Dereliction of duty in the public sector:
The auditor general proposes corrective measures to punish the culprits
By Shamindra Ferdinando
Auditor General WPC Wickramaratne said the National Audit Act and Sections 120 and 121 of Parliament should be amended to tackle waste, corruption and irregularities in the public sector.
Wickramaratne stressed the urgent need to address the issue as the country experienced the worst economic downturn on record after independence.
Wickramaratne said he had recently discussed ways and means of addressing the issue with the chairs of the two parliamentary oversight committees, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) and the Committee on Public Accounts (COPA) headed by Professor Charitha Herath and the professor. Tissa Vitharana, respectively.
The GA said it when The Island asked for his response to Chief Government Whip Dinesh Gunawardena’s recent admission to parliament that recommendations made by oversight committees as well as the public petitions committee had not been implemented by officials. The Minister of Education, who is also the leader of the Mahajana Eksath Peramuna (MEP), blamed the crisis on insufficient constitutional and legal powers in place.
Minister Gunawardena acknowledged that despite the fact that the issue in question has been raised in Parliament many times, it has not been addressed. He said this when some members of the Public Petitions Committee complained about the inability of officials to implement specific recommendations.
AG Wickramaratne said his department could take action in this regard if oversight committees make specific recommendations regarding the surcharge. However, the National Audit Act and Standing Orders 120 and 121 should be amended to give the required authority to the Auditor General, Wickramaratne said.
Responding to another question, AG Wickramaratne pointed out that secretaries of ministries, in their capacity as chief accountants, were responsible for implementing recommendations made by oversight committees. Oversight committees summoned public sector companies based on reports prepared by relevant AG department officers, Wickramaratne said.
“We also participate in the deliberations chaired by the presidents of the supervisory commissions. Therefore, the findings cannot be contested by any party. What oversight committees routinely issue is information that can serve as the basis for legal action,” the auditor general said.
Wickramaratne was appointed AG in April 2019. According to Wickramaratne, the AG department may impose a surcharge on local authorities, so expanding the scope of their authority would be very important. The AG reiterated its concerns over its inability to secure parliamentary approval of the National Audit Bill in its original form.
Parliament passed the National Audit Bill with amendments in early July 2018. Unfortunately, the proposed surcharge and other provisions had been removed despite determined efforts by the AG Department during the mandate of Gamini Wijesinha for the bill to be enacted in its original form.
Wickramaratne underscored the urgent need to strengthen the state sector revenue collection process while strict measures were taken against those who caused losses to the state.
He explained how the enactment of the 20th Amendment to the Constitution in October 2020 further weakened the overall state audit process much to the dismay of his department. The outspoken official called for improving revenue collection measures, consolidating state revenues and necessary changes to deal with daunting economic challenges.
Referring to COPA reports based on the AG department’s findings, Wickramaratne said it wouldn’t be too difficult to recognize long-standing shortcomings and loopholes. COPA President Prof. Vitharana explained the far-reaching changes needed to streamline key institutions in customs, inland revenue and fiscal departments responsible for collecting state revenue.
Minister Gunawardena told members of the Public Accounts Committee that they should look into the matter as successive parliaments have failed to take corrective action. The Colombo district legislator said they had discussed this issue with President Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena and his intervention was sought to resolve the issue.
A statement released by Minister Gunawardena’s office, quoting the Chief Government Whip, reportedly told members of the Public Petitions Committee: “The matter you have raised has been raised, discussed and deliberated in every parliament although measures corrective action has not been taken. This question is related to the Constitution. We expect officials to implement relevant recommendations within the authority they exercise. It should be done. If officials leave without reaching a consensus, what can be done?
MP Charitha Herath has repeatedly told The Island the need for punitive action against those who have deprived the government of revenue. The SLPP National List MP said the national economy was in such bad shape that urgent measures were needed to stabilize the economy hit hard by the Covid-19 outbreak.