SECRET funds of government departments — opaque, unaudited, discretionary and historically prone to abuse — has been a commendable area in which the government has tried to impose a degree of rationality and discipline. As told by Finance Minister Ishaq Dar in parliament over the weekend, the PML-N government scrapped 32 of the 34 secret funds it inherited and has left just two in place, one each for the ISI and the IB. The finance minister also claimed that an audit process is in place to ensure that those two secret funds are properly utilised. There are, however, at least two sets of questions that need to be asked.
First, what is the size and general purpose, in policy terms as stipulated by the law, of the continuing two funds and how does the audit process work? Weak oversight or rules that allow exemptions from meaningful audit can undermine the claim of Mr Dar that a satisfactory audit process is in place. If the state does not need to shield certain specific activities from the public gaze, the parameters of those activities should be clearly defined. Moreover, expenditure incurred under those charges should be adequately scrutinised – not just glibly claimed to be adequately scrutinised. It may sound fanciful: with the civil-military imbalance once again heavily skewed and a political government that is not entirely scrupulous about its adherence to rules when it comes to mixing party politics and state resources. But it is precisely through rules that institutions are developed and progressively made accountable. It took the sustained interest and intrusion of the superior judiciary in the last parliament for secrets funds to become enough of a political issue for the PML-N to act swiftly in the beginning of the current parliament. Change is not only necessary, but is possible.
The other set of questions surrounds parliamentary scrutiny of overall spending by the executive. Specifically, the Public Accounts Committee — what has become of it? Compromised by a lack of enforceable sanctions and seemingly a lack of interest on the part of the members themselves, the committee has drifted towards irrelevance. Just last week the PAC members registered their protest when the FBR chairman did not appear before the committee. But all the committee could do was to postpone its meeting and seek the speaker of the National Assembly’s intervention to compel the FBR chairman to appear before the PAC. The Senate, perhaps spurred by the PAC’s feebleness and seeking to enhance its own role in financial oversight of the executive, is seeking to create its own public accounts committee. A role for the Senate may be helpful, but it is the National Assembly’s PAC that must be revitalised. Duplication will not ensure institutional strengthening.
Published in Dawn, June 20th, 2016