We are left with just over two months before the Minister of Finance and Economic Development presents the 2015 National Budget to Parliament. Section 305 (2) of the Constitution says the estimates of revenue and expenditure must be presented to the National Assembly on a day on which the Assembly sits before or not later than 30 days after the start of each financial year. Practice has been that the Budget is presented to Parliament last week of November or first week of December. The 2015 Budget is coming against the background of failure by Parliament to effectively provide oversight on the implementation of the current Budget despite the existence of a sound policy and legal framework that empowers the law making body to do so.
The Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Finance and Economic Development is the one that is mandated with providing leadership on parliamentary budget oversight. The committee oversees the work of the Ministry of Finance and Economic Development which formulates the budget and manages the economy. The committee is therefore expected to be more robust when it comes to engagement of the ministry in the preparation and implementation of the budget. The Constitution and the Public Finance Management Act gives Parliament the necessary teeth to meaningfully participate in the formulation of the budget and monitoring its implementation. Parliament must enforce these legal provisions in order for budgeting not to become an academic exercise. In terms of preparation of the Budget, Section 28 (5) of the Public Finance Management Act says the Minister of Finance may, through the appropriate portfolio committee of Parliament, seek the views of Parliament in the preparation and formulation of the annual budget, “for which purpose the appropriate portfolio committee shall conduct public hearings to elicit the opinions of as many stakeholders in the national budget as possible”. The appropriate portfolio committee is the Finance and Economic Development Portfolio Committee. The committee, chaired by ZANU PF’s David Chapfika, should have conducted hearings to seek the views of the people on their priorities for the 2015 National Budget.
These hearings should have been conducted around May/June when the preparation of the budget policy framework begins in earnest. While funding constraints is an issue in Parliament, the committee should have at least invited stakeholders to make written and/or oral submissions at Parliament on the performance of the current budget and the structure and priorities for the 2015 Budget. Some of the key constitutional principles of public financial management as outlined under section 298 are that revenue raised nationally must be shared equitably between the central government and provincial and local tiers of government; special expenditure provision must be made for marginalised groups and areas; public funds must be expended transparently, prudently, economically and effectively; financial management must be responsible, and fiscal reporting must be clear; and public borrowing and all transactions involving the national debt must be carried out transparently and in the best interests of Zimbabwe.
The Finance and Economic Development Committee and the other portfolio committees must be closely monitoring expenditure by ministries to ensure that these principles are realised in practice. The Public Finance Management Act legally empowers the committee to demand monthly and quarterly reports on budget performance from ministries that they shadow. They can then scrutinise the reports and bring ministries and government departments and agencies to task on any violations of the constitutional principles highlighted above. It is highly regrettable that the portfolio committees have not been demanding these reports, leaving taxpayers not sure if all revenue is accounted for, all expenditure has been properly incurred and any limits and conditions on appropriations have been observed. In light of the debt trap that Zimbabwe finds itself in, the Finance and Economic Development Portfolio Committee must take the lead in the enactment of an Act of Parliament that set limits on borrowings by the State, the public debt, and debt and obligations whose payment or repayment is guaranteed by the State.
This is a requirement under Section 300 of the Constitution. The same section requires the Act of Parliament to prescribe terms and conditions under which the Government may guarantee loans. Section 300 (4) makes it an obligation on the part of the Minister of Finance and Economic Development to at least twice a year report to Parliament on the performance of loans raised by the State and loans guaranteed by the State. At the same time as the estimates of revenue and expenditure are laid before the National Assembly in terms of Section 305, the Minister must table in Parliament a comprehensive statement of the public debt of Zimbabwe. The parliamentary committee in its oversight work should insist that all these constitutional provisions are complied with.
The Finance and Economic Development Portfolio Committee must emulate the Public Accounts Committee that has been making serious efforts to scrutinise audit reports from the Auditor General and inviting those implicated in financial mismanagement to appear before the committee and account for their actions. The work of the Public Accounts Committee has resulted in corrective action being taken in some ministries, government departments and parastatals. The Public Accounts Committee focuses on the ex post phase of the budget cycle while the Finance and Economic Development Committee focuses on the ex ante phase. The work of the two committees must feed into each other to strengthen parliamentary budget oversight.