“It’s the first time in the history of Tunisia that we have a parliamentary committee that is charged with the oversight of the management of public money,” Sofiene Toubal, chair of the financial oversight committee, says. “We believe the fruits of these achievements will come in the near future.”
The committee in question – on Administrative Reform, Good Governance, Anti-Corruption and Oversight On The Management of Public Money – was created by the Assembly of the Representatives of the People (ARP) with the support of Westminster Foundation of Democracy (WFD).
WFD’s work on financial scrutiny in Tunisia began, though, at the end of 2014, when the Parliament was drawing up new rules of procedure as part of the country’s broader constitutional settlement.
Mr Toubal recalls: “Most of the members of our committee didn’t have enough knowledge about the Westminster system of parliamentary financial oversight that relies on a committee of oversight of public money management which cooperates with the Supreme Audit Institution. The benefit we got was providing this basic knowledge to the committee and its members.”
After WFD’s first induction workshop, which took place in December 2014, a small group of its members sought the creation of a committee which would focus on this work. This was achieved at the beginning of 2015.
But the Committee’s first year saw its work focus on other tasks, and not the oversight of public spending – the core tasks of a traditional Public Accounts Committee (PAC).
“Unlike the committees responsible for oversight of public money in Britain and Scotland,” Mr Toubal explains, “our Committee is charged with additional tasks – especially the fight against corruption, administrative reforms and follow-up of looted money and smuggled and disposed assets.”
The length of the Committee’s title reflects the breadth of its responsibilities and the prioritisation decisions which had to be made during its first year. “The weight of these tasks, because of their political importance and public opinion, made it more difficult for the Committee to establish its priorities, at the expense of the oversight of public money management,” Mr Toubal adds.
During this period, WFD provided the Committee’s members with insight into the key functions of a PAC and the benefits which can result to the management of public money.
Committee Clerk Khalifa Ouriemei recalls: “WFD’s diverse activities, which included a study visit to the British Parliament and the Scottish Parliament allowed learning about the British leading experience in the field of the oversight of the public money management”.
“There were also ,a number of targeted workshops dedicated to emphasising topics very tightly linked to cooperation with the Supreme Audit Institution (the Cour des Comptes, equivalent to the UK National Audit Office)”.
“They also focused on the methods of benefiting from the audit reports and the conducting of inquiries. These are indeed very important topics for the development of the work of our committee, leading towards good management and respects of the principles of good governance and transparency and effectiveness.”
MPs are now fully aware of the positive benefits of their relationship with the Supreme Audit Institution and have mastered the technical aspects of undertaking inquiries from the experiences of the UK, Scottish, Moroccan and Indian PACs.
The chair of the Committee, the rest of its members and its clerk were all convinced that something needed to change. MP Hela Hammi was among those who has played an important role in reforming the ARP’s financial scrutiny.
“We’ve managed to include all of these achievements in the current by-laws,” she says, “and now myself and a group of MPs will submit a draft amendment to the by-laws to bring out the oversight of public money to a specific committee.”
This, Ms Hammi confirms, is necessary “because the combination of oversight with administrative reform and anti-corruption efforts reduced the time dedicated to oversight”.
The Tunisian committee was established along more traditional Public Accounts Committee lines. Meanwhile, on April 4th, MP Jamila Ksiksi, rapporteur of the Tunisian PAC, reported proudly on her Facebook Page that the Tunisian PAC have agreed with the Cour des Comptes to collaborate on the oversight of public expenditures. Four inquiries are set to begin work soon.
This and future inquiries will make a big difference to Tunisia, it’s hoped. The PAC’s work is expected to help optimise the use of public money and reduce Tunisia’s national debt, benefiting public service users. It will reduce corruption and underutilisation of public assets, two problems believed by many in Tunisia to be at the heart of the country’s public sector reform targets.
Helping strengthen parliaments’ ability to conduct financial scrutiny forms a big part of WFD’s ongoing work in the MENA region and beyond. We aim to improve accountability in the countries where we operate – and in the process contribute to the UK’s drive against corruption.
This is an area which Tunisian politicians are committed to addressing, as the creation of the Tunisian PAC shows. Mr Toubal puts it best:
“We believe that we cannot talk about good governance of public money without an effective parliamentary financial oversight.”