Speaking when she and her predecessor Dr Howard Sikwela appeared before the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee (PAC), Tuesday, Dr Mutale admitted that some funds vanished without trace.
This came to light when the controlling officer appeared before the Committee to respond to audit queries, which were cited in the Auditor General’s Report for the financial year ended December 31, 2018.
The proceedings, which were supposed to start at 09:30 in the morning only started around 11:00 hours as the Committee demanded that the sitting PS be queried together with her predecessor.
During the deliberations, a missing cheque worth K99,600 was identified, which the Ministry issued to Eastern and Southern Africa Management Institute (ESAMI) for a training programme involving 15 staff members.
Dr Mutale in response first said the Ministry had written to the bank requesting the bank to help trace the cheque, adding that she also suspected that ministry staff could have connived with the bank because the said cheque was deposited in a new individual account, where the monies was withdrawn soon after it cleared.
“We have been communicating with the bank. I think since the first letter was written in December, 2017, over the same issue, we have been communicating with Atlas Mara [and], also if you check in the report, a police report was availed and verified by the auditors, but we have not yet recovered this money. We have communicated with the bank, but the bank is also investigating. The suspicion is that someone could have connived with a member of staff in the bank because this ESAMI is an international organisation and how possible was it that someone opened an account and could deposit and withdraw without the bank verifying who ESAMI was? So, we wrote to the bank because the suspicion was that there could be someone in the Ministry or under the bank working together to do this. So, we are expecting that the police will bring us a report to this effect,” Dr Mutale narrated.
But when asked where the proof was that she had communicated with the bank, Dr Mutale said she was not in possession of the correspondence.
And regarding the controversial misapplied K30,947,320 Social Cash Transfer funds, which were paid to Zampost to administer payment of Social Cash Transfer to deserving districts, Dr Mutale tried to dodge the matter by saying that she did not want to jeopardise the ongoing investigations on the matter.
The Finance Director from the Ministry then chipped in and said that at the time of the audits, there were three teams that were auditing the Ministry simultaneously, and that the teams were asking for similar information hence some receipts went missing in the process.
Asked if the Finance Director, who handled the matter was still working for the Ministry, both permanent secretaries expressed ignorance about his whereabouts.
“I will be honest I don’t know whether that director is still in office because I think the director here is also new. So, I wouldn’t know what happened to the other director. Maybe my colleague could respond to that,” Dr Mutale responded.
But Dr Sikwela responded by simply saying: “Chair, equally I am not privy to the whereabouts of this director.”
However, Committee Chairperson Howard Kunda then followed-up with a question regarding why the Ministry instructed NATSAVE to transfer K500,000 out of a total of K1,257,480 social welfare funds for Kasempa and Zambezi districts into the Zampost account to facilitate payments to beneficiaries for the July/August, 2017.
“PS, maybe this issue does not bother you so much, but to us, it is an issue that we are looking at the poor people out there, the people who have no means of getting monies and that money is given to the bank to hold for you and you instruct them to transfer and they do not do what you have instructed them to do. And you just complain and you are just assured [that it will not happened again] and it ends there. Is that the way you do things?” Kunda asked.
But Dr Mutale, again, asked her predecessor to answer, arguing that she was not sure of the prior contract agreements with NATSAVE.
“Chair, it should be borne in mind that some of these issues are due to institutional kind of inheritance. As I moved to Ministry of Community Development and Social Services, I found that there were certain banks or institutions that were engaged to hold money on behalf of the Ministry. How these contracts were entered [into], I am not privy to that, but suffice to say that, from the report here, everything that NATSAVE was keeping for the Ministry was finally set,” Dr Sikwela responded.
But Kunda argued with his response and demanded to know why the Ministry allowed NATSAVE to be deciding when the monies would be available for disbursement.
Dr. Sikwela then counter-argued that it was his first time he was seeing the query.
“Chair, this query I am seeing it for the first time where NATSAVE is said to have been transferring monies in bits. It’s regrettable that such was there. Surely, according to arrangements, whenever a depositor needed his or her money, that money should be given back to the depositor. It’s sad that there is such a situation being reported here,” Dr Sikwela said.
Deputy Committee chairperson Brenda Tambatamba also asked as to whether or not those funds would reach the intended beneficiaries.
And Milenge PF member of parliament Mwansa Mbulakulima also demanded to know if there was some invisible hands that were making the PS not to act against the irregularities.
But in her response, Dr Mutale pledged that the missing monies will be paid pack.
“We have promised the people of Zambia that we are going to pay those that have not been paid, from our resources, but for now, we are investigating to find out exactly where those monies are, so that if they can be retrieved then we will, if not, the Treasury has promised that: ‘we will pay the beneficiaries what they were not paid,” Dr Mutale said.
And Kunda expressed disappointment over the Ministry’s report.
“We would like you to take the audit process very seriously, extremely seriously, because it will lead you into not appearing before this Committee. And I remember very well here, we gave you a pat on the back the last time you appeared here, but what we have seen here is unacceptable and we would want to see a change to these issues. I want to put it very clear that we are very disappointed with this report and going forward, we would want to see that you do not even step a foot here so that we can give you a pat on the back,” guided Kunda.