A toothless Nat Audit Bill Draft

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The Cabinet of Ministers on Tuesday finally approved the much delayed Draft National Audit Bill.

But, after many months of labour, what has been produced is a toothless Bill that will not serve its purpose of curbing corruption in the Government sector.

In essence, the proposed law seeks to punish public servants who misuse their powers, are negligent or engage in corrupt practices, by imposing a fine on them.

The Bill was first proposed in 2004, during the Presidency of Chandrika Bandaranaike Kumaratunga and it was aimed at curbing rampant corruption in the public sector.

However, the Mahinda Rajapaksa regime, during which corruption did indeed reach new heights, did not work on it.

The public was angered at the rate of corruption and the fact that officials were getting away with it.

Thus, enacting the Audit Bill became one of the main demands put forward by Non-governmental Organizations and Civil Society actors, who supported candidates at the elections against the Rajapaksa regime.

When the new Government was elected President Maitripala Sirisena promised to make it part of his 100-day agenda.

Instead, the original draft was revised and examined for months. It was actually deferred 24 times prior to coming before Cabinet this week.

A few weeks ago, speaking to Media Heads in Colombo, the President apologized that the presentation of the Bill to Parliament was delayed.

Because of the delays several organizations raised their concerns accusing the government of trying to weaken the Bill.

Several months ago Transparency International Sri Lanka (TISL), which has been an active proponent of the Bill, expressed concerns after reports appeared that the government was trying to weaken the Bill.

The original draft of the Bill gave the Auditor General power "to impose a surcharge on the value of a deficiency or loss in transactions of an audited entity, where the AG has reasonable grounds to believe that such transaction has been made contrary to any written law and is due to fraud, negligence or corruption of those involved in that transaction."

Therefore, it vested in the AG the ability to hold these officials personally liable for these losses.

In a statement TISL Executive Director Asoka Obeysekere said they were concerned that the Ministers planned "to curtail the proposed powers of the Auditor General, under the National Audit Bill, which would limit the Auditor General's ability to hold individuals personally liable for losses caused to State entities."

It added that "TISL urges the government to retain these surcharging powers which are in keeping with international best practices, whilst being mindful of the opportunity to further detail the surcharge and appeals process at the committee stage of Parliament."

Other organizations such as Trade Unions affiliated to the audit service expressed similar fears.

They pointed out that forty-five of the fifty-three sections of the Audit Bill have been amended. "Key features of the Bill have been negated completely. We witnessed these amendments being made. We cannot accept it."

The worst fears of these organizations have now been realized.

On Wednesday Co-Cabinet Spokesman Minister Gayantha Karunathilaka told reporters the Cabinet approved the amendments proposed by the ministerial subcommittee, headed by Sarath Amunugama, appointed on 15 August this year.

"Among the recommendations made by the committee are: giving power to the Secretary of a Ministry to ensure that a public servant pays a surcharge on account of a misuse, corruption or negligence of duty when the National Audit Commission makes a recommendation and to expand the surcharge appeals committee to include two representatives from the State Administrative Service and engineering sector," he said.

That means the ability of the AG to hold an official personally responsible has been taken away and given to Ministry Secretaries.

Co-Cabinet Spokesman Minister Rajitha Senaratne said, that this would expedite the process of collecting a surcharge.

That argument does not hold water.

As departmental sources told our reporters on Wednesday, it is an auditor who would know what surcharge to impose.

In addition, if the Secretary to the Ministry were to impose the surcharge it would become an internal matter for the ministry and that is not the best practice. The AG on the other hand is an external party and the process would be more credible.

Sri Lankans long for the day their governments would be free of corruption. This government had a historic opportunity to reach this goal and with this false move has let that chance slip.



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