Parliament approved the Supplementary Budget Estimates tabled by Uhuru Kenyatta a week after receiving them. No MP spotted any discrepancies in the estimates or in the Appropriation Bill presented by the Finance Minister.
This is partially understandable, given there were more than 26,000 line items to scrutinise in the estimates and that the errors identified by Mars Group/Partnership for Change activists, and brought to the House’s attention by Imenti Central MP Gitobu Imanyara, were in 211 of these.
A joint committee led by Rangwe MP Martin Ogindo and Nambale’s Chris Okemo looked into the matter and found a discrepancy of Sh10.7 billion in one column and Sh10.4 billion in another.
It concluded the inconsistency "did not imply a loss of funds".
They recommended tabling of fresh estimates, an investigation into the error and a stay on enactment of the Appropriation Bill.
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This fiasco has highlighted the fact that MPs have limited expertise in finance and national budgeting. However, given MPs’ declared interest in more Budget oversight (and even ‘control’ of Government spending), it is proof we have a way to go before the House acquits itself on its alloted role. As we have argued previously, we support MPs’ case for greater transparency in budget-making. Therefore, a Parliamentary Budget Office, as proposed in the Fiscal Management Bill 2008, is an idea we can stand behind.
Such an office will be invaluable in providing the National Assembly with information or analysis on the national Budget and the economy. It would also have the crucial advantage of not having its motives or credibility questioned as was the case with Mars Group, whose past statements on debt and spending informed Uhuru’s dismissal of their analysis a day after Imanyara presented it.
However, we remain opposed to a plan to increase the legislature’s control of public spending. Their record with devolved funds, particularly the Constituency Development Fund, as assessed under the 2003-07 Economic Recovery Strategy, shows MPs are not to be trusted with spending public money or controlling those who do directly. Not if taxpayers are to get more than many impractical or abandoned projects.
Supervision? Yes. Greater participation by proposing changes and floating ideas? By all means.
But, no, not — as implied by Clause 4(2) (e) of the Bill — power to tell the Executive who to hire and what institutions to create to plan and execute the Budget. This smacks of an attempt to restructure institutions under the Executive and goes against the principle of separation of powers.
A declaration by Ogindo on Wednesday that his committee would recommend accepting the changes suggested by President Kibaki in a memorandum to Parliament explaining why he refused to sign the Bill into law makes us hopeful.
Debate on the matter, expected to take place today, should dispose of this issue, as well as of the open-ended Clause 5(1) (h) which leaves room for a proposed parliamentary committee responsible for economic and budgetary matters to be assigned unlimited and unspecified duties.
As to whether Clause 6, which specifies principles of fiscal management the Government should be bound to is an attempt to direct policy, we look forward to hearing Parliament’s views. This clause may be an attempt at advice of the sort the Budget Office might offer, crafted as proposed law. Whether it has a place in the Bill or should be provided by experts in the office for the Executive’s consideration will be decided in the House today.
We see no reason the stand-off with the President over this vital Bill should continue: Parliament can and should take the opportunity to create an institution to aid them in their oversight function on public spending. With a Budget Office functioning properly as a resource for the House, taxpayers can hope embarassments like the withdrawal of estimates will never happen again.
Until the law is passed and in effect, we urge vigilance, particularly with regard to the 2009/10 Budget, whose estimates will be before the House in weeks.