House Speaker Raphael Trotman has ruled in favour of APNU MP Carl Greenidge’s motion to have Finance Minister Ashni Singh referred to the Privileges Committee over the $4.5B spending which has brought the country to the brink of a no-confidence motion against the government.
Meanwhile, Attorney General Anil Nandlall last evening rejected the Speaker’s decision and hinted at the possibility of a court challenge.
In a statement yesterday Trotman said that after considering all the details he found that “the issue of the spending by the Hon. Minister of Finance does raise sufficiently serious questions of privilege such that the privileges committee should enquire into. I therefore find that a prima facie case has been made out and the matter is referred to the Committee of Privileges.”
Trotman’s decision would bolster the opposition’s arguments that the expenditure was ultra vires. In his ruling the Speaker rejected the section of the constitution which has been cited by the government to cover the expenditure.
Singh could not reached for a comment following word of the ruling yesterday. Greenidge told Stabroek News that he is happy the decision has finally been made and that he is looking forward to an expedited process. The Speaker, he continued, must now convene a separate committee or mandate the existing privileges committee to consider the matter.
Greenidge pointed out that no date has been fixed for the next sitting of the National Assembly before the scheduled recess to commence early next month. It would be unfortunate, he says, if the committee’s work is pushed back until after the recess ends in October. Trotman could not be reached to provide clarity.
The decision constitutes the second time Singh has been referred to the Committee of Privileges in five months. In February he was referred to the committee for matters surrounding his failure to comply with a parliamentary resolution that required him to provide reports on extra-budgetary agencies and to pay all monies being held by such agencies into the Consolidated Fund. The motion to refer Singh to the committee on that occasion was also moved by Greenidge.
In that instance Singh was accused of refusing to comply with “Resolution 15 that was passed by the House on the 27th June 2012, and which required the Hon Minister to lay a report in the National Assembly on all Extra-Budgetary agencies including the Guyana Development (Lotto) fund and GGMC, and further, to pay all monies being held by these agencies into the Consolidated Fund.”
According to the Speaker, the 2014 extra budgetary spending is unlike what took place in 2012 and 2013 as the National Assembly, though aggrieved by Chief Justice Ian Chang’s (CJ’s) decision of January 29, 2014, sought to comply in spirit and in letter. The cause for the accusation of “unlawful or unconstitutional” action on the part of the National Assembly when it amended the budget was cured.
Greenidge’s motion, and the Speaker’s findings, on this occasion has to do with spending, by Singh of $4.55 billion after the money was cut from this year’s budget. The amount spent included allocations for GINA and NCN which were not approved by the opposition.
“Be it resolved that the National Assembly expresses its unreserved condemnation of the Honourable Minister of Finance and its disapproval of his flagrant disregard of its decisions. Be it further resolved that the matter be referred to the Privileges Committee in accordance with Standing Order 32 for a finding of this Honourable House with respect to the actions of the Honorable Minister of Finance and a determination as to the sanction that should be imposed on the Honourable Dr. Ashni Singh, Minister of Finance,” Greenidge’s motion read.
In considering the facts Trotman found that “The Hon. Minister of Finance caused spending to be done that was outside of the sum approved by the Act of Parliament No. 10 of 1 2014.” Trotman noted that the 2014 budget was brought in accordance with the CJ’s ruling and that Singh adopted the recommended amendments made by the Committee of Supply for the Estimates and that the Estimates were passed as amended.
The National Assembly, he continued, then “approved Appropriation Bill No.10 of 2014 as amended by the Minister of Finance, and as presented by the Hon. Minister.” This bill was eventually assented to by the President and became law.
Trotman also noted Singh’s and the government’s use of Article 218 to defend the spending, and arguments by the opposition parties that his spending breached Article 217 of the Constitution. There have also been arguments that the minister’s spending breaches Sections 48 and 85 of the Fiscal Management and Accountability (FMA) Act.
The Speaker though, points out that “it is not for (him) to determine “guilt” or “innocence,” but only to determine whether “on the face” of the complaint there is sufficient to warrant a probe…likewise, it is not the preserve or function of the National Assembly, whether acting as a whole, or in part, through its Committee of Privileges, to determine whether there has been a breach or misinterpretation of the Constitution as regards the spending.”
Trotman did offer though that “the wording of Article 218 (3) (b) appears to contemplate a situation so grave and critical that it was not contemplated and provided for in the annual budgetary estimates; a situation, which in my considered opinion, would be akin to an outbreak of war, or the occurrence of some unimaginable disaster.”
This argument has also been made by several commentators.
In his response, Nandlall maintained that Singh’s spending was in consonance with the constitution and said that what the Speaker had addressed was hardly a matter of privilege but of the law and constitutional interpretation.
“The simple truth is, that, a Member of the House cannot act in conformity with the Constitution and at the same time violate a privilege”, Nandlall said.
He also sought recourse to the doctrine of the separation of powers.
“Under the doctrine of separation of powers, the Court, and not the Privileges Committee of the National Assembly, or any other forum for that matter, is exclusively vested with the constitutional responsibility of interpreting and determining matters of law, whenever there is any controversy. The Speaker, therefore, fell into error in determining that there was a serious question of privilege and transmitting same to the Privileges Committee. The Privileges Committee is without jurisdiction to deal with the matter for several reasons.
“In addition to what I have outlined above, the persons who will constitute this Committee will come from the membership of political parties that have an interest to serve and have indeed said publicly that the Minister has violated the Constitution and the law; in short they have made up their minds. It will be impossible for the Minister to get a fair hearing at this Committee. The persons who will sit on this Committee are simply unqualified to determine the legal issues which will arise therein. Significantly, this very issue is subjudice and is the subject of an appeal pending before the Guyana Court of Appeal and therefore ought not to be the subject of any consideration either in the National Assembly as a whole, or in any of its Committees”, Nandlall contended.
He added that in the circumstances, Government will be considering its options and a resort to a legal challenge of this ruling is one of them. A flurry of legal actions have been filed by the government over the opposition’s one-seat control of the National Assembly and the cutting of the 2012 budget.