In Economic Governance Watch 2 of 2021 we discussed the report in which the Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee analysed to devastating effect the Auditor-General’s reports on mismanagement and corruption in the Zimbabwe National Roads Administration [ZINARA].
Three issues arise from the Committee’s report which are important enough to be considered separately:
- What can be done about the lengthy delays that occur between the Auditor-General completing her reports [we say “her reports” because the current Auditor-General is a woman] and the tabling of the reports in Parliament?
- Can witnesses who are summoned to give evidence before Parliament or a parliamentary committee refuse to answer questions put to them?
- Can ZINARA be restructured to make it more effective?
In this Economic Governance Watch we shall look at the first of these issues. Before doing so, however, we should explain what the Auditor-General does.
The Constitution on the Role of the Auditor-General
The Auditor-General performs a vital role in protecting Zimbabwe against public mismanagement, looting and grand corruption. Her functions are laid down in section 309 of the Constitution. They are:
- To audit the accounts and financial systems and management of all departments and agencies of government, including local government,
- At the government’s request, to carry out special audits of the accounts of government-controlled entities and parastatals such as ZINARA, and
- To direct measures that should be taken to improve the way public funds and property are managed and safeguarded.
The purpose of these audits is to ensure that money and assets allocated to government Ministries and departments are used for the purposes for which they were allocated and are properly safeguarded. So important is her role that section 311 of the Constitution declares that:
“In the exercise of his or her functions the Auditor-General is independent and subject only to the law.”
This means that no Minister or other public official can order her not to audit particular accounts, or to overlook accounting irregularities, or – important in the present context – not to issue reports on her findings.
Who is the Auditor-General Accountable to?
The fact that the Auditor-General is independent does not mean she is unaccountable. The Constitution does not say expressly to whom she must account but there are provisions which make it clear she is generally accountable to Parliament:
- Section 119 says that Parliament has power to ensure that the Constitution is upheld, and to that end all State institutions are accountable to Parliament.
- Section 299 requires Parliament to monitor and oversee State expenditure, and this suggests that the Auditor-General, in her capacity as auditor of State accounts, is generally accountable to Parliament.
Must Parliament see the Auditor-General’s Reports?
If the Auditor-General is accountable to Parliament, it follows that Parliament must have sight of her reports. Again, this is not stated expressly in the Constitution, but it is in the Audit Office Act:
Section 10 of the Act states that she must send her reports on individual audits to “the appropriate Minister” – i.e. the Minister responsible for the Ministry or parastatal whose accounts have been audited – and that she must send her annual reports to the Minister of Finance.
Section 11 of the Act states that the Auditor-General can prepare special audit reports on matters which she considers should be drawn to the attention of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee, and these reports must be sent to the Minister of Finance and “the appropriate Minister”. Under the same section, the Public Accounts Committee can direct the Auditor-General to report on anything relating to public money or State property, and in that case she sends her reports direct to the Committee as well as to the Minister of Finance and “the appropriate Minister”.
Under section 12 of the Act, every Minister who receives a report must lay it before the Assembly on one of the seven days the Assembly next sits after the Minister received the report, and if the Minister fails to do this the Auditor-General must transmit a copy of the report to the Speaker for the Speaker to lay it before the Assembly. The Act does not lay down a time-limit for the Speaker to do this, but obviously he must do it within a reasonable time.
The law then seems clear: all the Auditor-General’s reports must be laid before Parliament by the Minister to whom they were sent, within seven sitting days after the Minister received them. If the Minister does not do so, then the Auditor-General must send them to the Speaker, who will lay them before Parliament.
Delays in Sending Audit Reports to Parliament
Despite the clarity in the law there have been serious delays in getting audit reports to Parliament. In the case of ZINARA, a forensic audit report conducted by a private audit company on the Auditor-General’s behalf was not tabled in Parliament by the Minister of Transport. The staff of Parliament did however get copies of the report, presumably because the Auditor-General sent them to the Speaker in terms of section 12 of the Audit Office Act, and the Public Accounts Committee obtained one of these copies. But the Minister then refused to answer the Committee’s questions on the ground that the report was not officially before Parliament since he had not tabled it. In effect therefore he was relying on his own default as a ground for refusing to submit to questioning by the Committee.
How can such delays be remedied?
The Public Accounts Committee suggested amending the Audit Office Act as follows:
- All public sector audit reports, including special reports under section 11 of the Act (see above), as well as reports of special investigations under section 40 of the Public Entities Corporate Governance Act, should be forwarded to the Auditor-General within 14 days after their completion.
- The Auditor-General should send Parliament copies of all reports received by her within 14 day
- Audit reports on public entities should be laid before Parliament within five days by the Ministers responsible for the entities. If a Minister fails to do so, the Speaker must do it on the Minister’s behalf the next sitting day.
- The Government’s Central Internal Audit Unit, which receives all internal audit reports, should send them to the Auditor-General and to Parliament, consistent with regional best practice.
- Anyone who fails to carry out any of these responsibilities should be liable to civil and criminal penalties.
The Committee’s suggestions are sound, though the last one would be difficult to implement. It is unlikely that a Minister would ever be prosecuted for refusing to lay an audit report before Parliament. Civil sanctions might be more effective. If defaulting Ministers were deprived of their salaries and allowances for the period of the default they would be more likely to obey the law, and the same would apply to civil servants who fail to send audit reports to the Auditor-General and Parliament.
It is doubtful if the Government will take steps to implement the Committee’s recommendations, because doing so might be taken as an acknowledgement that Ministers had not been complying with their constitutional and statutory obligations. It will probably be up to the Public Accounts Committee itself to draft suitable amendments and bring them to Parliament as a Private Members Bill. In the interests of good governance, the sooner the Committee does so the better.