The Public Accounts Committee, yet again, was the scene of what online media houses have described as high drama, when it conducted its hearings into the appropriations and accounts for 2015 of the Georgetown Public Hospital Corporation.
The cause of this high drama was the reported ordering of a witness out of the sitting. This is not the first time that public officers turning up to give evidence before the Public Accounts Committee have been ordered out of the sitting. The continuance of this practice begs for clarification as to the judiciousness of the exercise of this prerogative, and whether the Standing Orders of the National Assembly authorize these actions.
The ordering of witnesses out from the sittings represents just as much high drama as the perceived non-cooperation or ill-preparedness of witnesses appearing before the Public Accounts Committee. Ordering someone out of a sitting of the PAC is not only humiliating, but becomes a form of public shaming, especially when that decision is reported publicly.
The question to be asked is whether the PAC has such powers and whether the exercise of such powers amounts to a sanction against a witness. If it does, then does this not mean that the PAC is exercising a judicial function of sanction, which as a creature of the legislative arm of government, it can only exercise over members of the assembly and not that of the executive arm of the State?
There is need for clarification, therefore, of a number of issues. No one is intending to frustrate the work of the PAC by raising these questions. Surely, the PAC must have some means of coercion to avoid its proceedings being frustrated by uncooperative or ill-prepared witnesses, but this recurring practice of public officers being asked to leave the Committee room does amount to a personal sanction and it needs to be questioned whether the PAC has such powers over persons who are not members of the National Assembly.
It also needs to be queried whether the sittings of the PAC constitute a quasi-judicial court, and what are the obligations of witnesses, with regard to the importance of the watchdog role of the PAC.
Are witnesses compelled to answer questions fully? Do they take an oath? What can they answer? What should they answer? And what are they not allowed to answer? These are all issues which need to be clarified, and for which the Standing Orders of the National Assembly of the parliament of Guyana do not provide satisfactory guidance.
The Standing Orders do pay attention to protecting the reputations of witnesses. It may therefore be prudent for practices in other jurisdictions which conform to a similar parliamentary system to be examined to determine whether the hearings have the character of a judicial or quasi-judicial hearing, and whether the PAC should be ordering public officers out, because of what is perceived to be inadequacies in answering questions.
The work of the Public Accounts Committee must be supported. The Committee clearly performs an important function in exposing financial irregularities within government, whether procedural or otherwise. It supports the work of the National Assembly by ensuring that funds appropriated by the Assembly are spent for the expressed purposes for which they have been allocated. It allows for explanations as to how the funds have been used. The importance of the work of the PAC cannot be understated.
The PAC should be empowered to summon witnesses and to demand explanations from them. Witnesses should not be allowed to frustrate the work of the committee. But whether it should have the power of sanction over these officers, including by ordering them out of sittings, is an issue which needs clarification. The earlier this clarification comes, the better, so as to prevent another high drama incident.
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