The Committee on Public Enterprises, popularly known as COPE, had been established on 21st July, 1979 in our Parliament. The objective of the Committee from its inception had been to ensure compliance of financial discipline. According to the mandate given to the COPE, in terms of Standing Order 126 (2) the duty of the committee is to examine the accounts of Public Corporations or other undertakings vested under any written law in the Government laid before Parliament along with the reports of the Auditor General. The COPE has come in to the limelight recently in 2007 and again in 2013 after six years owing to several reports presented in Parliament highlighting issues of corruption, fraud, misappropriation, mismanagement etc in approximately 275 institutions such as corporations, statutory boards and other business undertakings vested with the government.
is one of the most important oversight committees, the other being the committee on Public Accounts (PAC) in Parliament. During the past couple of years, the committee probed almost all the Institutions that came under the COPE. The COPE deserves the encomium it has received for the courageous exposure of massive fraud and corruption and mismanagement in State Institutions. COPE in previous Parliaments have had some exemplary and upright chairpersons of the calibre of the late Bernard Soyza.
Both the current Chairman D.E.W. Gunasekera and former Chairman Wijayadasa Rajapakshe, have been creating news, having exposed issues of fraud, theft and corruption amounting to billions and billions of government money. It is heartening to note that these two Chairmen have conducted these investigations without fear or favour and had only been concerned to expose corruption and fraud.
Wijayadasa Rajapakshe, former COPE Chairman, after presenting the report in his closing remarks requested Parliament to open COPE sittings to the media. I quote “The people of our country have a right to know what happens to the investigations carried out by COPE and the Public Accounts Committee (PAC). Therefore, by way of a resolution I put it to Parliament to take steps to change the standing orders, so that the media can be allowed to cover the proceedings of COPE and PAC in future”.
Rajapakshe continuing his closing remarks, also said “The people of this country hold a majority stake in these institutions. They have a right to know how these institutions are run. I ask this Parliament to introduce legislation and bring in all the institutions, where the Government holds shares of more than 25%, into the scope of COPE and PAC. If you fail to do so, you as politicians are failing in your duty to the people.”
The COPE during this period also revealed that a land owned by the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation in extent of 8.2 acres adjoining the harbour had been sold for Rs. 64 million through the PERC with the signature of a former President and owing to this transaction the country had lost over 65 billion. COPE also disclosed to Parliament that corruption and malpractices had risen to unimaginable heights in 26 state institutions including the Bank of Ceylon, the Ceylon Electricity Board, Petroleum Corporation and the National Water Supply and Drainage Board. Some private companies were indebted for a sum of Rs. 7000 million. The non-performing loans granted by the bank was Rs. 13 billion.
It had also revealed that Mercantile Ltd., had evaded payment of Rs. 5780 million. The COPE disclosed that a sum of Rs. 150 billion was lost in this manner owing to corruption, fraud and misappropriation.
COPE reported that at the time, at National Water Supply and Drainage Board there was a wastage of 51% running water. The highest water wastage in the Asian region is reported in Sri Lanka. In Japan this rate is only 7%. However, political manoeuvring and the crossovers witnessed, saw an abrupt end to all these findings. The failure on the part of the Government to extend any kind of support towards the COPE has sent a wrong message to the country and corruption etc.
It may also be noteworthy that the COPE in 2007 accused one of the then Opposition Parliamentarians of large scale corruption during his time as a UNP minister, and in a bid to dodge prosecution the relevant parliamentarian crossed over to the ruling UPFA government and was, thereafter, appointed Minister of Justice and Law Reform.
The biggest loser in the latest report is the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation, which lost 6.3 billion in 2013. This again was not due to oil price fluctuations, but because of fraud, corruption and mismanagement. This was purely due to the Sapugaskanda oil refinery breakdown and millions of dollars had to be paid as demurrage, according to the report, to the oil tankers which were at the Colombo harbour.
COPE being dedicated to improving the performance of public enterprises has in its reports had highlighted serious irregularities repeatedly in 2007 and 2013 pertaining to corruption, mismanagement, inefficiency etc. The COPE, thereafter, takes steps to table the report in Parliament on accounts etc examined, performance and management reports, financial operation and procedures etc. in these institutions where the Treasury has invested public funds for the setting up of these institutions.
It is important to critically look into the situation, whether the objectives of the COPE for an efficient, effective and prudent financial control systems could be established in the publicly owned corporations etc., without the support and approval of the administration and the cabinet of ministers and the whole of parliament, while ensuring accountability and transparency as desired by the general public.
Being a Parliamentary system of government, working together with an elected executive President, combining the basic features of Westminster Parliamentary model, we need to examine whether this has weakened and undermined the fiscal discipline and if so what needs to be done for the purpose of achieving higher standards of ethical governance through holding governments to account and eradicate corruption, inefficiency misuse etc. in the entire public sector.
As we are well aware, the public sector governance needs vast improvements. As an initial step in this direction we need to summon and examine parliamentarians holding responsibilities when issues are taken up by these oversight committees based on the findings of the Auditor General. We have so far never summoned the relevant Cabinet Minister before the oversight committees. It must be also pointed out that we had a Cabinet Minister who refused to send the Ministry Secretary during the UNP regime in 1980s. After a prolonged battle only the Committee Secretariat was able to send summons and make it compulsory to the ministry secretary to appear before the Committee, because the Attorney General ruled that it could be a breach of privilege if summons are disregarded without attending the Committee meetings in accordance with the Privileges Act of Parliament. These high-handed acts of Parliamentarians including certain ministers and their callous disregard for time tested practices and procedures had contributed largely to the erosion of good governance in our country.
This is why I have always pointed out that a Parliament in a democracy should be open, independent, accountable and responsive. If the supremacy of Parliament is restored no doubt the committee system could automatically become stronger and strengthened as well.
Furthermore, the COPE and the PAC do not have judicial powers and they only recommend follow up action. Bribery Commission, the Executive President and the Cabinet of Ministers should initiate action, if you need to put the institutions right. I recall the several Chairmen who had reiterated on several instances in the past that it was the duty of the administration to investigate all that had been revealed in numerous reports. If the law had been broken, it is the duty to prevent it happening again. Sri Lankan practice is to keep the eyes closed and the country suffers heavily owing to corruption, mismanagement and lawlessness.
The appeal made by the present Chairman to the highest level of the executive that more muscle be provided to the committee had been in vain. There has been no effort from the top to bring the perpetrators of waste, corruption and mismanagement on state funds to book. The current Chairman also sought more teeth to amend the standing orders for this purpose, which too appears to have fallen in deaf ears. Nevertheless, in India perpetrators of fraud i.e. Jeyalalitha Jayaraman, Lalu Prasad Yadav and many others have been dealt with by law, when in fact in Sri Lanka the informant, the whistle blower pays the penalty and corruption reigns undisturbed.
I recall in 2007 the report presented by the then Chairman was referred to CIABOC and the outcome of it was a big NO. It is interesting to read through hansards during this period. A sensible reader would be convinced, no doubt, that after having made repeated requests by certain Members of Parliament on the
floor of the house almost regularly, the authorities forwarded same finally to the Commission to Investigate Acts of Bribery or Corruption (CIABOC).
In a democracy, the Parliament represents the people, and the government is accountable to the Parliament. These twin themes of accountability constitute government accountability. Accountability incorporates several typologies or components, which are also inexorably intertwined and interdependent, i.e. political, bureaucratic, legal and managerial are the major areas. As we know, there are three different branches of government, namely the executive, the legislative and the judicial. All these three branches are interlinked and interdependent. The power of these branches should be based on checks and balances for a democracy to function effectively, which is one of the serious issues pertaining to our country.
The media revealed that the Petroleum Corporation had extended a credit facility to a businessman parliamentarian down south, who had been well known for assaulting the High Commissioner of Sri Lanka, amounting to 170 millions of rupees. This is grossly irregular when other dealers have to buy the requirements on immediate payment. I am aware some years ago the Members of the COPE and PAC take very stern steps when they find an irregularity of even hundred rupees. This is the reason why I feel the JVP should be given the Chair of both these Committees if we need to strengthen oversight functions.
If we have to put the country right, we now have to make the Parliament accountable, and establish the fundamentals such as human rights, equality before law, end corruption, fraud and inefficiency in the first place. The best gift any government can offer its people accordingly is the democratic rule of law, which is a system of mutually agreed rules and regulations that must be based on reason, common sense principles, ethical standards and democratic values and ideology.
On the other hand, a democracy is also believed to be a double edged sword. Democracy requires careful strategy, meticulous planning and dedicated civically trained, detailed and oriented politicians and top bureaucrats to carry out the responsibilities to serve the country. It is, therefore, important to appoint the chairman from a party who will fight to stop corruption. JVP all through out had fought vehemently against corruption. It will no doubt be another step in the right direction if the JVP is offered these positions.