PM: I can’t lay pandemic spending report because we can’t find info

Prime Minister and Minister of Finance Philip Davis said in the House of Assembly last night he has not tabled a report on pandemic spending as required by law because the information needed for the report just is not there.

“I haven’t laid the pandemic spending ‘cause I can’t find the information,” Davis said.

“And I can tell you this, right, as late as within the last three weeks, monies were still being returned, cars and boats and other things were being returned to the police that [were] supposed to be money spent. So, I can’t lay no pandemic spending because I can’t find the information. We are trying to find this.”

There has been a change in administrations since the legal requirement was set, but the minister of finance, who is the prime minister, is still legally obligated to lay the report in Parliament.

The Emergency Powers (COVID-19) Regulations, 2020, stated, “The minister of finance shall within six weeks of the expiration of the proclamation of emergency lay a report before the House of Assembly detailing the total expenditure of the goods and services procured; the suppliers of the goods and services procured; [and] the reasons for the use of the suppliers of the goods and the providers of the services.”

Governor General Sir Cornelius A. Smith first declared a state of emergency on March 17, 2020 after the first case of COVID-19 was confirmed in The Bahamas.

Then-Prime Minister Dr. Hubert Minnis, in his capacity as competent authority, was empowered to impose restrictions – including nightly curfews, business closures, border closures and lockdowns – to curb the spread of the coronavirus.

The state of emergency came to an end on November 13, 2021 after multiple extensions. By then, the Progressive Liberal Party (PLP) was in the seat of power.

Days before the state of emergency came to an end, Office of the Prime Minister Press Secretary Clint Watson told reporters the Davis administration was conducting a “full review” and preparing to compile a report on what was spent in the 19-plus months since the state of emergency was originally declared.

“We have spoken to the financial secretary who has said that he has a team who will begin to look through to begin to identify those amounts so we can get a handle on it because, of course, that is very important to the Davis administration,” Watson said in November 2021.

“It’s a question that was asked when the administration would have been in opposition … Who are these vendors? What was spent on them? So, that’s something we’ve asked [the Ministry of] Finance to take a look at to give us an answer once they have completed that review.

“We’re told that a full review, according to the financial secretary, is being done and a report will be made available on the emergency spending during the pandemic.”

Nearly 15 months have passed since that comment was made.

Last August, Davis said the government wants to complete several audits and give individuals impacted by them an opportunity to respond to what is going to be released before making a pandemic spending report public.

Asked when the government intends to bring that report, Davis said, “Well, we are far beyond six weeks, right? We’re almost a year since the expiration of that. …We have been doing several audits on some of the spending.

“We do have some results, but we think that before we release those, those who may be impacted by it would have an opportunity to respond to what we’re going to release.

“There are a number of still unanswered questions and we are still attempting to get responses of persons who are engaged in, for example, the food program and some of the other spending.”

Davis said in August the report will be released at “the appropriate time”, but he did not say specifically when.

Again, no report was ever brought to the House.

The issue of the government’s failure to bring a report to Parliament outlining public expenditure during the COVID-19 pandemic came up again yesterday as the prime minister responded to repeated criticism from the opposition over his administration’s lateness in following the law with respect to tabling the Fiscal Strategy Report (FSR), which was due in November, and which the prime minister finally brought to the House last week.

Last Thursday, a day after Davis brought the FSR, the Free National Movement (FNM) said in a statement, “The opposition wonders why the government has offered no apology or good explanation to the Bahamian people for its late publication of the Fiscal Strategy Report 2022. We only hope that the report for 2023 is provided in November of this year as required by law.”

In responding to the opposition’s criticism on the FSR, the prime minister asked, “Y’all laid the pandemic spending report yet? Was that ever laid? I trying to find out what y’all did to lay it.”

The PLP in opposition had argued that Minnis as finance minister was legally obligated to report on pandemic spending but failed to do so.

In February 2022, Opposition Leader Michael Pintard said at an FNM convention, the Minnis administration was wrong for failing to report all of its spending on the COVID-19 pandemic.

He repeated that point in Parliament last night.

Pintard said, “We have said since the election on more than one occasion that it was our view that the record of the spending should have been laid; so we didn’t mince any words about that.

“However, a new government came in and the new government has already missed the deadlines for laying the very same figures that the former administration did not lay and several of us said it should have been laid. Why haven’t you laid it?”

It was at that point that Davis said it was not laid due to lack of information.

The issue came up at the end of a debate on a resolution for the House to adopt the 2022 Fiscal Strategy Report and the Medium-Term Debt Management Strategy.

The House of Assembly has been suspended until tomorrow.

It is unclear whether the Davis administration intends to follow the law and bring to the House a report on pandemic spending at some point.

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Candia Dames

Candia Dames is the executive editor of The Nassau Guardian.

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