Pursuant to Standing Order 108(3)(g) of the House of Commons, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts has a mandate to, among other matters:
review … and report on the Public Accounts of Canada and all reports of the Auditor General of Canada, which shall be severally deemed permanently referred to the Committee immediately after they are laid upon the Table … .
The Committee also has the general mandate given to all committees under Standing Order 108(2); that is, the power to study and report on all matters relating to the mandate, management and operation of the government department(s) that are assigned to them. In the case of the Committee, the department is the Office of the Auditor General of Canada.
Additionally, the Committee may enquire into any other matter that the House of Commons may refer to it.
The Public Accounts Committee is Parliament’s standing audit committee, and it reviews the work of the federal government’s external auditor, the Auditor General of Canada.
When the Speaker tables a report by the Auditor General in the House of Commons, it is automatically referred to the Public Accounts Committee. The Committee selects the chapters of the report it wants to study and calls the Auditor General and senior public servants from the audited organizations to appear before it to respond to the Office of the Auditor General’s findings. The Committee also reviews the federal government’s consolidated financial statements – the Public Accounts of Canada – and examines financial and/or accounting shortcomings raised by the Auditor General. At the conclusion of a study, the Committee may present a report to the House of Commons that includes recommendations to the government for improvements in administrative and financial practices and controls of federal departments and agencies.
Government policy, and the extent to which policy objectives are achieved, are generally not examined by the Public Accounts Committee. Instead, the Committee focuses on government administration – the economy and efficiency of program delivery as well as the adherence to government policies, directives and standards. The Committee seeks to hold the government to account for effective public administration and due regard for public funds.
Under the Westminster-style legislative tradition that Canada inherited from the United Kingdom, a government cannot spend public monies or raise taxes without first seeking and securing the explicit consent of Parliament. It is also necessary to ensure that these funds have been spent in the amounts and for the purpose specified by the authorization. Thus, some form of public accounting and auditing must be undertaken to ensure that Parliament’s intentions have been respected. That accounting and auditing role has traditionally been carried out by a public accounts committee.
The Standing Committee on Public Accounts has been in existence since Confederation, and has precursors that considerably predate 1867.
In 1878, the Consolidated Revenue and Audit Act established the position of the Auditor General as an officer and servant of Parliament to control the issue of public monies and audit expenditures. The audit reports were then made available to the House and to the Public Accounts Committee.
In 1931, the dual functions of controlling the issuance of public monies and the audit of expenditures were separated into two distinct positions. The Auditor General retained full responsibility for executing an independent ex post audit of government expenditures. A new position was formed, the Comptroller of the Treasury, to control the issuance of monies and carry out an executive audit before payment.
In 1958, after almost 90 years of being chaired by government members, the Public Accounts Committee returned to the British House of Commons tradition of selecting the Chair from the ranks of the Official Opposition. Furthermore, after 1958, the examination of the Auditor General’s report became a regular activity of the Committee.
In 1977, amendments to the Auditor General Act (the Act) redefined and expanded the mandate of the Office of the Auditor General. In addition to carrying out financial audits of the government’s financial statements, the Office was given the capacity to conduct performance audits that examine government management practices, controls, and reporting systems in order to assess whether the government has given due regard for economy and efficiency, and has procedures to measure and report on effectiveness.
In June 1994, the Act was amended again to provide for the production of up to three reports per year in addition to the Auditor General’s annual report.
Further amendments to the Act in December 1995 established the position of the Commissioner of the Environment and Sustainable Development within the Office of the Auditor General.
In the execution of its functions, each committee is normally assisted by a committee clerk, an analyst and a committee assistant. Occasional assistance is also provided by legislative clerks and lawyers from the Office of the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel. All of these individuals are non-partisan and serve all members of the committee and representatives of all parties equally.
The clerk performs his or her duties and responsibilities under the direction of the committee and its Chair. As an expert in the rules of the House of Commons, the clerk may be requested to give advice to the Chair and members of the committee should a question of procedure arise. The clerk is the coordinator, organizer and liaison officer for the committee and as such will be in frequent contact with members’ staff. He or she is also responsible to invite witnesses and to deal with all the details regarding their appearance before the committee.
The committee assistant provides a wide range of specialized administrative services for, in particular, the organization of committee meetings and the publishing of documents on the committees’ website. The committee assistant works with the clerk to meet the needs of committees.
The Library of Parliament’s analysts provide authoritative, substantive, and timely research, analysis and information to all members of the Committee. They are part of the Committee’s institutional memory and are a unique resource for parliamentarians. Supported by research librarians, the analyst works individually or in multidisciplinary teams.
Analysts can prepare: briefing notes on the subjects being examined; detailed study plans; lists of proposed witnesses; analyses of an issue with a list of suggested questions; background papers; draft reports; news releases; and/or formal correspondence. Analysts with legal training can assist the Committee regarding any substantive issues that may arise during the consideration of bills.
OTHER RESOURCES AVAILABLE AS REQUIRED
Within the Office of the Law Clerk and Parliamentary Counsel, Parliamentary Counsel (Legislation) are available to assist Members who are not in Cabinet in the preparation of private Members’ bills or of amendments to Government bills or others.
At various stages of the legislative process, Members may propose amendments to bills. Amendments may first be proposed at the Committee Stage, during a committee’s clause-by-clause review of a bill. Amendments may also be proposed at the Report Stage, once a bill returns to the House.
Once bill is sent to Committee, the clerk of the Committee provides the name of the Parliamentary Counsel (Legislation) responsible for the drafting of the amendments for a particular bill to the Members.
The legislative clerk serves all members of the Committee as a specialist of the process by which a bill becomes law. They are available to give, upon request from Members and their staff, advice on the admissibility of amendments when bills are referred to Committee. The legislative clerk organizes the amendments into packages for committee stage, reviews all the committee amendments for procedural admissibility and prepares draft rulings for the Chair. During clause-by-clause consideration of bills in committee, a legislative clerk is in attendance to assist the committee concerning any procedural issues that may arise. The legislative clerk can also provide Members with advice regarding the procedural admissibility of Report Stage amendments. When a bill is sent to committee, the clerk of the committee provides to the Members the name of the legislative clerk assigned to the bill.
The Parliamentary Budget Officer (PBO)
As defined in the Parliament of Canada Act, the PBO is an officer of Parliament who provides independent and non-partisan analysis to Parliament on the budget, the estimates and other documents and initiatives, as well as on matters of particular significance relating to the nation’s finances or economy listed in the PBO’s annual work plan.
At the request of the Committee, the PBO can estimate the financial cost of any proposal within the Committee’s mandate that relates to matters over which Parliament has jurisdiction and can conduct research and analysis of the estimates that have been referred to the Committee.
The Standing Committee on Public Accounts can also request that the PBO provide research and analysis of matters relating to the nation’s finances or economy.
In its report on the Public Accounts of Canada 2014, the Committee observed that the federal government’s financial performance during the fiscal year 2013–2014 was better than expected.
The Committee also noted that for the 16th consecutive year, the Auditor General provided an unmodified, or “clean,” audit opinion on the federal government’s consolidated financial statements, which is a significant achievement.
In a Fall 2013 audit, the Office of the Auditor General (OAG) found that Transport Canada had worked with federal railways on the safety management system (SMS) regulatory framework, but it had made limited progress in transitioning its oversight approach from the traditional one based on inspections to one that integrates the oversight of railway companies’ SMS.
In its report, the Committee recommended that Transport Canada report to the Committee on its progress in addressing the OAG’s recommendations.
In an April 2012 audit, the OAG concluded that while National Defence and Industry Canada had managed industrial participation well for the process associated with replacing Canada’s fighter jets, there were significant weaknesses in the decision-making process used by National Defence, and Public Works and Government Services Canada did not fully carry out its role as the government’s procurement authority.
In its report the Committee recommended that information be made available to parliamentarians and Canadians on the anticipated industrial benefits and the estimated acquisition, operating and sustainment costs of replacing Canada’s fighter jets.
During its study of the OAG’s November 2006 audit on the outsourcing of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s (RCMP) pension and insurance administration, the Committee heard allegations of fraud, abuse of authority, contracting irregularities, and harassment by senior members of the RCMP.
In order to address the serious wrongdoing that occurred, the Committee’s report made 31 recommendations, which included: improving procedures for disclosing wrongdoing, tightening the rules for contracting, strengthening the authority of the Commission for Public Complaints Against the RCMP and the RCMP Ethics Advisor, and creating an independent police accountability board.
During its study of the OAG’s November 2003 audit of the Sponsorship Program, the Committee found that government contracting rules were broken; contracts were awarded without competition; payments were made for little or no work; and money was spent without Parliament’s approval or knowledge. Those in positions of responsibility failed to prevent the wrongdoing that was taking place.
In its report, the Committee traced the evolution of the Sponsorship Program, identifying the missteps and abuses that occurred along the way. Despite early signs of trouble, a lax administrative environment that allowed abuses under the Program was not fixed until it was too late.