ISLAMABAD: The Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) and Intelligence Bureau (IB) are the only two departments that are still using secret service funds, Finance Minister Ishaq Dar told the National Assembly on Saturday.

Responding to lawmakers’ concerns over the grants and expenditures that were laid before the house, he said that when his party took over the reins of government in 2013, there were 34 departments that used secret funds.

“On Jun 11, 2013, four days after the cabinet took the oath, we abolished the secret service funds of 32 organisations. Only ISI and IB still retain theirs, and a proper mechanism is in place for their audit,” he said.

Finance minister challenges detractors to prove he owns assets abroad

He vowed that as long as his party was in power, no departments apart from intelligence agencies would be allowed to maintain a secret fund, adding that the PML-N government had made this reform on a perpetual basis so that it cannot be easily reversed in the future.

The most controversial secret fund used to be the one available with the information ministry, which was allegedly used to ‘pay off’ friendly journalists. The PML-N announced a couple of years ago that it had abolished this fund, which was not auditable to begin with.

However, the ministry still retains a publicity fund, through which government advertisements are paid for, which is also allocated on a discretionary basis.

Earlier, the Jamaat-i-Islami’s Sher Akbar Khan took issue with the government’s incessant borrowing and stressed the need to devise policies that would help curtail the country’s external debt. Other lawmakers, such as Pakistan Peoples Party’s Shazia Marri, criticised the amount of interest that was piling up on Pakistan’s debt.

But portraying mark-up as a fact of life, Mr Dar said, “I hesitate to use the word ‘interest’, but the mark-up that accumulates on your principal borrowed amount has to be serviced, whether it is a domestic or foreign loan. It is a perpetual burden, because you cannot get any relief on it.”

The minister had a Marie Antoinette moment in the house. When a lawmaker complained about the rising cost of daal mash, Senator Dar advised their constituents to eat chicken instead, claiming that the government had removed all duties and sales tax from the white meat.

When a lawmaker insisted that the government should seek parliament’s approval before taking any loans, Mr Dar pointed out that the year’s expected borrowing figures were part of the massive budget compendium that is released every year, implying that all loans were sanctioned by the legislature.

However, such information is usually hidden between the lines and it is not possible for legislators — who are the only ones officially allowed to examine and critique budget documents — to look up all these matters and raise them on the house floor the same day.

The finance minister took Shiekh Rashid Ahmed to task for suggesting that he (Mr Dar) owned assets abroad. “I challenge him, show me a single penny worth of asset that I own abroad and I will resign from politics forever,” he roared.

“I am a professional, I have a distinguished background; I don’t smuggle silk from China, like he does,” was his retort for Sheikh Rashid, who was not in the house at the time.

“I have even documented every single penny that I ever loaned to my children. Everything is well-documented with the Election Commission of Pakistan and the [Federal Board of Revenue].”

“You can’t just give sweeping statements. I’m not going to take nonsense from anybody. Whoever tosses me a loose ball, I will take them to court,” he declared.

Mr Dar noted that the federal government would concentrate on its own deficit. Before the 18th amendment, provinces were bound to pay off all loans they had taken from the centre before borrowing more, he said.

“The Council of Common Interests has already set a limit for the provinces, which is why three of the four provinces have a deficit budget,” he said, adding that now it was possible for the provinces to field deficit budgets up to a certain point.

Published in Dawn, June 19th, 2016