Senior Minister within the Office of the President with responsibility for Finance Dr. Ashni Singh successfully piloted the amendments to the Natural Resource Fund (NRF) Act in the National Assembly on Wednesday, paving the way for further economic gains and national development.
Minister Singh was able to push through the historic NRF amendments, remaining undaunted by the ruckus and mayhem caused by some opposition Members of Parliament (MPs), who sought to derail the proceedings by chanting and an attempted heist of the Speaker’s Mace.
He also contributed to the passage of the new Local Content Bill on the same day, which was also successfully passed in the National Assembly.
In addition to providing a legislative framework for transparency and accountability in the management of the nascent oil and sector, the Finance Minister said that both of the new laws would advance Guyana’s economic development to the benefit of all Guyanese.
This is because the Local Content Bill proposed a raft of demands on foreign companies to ensure they use Guyanese individuals and companies for everything from catering services to accounting by the end of next year.
Additionally, the NRF Bill also contains amendments that “… would enable the utilisation of Guyana’s petroleum revenues to advance an accelerated development agenda.”
This Bill, which will govern Guyana’s oil-wealth fund, currently standing at US$534 million, also contains several provisions to ensure transparency, proper governance, and accountability.
One such provision is that, by virtue of the NRF forming part of the Consolidated Fund, any proposed spending by the government must be submitted for review and debated in the National Assembly by way of an Appropriation Bill. Once the Bill is approved, it becomes an Appropriation Act, which requires that the monies are expended only for what is approved by the National Assembly.
Spending from the NRF is also subject to an audit by the Auditor General, who provides a report for scrutiny by the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee. This committee is chaired by members of the opposition, which provides another opportunity for transparency and review.
Another key amendment to the NRF Act brings the fund in compliance with the Santiago Principles, which require that it is governed by a body appointed by the owners, namely the government. The previous APNU+AFC legislation vested all control in the Finance Minister, with the public oversight committee comprising 22 members merely having observational and recommendation-making responsibilities.
The new NRF Act also now contains criminal repercussions, viz. a ten-year jail term, for the Minister of Finance or any other public official if they receive money without disclosure.
This particular provision was prompted by the revelation under the previous administration where the former Minister of Finance received a US$18 million signing bonus and did not disclose it to the National Assembly.
The NRF Act is also lauded as a simplified mechanism to the complex legislation passed by the former administration. It is also seen as correcting some of the procedural wrongs in the previous Act’s passage, which was done during a controversial period in which the APNU/AFC administration had already been defeated by a no-confidence motion.
Though one amendment to NRF Bill presented by the Finance Minister enables the government to, in the first instance, withdraw all oil revenues accumulated in the oil wealth fund in the year that the new law comes into force, it sets a limit for future withdrawals.
Concerns have been raised by both members of the opposition and those in civil society about the amount of money that the government would be able to withdraw.
The Bill, however, states that these funds shall be used for “national development priorities including any initiative aimed at realising an inclusive green economy” and “essential projects that are directly related to ameliorating the effects of a major natural disaster.”
Similarly, President Dr. Irfaan Ali reminded Guyanese one day before that his government is focused on an aggressive developmental trajectory, aiming to facilitate massive infrastructural upgrades and provide world-class social services to all Guyanese.
With both pieces of legislation passed in the National Assembly, they now await the assent of President Ali and will be enacted into law.