On a recent edition of LMDtv, Chairman of the Committee On Public Enterprises (COPE) Prof. Charitha Herath reiterated that the committee came into being in 1979 for the purpose of examining the financial performance and ensuring compliance in administrative arrangements of public enterprises governed by the state.

“COPE was established under Standing Order 126 and is not government or opposition driven. It is a parliamentary subcommittee in which the government and opposition parties participate based on the selection of the parliament’s business committee. Out of the 427 public enterprises, 10 are influential and essential to the country’s citizens,” he elaborated, speaking about the role of COPE.

Explaining the process involved, Herath said: “The Auditor General’s (AG) department scrutinises the financial documentation and decision-making processes, and submits annual audit reports to parliament. We base our discussions on these annual audits or the reports from the AG.”

He also offered his view on a proposed independent mechanism for financial oversight with the mandate of COPE and stated: “I agree that there should be some independent arrangements since all of us are in one way or another related to political positions; however, the people are also the owners of this and they’re also political beings.”

“Politics is not completely bad as some people assert because we’re all in a decision-making process of everyday public life, which is the representation of the political positioning. It is good that we have an independent watchdog type of institution but the political stakeholders create this special committee,” he added.

Herath commented on the media reports claiming that the price of fuel could be as low as Rs. 250 by stating that this was not the conclusion of COPE – and that the committee had not even examined the entirety of the issue but that this was a point raised by the chairman of the Public Utilities Commission of Sri Lanka (PUCSL).

“We have invited the Minister of Power and Energy, and we’ve summoned the Ceylon Petroleum Corporation (CPC) to look at this issue. Unfortunately, due to the country’s current situation, it has been postponed,” he said.

Citing the case of  Sri Lankan Airlines as an example, Herath said that since its reacquisition by the government it has reported substantial losses. He went on to say that “from that day onwards to 31 March 2021, the total loss of the airline is Rs. 372 billion. According to the AG’s report, the daily loss of this particular government enterprise is 84 million rupees.”

The COPE committee made three interventions, and Sri Lankan Airlines and the Minister of Aviation were requested to submit their plans as to whether or not they are prepared to continue the airline with the collaboration of Emirates. The committee has reviewed all three studies and finalised its opinions. COPE has informed the legislature that the recommendation is for an organisational restructuring.

Herath also referred to the Ceylon Electricity Board (CEB), and the many issues within that entity with regard to fiscal management and decision making. He said that COPE has “recommended to them to change some of the decisions that they have made… We are going to get CEB to COPE meetings in the coming months… to have a standing committee type intervention.”

Lamenting the status of the committee, COPE’s chairman said: “‘COPE is a toothless thing’… you can’t take action forward. That is the kind of criticism that is put forward against us sometimes. But you know the constitution has three different power bases.”

“There are four ways in which COPE can exert its powers. Firstly, to directly engage and change decisions; secondly, to write to the chief accounting officer to give some orders; thirdly, to report back to the main parliament chambers; and finally, to unveil the issue to the public,” he said, concluding his interview.