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COPE Report to be tabled in Parliament soon



Pic: Susantha Wijegunasekera

The Chairman of Parliamentary Watchdog, the Committee on Public Enterprises (COPE), Senior Minister D.E.W. Gunasekera said the report this time around has made fundamental recommendations to push institutions for transparency and financial accountability.

He said the committee is working overtime to finalise the much-awaited report and to table it in Parliament by April end.“We have completed scrutinizing all 235 institutions. We are in the last lap and in the process of writing the report.”

Excerpts of the interview:

Q: When will the COPE report be submitted to Parliament?

A: We are preparing it now, may be by the end of April.

Q: How would you describe the work that has already been completed?

A: I have submitted an interim report to Parliament in October last year. We listed some thirty odd institutions in the report. But now we have completed scrutinising 235 institutions. We are in the last lap of writing the report. We summoned entire boards of institutions and officials in the course of our scrutiny into their internal affairs. There will be another round of meetings with COPE members to finalize the report before tabling it in Parliament.

Q: When the report was submitted the last time, I remember you called for more powers for COPE to question ex-heads of State run institutions. Did you get this authority this time?

A: There was no need, because there were no immediate changes in top positions of institutions under scrutiny. Last time, by June 2010 they had not prepared the financial statements and annual reports, in some cases they had not done it for the past ten years. That is why we had to summon these previous people. Now the statements are in order, all records are up to date, up to 2011 the institutions have submitted reports to Cabinet and Parliament. There was no need to call the former heads.

Q: Are there any changes in the new COPE report or is it similar to the previous one?

A: This time we devoted a lot of time to gauge performance. Rather than going through the financial aspects, we looked into the overall picture. Generally we go through the Auditor General’s report to see where discrepancies were. But this time we took a decision to concentrate more on performance. That is why we undertook visits to certain places.

We visited the Sri Jayawardenapura Hospital in Kotte about two months ago. There were many problems there. We listened to their grievances and made certain recommendations and are now happy to see the those recommendations being implemented. The Treasury and the Ministry of Health took into consideration recommendations and agreed to release funding.

There was a shortage of doctors, we intervened to facilitate obtaining the services of doctors from the Health Ministry pool. Earlier the practice was to advertise for new placements when a vacancy was created, but this was a time consuming process.

Another issue was that if specialist doctors did private practice in Sri Jayawardenapura 10 percent of their salary was deducted, but if they engadge in private practice in private hospitals there is no salary deduction. As a result all specialist doctors were about to leave the hospital. We recommended that this practice should be done away with, so that the hospital will retain the services of specialists.

There are 1,100 beds in the hospital and the occupancy rate was only 50 percent. A hospital in the heart of Colombo, where 50 percent of beds were empty, we knew there was something wrong. That was the reason why COPE members decided to visit the hospital. Altogether about ten members, Government as well as from the Opposition visited the hospital. We spoke to the management and the doctors and made on the spot recommendations.

This is a fee-levying hospital subsidised by the Government since it caters mostly to middle income State workers. We knew it deserved more assistance from the Government. The Health Ministry Secretary has informed us that there is improvement following our visit.

COPE has powers to inspect institutions. We want to undertake such visits more often in the future.

Q: Will the report be the same in structure?

A: No. There are fundamental changes this time around. There will be a number of vital recommendations.

We are not satisfied with the standard of accounting and auditing in the State sector.

It urgently needs to be brought up to international standards. Otherwise funding institutions like the World Bank and IMF will not assist Sri Lanka in the future.

We must attract professional accountants to the State sector with higher salaries. Remuneration for a qualified accountant is way below in the State sector.

The gap between the State and private sector is about 70 percent, we have to narrow the gap.

One of the recommendations is the introduction of proper cost accounting in the State sector. We have to calculate professionally and see whether they are really running at a loss. The burden is passed on to the consumer without proper cost accounting of the losses incurred.

Smaller institutions need not worry, but bigger institutions must introduce advanced methods of cost accounting. Losses incurred by the CPC cannot accounted. The CPC is a huge institution, we don’t know at which point they are incurring losses, you produce energy, you supply it, distribute it, market it. we must know where the greater portion of losses is incurred at which point this happens needs to be checked. What they give now is the overall picture, but that is not enough. If there is a proper cost accounting system we can pin point the losses and give remedies.

Q: In your last report you said there were a total of 40 loss making institutions including the CPC, Mihin Air, Ceylon Shipping Corporation and the Ports Authority. Have they implemented the last recommendations satisfactorily?

A: I can say that they have improved. There is a list of loss making and profit making institutions. It will also show that institutions recorded increased losses or increased profit since our last report. The COPE report this time will be an analytical report. We have classified institutions, as service-oriented, regulatory bodies and profit oriented. For instance the University Grants Commission is a regulatory body whereas the CEB is a profit oriented enterprise.

The Official Languages Commission is a service-oriented institution and our job is to ascertain if State allocations are spent appropriately and their performance is satisfactory.We cannot say all 235 State institutions are running at a loss when some are not really intended to make profits.

Q: Why do you think that COPE should be there in Parliament?

A: As far as finances are concerned only Parliament is responsible to the people. Neither the Executive nor the Judiciary or the President is responsible to the people. It is the legislature which is responsible for every cent that is being spent. Financial control lies with the Legislature, COPE is carrying out this scrutiny on behalf of the Legislature.

Q: Is COPE adequately facilitated for the role that they are expected to play?

A: We have about 11-12 officials in COPE. It has become a full time job. In the Public Accounts Committee, Only Dr. Sarath Amunugama and I am there. Dr. Amunugama is dealing with Ministries and Departments and I cover the rest. The facilities are not adequate, but the work is carried out as expected. We used to sit on non sitting days to clear the workload.

Q: Tamil Nadu State assembly passed a resolution demanding the Centre to move a resolution in the UN Security Council against Sri Lanka. Their demands include Indian economic embargoes and pushing for a referendum for a separate Tamil Eelam?

A: Tamil Eelam is the demand of the LTTE. From the time of independence, we did not have direct relations with any State Government in India. We dealt with only the Central Government. But so long as the Governing Congress Party is also the governing party of the State, there were no problems. From 1967, Tamil Nadu is being governed by regional parties. They change hands between DMK or AIADMK, but till the end of the war on neither the terrorism, DMK or the AIADMK ever interfered with our affairs. They may have had soft corner for LTTE but after Rajiv Gandhi assassination the sentiments turned.

After a lapse of four years there has been a marked shift in their stance. That is strange. In 1996, we won the World Cup for cricket. There was no issue.My personal feeling is that the DMK and AIADMK, is playing a political game in the wake of the impending Lok Sabha elections, not that they have a soft corner for Lankan Tamils.

‘The Hindu’ quotes that the PMK party says that the main slogan in the next Lok Sabha election is going to be the Sri Lankan issue. They are competing with each other to woo Tamil voters, and to show that Tamil people, ‘we are pro-LTTE than the DMK’. This is a domestic issue for the Indians. We must not over react to these domestic political compulsions. We must solve this problem diplomatically there is no other way. Unfortunately, a Chief Minister of Tamil Nadu has never visited Sri Lanka. Jaffna and Tamil Nadu are just 20 miles apart. Even a head of State from Sri Lanka has never visited Tamil Nadu.

We have restricted relations with the Central Government and with the Nehru family or the Gandhi family. But it’s time to think afresh. We must take our foreign relations to new levels. We must establish relations with State governments, at government level, religious leaders, political level and with artistes. There is a wide gap between thepeople of the two countries and this has given room for petty issues to be raised, at the cost of both countries.

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