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Audit boss bemoans time it takes state services to respond to his queries

Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides (CNA)

Ministries, government departments, and local authorities could take years to respond to the audit service if they do at all, while in some cases they outright refuse to do so, the House watchdog committee heard on Thursday.

The main perpetrator is the tax department, Auditor-general Odysseas Michaelides told MPs, while the ombudswoman has refused to respond to specific requests by the service.

The committee examined the matter of the huge delays by departments to respond, which, according to Diko MP Chrysis Pantelides who tabled the issue, certainly constituted indirect, if not direct, obstruction of the audit service’s task and a violation of the constitution.

Michaelides said of one instance when the ombudswoman had refused to respond in relation to a report she had issued.

“None of your business,” was the reply, according to Michaelides.

The auditor said his service usually sent a reminder if there was no response within two, three months. In many cases it sent five reminders before going straight to the minister responsible, he said.

There were, however, cases where the ministry also failed to respond, forcing the audit service to go to the House watchdog committee.

Michaelides said one community council responded this year to a request sent in 2016 while the interior ministry sent a four-line response to a request that was pending for five years and three months.

The service was still waiting for a reply to a 2016 letter to the health ministry, Michaelides said.

MPs heard that the tax department was the champion of delays, failing to respond to 65 letters, one dating back to 2015.

The state health services organisation had to receive four reminders to reply to a simple letter asking for a copy of a contract with a private hospital. It also took them four months to respond to a letter that would have taken five minutes with an email.

In general, Michaelides said, the public service faces problems and its staff is not all exceptional as their evaluations said.

There are mediocre and bad directors, officers, and ordinary staff, Michaelides said. The civil service lacked suitable leadership, organisation, measurable objectives, and objective evaluations, which allowed the promotion of average and below average officers.

It is a tragic excuse, he said, that the civil service does not function properly because officers feared the auditor general.

Ruling Disy MP Savia Orphanidou expressed displeasure that issues were raised before the committee without the parties concerned being present.

She said the tax department had made remarkable efforts to improve and though recognising the civil service’s weaknesses, it was not the role of the auditor general to judge the heads of the departments.

Pantelides said the committee will assess the information and invite the ‘offending’ departments to appear before the committee and explain themselves in a bid to resolve the phenomenon.

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