August 20, 2019

Parliament Watch lashes out at committees’ performance

Parliament Watch, a collective of independent civil society organisations committed to social justice, human rights and constitutional democracy, monitored the conduct and effectiveness of committees during the fifth democratic parliament over a period of three years, and came to the conclusion that committee performance left a lot to be desired.

Monitors from about 10 separate civil society groups were delegated to attend committee meetings and, using an assessment tool especially designed for this purpose, evaluate performance in four areas: Access, Independence, Responsiveness, and General Effectiveness. The teams of monitors include researchers, lawyers and community activists and they reached consensus on the scores allocated in each category, to minimise personal subjectivity.

The study was conducted from May to November in 2016, from August to December in 2017 and from February to November in 2018. A composite report was compiled soon after the fifth parliament concluded in March and it was sent to the former Speaker of the National Assembly, Chairperson of the National Council of Provinces; Chief Whips of the ANC, DA and EFF; as well as the Secretary to Parliament.

The response can only be described as disappointing, with only one reply from a Member of Parliament. Undeterred, Parliament Watch intends holding a dialogue with community organisation and could incorporate its observations, findings and recommendation in a "Legacy Report" for the new parliamentary incumbents in the hope that its analysis may prove useful to the incoming parliament.

An alarming observation made by Parliament Watch was a growing tendency for committees to conduct their discussions outside of the public domain.

Parliament Watch is coordinated by the Women and Democracy Initiative of the Dullah Omar Institute at the University of the Western Cape. Its current members are the Equal Education Law Centre, the Public Service Accountability Monitor, the Right to Know Campaign, the Social Change Assistance Trust, the Social Justice Coalition, the Witzenberg Rural Development Centre, the Women on Farms Project. With the Women and Democracy Initiative, they took part in this monitoring exercise over the three years.

One of the most alarming observations made by the Parliament Watch team of monitors was a growing tendency for committees to conduct their discussions outside of the public domain. In particular, they pointed to the practice of breaking for “a working lunch” from which monitors, press and members of the public generally were excluded.

“We noticed with concern that increased attempts by committees to conduct closed or partially closed meetings. Other more subtle attempts, like continuing meetings in private lunch locations or requesting responses from the executive in writing, prevented full meeting processes being conducted in an open and accessible manner,” the report concluded.

“We were left with the impression that, particularly with high-profile matters, critical discussions and decisions were not being made in committee meeting spaces, but were being made elsewhere. This implied to us that in some instances committee meetings were paying lip service to the democratic principle of conducting its business in an open and accessible manner.”

One monitor’s contribution to the report declared: “The chairperson would say [to committee members] – be careful what you are saying, the public is among us.”

Vivienne Mentor-Lalu, the Parliament Watch Project Coordinator, told Notes from the House that of greatest concern was committee performance when it came to parliament’s constitutional role of oversight. “This is a critical function, and on the whole we found the committees could do far more on oversight, accountability and the independence of the executive,” she said. Parliament Watch attended selected committees and observed them on a regular basis over a long period before drawing their conclusions. This enabled them to establish a comprehensive view of parliamentary processes.

The group also monitored the committees of two provincial legislatures, and concluded that national parliament performed better than their provincial counterparts. “Despite this recognition we feel strongly that National Parliament has a long way to go to ensure openness and access, independence and oversight; responsiveness to the public; and effectiveness,” the report stated.

The committees are popularly referred to as the “engines” of parliament, as they drive not only the law-making process but other constitutionally established principles of public participation and oversight of the executive. The study raised concerns about not getting enough advance warning of upcoming committee meetings, sudden cancellations or changes to the venue, which is common practice in parliament and left many monitors, especially those less familiar with parliament, unable to track down the meeting.

An accompanying report compiled last year, which focused on four committees as case studies, described this problem graphically: “On occasion, the chair would end a meeting because she had to attend another meeting elsewhere. [Committee] members would receive text messages to tell them at which venue the meeting will continue later. The result is that members of the public and monitors were not informed of where the meeting continued and therefore were unable to observe and track discussions on the issue.”

One obstacle raised repeatedly by the authors of the report was unhelpful behaviour on the part of some, not all, committee support staff. In particular, they said they were hamstrung by staff who refused to distribute printed presentations and other pertinent material, even though these are public documents, on the grounds that they were being kept for Members.

The monitors reported deferential behaviour towards cabinet ministers and senior members of government by committee chairpersons and members, especially those belonging to the ruling party. Parliament Watch monitors reflect that, as a result, “the parliamentary committees appeared weaker than the members of the executive over which they should exert accountability”. Later in the report it adds: “The lack of independence is a huge obstacle to effective oversight ... Without independence, committees will find it difficult to be effective; responsive; or open and accessible.”

Although this could not be said of all committees, it was members of the opposition in many committees that posed challenging question and asserted their duty to demand accountability.

This is strongly determined by individual chairpersons, Parliament Watch observed. Some chairs were more willing than others to allow the committee to assert itself and engage robustly. As all but one chairperson is selected by the ruling party (traditionally the Standing Committee on Public Accounts or SCOPA is led by an opposition member), “chairpersons appear to protect members of the executive from probing questions.

“Parliament Watch monitors observed chairpersons who showed commitment to ensuring due process and a range of inputs from members and some who were willing to challenge members of the executive. However, monitors also witnessed numerous situations in which committee chairs were protective and deferential towards members of the executive (particular senior officials) or where they blocked processes that could ensure accountability.”

What Parliament Watch was looking for in a good chairperson is the ability to be impartial, notwithstanding political affiliations; avoid acting as “gate-keepers” and ensure information flows between stakeholders; the ability to unite committee members across party divides; and the strength to remain independent and not be intimidated or bullied by members of the executive, including Ministers and Director Generals, or by members of other parties. They judged committee members according to their preparedness, degree of involvement in the proceedings and attendance rate. Monitors note when members leave early, or sit on their cell phones during meetings.

They report observing a shift in the attitude of ruling party committee members, with more diverse views emerging in the past two years. Nevertheless, Parliament Watch also found that while ANC members form the majority of every committee, few of them actively participate in committee discussions.

“During our monitoring, we recognised that most challenges to the executive came from the opposition MPs, and that the opposition MPs were more likely to be prepared for meetings.” The study also pointed out that EFF members tend to “engage with more contentious issues”.

Parliament Watch was first established in 2016 by what was then a small group of civil society organisations that attended and observed committee meetings as part of their different initiatives. They decided to collaborate and came together as Parliament Watch to “strengthen constitutional democracy in South Africa through a sustained and coordinated process focused on the legislatures”.

The coalition cites section 59 of the Constitution which declares that the National Assembly and its committees must facilitate public involvement in the legislative process and “conduct its work in an open manner” by holding its sittings in public. Parliament Watch has, over the past three years, endeavoured to ensure that committees have complied with the obligation to facilitate openness and public access.

The report emphasises the constitutional requirement to facilitate public engagement, and makes the point that committee meetings can be difficult to follow. Parliament Watch suggests that committees make more of an effort to engage public attendees by explaining proceedings where possible and identifying committee members.

“The organisations which make up Parliament Watch share the goal of building the quality of South Africa’s constitutional democracy by collaborating on actions aimed at holding the legislatures to account for their constitutional mandate.”

They report an increase in public interest in debates and events in the National Assembly over the past few years, but are concerned that the work of parliamentary committees generally remains outside public scrutiny.

Asjed for comment, parliament had not responded by the time this newsletter was released.

Moira Levy

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  • Author: Moira Levy
Last modified on Sunday, 09 June 2019 18:17

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Notes from the House is an independent online publication that tracks and monitors Parliament’s role in fulfilling its constitutional responsibilities to improve the lives of South African citizens. Published by Moira Levy with the support of the Claude Leon Foundation.

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