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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Cope report – ‘Time for action’

SL parliament

by Prof Rajiva Wijesinha
 Mr Speaker, it is an honour to speak in this debate on the report of the Committee on Public Enterprises, given how much it has accomplished. Thanks to the indefatigable efforts of its chairman, the simple but brilliant idea of dividing into sub-committees given the amount of work, and the dedicated commitment of the three chairs of sub-committees, COPE last year was able to cover more ground than any previous Committee.

I was reminded, given my idealistic view of Parliaments before 1977 when a sense of public responsibility was paramount, of the incisive work of Bernard Soysa, the then Chair of the Public Accounts Committee, which covered also public enterprises such as, have now been hived off to COPE. Bernard Soysa was a Trotskyists, which taken in conjunction with the performance of the current COPE Chair, suggests that the old Marxist parties were strong proponents of Parliamentary responsibility as well as financial probity, however unfortunate their vision of an all-encompassing state was.

That vision, Mr Speaker, continued by President Jayewardene in spite of his claims to have liberalized the economy, lies at the heart of the problems we still face.

The combination of a statist vision with the authoritarian practices entrenched by colonialism has led to a situation where the state still provides services in a bureaucratic fashion which others can do better. As a result, what should be its primary role, of regulation as well as intervention on behalf of those who are disadvantaged and find advancement difficult in a market economy, suffers. Rent seeking replaces concentration on the essential services required to ensure a level playing field. The provision of employment without matching it with productivity destroys the more important goal of ensuring that employment opportunities are generated more widely.

Marxist parties

We have pointed all this out in the Report. It has been produced through close and cordial cooperation between government and Opposition, and I should note here the input of Karu Jayasuriya who chaired one sub-committee, of Eran Wickremaratne whose understanding of public finance was so helpful, of Vinyagamoorthy who was more assiduous in attendance than perhaps anyone else, and of Sunil Handunetti, whose ideals of financial probity would have done credit to the old Marxist parties despite the modern heresies to which he subscribes. I believe all those in government, including the ministers who spared time for COPE despite their executive as well as their representational commitments, share the view that COPE this time was a model of the Parliamentary Committee system, which sadly we do not see in many other instances.

Criminal prosecution
But all this will be useless if no action is taken. The action we have recommended falls into three categories, and in each of these there is need for careful follow up.

Parliament, seat of democracy

I should note in this regard that COPE for the first time in recent years has actually instituted a mechanism for follow up in terms of reporting, in that we now set deadlines and send reminders, and call institutions back, whereas in the past those who ignored COPE directives only had to face further questioning several years later, when the issues were long forgotten.

Firstly, Mr Speaker, we have suggested that in some instances disciplinary action must be taken. Some of this may involve criminal prosecution, but I should note that more often than not it is the system, of inadequate attention to accountability, that allows for abuse, which it is then difficult to correct. So, secondly, we have suggested system change in a number of areas. One of these has to do with getting rid of archaic regulations, which inhibit action.

In particular, we must get rid of the practice of referring tiny matters to the Treasury or its several departments. This may have been effective in the days when the public service was small, but the Treasury simply cannot cope – as endless delays in responses have made clear – with the massive expansion of Ministries and Departments and Institutions. Rather, we must develop a concept of Chief Executive Officers with full responsibility, and discretion where now matters are referred to the Treasury – but this must be accompanied by better systems of accountability and transparency with regard to expenditure.

Public enterprises
A simple instance of what I mean can be seen in the university sector. Many years ago when there were grave problems at Sabaragamuwa University, with massive amounts being transferred from the Recurrent Account to the Capital Expenditure Account, and then squandered, I suggested that we should make the accounts available to the students. The then UGC chairman said that financial transparency was ensured by submitting accounts to Parliament. But as we know these come late, and are scrutinized by people who have to also look at a thousand of other things. Very simply then, my view is that we must make accounts available to stakeholders, and in this case I believe the students would be the best watchdog to ensure that money goes on education and not into various pockets.

Other systemic changes that are desirable are ensuring that all individuals have clear job descriptions and prepare work plans with goals that are measurable and time-bound.

We need a much better assessment system in public enterprises, which rewards initiative and ability, so that the culture of playing safe by doing nothing is overcome. And we need to make sure that all institutions that have received public funding provide information to the public as to what they have done. In short, I believe we must develop and implement a policy of Freedom of Information, which is designed to make stakeholders aware of what is being done.

The principle should be that all information relevant to the public should be available unless there is good reason to withhold it, not the opposite which seems to be the current position, that information is the prerogative of bureaucrats and not the people on behalf of whom that information should be applied.

Government departments

Our third main suggestion was the rationalization of government departments. Not only do we now have too many ministries, with no provision for them to coordinate, within each ministry there are several Departments that perform overlapping functions. This leads to a culture of lethargy, since action is impossible without consultation, and consultation is not regular or mandatory.

We have suggested therefore that public sector restructuring is essential – and may I add, Mr Speaker, that in recent work in the North, where I have concentrated on Divisional Secretariat level problems, I find that coordination would be much easier if all government departments had similar geographical areas of responsibility, instead of, as now, education working to one set of divisions, the Police to another, and so on.

I hope Mr Speaker that the COPE Report will be taken seriously and action initiated to correct at least some of the problems that could be dealt with so easily. But for this purpose it is also essential that we in Parliament have a much better support system in the COPE office than obtains at present.

Last weekend I spent much more time than I should have going through hundreds of pages that Sri Lankan Cricket had submitted. I found many of them were duplicates, while there were some blank pages that claimed to be extracts of meetings or a true copy of a letter of a minister.

Disciplinary action

I do not know, Mr Speaker, if all this was sent by Sri Lanka Cricket in an attempt to pile up so many pages that no one would be able to go through them or want to.

I do not know if the COPE Office photocopied things indiscriminately on the grounds that they had time enough and Parliament money enough to waste. But surely Mr Speaker this type of material should be sifted, if necessary with the help of the office of the Auditor General that is housed here, and we should be sent only what is relevant.

There is no need for us to have duplicates and blank sheets and the biographical details of the entire Wayamba Cricket Team. In short, we need executive level support in Parliament, not mechanical copying and collating.

Having requested better Parliamentary support then, Mr Speaker, I would be failing in my duty if I did not pay tribute to the Auditor General’s Department, which has produced reports of great professionality and helpfulness.

Whilst they have to draw attention to all irregularities, they have also been able to discriminate between those that are trivial – and where the regulations should be changed – and those that are serious, indicating that remedial or disciplinary action must be taken at once.

We also found the Treasury Representatives who attended meetings very helpful and practical in their approach. I hope therefore that the synergies generated in COPE over the past two years will not fade away, but will be translated into action.
Text of speech of Prof Rajiva Wijesinha, MP at the Parliamentary debate on the Report of the Committee on Public Enterprises, May 8


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