November 18, 2019

Many may be wondering what is actually going on in parliament?

The new parliamentary term opened last week after a recess, the annual two-week mid-year recess. This may create the impression that much of elected representatives’ time is spent in recess. However, just because MPs are not always present in parliament does not mean they are not hard at work. They could be engaged in oversight visits, public hearings, study tours or planning sessions. As the final term of the year gets underway, this is a good time to look back on what was achieved during the second term of the post-election parliament, and consider what lies ahead in the third.

A total of 187 committee meetings were held during the second term, most of them (152) were portfolio committees of the National Assembly (NA). MPs spend a lot of their time in committees because that is where most of their work is done, and the second term reflected an increase in committee time; 14 more committee meetings were held than in the first term.

PMG reports that the three committees that met the most often were the Standing Committee on Appropriations (10 meetings), Portfolio Committee on Higher Education, Science and Technology (10 meetings) and the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Correctional Services (9 meetings).

Apart from the urgent Appropriation Bill, the topics that got the most attention last term were the possible removal of the Public Protector; filling the post of the Deputy Public Protector when his tenure comes to an end in December; and the shock crime statistics released by the Minister of Police. Nothing further to be reported on the last two issues, but the first has led to action. Calls by the DA for parliament to get rid of the current public protector has led to parliament’s Rules Committee being instructed to devise a process which could allow this to be accomplished.

The second term was unusually short, comprising about five weeks, but even so, only 11 days were set aside for plenary sessions. The president appeared twice; once for the Questions to the President session normally held at the start of term and again to address a special joint sitting that was convened at short notice, and probably largely due to public pressure, about the country’s alarming gender-based violence.

The Deputy President appeared only once, and that was at the National Council of Provinces (NCOP), although as leader of government business he was also expected to appear before the NA.

In NA plenary sessions the unemployment crisis in South Africa was debated, as was a problem that the government seems unable to talk about in clear terms. It was described as addressing violence and criminality in the country including that affecting foreign nationals. In other words, there was debate on the hideous xenophobia in our country, so well done to the IFP’s M Hlengwa for sponsoring that one.

There were also debates on the government’s proposal to introduce a regime of prescribed assets in South Africa, which threatens the pension savings of millions of South Africans, and another on the notion of using the bloated civil service to actually do the work of government and SOEs instead of outsourcing it.

Not much legislation was considered during the second term, even though 39 bills from the previous parliament had lapsed but are ready to resume their legislative processing. This requires simply that they be re-introduced into the House, but the past term was dominated by processing the Special Appropriation Bill which provided for additional financial support to Eskom for the current and next financial year. Public hearings and stakeholder engagement meetings kept the Standing Committee on Appropriations very busy.

To date, at least four lapsed bills have been re-introduced. These are the Cybercrimes Bill; the Child Justice Amendment Bill; the Civil Union Amendment Bill and the Traditional Courts Bill.

Much time was also taken up with the controversial National Health Insurance Bill. It was rapidly introduced into parliament and raced off to the NA’s Portfolio Committee on Health for consideration. But the requisite public participation may have slowed it down to parliament’s normal plodding legislative pace. So many people have so many opinions on this bill that they want to share that extra time has had to be set aside for public participation. Public hearings started in Mpumalanga from October 25 to 28, and will move to the Northern Cape from November 1 to 4. Hearings within Parliament can be expected in 2020, which suggests that this controversial piece of legislation will probably not become law for some time.

The very useful practice of MPs submitting written as well as oral questions continued, but it has been observed that the proportion of written question remaining unanswered is on the rise. During the second term, MPs from both Houses submitted a total of 584 questions, of which 297 were officially recognised as unanswered. Don’t blame the NCOP for that. It answered 94% of the questions it received, while the NA only replied to 46%. This can be broken down into the respective parties, but that simply reflects their representation in parliament, not the extent of their work. No party stands out as being noticeably ahead in the written question queue, which is a pity as this is an important oversight tool.

Not many citizens know that provision is made in the Constitution for individuals or groups to submit petitions to their elected representatives, as another way of appealing for intervention by parliament. Four petitions were submitted in the second term, and all appealed to the NA to investigate service delivery issues in local communities. The petitions were referred to the NA for consideration and report.

Parliament does seem much busier as the third term get underway, but then this is the equivalent of parliamentary peak season. It is the time of year that departments and their related entities must submit their annual reports, their audited financial reports, and anything else they want to report. During this time, parliament becomes a decision-making conveyer belt as it speeds these reports along, sometimes at a rate of up to three at a time.

It is widely regretted that more time is not devoted to this exercise because this is when citizens can learn if government departments spent their allotted budgets in compliance with their requisitions, their goals and the requirements of the law. In other words, this is the opportunity for parliament to exercise its powers of oversight and accountability.

This can be an unhappy time for government departments as Auditor-General’s reports are released and the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) has to be on its toes looking out especially for irregular, fruitless and wasteful expenditure.

The presentation by government of its annual reports gives committee an opportunity to look closely at department outcomes and audits. Out of these analyses committees draw up the Budgetary Review and Recommendation Reports, commonly known as the “B, triple Rs” (BRRRs) to assist departments and provide recommendations for improving their performance. Term three is a very hectic time in parliament, and the new MPs (who comprise 42%) must brace themselves.

PMG sums up why the “B, triple Rs” are a key oversight mechanism. “They help ensure that amendment debates are based on a reliable analysis of departmental performance. The BRRR may include recommendations on future use of resources. The Reports provide insight on what Departments have done i.e. services delivered and those not. The BRRR also reflects on whether the Committee, after considering relevant reports, is satisfied with the Department’s performance”.

These analyses also feed into the pending Medium Term Budget Policy Statement (MTBPS), which is presented to Parliament every October. It adjusts revenue and spending estimates for the rest of the year, and this is reflected in a Division of Revenue Amendment Bill and Adjusted Appropriations Bill. It is an opportunity for parliament to engage with the budget.

If excitement is what you are hoping for this term in parliament, keep an eye on the Rules Committee. It has to decide on what to do with the Public Protector, or rather with those who don’t think she is fit to hold office, as well as the possible removal of Advocates Nomgcobo Jiba and Lawrence Mrwebi from the National Prosecuting Authority (NPA). A permanent Executive Director of the Independent Police Investigative Directorate (IPID) really does have to be found, and is on the Portfolio Committee on Police to do list.

This article was compiled by drawing on the reports of the Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG). Much of the information comes from a blog published by the PMG. However it does not reflect the views of the PMG in any way and the writer takes full responsibility for how the facts have been presented here.

Last modified on Tuesday, 15 October 2019 21:09

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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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