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EDITORIAL: One reason a lot of people were hesitant to avail the government's tax amnesty scheme in 2018 was that they knew that no matter what the law said or how protected they were, declaring all those assets meant that they would come on the FBR's (Federal Board of Revenue's) radar and be subjected to its scrutiny. And there's never any telling when a government department, or even official, could suddenly dig a little deeper into that information and try to extract a little something extra for the national kitty. That is pretty much what is reported to be happening now as FBR field officials are said to be scrutinising details about individuals who filed declarations under the Voluntary Declaration of Domestic Assets Act of 2018. But since the law on the matter is very clear and such actions clearly qualify as harassment, the government needs to step in right now and restore order before further erosion of its credibility takes place. Already, the option of the amnesty scheme left many people, even a lot of PTI loyalists, laughing because Imran Khan stood firmly against all such things in his two decades of struggle on the opposition benches. But once his government decided that such steps were necessary because of the collapsing economy, it too emulated and launched a more comprehensive scheme for assets and business transactions to be brought on books/documented than the scheme launched by the outgoing PML-N government in 2018.

The amnesty declaration filed under the act of 2018 is reportedly being called in question by the FBR field formations in violation of the express prohibition contained in section 3 of the said act that clearly states that "the provision of this Act shall have effect notwithstanding anything contrary contained in any other law for the time being in force." That, simply put, means that once the amnesty has been offered, and accepted, then that is the end of the matter and FBR has no further jurisdiction. Perhaps this departure from the law betrays a degree of desperation on the Bureau's part, since it has been tasked with achieving a rather daunting revenue target in the new fiscal year. And, out of the possible options could it be thinking of tightening the screws a little where some declarations were made - which means possession of black money was accepted - to see if there might be something more to squeeze out? Perhaps a better idea than the revenue department sniffing out money trails in places which it has no business looking into is managing the affairs of the government a little better and cutting some unnecessary expenditure. As things stand, the first audit report of the PTI government has found "irregularities and corruption worth Rs270 billion" in 40 government departments and ministries.

The Auditor General of Pakistan (AGP), whose office prepared the report after auditing government departments and ministries, has found fake receipts to the tune of Rs12.56 billion. The AGP has also stated that recovery cases of Rs79.59 billion were reported in federal ministries while record of Rs17.96 billion was not provided at all by various departments, and that Rs8.89 billion was lost to corruption because of weak internal controls and cases worth Rs152.20 billion were reported due to poor financial management. Such numbers are a cause for serious concern, which is why the auditor general has recommended that government departments should no longer be allowed to undertake any expenditure nor should supplementary grants be allowed to them, unless approved by parliament. And corruption cases should be handed over to relevant investigative agencies so appropriate recoveries can be made. We are certain that the government would take these findings and recommendations very seriously lest any more money is lost because of inefficiency or corruption in the working of the official machinery. The government already faces a very difficult situation in getting its finances in order as the economic situation has further worsened due to the coronavirus pandemic. And, the last thing the government needs is for the FBR to pursue dead ends or violating official contracts by digging into details of people who came clean under the amnesty scheme.

Copyright Business Recorder, 2020