Will Parliament Create a Committee to Oversee the Presidency?
One of the peculiarities of our parliamentary system is that there is no parliamentary committee that oversees the Presidency. While every government department is subject to consistent parliamentary oversight, this is not the case for the Presidency.
The Presidency is the only department/entity that receives a budget from Parliament without detailed, rigorous parliamentary scrutiny by a parliamentary committee.
While Parliament has a toolkit of oversight mechanisms, parliamentary committees are the primary platform for oversight. To a large extent, robust oversight of the Presidency is presently lacking as there is no dedicated committee to exercise this role.
It’s unclear why such a committee was never conceived and if Parliament has ever given serious consideration to this.
How Parliament currently scrutinizes the President and Presidency
Both the President and Deputy President appear in the National Assembly chamber to answer oral questions. These engagements occur once per quarter. In respect of the National Council of Provinces, the Deputy president also appears once per term while the President does so every six months.
As the Leader of Government Business, the Deputy President’s question time seeks to certify that Cabinet Ministers comply with parliamentary rules and what is expected of them as members of the Executive Authority.
The various Ministers in the Presidency also routinely appear before both Houses for oral questions and replies to account for the performance of their respective portfolios. Although valuable, these plenary appearances have limitations. They are largely unsatisfactory for various reasons, such as time and question limits and their inability to deliver the sort of detailed discussion and scrutiny of legislation and policy that modern government requires.
It is not unusual to see the same Ministers in a committee meeting. For example, the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) has been interacting with Minister Gungubele on how the Presidency is overseeing the findings, determinations, and recommendations of the Special Investigating Unit (SIU) and has developed a monitoring framework with the Presidency to ensure that this Office leads by example on the critical question of consequence management.
Questions for Written Reply is another oversight tool that allows MPs to submit written questions to the President and Presidency, seeking information that is usually not readily available elsewhere, to which they must receive a corresponding reply. This tool is widely used, particularly by opposition MPs, but there are shortcomings in its implementation.
Calls have been growing, particularly from opposition benches, for Parliament to establish a committee to oversee the Presidency. Previously, the Inkatha Freedom Party leader has stated that “while the budgets of every government department are pored over and questioned before we come here to express our agreement or disapproval, the Presidency's budget is presented as a fait accompli, and we rise in this House with scant capacity to debate what is being spent, where it is being spent and how it is being spent.”
At the unveiling of its 10-point action plan to reform Parliament, the Democratic Alliance pointed out that it is an anomaly that there is currently no effective and regular oversight mechanism over the acts and omissions of the President and the Presidency. To close this gap, the DA said it will submit a proposal to the Speaker in concurrence with the Rules Committee– to call for the establishment of a portfolio committee to conduct oversight over the Presidency throughout each parliamentary term.
However, the ANC has little appetite for a parliamentary oversight committee over the Presidency. During a 2021 appearance before the Zondo Commission on parliamentary oversight, Ministers Gwede Mantashe and Thandi Modise both argued that the President's work was conducted through cabinet ministers, who were all overseen by portfolio committees. Minister Modise said: “I'm not sure if, in actual fact, it would serve any purpose.” “Because he doesn't have a portfolio, the President can't be overseen by a portfolio committee,” argued Minister Mantashe.
Chief Justice Raymond Zondo was not convinced by Ministers Mantashe and Modise’s arguments. He countered: "It is not correct that everything for which the President is responsible [is delegated] to a Minister or department outside the Presidency. Our recent history also shows that the President's conduct is not always subjected to adequate oversight by the existing portfolio committee. A process to enable the President and Presidency's conduct to be subjected to more probing scrutiny than is feasible in a plenary session of the National Assembly would therefore appear to be beneficial".
Further, the Commission recommended that Parliament should consider whether it would be desirable for it to establish a committee whose function is, or includes, oversight over acts or omissions by the President and Presidency, which are not overseen by existing portfolio committees.
There are few equivalent parliamentary committees that question the President, Prime Minister or relevant Head of Government in other countries. The committee is more popular with Westminster systems, the United Kingdom being the foremost case in point.
In the UK, The Liaison Committee is a select committee of the House of Commons, comprising of all the MPs who are select committee chairs. Amongst many varied tasks, the Liaison Committee, established in 2002, has a specific remit to take oral evidence from the Prime Minister up to three times per year. Its aim is to question the Prime Minister about policy, promote effective scrutiny of Government, and consider the overall work of select committees.
The Liaison Committee sessions with the Prime Minister represent an important scrutiny mechanism and the sessions form an established conduit between the executive and the legislature. The sessions provide a complementary forum for senior committee chairs to engage with the Prime Minister beyond the partisan arena of Prime Minister’s Questions (PMQs). This analytical and deliberative setting has been observed to be much more conducive to informative and illuminating exchanges.
The choice of topics for discussion during the Liaison committee’s sessions are influenced by current affairs, the government’s own agenda, issues that several committees would have identified as needing attention, or sometimes where it had been suggested through the parliamentary grapevine that the Prime Minister’s Office had taken an interest. The evidence sessions with the Prime Minister therefore represent important connective tissue between the executive and the legislature as without a department, the Prime Minister is subject to less systematic parliamentary scrutiny than the members of his own cabinet.
Although Japan does not have a dedicated parliamentary committee similar to that of the UK, it is worth mentioning given its legislature’s predominant focus on questioning the Prime Minister in committees. Aside from the Joint Meeting of the Committees on Fundamental National Policies, which is convened several times a year, the Japanese Prime Minister is also questioned by the Committee on Audit and Oversight of Administration, the Committee on Audit, and the Budget Committee. The Prime Minister also attends oral questions in the plenary, but this is seen as less important than questioning in committees.
Other parliaments that allow committees to question Prime Ministers, such as those of Sweden, Norway and Finland, do so on an exceptional, rather than routine basis.
Why we urge a committee on the Presidency
Since the beginning of the Sixth Parliament, we have seen the consolidation of government work in the Presidency’s Office, the growing number of Presidential Advisory Councils, Panels, Task Teams, Committees, Summits and Commissions . A recent count puts the number of these structures established by President Ramaphosa at 26.
Because of this, there should be more oversight, scrutiny and monitoring of these structures and the impact of their work.
Parliament has begun working on the implementation of the Zondo Commission Report. The legislature’s spokesperson has indicated that: “the rules committee will, at an opportune time, consider how best to process the reports and implementation in their entirety”.
As described above, there are different modalities that Parliament can borrow from if it does create such a structure. The use of technology also means that attendance is not a hindrance.
The benefits are obvious. It can provide an altogether different oversight forum through which a ‘calmer setting’ for more productive and informative scrutiny can be conducted and, perhaps, accountability obtained, located as it will be in committee corridors away from the partisan, confrontational and often theatrical battles of the House chamber. Also, on the President’s part, such appearances could usefully demonstrate his engagement with Parliament and make him appear more accountable and accessible.
Such a Committee would represent an important scrutiny function and an established conduit between the Presidency and Parliament.
About this blog
"That week in Parliament" is a series of blog posts in which the important Parliamentary events of the week are discussed.