC, LGAC, or COSASE depending on the subject of the report.
For all of the committees, the process of consideration of the AG’s reports involves a number of stages:
- Tabling of the report in Parliament by the Auditor General on March 31 of each year (ie the 2011/12 FY report would be tabled in Parliament on March 31, 2013)
- Committee begins consideration of the report
- Committee hears witnesses for each reports
- Committee drafts a report based on the contents of the AG’s report and on hearings conducted
- Committee submits a final report to the Clerk’s and Speaker’s office to be filed as business to follow
- Report tabled by Committee chairperson
- Plenary debate on the report follows
- Parliament adopts fully, partially adopts or refuses to adopt recommendations of Committee report
- If adopted or partially adopted, Parliament forwards the recommendations to the Treasury for action
- Treasury issues memorandum in response to the issues raised, detailing what action Government has taken to respond to recommendations made
- Auditor General and Accountability Committee review memorandum submitted
- Accountability Committee submits report on the memorandum to the House
It is worth noting that this process is lengthy and complicated. The process may provide useful tools for oversight that can help promote government accountability in expenditure. The time required to complete an accountability cycle, however, may limit the political incentives to promote the completion of such a cycle, because the recommendations made may be obsolete by the time the Executive has finished their response.
Parliamentary Accountability Committees face a number of challenges in the consideration of reports from the AG, and in ensuring that they fulfil their responsibility to ensure that government is accountable in its expenditure and financial management. In the next section we will look at these challenges, considering them stage by stage.