COPE ignored

By Maheesha Mudugamuwa

The progress achieved by successive governments in the implementation of recommendations made by the Parliamentary Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) remains slow, leading to drawbacks to ensure transparency and accountability in financial administration over the past decades. These observations were made by the former heads of COPE.

Urging the President and the Prime Minister to take the initiative, several senior COPE Chairmen stressed that the reports presented by the committee would only be a tool to enhance accountability and tackle corruption if the Government takes their recommendations seriously.

COPE is one of the oldest committees in Parliament, with its origins dating back to 1979. Its mandate is to keep a vigilant eye on the spending and performance of the public corporations and other semi-governmental bodies in which the government has a financial stake; to bring to light inefficiencies, wasteful expenditure, and indiscretion in the implementation of policies and programmes, and to make recommendations to streamline the administration for efficient, speedy, and economical implementation of policy.

Speaking to The Sunday Morning, Communist Party General Secretary and former COPE Chairman D.E.W. Gunasekera said: “Appointing members to COPE is not enough; the most important part is the implementation. In the past decades, a number of COPE reports have been issued by the members of previous committees, but only a few recommendations have been implemented so far and the overall progress is still slow.”

The responsibility of implementing the recommendations made by COPE is with the Parliament through the Cabinet of Ministers and, most importantly, the main duty is with the President and the Prime Minister, he explained.

“I submitted about five or six reports. COPE can only present it to Parliament, and after that, Parliament can debate it and the executive and the Cabinet. They have to take actions. COPE can’t take any actions,” he said, adding that if the Government or the ministers were not taking action, then the Parliament should take it up because COPE was a part of the Parliament. COPE could only implement follow up action whether the institutions have implemented the recommendations or not.

Latest report

Corruption is a widely spoken topic amongst many spheres of the national landscape and surprisingly, significant discrepancies were identified by COPE over the years; even the figures were disclosed to the public, but they were never addressed through the legislation.

Last week, the first report of the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE) for the period from 1 July to 30 September, 2017 was presented in Parliament, highlighting key issues with SriLankan Airlines and Milco for continuous losses and mismanagement out of 17 State-Owned Enterprises (SOEs) investigated.

The 17 SOEs investigated in this report include the University of Colombo, National Apprenticeship and Industrial Training Authority, Paddy Marketing Board, State Pharmaceuticals Corporation and National Medicines Regulatory Authority, Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute, Sri Lanka Telecom PLC, Sri Lanka Transport Board and former board of directors, University of Sabaragamuwa, Milco, Sri Lanka Institute of Advanced Technological Education, Regional Development Bank, Sri Lanka State Pharmaceutical Manufacturing Corporation, National Livestock Development Board, SriLankan Airlines Ltd., Road Development Authority, University of Ruhuna, and the University of Kelaniya.

SriLankan Airlines

The report further revealed that the agreements to purchase A-350 aircraft did not receive Cabinet approval as the cabinet paper submitted in 2013, to purchase eight A-350 aircraft had never received the approval.

However, the current Government, after they came into power in 2016, decided to cancel the transaction, and the COPE report revealed that due to this cancellation, the purchasing of four aircrafts was halted, and SriLankan Airlines agreed to pay Rs. 16.9 billion as compensation. However, neither the cancellation of this agreement nor the Rs. 16.9 billion compensation payment received Cabinet approval.

Though a cabinet paper had been submitted on 15 August, 2017, the COPE report revealed that all payments were completed by 30 July, 2017.

The COPE report also revealed that SriLankan Airlines currently employed 190 individuals who receive salaries of more than Rs. 1 million each. However, even though COPE requested a report comprised of the educational qualifications, age, and responsibilities of these 190 employees, the committee was yet to receive it.

Paddy Marketing Board (PMB)

The COPE report reveals that losses incurred by the Paddy Marketing Board (PMB) are much higherthan the losses caused by the Sena caterpillar to our country.

During the Yala and Maha seasons in the years 2014/2015, the PMB paid farmers Rs. 45 for a kilogramme of nadu rice. The report revealed that the board sold these stocks as animal feed for Rs. 24 per kg, despite its ability to sell the rice stocks for the same price they was purchased.

It has also incurred a loss of Rs. 2.4877 billion due to this transaction. When questioned by COPE, the Secretary of the relevant ministry and the Chairman of the PMB revealed that this was carried out to clear inventory in paddy warehouses.

Meanwhile, the report revealed that in 2013, the board gave stocks of paddy to 32 rice mill owners for rice production, out of which, only a portion of these stocks were given to Sathosa. While the Criminal Investigation Department (CID) is currently conducting an investigation into this matter, details pertaining to these transactions have also been reported to court. The report also reveals that paddy stocks were issued to the same individual in several instances.

Road Development Authority (RDA)

The COPE report has noted several irregularities that took place during the construction of the Central Expressway. Engineers estimated a cost of Rs. 129 billion for the first phase of the construction project. However, when awarding contracts, this cost had increased to Rs. 158 billion. While a cost of Rs. 126.89 billion was estimated for the second phase of the project, this value had increased to Rs. 137.1 billion, when awarding the contracts.

The committee instructed the RDA to submit a detailed report on the procurement process that was undertaken while awarding contracts for the Central Highway projects and to forward copies to the Auditor General, directing the Auditor General’s Department to conduct an audit based on the aforementioned report and to submit the same report to COPE.

More powers to COPE

COPE, which consists of 31 members reflecting the party composition in the House, is established under Standing Order 126 at the beginning of each parliamentary session and the chairman is elected by the members of the committee at its first session.

Its quorum is four and it has the power to summon before them and question any person, call for and examine any paper, book, record or other documents, and to have access to stores and property.

The accounts of these organisations are audited by the Auditor General and form the basis of the investigations of the committee. COPE also has the power to summon the relevant officials and such other people as it thinks fit to obtain evidence and call for documents.

The Committee reports to the Parliament and the recommendations contained in their reports are deemed to be directives to the respective corporations or statutory boards for due compliance.

Highlighting the fact that COPE should be given more powers, former COPE Chairman Gunasekera said: “In my reports, I have asked Parliament to give COPE more power. At the moment, it doesn’t have any power; but the Parliament has the power. The committee can’t be a penal body. It should be the PM and the Cabinet. They are part of Parliament. We can understand if the ministry secretary is not implementing it.”

Meanwhile, another former COPE Chairman MP Wijeyadasa Rajapakshe told The Sunday Morning that the recommendations made by the oversight committees like COPE or the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) are not being taken seriously by the government institutions.

“I don’t think that any of these government institutions are taking this seriously. That happened for the past years. They have not taken any steps; that is why in some instances we went to court. Only through judgments were we able to get back some of the assets worth more than Rs. 300 billion at that time (Insurance Corporation),” he noted.

“I don’t think any government took recommendations made by the COPE or PAC seriously. That is only for some decoration to say there is democracy and rule of law and they are conducting these committees; I don’t think any government will implement any of the recommendations,” MP Rajapakshe stressed.

He also noted: “COPE was a fact-finding mission of the government to send recommendations to the ministries, but in some other countries like the UK, European countries, and even in India, they are taking recommendations made by these committees seriously. COPE and PAC are not mature enough to make proper recommendations. There are instances where COPE members fight amongst themselves because they are also engaged in politics. This doesn’t happen in developed countries.

You may come from different political parties but when you go there, you act independently and it is not a good place to do politics,” he said.

Elaborating the responsibility of the Cabinet to take necessary actions for the irregularities mentioned by COPE, its Chairman JVP MP Sunil Handunnetti stressed that the actions should be taken by the Government and it was not the responsibility of COPE.

So far, 38 COPE reports have been submitted to Parliament.