Ministers and MPs defy Uhuru’s order on luxury spending

Controller of Budget Agnes Odhiambo at a parliamentary Public Accounts Committee hearing on June 4, 2014. Photo/FILE
Controller of Budget Agnes Odhiambo at a parliamentary Public Accounts Committee hearing on June 4, 2014. Photo/FILE 

President Uhuru Kenyatta’s order requiring senior officials to cut public spending and save money his government needs to pursue its development agenda fell on deaf ears as billions of shillings were splashed on travel, entertainment and new vehicles in the first nine months of the current financial year.

The Controller of Budget’s latest report shows that top public officials defied the strict spending guidelines to splash Sh7.4 billion on the three items that topped the austerity list.

Agnes Odhiambo, the Controller of Budget, says in the third quarter report that ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) spent Sh1.58 billion on foreign travels and Sh3.59 billion on domestic travels in three months.

The report shows Sh1.32 billion was spent on hospitality, conferences and catering while Sh885.76 million went into buying new vehicles in the first nine months of the year ending June 30.

The Parliamentary Service Commission, the employer of MPs who have voted themselves generous travel allowances, accounted for Sh1.57 billion or nearly 50 per cent of total domestic travel expenditure by the 39 MDAs.

Foreign Affairs ministry, which spent Sh435 million over the period, was the top spender on foreign travels followed by Parliament with Sh343 million.

President Kenyatta’s office topped the list of departments that spent the most on entertainment with a Sh226 million bill followed by Parliament’s Sh208 million.

“The Presidency had the highest expenditure on purchase of motor vehicles at Sh523 million followed by the Judiciary at Sh247 million,” Mrs Odhiambo says.

The Jubilee government early this year announced a tight austerity programme aiming to cut spending on non-core activities.

The programme, which the government says had saved Sh27 billion in the first nine months of the financial year, requires public officials to lease rather than buy vehicles and equipment, cut outdoor meetings, restrict foreign travels and use technology to reduce administrative costs. 

The spending cut plan deepened with the announcement that top public officials led by Mr Kenyatta and his deputy William Ruto had offered to take a 20 per cent pay cut, a pledge that is yet to be implemented.

In the three months to April this year, the Treasury released a total of Sh436.1 billion to the 39 MDAs for recurrent expenses and another Sh140.3 billion for development. The period also saw the 47 counties receive a total of Sh110.1 billion for recurrent and development spending.

Wage bill remains the single-largest recurrent expenditure item in county and national government budgets, accounting for Sh196.27 billion or 55 per cent of recurrent expenditure.

Mrs Odhiambo says the report points to the fact that the public wage bill needs to be addressed through a national remuneration and benefits policy to curb its growth.

“The public service payroll needs to be analysed to provide a basis for its rationalisation,” she says.

Mrs Odhiambo has once again raised the alarm over poor absorption of development funds which stood at only 28.9 per cent at the end of March 2014.

This rate means only 29 cents out of every shilling allocated for development in 2013/14 fiscal year is spent for the purpose.

Much of the expenditure delay has been attributed to lengthy procurement processes and delay in release of donor funds.

“The persistent low uptake of development funds results in delayed implementation of planned activities for the remaining period of the financial year,” Mrs Odhiambo says.

The government has since reduced the tendering period from 21 days to 14 and removed the maximum limit on the amounts for which restricted tendering can be done to break the procurement logjam.

It has also extended the validity of pre-qualifications from one to two years but the measures have yet to improve the procurement landscape.

Tax experts said low absorption of development funds has created a loophole that the government of the day can exploit to pass off unspent money as new allocations to politically sensitive areas with little accountability.

“Given the low absorption rate for development projects, we have strong grounds to believe that fresh allocations are just carryovers, unspent funds from previous periods,” David Kabeberi, a partner at PKF Consulting, said during the firm’s pre-Budget analysis last week.

“If you look at Agriculture for instance, the Treasury has consistently allocated Sh10 billion for irrigation in the last five years but there is not much on the ground other than the recently initiated Galana Scheme.  Our production remains largely rain-fed.”

Mrs Odhiambo wants the MDAs to co-ordinate work plans, procurement plans, and cash flow plans to ensure timely execution of development programmes.

The latest budget report shows that counties are unhappy with the Treasury’s demand that they reimburse payroll costs worth Sh24.2 billion they received for devolved functions up to December before the roles were actually transferred.

By end of March counties had reimbursed only Sh8.4 billion, leaving out a balance of Sh15.8 billion that the affected ministries require to finance their operations up to July.