Govt’s ‘rejection’ of AGP report on Covid-19 spending termed unrealistic

Published December 5, 2021
A health worker inoculates a student with a dose of Pfizer vaccine at a school in Lahore. — AFP/File
A health worker inoculates a student with a dose of Pfizer vaccine at a school in Lahore. — AFP/File

ISLAMABAD: The PTI-led government is possibly the first in history to have openly rejected a report of the Auditor General of Pakistan (AGP) — a constitutional body established for the public oversight of government expenditures.

However, despite strong rhetoric from Information Minister Fawad Chaudhry that the government had rejected the audit report related to the public sector expenditures on Covid-19, the report continues to be the top item on the website of the finance ministry.

A senior official of the AGP office said it was probably for the first time that any government had rejected an audit report. It is unrealistic as audits are conducted in coordination with the relevant departments, he added.

Mr Chaudhry has said the finance ministry had already rejected the audit report showing irregularities worth over Rs150 billion in various public sector organisations, including Ehsaas programme, utility stores, defence services, health sector and the interior ministry.

Politicians say govt cannot turn down any audit report; PPP, PML-N likely to take up matter in next PAC meeting

A spokesman for the government did not respond to the query related to the jurisdiction of the federal cabinet over the AGP that is a constitutional body and its report is presented to the president, not the prime minister.

Even politicians have turned down the claim of the government that the cabinet could reject an audit report of the AGP.

“No, their assertion is incorrect; they cannot reject the AGP report,” said MNA Khawaja Mohammad Asif of the PML-N, who is also member of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC).

He said the audit findings can only be contested within the relevant department and in the PAC of parliament.

The ‘Audit report on expenditure incurred on Covid-19 by federal government’ is placed as the top item on the website of the finance ministry because it has been made public as a key conditionality of the International Monetary Fund (IMF).

To ensure that Pakistan was conducting the audit of expenditures made in relation to Covid-19, an IMF team held two meetings with officials of the AGP led by Maqbool Gondal, deputy auditor general.

The last meeting was held in the AG office when Esther Perez Ruiz, the IMF resident representative, visited AGP Mohammad Ajmal Gondal to ensure that the audit condition had been met.

AGP spokesman Tafakhar Ali Asadi said each year the annual audit reports were presented to the president on Feb 28. Due to the extraordinary situation, special audits related to Covid -19 were conducted in almost all countries.

“The AG office was already in the audit process when the negotiations started with IMF and they demanded to see the progress which was shared with the IMF in the presence of senior officers of the Finance Ministry,” Mr Asadi said.

During routine years, after consent from the head of the state, the annual audit reports are submitted to the National Assembly, and the PAC is responsible to amend or delete clauses from the reports.

The current PAC consists of 29 parliamentarians belonging to almost all the parties. It includes 23 MNAs and six senators.

While an audit report is confidential and a classified document as long as it is not presented in parliament, this time the special audit report about Covid-19 expenditures was placed on the website of the finance ministry due to the demand by the IMF to ensure transparency.

The office of the AGP has been established under Article 169 of the Constitution. But existed since the 19th century when the financial codes and manuals for public financial management in the region were first drafted.

During the British era, it was the Controller General of India and part of it later became the Controller General of Pakistan.

Therefore, to ensure the public oversight of the government spending the first PAC of Pakistan was constituted on May 20, 1948, but it could not function due to various reasons.

Even the budget of the auditor general is classified as “charged” expenditure which can only be discussed in the parliament but cannot be altered.

Senior PAC member Syed Naveed Qamar even said the government does not seem to believe in the Constitution.

“They use to make politically motivated statements over every issue and despite the rejection by the cabinet, the Covid-19 audit report will remain valid and will be taken up by the PAC today or tomorrow,” he added.

Meanwhile, both the PPP and the PML-N are likely to take up the cabinet decision of rejecting the audit report in the next PAC meeting.

Published in Dawn, December 5th, 2021

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