Looked like we were in for House Lite

Mid Ocean News (12 May 2005)

UBP MP John Barritt's 'View From the Hill'

AFTER an eight-week recess, Mr. Editor, it looked like we were in for House Lite. The PLP were proposing to take up on only two items on the agenda, both of them minor and pretty straightforward and unlikely to engender much in the way of debate – particularly when they also had the support of the Opposition United Bermuda Party.

But unlike the beer commercial, Mr. Editor, Lite on the Hill doesn’t necessarily mean less filling..

It wasn’t the legislative agenda that kept us there until after six in the evening. There was plenty else to keep members going, starting with a slew of Ministerial statements – there were seven-up in total– which took a total of six different Ministers just about an hour to read … to us and the listening public.

When it comes to Ministerial statements, Mr. Editor, listen is all any of us can do – aside from the odd interpolation from those of us who have a front row seat in the House. The Rules provide no opportunity for questions or debate.

But listen we did, intently, to the first statement, that of Minister for Finance, Ms. Paula Cox - and it didn’t take us long to cotton on as to why the Minister was taking so much time to explain the role of Auditor General in the governance of Bermuda. The Minister knew what was coming.This was also the day the Auditor General happened to publish his latest Annual Report, this one for the year 2005, and, as we now all know, it wasn’t exactly complimentary.

But the Finance Minister’s statement gave us a clue.

For instance, Ms. Cox told us that:

• The Auditor General tends to focus on what’s wrong and not what’s right (mind you that’s his job);
• That “a sea change” in financial accountability had been launched within the civil service;
• That reform and improvement in financial reporting had been “jump-started” with the re-establishment of an Internal Audit section;
• That there were now a total of 25 qualified accountants on the job in Government; and
• That this new wave of accountability had been enhanced by the establishment of the Office of Ombudsman and by “the introduction” of a Freedom of Information Bill - which, incidentally, hasn’t actually been introduced: what we have had is a Discussion Paper and while legislation was promised, we were told that actual implementation would be 3 to 5 years away .

Good stuff huh? It sounded pretty good too – until we learned the real reason for the back-slapping and promotion. Of course, the Minister knew what was in the Auditor General’s Report. Members did not at the time. It had only just been tabled, and while we were scrambling through a quick read, we actually didn’t need calculators to figure out. the contents. The first couple of pages provided a pretty good summary of a not so pretty picture:

*Late accounting and reporting within Government had deteriorated to the point that it has led to a loss of financial control [ “of a significant portion of the public purse”, he later said in a press release.];
• Only ten of 37 Government organizations, and funds, had been able to produce audited financial statements in time for his Annual Report, and 17 of the 27 delinquents are in reporting arrears for multiple years, some as many as up to four years; and – here’s the kicker, Mr. Editor;
• This means that the total Government expenditures which are unaudited “and therefore unaccounted for” as of March 2005 amount to more than $800 million.

That’s pretty serious stuff, Mr. Editor – serious enough for the Auditor General to warn – and I quote -that:

“Late financial reporting … is contrary to legislated requirements, precludes managerial and ministerial accountability, frustrates effective management control, prevents the preparation of consolidated financial statements, and creates an environment where fraud can thrive and remain undetected. In a well-run organisation it would not be tolerated”.

This isn’t just some fanciful theory of his either. As the Auditor General himself goes on to point out: he has in his previous two Annual Reports “identified and expressed concern about the growing number of frauds and alleged frauds discovered in Government in recent years”. Let me give you the short list from his 2004 Report – for those who may have been living on another planet :

* The lingering Bermuda Housing Corporation scandal;
* The Berkeley Senior School overspend and unanswered questions, particularly those which he had about that $700,000.00 performance bond;
* The misappropriation by a claims assessor of $160,000.00 from the Government Employees Health Insurance Fund;
* The $1.9-million taken from a Government bank account by an officer within the Accountant General’s Department; and
* A police investigation into missing revenue of $3.6 million within the Immigration Department.

It was no wonder then, Mr. Editor, that the news headlines the next day were not about what we debated in the House but rather about that which we were not able to debate – namely the contents of the Auditor General’s Report.

Readers might wonder why that is so. Allow me to explain. It underscores what’s wrong with our system of government and why the Legislature of Bermuda is in urgent need of reform.

1. The Minister of Finance is able to deliver a Ministerial Statement in the House before members have had an opportunity to read the report.

2. But MPs are unable to debate it or mention its contents – although Grant Gibbons and Pat Gordon-Pamplin tried to have a go, later on the motion to adjourn. But the Speaker wasn’t having any of it. “We have to wait to debate the report of the Public Accounts Committee”, he explained.

3. Rules and precedent provide that the Auditor General’s Annual Report be referred to the Public Accounts Committee (known as PAC, for short, man), a standing committee of the House of five members, chaired by the Opposition spokesman for Finance.

4. The Report - and most importantly it s contents - isn’t debated in the House until PAC comes back with the results of its own review and recommendations. But it may well be history by the time that happens.

5. PAC is already two years behind in its review of previous reports of the Auditor General. We are still waiting for the committee to report on the Auditor General’s Reports for 2003 and 2004.

6. PAC is falling behind because it often has difficulties making up a quorum. There is an outstanding recommendation that membership be increased to avoid the quorum problem.

7. If that isn’t enough, when it does meet, PAC meets in private. There’s an outstanding recommendation that this too, be changed, in line with what is common practice in other modern parliamentary jurisdictions and the meetings be opened up to press and public.

But, sadly, nothing changes. The Opposition is pushing for change but the PLP appear dead set against reform of the Rules of the House, and PAC in particular, which would bring about greater transparency and accountability of the sort that the Auditor General is crying out for, and which taxpayers deserve.

It’s done elsewhere – and effectively.

There is no good reason, Mr. Editor, why it cannot be done in Bermuda.
In fact, there are now 800 million reasons why it should.

It’s the custom

SO what did keep us there on the Hill until six in the evening? Well, eight weeks is a long time to be down and out, Mr. Editor, and there were a good number of people to be acknowledged during the period set aside for congratulatory and obituary remarks.

It’s a quaint and unique custom by which members are given three minutes each to deliver their comments. [The Speaker actually has a timer, by the way, which rings off when the three minutes are up.]

What’s surprising perhaps is that this feature follows Ministerial statements on the agenda and comes before the introduction of new business and before we take up the Orders of the Day, and on this our first day back congrats and obits took us just about an hour and a half – approximately 30 members at 3 minutes a piece – and through to the luncheon interval.

There were some giants who had passed ,who were remembered on both sides of the aisle, for the contributions they had made to Bermuda during their lifetimes.Five of those who headed the list were: Margaret Swan, mother of Sir John; Marion Lindo of Lindo’s fame; philanthropist David Barber; Reuben Alias, a former civil servant and football administrator; and Stanley Gascoigne, also a former career civil servant and later independent Senator.

As is the tradition, Mr. Editor, the names of all those who were remembered will appear in the House Minutes and the Speaker will be sending appropriate letters of condolences in the coming weeks. The clerk and her staff are going to be very busy for a while.

Truth be known

FEATURE bout of the day, Mr. Editor, came on the motion to adjourn after we got through those two small pieces of legislation. The question was whether the Premier did, or didn’t, invite the Opposition Leader to join him in on the trip to Washington D.C. In the House on the Hill, we can’t actually accuse each other of lying. We can try, but the Speaker will remind us that such language is unparliamentary. Honourable members do not lie. We suppose instead that they only forget the truth – or that they are mistaken – or that they can’t recall.

The Premier – who always gets the last word on the motion to adjourn, and that’s a long-standing tradition as well – thought that this was but just another ploy by the Opposition Leader and his colleagues who were only trying to grab headlines with unfounded allegations, in this case, and unfounded speculation in other cases.

But truth, Mr. Editor, is no ploy. It’s pretty fundamental.

Besides, the Premier told us, the Opposition really ought to know their place – and it isn’t working with Government on a trip to Washington. But we do; it’s in the House and working those fields we call constituencies.

So there, Mr. Editor– and hand the Man some Scott towels.

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