The Tunisian Committee responsible for oversight of public expenditure highlighted the unnecessary provision of sugar subsidies to industry as a result of one of its first enquiries. Members of the Committee used information supplied by the Tunisian Court of Audit to successfully argue for an end to sugar subsidies for corporations. The resulting policy change led to a saving of 70 million Dinars of public money. The Committee developed its approach based on the knowledge and experience of the UK Public Accounts Committee’s (PAC) , shared by the Westminster Foundation.
Hon Hassen Laamari MP, Chair of the Committee for Administrative Reform, Good Governance, Anti-Corruption and Oversight of Public Expenditure that led the enquiry, said, “Now, only sugar that goes to households is subsidised. This allowed the government to make savings of 70 million Dinars which can be used elsewhere to improve the quality of services”. The Westminster Foundation has worked with this Committee since it was established in 2015. Based on its requests, WFD has provided information about and shared experience of the UK’s PAC through a series of workshops and targeted visits to Westminster. One of the key factors in the success of the UK PAC is its relationship with the National Audit Office – equivalent of the Court of Audit, Tunisia’s Supreme Audit Institution. This was picked up by the Tunisian Committee early on and has enabled it to achieve this recent success.
Working together on financial scrutiny
“Before the revolution and the establishment of this committee there was no relationship at all between the Court of Audit and the parliament” MP Laamari explained during a recent visit to the UK Houses of Parliament. He referenced his predecessor Hon Sofiene Toubal’s experience with the Westminster Foundation for Democracy programme in Tunisia as critical in encouraging this new relationship between parliamentary institutions. Going on to refer to the UK visit by a delegation from the Committee in 2015 facilitated by WFD, MP Laamari said, “This new methodology of work came as a direct result of the last visit. [The delegation] learnt about the benefit of having a direct relationship between the supreme audit institution and the parliamentary committee charged with the oversight of public money. When [the delegation] came back to Tunisia they took the initiative to contact the Court of Audit and establish this working relationship”.
The Committee is currently working with the Court of Audit on five enquiries including the government subsidies on sugar for industry and individual households. The relationship with the Court of Audit and the auditors that work in the institution “is very important in reality, even more important than just reading the reports” Mr Laamari explained, “as when you meet with auditors you can ask them specific questions and they give you more knowledge about the topic”. He added, “The relationship with the Court of Audit allowed the Committee to get updated information [on the sugar subsidy policy], so that when members of the Committee interacted with the government during plenary sessions their questions and comments were evidence-based”. It was this improved relationship that revealed to the Committee the unfair approach that treated corporations in the same way as individuals when it came to the cost of sugar and led to 70 million dinars being released for other government projects.
Beyond sugar subsidies
The revision to the policy on sugar subsidies, that came into effect on 1 January 2017, will benefit Tunisian citizens through the redistribution of public money to other vital services. The Committee chair, MP Laamari, wants the work of the committee to be broader still. He explained how he felt the impact of the enquiries into organisations that use public money stretches beyond the current five enquiries. Media interest already generated by the Committee into publicly funded organisations, Mr Laamari hopes, will create a positive impact on the quality of management in those and other public organisations.
Greater scrutiny of public spending is a fundamental role for any parliament. WFD’s support to this Committee has enabled its current and former Members to understand the structures, relationships and knowledge used by the equivalent in the UK (the PAC), to successfully drive continual attention to value for money and good management of public money in the UK. The buy-in and commitment of current and former members of the Tunisian Committee and the whole People’s Representative Assembly is moving Tunisia closer to the type of inclusive and effective governance that will bring real benefits to the people of Tunisia. In the coming months WFD will provide on-going support to the Committee while it concludes its first five enquiries and pushes for further policy changes that benefit Tunisia as a whole.