Legislative processes workshop & Five year Review of the Department of Communications

NCOP Public Enterprises and Communication

23 June 2009
Chairperson: Ms M Themba (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Committee was briefed about the process that Committees would follow in considering and passing Bills, and some of the challenges were highlighted, especially the lack of time for Parliamentary processes, the limited budget and the fact that sometimes the programmes of the NCOP and the provincial legislatures would clash. Members noted the need to synchronise, asked how the National Assembly and the NCOP would conduct visits to provinces, commented that the six week cycle was very short, asked about the movement of Bills between houses and whether both must consider all legislation, the possibility of fast-tracking legislation, the vacancies in Committee Staff posts, the reduction in the budget and its effect on Committee work. It was noted that the allocations were still to be made across the various committees.

Members then received a briefing from the Parliamentary Research Unit on the Five Year Review of the Department of Communications. This reviewed the key policy initiatives, the switch from analogue to digital television, the legislation enacted and the role of the Portfolio Committee on Communications. Some items that would still require discussion during the Fourth Parliament were identified. Members posed questions as to the reach of the new systems, why the budget was claimed to be insufficient, what assistance had been given to some radio stations, the problems with SABC, the source of contributions to the 2010 World Cup and the 70% Set Top Box subsidies. The Chairperson ruled that the Research Unit could not answer these questions, which should instead be directed to the Department’s officials.

Meeting report

Legislative process in considering and adopting Bills
Ms Zanele Mene, Manager: Committee Section, NCOP, gave a presentation reviewing the process that the Select Committees would follow in consideration and adoption of a Bill.  She reviewed the functions, powers, and the budget of the Committee.  She reviewed the oversight function of the Committee and the tools available for it to use in this task.  She identified challenges of committees, and named one major challenge as the Parliamentary Programme and the time allocated to Committees to do their work on bills.  There was little time dedicated for committees to conduct oversight.  Another challenge was a lack of financial resources because of budgetary concerns.  There was also a challenge with Human Resources, in terms of hiring staff for the new committees that had been created after the election.

Discussion
Mr H Groenewald (DA, North West) commented that there was a clash between the programmes in the provincial legislatures and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP).  It was important to synchronise with the provinces. He wondered if the NCOP could go on its own to the provinces for oversight visits, as there was often confusion when they went there and the programme was changed.

Ms Mene responded that there was a joint Programme Committee meeting with the National Assembly (NA) and NCOP at the beginning of each term. Provincial delegates were invited to participate in this meeting. The challenge was that they only looked at the framework overview of the programme. She could not say whether it would change or not; this issue should be addressed by the programme Whips of the institutions.  The Constitution required cooperative governance.  NCOP did undertake planned oversight, since the Select Committees would have to inform the provincial legislatures of what they intended to do, and if at all possible then the relevant provincial legislators would attend.  The proposal made at the end of the third Parliament was that there should be joint visits by the NCOP, the provincial legislatures, and the Councillors of the 11 municipalities to the provinces.  However, there would be problems if there was for some reason a change in the programme or the planned event had to be cancelled.

Mr D Feldman (ANC, Gauteng) said that the six-week cycle was a very short time.  He asked if it could be changed from six to eight weeks. He also wondered if it was possible to have a person from the NCOP given oversight as soon as the six week period had started, who would then follow up matters along their entire course.

Ms Mene responded that this was happening through the office of the programme whips. There was a document tabled the previous day in the technical committee meeting, which would be discussed with the House Chairpersons.  This document proposed eight weeks in place of the current six weeks cycle. There was the possibility to ask for an extension.  Depending on the nature of the Bill, the process could be extended. 

Mr M Jacobs (ANC, Free State) asked about the movement of bills from one House to another. He thought that bills would need to come from the NA to the NCOP, and then be referred to the President for signature. He asked if it was possible for a bill to go to the President directly from the NA, after it had achieved a two-third majority vote.

Ms Mene noted that the NCOP could not be bypassed.  Each bill would go to both houses, and then to the President for final signature. In terms of the Mediation Committee, the NA had more power, because it was set up in this way in the Constitution.  The only way to challenge this was to amend the Constitution. 

Mr Jacobs noted that some of the posts had not been advertised, because of lack of finances, and he understood that application had to be made for releasing finances to fill those posts. He queried why this should be necessary if the posts had already been budgeted for.

Ms Mene explained that there were now new Ministries that had been established, and new Committees must therefore be established to oversee those Ministries. The staff for the new Committees were not allocated money in the original budget. For this reason, the budget showed a shortfall of R143 million this year, and in February all positions that were supposed to be filled through recruitment were frozen.  This was why specific requests needed to be made.

Mr Z Mlenzana (COPE, Eastern Cape) asked if there was a category of bills that could not be fast-tracked, and whether there were time frames set out for the NCOP in Section 139. 

Ms Mene noted that the Bill that affected the interests of the traditional leaders could not be fast-tracked.  However, other bills could sometimes be fast-tracked, depending on the reasons the Minister gave for this to happen.  There were timeframes prescribed in the Constitution. 

Mr M Sibande (ANC, Mpumalanga) commented that he was impressed by what was happening in terms of gender sensitivity, and felt comfortable by being in a Committee where Chairperson and presenters were women who had practical ideas and approaches. He asked if changing the programmes applied to Members only, or to all stakeholders. He was concerned that reduction in the budget would affect the visits to provinces.

Ms Mene responded that the changes to Parliamentary programmes affected stakeholders as well as Members.  In some instances the decisions to make changes were taken at the eleventh hour, when the Departmental officials were already in Cape Town.  This had financial implications for the budget.  It was possible, in certain instances, to ask special permission for the Committee to sit, because of the adverse implications of cancelling a programme. This year, Committees had been given a total of R25 million that was in a central fund.  There was as yet no certainty as to how this money would be allocated between the Committees.  The budget was going to have an impact on the number of trips that the Committee was able to take to the provinces.  She did not have the authority to talk about additional allocations of funds. 

Mr R Tau (ANC, Northern Cape) asked what NCOP should do if it found out that the province had spent 90% of the budget allocated to it, and wished to find out where that money had been spent. There was a problem when provincial legislatures claimed not to be available. He thought that the Committee should pay visits because it was their responsibility to account to the people.  Cooperative governance should not prevent the Committee from doing its work.  If the Committee went to a province and the legislature was not there, then the Committee Members, on their return to Cape Town, should call the Minister and hold him accountable.  The NA was made up of political parties, whereas in the NCOP the Members were sitting as delegates from their provinces, rather than from their political parties. Party allegiance would not apply because the delegates were at the mercy of their provinces, who gave them instructions. The mediation issue must be taken up and debated but he did not see how the NCOP would win that debate as long as its Members remained delegates of their provinces. 

Mr Groenewald asked whether, when the NA sent people to the provinces to conduct oversight, it would send NA members only, or if people from the NCOP would also be involved. He was worried about the availability of money. He wondered how the NCOP would be able to handle future expenses in the provinces.

Ms Mene responded that when the NA visited the provinces it was usually done through a joint delegation of the Committees of the NA and NCOP, together with the Standing Committee of the Provincial Legislature.  When the NCOP members had to brief their provinces about the legislation it was taken from the budget of the Chairperson of the NCOP, not the Committees’ budgets. 

Ms L Mabija (ANC, Limpopo) asked how the NCOP was going to work properly with the provinces given the lack of money in the budget.

Mr Jacobs asked from where the Committee had managed to get the money to go and inspect the mines last weekend, and also asked whether this Committee was considered to be a “poor” committee.

Ms Mene responded that there was still guidance required on how the R25 million budget would be allocated. This did not mean that if it became necessary for a Committee to visit a province, money would not be available. Money would be given if needed. Limited funding would be distributed to all Committees, but the Committees should be fully aware of the budget constraints.  The budget that was asked for initially was R50 million, but only R25 million was finally given.  She was not in a position to explain why an amount was given to a particular committee.

Mr Feldman asked where the responsibility of the provincial legislature lay as far as expenditure was concerned.

Ms Mene answered that there was a separate provincial liaison budget.

Mr Tau commented that the Committee should remember what its mandate was. 

The Chairperson said that Committees must be given resources to run their business.

Parliamentary Research Unit Five Year Review of Department of Communications (DOC)
Ms Nwabisa Mbelekane, Parliamentary Research Unit, reviewed the activities of the Department of Communications for the past five years.  She reviewed the key policy initiatives in communications, focusing specifically on the switch from analogue to digital technology.  She also reviewed the Communications legislation enacted, and the role of the Portfolio Committee on Communications (see attached document for details) She reviewed the budgets and the annual reports, and identified some items for consideration in communications issues during the Fourth Parliament (see attached document)

Discussion
Mr Sibande said that he was concerned about whether the new system would cover, for instance, provinces like Mpumalanga. He pointed out that in certain townships the television and even the radio would not work.

The Chairperson said that some of these questions were questions that needed to be asked of the officials from the Department of Communication.  The Committee should confine itself at this meeting to asking any questions of clarity on the Five Year Review document.

Mr Sibande asked if there was anything that could be done about the problems with interference, when providers such as Cell C did not respond. 

Mr C de Beer (ANC, Northern Cape) said that when looking at the budget allocation, the average increase was above the average of inflation, yet funding was still cited as a challenge. The Independent Communications Authority of South Africa (ICASA) needed to do something about sustaining the channels that had come to communities but which could not afford to stay afloat because their only income came from advertisements. 

The Chairperson reiterated that Members should at this stage only ask questions that the researchers could clarify in relation to the content of the document.

Mr de Beer said he wanted to know if the researcher could identify the assistance given to particular radio stations presently. 

Mr Groenewald asked would happen to people who did not have the set-top boxes when the new digital television system was implemented at the end of 2011.  He said that ICASA was not really independent, and that was why there were so many problems with SABC. He asked what the researcher’s view was on this issue. There were serious financial problems with SABC and its accounting for money.  He also wondered what would be the source of the money for the contributions to 2010 FIFA World Cup and the 70% subsidy for the boxes for the digital conversion.

Mr Tau commented that the researcher did not touch on the issues of selective broadcasting and political cross-checking.

Mr P Zulu (IFP, KwaZulu Natal) requested that these questions be directed to the Heads of Departments, not the researcher. 

Mr Mlenzana asked that the researcher should not respond to the questions regarding SABC.  The Committee must agree about its task as a Select Committee on these issues, some of which were being handled at the moment by the Portfolio Committee.

The Chairperson reiterated that the researcher was not in a position to answer these questions and she was simply supposed to give information on the activities to empower the Committee to deal about the forthcoming issues.

The meeting was adjourned.

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