The Parliamentary Public Accounts Committees (PAC) today expressed shock to hear Higher Education Permanent Secretary Mabvuto Sakala apologise for spending over K2.6 million to purchase a vehicle for the minister, instead of the intended purpose.

Explaining the expenditure to the committee, Sakala said K2,668,119 was spent to procure one motor vehicle for the office of the minister, furniture for the office of the Chief Accountant and the Chief planner.

Sakala then tendered an apology, saying although he was new at the ministry, there was no excuse for the misapplication.

PAC deputy chairperson Brenda Tambatamba however rebuked the Permanent Secretary, adding that controlling officers needed to show responsibility.

Chief accountant, some one will ask you to say, are you in charge to be able to provide the right guidance to the controlling officer in the sense that you ignored the law, the regulations, the requirements of prior authority of the Secretary to the Treasury before you spent unless you will be telling this committee that it was impossible to reach out to the ST. What could have been the reasons for such and where are they provided for in any documentation that has been supplied to us here?

Senga Hill PF member of parliament Kapembwa Simbao:

On page 13, there is an issue which is a misapplication of K2,668,119. I fail to understand how you apply this money as if you were starting a ministry completely new. I would like a very clear answer because I also was appointed as a minister very late at the ministry and there was no new car bought for me. I went and used a car I found there, very old car. So how did you end up misapplying this money to buy a brand new car as if the ministry never existed before, as if there was no car that a minister can use at the ministry? How? Because I have heard of other cases where a minister has gone and said ‘I’m getting your car PS, you find another car to use. I’m using your car’. Now you don’t have money for a car, you go and take money for something else to buy a new car for the minister? How?

Chief Accountant at the Ministry of Higher Education Lawrence Mulama:

At the time we didn’t have a chief accountant because I had to be transferred from Ministry of Home Affairs to Ministry of Higher Education. These are some of the issues we found on the ground and admittedly, there were all these matters. I mean where you don’t have the head of accounting unit for a long period, it affected the operations of the ministry. Otherwise the controlling officer would have been guided. There was a Mr Ngosa, chief accountant, he died. Then long before that the ministry was merged with Ministry of Education, the chief accountant was running two offices. We lost it there and with the late Ngosa dying, there was a lot of lapse. And this is what led to all this confusion.

Thank you Chair, obviously we want to admit that this was an error. But just to bring to the attention of the House that when a ministry, for example, is split, previously you may wish to note that we also had positions of deputy ministers, if you split a ministry it means that you are going to have a duplication of the ministers; not only the ministers but the deputy ministers. And these are constitutional positions that come with specified entitlements, so in as much as honourable Simbao maybe humble to request the permanent secretary to surrender a 4/4 Hilux, some ministers may demand that they be given their entitlements which is beyond what the permanent secretary may be having at that time. So I want to assume that there must have been a bit of pressure on the ministry but that’s not an excuse for this misapplication, we wish to apologise.

PS if you were in that position at that time and the minister, the deputy minister insists that they need a car and you have money for a different program, for service delivery, what would you do? Would you proceed because of the urgency and the want of the minister or would you follow the public finance regulation?

Honourable Chair I would definitely follow the law and probably ask the minister of finance to provide maybe supplementary funding, but I may not be able to answer on the part of the controlling officer at that time. Like I said Chair, it was an error on the part of the ministry.

Chavuma UPND member of parliament Victor Lumayi:
Five hundred and twenty three students, 502 from CBU and 21 from UNZA were paid accommodation refund while these students were already accommodated at the institution amounting to K1,426,539. In your response you are saying ‘the auditors’ observation is very correct’ and you are saying ‘verification exercise has not been undertaken by management’. Bwana PS, how did this anomaly come when we have got so many students out there who need these services? And you pay these students who are already accommodated by the institution such kind of monies while others are languishing in the streets.

I would request my director, loans and scholarships board to supplement my submission. When I was presenting, I did note that there was an error in the report. It should have read ‘a verification exercise is being undertaken’ not ‘has not been undertaken’.

Acting director for Loans and Scholarship Board Ireen Chirwa:
The submission by the PS is that the allowances to the students are paid based on the details that we receive from the university. And the invoices for accommodation are also submitted by the universities. So in this case, the universities submitted the invoices to the ministry of finance that paid the accommodation fees whilst the details for accommodation refunds were submitted to our office and we paid. And we are acknowledging that what the auditors discovered was that the same students that have been mentioned were appearing on the payment schedules that we provided as well as the details that the universities provided to the auditors. That’s why we are verifying this and we are saying since we have future payments to the universities, to correct, we are going to deduct from the universities in terms of the accommodation fees that will be charged and from the students because this information was provided to us. We didn’t generate the details for the students to be paid.

Milenge PF member of parliament Mwansa Mbulakulima:

What measures are you taking to correct that anomaly? Are we trying to correct that situation for the good of both the universities and your ministry?

What we have done is that we have requested both universities to now give us all the details before Ministry of Finance can pay them so that when we are paying their allowances we compare with the information that they have submitted in terms of invoices for accommodation fees, so that we only pay those that would not appear on the invoice. That’s a correction that we are doing.

Brenda Tambatamba:
Quite a few things have come through. We know you are new at the ministry, but you, as controlling officer should be very worried and should be thinking very seriously about how you will move this very important institution forward. Very important in the sense that this is the bedrock of our institutions of higher learning. You are the custodians on behalf of the Zambian people taking care of tertiary learning institutions. And if there is any such mismanagement as we would have seen, misapplications and all, it would worry the Zambian people a lot. So the committee is expressing its concern PS, with the numerous irregularities at the Ministry of Higher Education. The committee regrets that the poor management of the ministry has a ripple effect on the quality of, not only the human resource coming from the institutions of learning, but also the poor management of the colleges and all other institutions that you are taking care of. While noting that the PS is new at the ministry, it is the expectation of this committee that the issues which have been highlighted will not recur going forward.