The citizens of Belize have not had a publicly available Auditor General report for roughly a decade, and the Senate is partly to blame, Business Senator Kevin Herrera admitted Thursday.
Herrera underscored the point that the Constitution authorizes the senate to take certain steps to hold the Auditor General’s Office accountable to the people of Belize.
For instance, section 120(10) of the Constitution says that where "the Auditor General fails to submit a report within the prescribed time or extended time as the case may be, (a) such failure may be deemed a failure by the Auditor-General in the due performance of the duties of his office, for the purpose of removal from office
pursuant to section 109 (5) of this Constitution; and the Senate shall forward a report on the matter to the
Prime Minister with such recommendations as the Senate may consider fit."
This provision has never been utilized, according to the senator.
Additionally, the Constitution’s section 109(5) states that the “Auditor General may be removed from office …for inability or failure to perform the functions of his office (however arising) or for misbehavior; and for the purpose of this section, any failure or undue delay by the Auditor-General to submit a report as required by section 120 of this Constitution, shall be treated as a failure to perform the functions of his office.”
Layers of Responsibility
The referenced section 120 assigns responsibilities to several parties apart from the Auditor-General. Chief among those duties is the fact that the report on how the nation’s monies are spent should be produced “at least once in every year” according to section 120(2)(b) of the Constitution.
Following the production of said reports, section 120(4) of the Supreme Law indicates that the “Minister responsible for finance” is mandated to, within “seven days after the House of Representatives first meets after he has received the report, lay it before the House.”
However, should the Minister of Finance shirk his duties, the Constitution, in section 120(5), assigns that duty to the Auditor-General and the Clerk of the National Assembly.
However, to Herrera’s point, even if the Clerk and Auditor-General fail to perform in accordance with section 120(5)—which follows from the failure of the Minister of Finance, section 120(8) of the Constitution states:
“Where the Auditor General fails to submit a report to the National Assembly in accordance with subsection (5)…he may be required to appear before the Senate to answer to his failure to comply with the requirements of this section.”
"Those are things that the National Assembly, including the Senate, have let slip over the years," Herrera added. "It has been a failure of the Senate, a Failure of the National Assembly for not holding these people accountable."
Herrera and the Clerk of the National Assembly, Eddie Webster, confirmed with The Reporter on Thursday that this Senate authority has never been used.
The Finance and Audit Reform Act
Additionally, Herrera pointed out that while there are clear failings from the vantage point of the Constitution, there are also significant breaches of the Finance and Audit Reform Act (the FARA).
According to section 15 of the Finance and Audit Reform Act (2005), the Accountant General is to prepare and submit an annual report within three months of the close of the last fiscal year. The Act makes provision for a three-month extension to submit the report, but that the extension must be applied for and approved by the National Assembly.
Similarly, the Auditor General, upon receiving the Accountant General’s report, has three months to produce an annual audit report. The Auditor General is afforded a two-month grace period, which also must be applied for and approved by the National Assembly.
Herrera explained that the Auditor General had confirmed to the Joint Public Accounts Committee (JPAC) that her office had never utilized the extension provision.
As it stands, Belize’s last publicly available audit report is for the year 2011/12.
According to reports, audits have been prepared up to the fiscal year 2014/15—roughly seven years ago. However, according to the Auditor General’s website, the reports for fiscal years 2012/13, 2013/14, and 2014/15 and “unavailable because it has not been tabled in the National Assembly.”
Even for reports that have been presented as Act papers before Parliament, they remain unavailable. For instance, the House of Representatives orders for August 31st, 2018, show that the report for FY 2013/14 was presented to the House.
In terms of it being public, former National Assembly Clerk Conrad Lewis informed that any document laid upon the table (in Parliamentary parlance) should be treated as a public document.
However, the present clerk, Eddie Webster, says that it is first for the Joint Public Accounts Committee (JPAC) to review before the reports are made public.
The Joint Public Accounts Committee
Readers would recall that the Public Accounts Committee (PAC), and now the JPAC, has had a turbulent history when it comes to maintaining a robust meeting schedule.
Webster stressed that the Auditor General Reports for the years 2013 to 2015 have, indeed, been tabled in the House of Representatives. However, as part of the parliamentary process, papers laid before the houses are not up for discussion, even though those discussions must take place before the reports can be made public.
Furthermore, Webster added that in 2017, a parliamentary caucus determined that Auditor General Reports would no longer lay on the table at parliament but would be directed to the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) for discussion. The PAC, which is chaired by the Opposition, needs three members to satisfy the quorum requirement to hold a meeting.
"The PAC has not met consistently over the years due to issues with meeting quorum," Webster noted. In 2021, the PAC was reformed as the Joint Public Accounts Committee (JPAC) to include Senators as members.
Parliamentary Caucus Decision?
The Reporter notes the reference to the parliamentary caucus decision referenced by the clerk is, on its surface, legally problematic as it would imply a decision and practice that would be out of step with the Constitution of Belize, which orders that the annual report be tabled at the House of Representatives.
Furthermore, The Reporter also sought verification with parliamentarians who were active in 2017, and neither could recall any reference to such a decision.
Additionally, both interviewees voiced the concern that any such change would have required an amendment to the Constitution, the FARA, or, at minimum, to the Standing Orders of the House. But no such amendment has been made. Therefore, auditor general reports, which are Act papers, must be laid before the House and, following former clerk Lewis's interpretation, should be made public.
Herrera points out that there have been systematic failings in oversight at several levels. And despite the Supreme Law and the FARA ordering annual audits, the country’s finances have been without a proper audit for between seven to ten years.