PUBLIC Accounts committees face similar challenges to those of the auditor-general in that they interrogate departments with regard to the management of their finances and compile a report making recommendations on how a department or entity’s books of account can be improved.

Their labours are all too often rewarded by the reports being adopted by the various legislatures without debate and quite predictably, as there are generally no consequences for those guilty of financial mismanagement or irregular and fruitless and wasteful expenditure, the same litany of errors and offences is repeated in the next financial year.

Former DA MPL Eddie Trent noted in a speech in the legislature in 2000 that none of the resolutions taken by Scopa between 1996 and 2000 had been implemented. Trent was chairman of the committee at the time – he did not last much longer in that role.

It is clear that the Bhisho legislature’s standing committee on public accounts finally decided that it was time to be more aggressive and make the kind of statement that might at least attract some attention.

Bluntly, it stated in a report on departmental books of account tabled and debated last week, that the much publicised campaign for clean audits in the provincial administration by 2014 “seems to be a pipe dream as there is no improvement in financial management in the departments”.

It is difficult to argue with that contention given the auditorgeneral’s reports over the past decade and the statement that appears with monotonous regularity in the Scopa report with regard to the same errors being repeated over and over again. In this regard it pointed out that there was a “general disregard” of compliance with the prescripts of the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA), Treasury regulations and public service regulations.

The evidence of this was to be found in “the continuous, repetitive audit findings and House resolutions”. Another statement that was common to all departments was the “complete failure” of accounting officers and political heads of departments “to take action against officers for non-compliance with laws and regulations, incompetence and underperformance” as required by law.

The committee is correct as it is virtually impossible to find anyone who has faced sanction in terms of the PFMA.

Indeed, it is not an idle question to ask why they were put there in the first place unless then Finance Minister Trevor Manuel did so more in hope than in the expectation that they would be put to good use.

Few departments were spared in the Scapa report. Human Settlements was told it had underspent by R472 million on its housing conditional grant in 2011/12, the year in which the backlog in housing in the Eastern Cape increased from 700 000 to 750 000, with most of the houses that were built being “poorly constructed”.

Almost a quarter of employees in the Department of Health, the report revealed, were discovered to be “cheating” – what that means was not spelled out Roads and Public Works would appear to have “ghost” employees because not all staff presented themselves for “physical verification”.

In the Department of Rural Development and Agrarian Reform, the relationship between the MEC and head of department “is not cordial”.

In Sport, Recreation, Arts and Culture, employees received overtime compensation in excess of 30 percent of their monthly salaries and were appointed “without following a proper process” while persons in charge at pay points “did not always certify that the employees receiving payment were entitled thereto”.

Education had “virtually no record management” and had received a disclaimer from the auditor-general every year since it was established in 1994. Nor was the Legislature immune from criticism after receiving a qualified audit report.

The committee found that it had underspent its budget by R32.8 million, despite the lavish end of year party for members of the Legislature and the fancy gifts they received and the substantial funds allocated for catering — hosting a mid-year party might help to spend the money!

Reacting to this in his policy speech, speaker Fikile Xasa said performance bonuses would not be paid because the Legislature had received a qualified report – unfortunately they had been paid some eight months earlier.

The committee also found that the Legislature had only met 64.5 percent of its stated targets in 2011/12, whatever they could possibly have been.

Such is the state of education in the province, whatever Basic Education Minister Angie Motshega might say, the committee went so far as to recommend to Premier Noxolo Kiviet and the Public Service Commission that they “consider conducting competency assessments of all senior management and other layers of management to do their job”.

As the DAs Bobby Stevenson noted in the debate on the Scopa report, the department was having to pay Stats SA R28 million to count teachers, pupils and schools “because the directorate responsible cannot be relied on”.

It won’t be the first time such an exercise has been embarked upon, and one suspects that it will not be the last. And even if it is found that there are only a handful of pupils at a specific school and more teachers than are required, the department will still face the challenge of persuading the excess staff to relocate to where they are needed.

Unfortunately, despite the strong language and recommendations and the fact that the Scopa report was debated and adopted, it will be surprising if there is a marked improvement when the committee presents its report for the 2012/13 financial year in 12 months’ time.

The history over the past 19 years certainly suggests that a significant improvement is unlikely and that achieving the goal of clean audits by 2014 will indeed prove to be a “pipe dream”. — Patrick Cull, Eastern Eye.