1. This guide provides information and advice that will be of benefit to witnesses appearing before the Public Accounts Committee of the Legislature of Montserrat. The role of the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) is to consider accounts and reports on accounts laid before the Legislature.
2. The PAC is a permanent committee of the Legislature, established under Standing Order 65. The duties and powers of the Public Accounts Committee are:
- To ascertain that the authorised expenditure during each financial year, including supplementary expenditure, has been applied to the purposes prescribed by the Legislative Council;
- To scrutinise the causes which may have led to any excess over authorised expenditure, and to verify applications of savings on other authorised items of expenditure;
- To make an effective examination of public accounts kept in any Department of Government; and
- To summon any public officer to give any information or any explanation, or to produce any records or documents which the Committee may consider necessary in the performance of their duties.
3. Section 63(1) of the Montserrat Constitution Order 2010 gives the PAC the power:
- To summon any Minister, or any public officer of a department of government for which a Minister is responsible, to appear before it;
- Subject to any law in force in Montserrat or to Standing Orders, to require any person so summoned to answer questions and provide information about the conduct of business of the Government by the Minister or department concerned.
4. The PAC has 3 members including a chairperson. From time to time the membership changes, particularly after General Elections. As a general rule the Leader of the Opposition is the Chairperson of the PAC. Another member of the Opposition sits on the PAC, as well as one member from the Government side of the Legislative Assembly.
HOW DOES THE PAC GO ABOUT ITS WORK?
5. The PAC proceeds by way of scrutiny of a matter or matters within its terms of reference. This may be done by a formal inquiry; the subject of an inquiry being determined by the Committee itself. Having sought and received written evidence in the form of memoranda, reports, papers, etc., from interested parties, the Committee holds a meeting or series of meetings at which certain witnesses are invited to present evidence. Where the Committee considers it appropriate, these meetings will be held in public. Witnesses will often be selected from among those who have submitted written evidence. The selection of witnesses is a matter for the Committee itself. There is no right of appearance before the Committee.
HOW SHOULD WRITTEN EVIDENCE BE SUBMITTED?
6. All organisations and individuals are welcome to submit evidence.
7. Written evidence should give a brief introduction to the persons or organisations submitting it (perhaps stating their area of expertise, etc.). It should set out any factual information they have to offer from which the Committee might be able to draw conclusions (or which could be put to witnesses for their reactions). It is also helpful to include any recommendations for action by departments or others that the individual or organisation would like the Committee to consider for inclusion in its report.
8. Written evidence should be in the form of a brief, self-contained memorandum with numbered paragraphs, and should be prefaced with a summary plus, if appropriate, a table of contents.
9. Submissions should be structured so that each of the issues/concerns specified in the terms of reference is addressed in turn.
10. If possible, written evidence should be emailed to the Committee as a ‘word document’. Alternatively six copies of the material should be submitted. Memoranda should be stapled rather than bound so that further copies can easily be made.
11. Witnesses should be aware that, if they decide to publish the evidence that they provide to the Committee, the publication would not be covered by privilege. Witnesses who nevertheless decide to publish their evidence should provide the Committee with advance notice of their intentions.
12. Unless indicated otherwise it will be assumed that those submitting written evidence have no objections to it being made public by the Committee. If witnesses give oral evidence, copies of their written evidence may be made available to the press and public at the hearing and treated as being in the public domain thereafter. Written evidence submitted by those not giving oral evidence will usually be made public by the Committee at the end of the inquiry, by publication or other means.
13. Where a date has been set for an evidence session, any written evidence should, where possible, be forwarded to the Committee Clerk at least two weeks in advance.
HOW SHOULD WITNESSES PREPARE FOR THE MEETING?
14. To assist witnesses to prepare for their appearance before the Committee, a member of the Committee staff may provide some general briefing to witnesses over the telephone. This briefing may indicate the order in which it is expected particular matters might be addressed in the course of the meeting, and, in cases where some research or gathering information or views might be necessary, may give a more precise indication of certain questions which are likely to be asked. Witnesses can expect to be given the briefing some time in the week prior to their appearance before the Committee. Witnesses will not normally be briefed in writing.
HOW SHOULD WITNESSES PREPARE FOR THE MEETING?
15. Most meetings of the PAC are held in the offices of the Legislative Assembly. Where the Committee is holding an oral evidence session in public, the venue is likely to be in another location where there is sufficient seating for members of the public and press to attend. Witnesses will be informed in good time of the venue of the meeting.
16. Witnesses should advise the Committee staff of any specific needs/special requirements they may have, which would facilitate attendance at the Committee meeting.
HOW IS A COMMITTEE ROOM ARRANGED?
17. The room will be so arranged that the Committee members and the Committee Clerk sit around one or more tables, with witnesses seated at a table facing them.
18. Members of the public will sit behind the witnesses under the guidance of staff who will ensure that good order is kept throughout. Notes may be taken, but no form of tape recording may be made, no photography is permitted and no refreshments may be consumed. The Committee may make available, to the press and public, copies of any written evidence already submitted by the witnesses attending the Committee meeting.
19. When the Committee is conducting an inquiry a stenographer may attend meetings to record details of Committee proceedings.
WHAT HAPPENS AT A COMMITTEE MEETING?
20. Witnesses will be informed of the date and time of evidence sessions in advance by committee staff. The Committee will try to ensure that witnesses are taken as close as possible to their allocated time.
21. The PAC has an important scrutiny role and proceedings are, therefore, relatively formal. Committee members, however, will often encourage a more informal and participative approach.
22. The Committee chairperson may open the meeting by asking the lead witness to introduce his/her team to the Committee, and may provide an opportunity for a witness to make a brief opening statement before inviting fellow Committee members to ask questions. Where more than one individual appears before the Committee, a question may be answered by any witness present, unless it is directed to a particular witness. Witnesses should refer to the chairman as “Mr Chairman” and to other Committee members by their surname. Where appropriate, nameplates may be used to identify Committee members and witnesses.
23. A witness invited to appear before the Committee will be expected to answer detailed and probing questions on the subject under consideration but may also, for the purpose of placing facts or opinions on the record, be invited to respond to some very straightforward questions. In answering either type of question, succinct, clear and unequivocal responses should be given. Where a witness does not know the answer to a question, an indication to that effect is preferable. If necessary, a witness may offer to provide a note, which will answer a question, especially if the information requested is very detailed. If, due to time constraints, not all questions can be asked by the members during the evidence session, witnesses may be given a list of the outstanding questions so that they may subsequently provide replies in writing.
ARE THE PRESS AND PUBLIC ALLOWED INTO MEETINGS?
24. There is a presumption that evidence sessions will be held in public. The Committee may decide, in certain circumstances, to take evidence in closed session.
ARE MEETINGS OF THE PAC PROTECTED BY THE RULES OF PRIVILEGE?
25. In line with established practice in other parliaments, for the purposes of the law of defamation, absolute privilege applies to statements made to or in the report of a committee of the Legislative Assembly. This privilege covers all evidence given by a witness to a committee whether in oral or in written form. It means that no action may lie in defamation against a witness in respect of such statements.
26. Witnesses should be aware that if they decide to publish the evidence that they provide to the Committee, the publication would not be covered by Legislative Assembly privilege in relation to the law of defamation. Witnesses who nevertheless decide to publish their evidence should provide the Committee with advance notice of their intentions.
WHAT RECORD IS MADE OF A MEETING?
27. Public meetings of the Committee are recorded. Many recordings are then transcribed and a verbatim transcript of the evidence is prepared. The transcript may be forwarded to each witness following the meeting for a check of the accuracy in the printing or reporting of the evidence. Amended transcripts should be returned without delay. Transcripts of evidence may be included in the published report of the Committee.
28. On some occasions recordings will be made for later broadcast by the media.
HOW CAN I GET MORE INFORMATION ON THE OPERATION OF THE PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE?
29. If you would like further information on the operation of the PAC, you should contact the Clerk.
Public Accounts Committee
Office of the Legislative Assembly
#1 Farara Plaza
Tel.: 491 2195