Permanent Secretaries call for respect from parliamentary committees

While scrutinising the annual Auditor General's reports, accountability Committees of Parliament have always tasked Permanent Secretaries, Executive Directors and Managing Directors from Ministries, Departments and Agencies to explain the audit queries.

A section of Permanent Secretaries have called for respect and fairness from Parliament during the scrutiny of findings in the Auditor General’s reports, with some suggesting that the approach by legislators sitting on accountability Committees seem to be persecuting them.

While scrutinising the annual Auditor General’s reports, accountability Committees of Parliament have always tasked Permanent Secretaries, Executive Directors and Managing Directors from Ministries, Departments and Agencies to explain the audit queries.

In some cases, MPs have handed some of these accounting officers to the police detectives to record statements whenever they are deemed to have failed to explain queries or lied on oath. Rule 208 (d) of the Rules of Procedure of the 11th Parliament gives Committees powers of the High Court, and such has been the basis of legislators to issue criminal summons or arrest warrants to Accounting Officers who deliberately refuse to appear to answer the audit queries.

Pius Bigirimana, Secretary to Judiciary, while speaking during a preparatory meeting held between MPs on Public Accounts Committee-Central Government and the Accounting Officers from various MDAs ahead of the Committee’s scrutiny of the December 2023 Auditor General’s report, raised a concern about how some of his colleagues have been treated in the past.

“In the past, the experience hasn’t been good. I have been [appearing] in this Parliament for more than ten years, and in the interaction with some MPs, sometimes, it has been characterised by a lot of drama and attracts a lot of attention in the public and from us. And sometimes we feel it is actually persecution because when we come here, what you have been talking about is what we expect to have interaction because when you come to answer audit queries, audit queries aren’t criminal charges,” said Bigirimana.

Bigirimana cited several articles in the Constitution and Public Finance Management Act that stipulate the appointment and obligations of Permanent Secretaries, including accounting for all funds allocated to their agencies, but noted that problems come when agencies budget for funds, and the funds are either not released or at times released late, which affects the execution of the planned outputs, which calls for Parliament to protect not persecute the accounting officers.

“They are queries that we are obliged to answer, and it isn’t a mistake for you to answer those questions that you ask us, but let us be treated with fairness and respect and know that we have responsibilities. Money is released and therefore, it must be explained how you utilise the money that was given to you. We have appropriated, and the money isn’t coming, and there are outputs which I promised to undertake, and I don’t undertake them, but money hasn’t come, I want to request you to protect us when we explain and make a case, please understand us,” added Bigirimana.

The meeting convenor, Muwanga Kivumbi, Chairperson of PAC-Central Governments, informed the Accounting Officers of the MDAs that the Committee will treat them based on the provisions under the Rules of Procedure.

“You aren’t going to come here to be persecuted, so we want to give every Accounting Officer that when you come to this process if it has been happening before, it will not happen, but be sure you are thorough with your answers, we will be tough on precise answers because out there, you look at our economy. There are issues we shall handle with the Ministry of Finance,” said Kivumbi.

However, on the issues of budgeting, Kivumbi asked the Accounting Officers to respect the contents in the budget call circulars issued by the Ministry of Finance.

“You are given a budget call circular, that is the money you will have in a Financial Year; choose your priorities and submit them through a budget conference through the Ministry of Finance, unless it is something that is abrupt. I have been a shadow Minister of Finance, the supplementary process is being abused. I want to give you comfort that we are going to be thorough on figures, thorough on issues and very friendly,” he emphasised.

Joseph Ssewungu, Kalungu West MP, urged fellow MPs to request a meeting with President Yoweri Museveni so as to better understand remarks he made regarding reports of the auditor general, saying such remarks undermine the provision of the Constitution that mandates Parliament to conduct oversight over the Government.

“Already, there is a statement by President Museveni saying why the Auditor General takes reports to the Speaker, not CID. Please don’t move with that sentiment and think we are here to have a ritual, the issue of President Museveni taking reports to CID is unprecedented, and this Committee has time to meet him to explain what he was saying as we make our reports,” urged Ssewungu.

In January 2024, President Museveni proposed to have the Police thoroughly investigate cases of corruption highlighted in the Auditor General’s reports, especially ghost workers on Government payroll, rather than opting for intensive inquiries by Parliamentary committees.

Silas Aogon, Kumi Municipality MP, called on all Accounting Officers to familiarise themselves with the Bills of Quantities submitted by technocrats in Ministries, revealing that recently, Prime Minister Robinah Nabbanja informed Parliament of a scenario where officers of Government were asked the Bills of Quantities for a certain bridge, and they quoted a price of UGX 11 billion, but when the community decided to raise material to work on this bridge, the whole work cost only UGX 400 million.

“I, therefore, want to take this opportunity to request of you because God has placed responsibility in your hands, please do something and save Ugandans. These engineers will ask you, what do you know about this, so I don’t know what technique you will use to save public resources,” said Aogon.

Irene Batebe, Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Energy, however, called for reviews into the land ownership, saying it is one of the issues affecting the timely execution of infrastructure projects in Uganda because so much money is spent in compensating project-affected persons (PAPs) even when the electricity lines are heading to their homes, yet this wasn’t the case before.

“The issue of land acquisition, and I pray that you have interrogated it a little bit, most of these infrastructure projects, we go through elaborate land acquisition processes, and sometimes, because of our land tenure system, we can’t move at the pace that we desire, and if you go to most of those unutilised funds, most of them are for transmission, infrastructure and rural electrification,” she explained.

Batebe added that in order to address the issue of delayed execution of projects, Parliament needs to address the legal regime regarding land management versus the different land systems in Uganda.

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