Disclosure Of Members' Interests: 2010 deadline and potential changes

Ethics and Members' Interest

22 April 2010
Chairperson: Mr L Landers (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

Members received an update from Ms Fazila Mohammed, Registrar of Members Interests, on progress on issues raised in the document she had tabled in a previous meeting. She noted that this Committee wished to be responsive to negative perceptions of the public about Members of Parliament, and that a national campaign to regain the public’s trust should be initiated, and the generalised perceptions of corruption facing the country as a whole should be seen to be addressed by Parliament. Three areas of research were identified; firstly a national survey to see how the public viewed improper behaviour and how this manifested itself; secondly, to look at trends in improper behaviour, as identified for example by the Auditor-general; and thirdly, to undertake a study of best practices in the implementation of a Code of Conduct. The public did not realise that there were rules, nor did it know how to respond to improper behaviour and so a massive education campaign was necessary. The Joint Committee should hold hearings in Parliament and the provinces to hear from communities and experts, and a conference and seminars would probably come from this. She further noted that the proportional representation system would need to be examined because party influence was powerful in determining consequences of improper behaviour and commitment from each party was vital and would serve as a pledge to attaining ethical behaviour. She noted that amending legislation would need to be drafted to revise the Code of Conduct. Although this would not involve the pubic service, it would require cooperation from national, provincial and local government. The Chief Whips would have to agree to extend the Committee’s mandate and a resolution to this effect would also have to be passed by both Houses.

Members welcomed the presentation, commenting that this work was long overdue. They made the point that the public perceptions were of great importance. They questioned whether this Committee had the power to pass legislation. The point was made that the decisions of this Committee should be made binding and enforceable. The Chairperson made the point that the Committee would have to proceed slowly and gradually once its mandate was extended, to build a solid foundation. Members commented that the sanctions in the present Code of Conduct were not strong enough and there was also no recognition of Members who did excellent work, but that care would need to be taken that the system could not be abused to discredit MPs for malicious reasons. Members suggested that the provincial legislatures must be included, and noted that public awareness campaigns should target people in their own languages. An ID Member noted that the reference to the proportional representation system also raised the issue of private election funding, and suggested that perhaps this Committee would be the appropriate channel to raise these concerns. Concerns about separation of powers also should be examined, with the question of who was to exercise control over the “watchdogs” of Parliament also to be considered, and whether it was appropriate that she should be required to use the Promotion of Access to Information Act in order to access information about Parliament. Another Member stressed that any proposals must be effective and enforceable. Ms Mohammed noted, in answer to queries about the resolutions taken at the previous meeting, that approval was first needed from the Chief Whips and Houses, but that matters had effectively been prepared pending such approval, and the processes had been put in place. Members finally agreed that the Declaration of Members’ Interests forms would be distributed towards the end of May, and would need to be submitted by 19 July.

Meeting report

Registrar of Members’ Interests: Follow up briefing
Ms Fazila Mohammed, Registrar of Members’ Interests, Parliament, noted that many Members had not been present at the previous meeting, and she therefore gave a short summary of the meeting for their benefit. She noted that it had been discussed at that meeting that the Committee should be responsive to the negative perceptions of the public about their elected representatives. A national campaign to regain the public’s trust should be initiated, and the generalised perceptions of corruption facing the country as a whole should be seen to be addressed by Parliament. She identified three areas of research on which the campaign should be based. Firstly, there should be a massive national survey, to look at how the public viewed improper behaviour, how it manifested itself in various communities, what the actual live experience of this unethical behaviour was, and how people experienced it in their day to day lives. She explained that a lot of the current debate was around assumptions and perceptions and attitudes held by the public. She referred to independent research which indicated that only 5% of the people could name a Member of Parliament who was not a Member of the Executive, whilst 95% of people could not name a single Member of Parliament.

A second aspect would be to look at trends in improper behaviour which would help the Committee in addressing these issues. She noted that the Auditor-General had identified some trends around where unethical behaviour occurred, and at what levels, but nobody had put this information together in a systematic way as yet.

Thirdly, a study of best practices in the implementation of a Code of Conduct was needed. South Africa had a comprehensive integrity system, the Code of Conduct for Members of Parliament (MPs), Members of Provincial Legislatures (MPLs) and for local government officials and public servants. However, the public did not realise that there were rules, because they did not know how to respond to improper behaviour. She likened the need to have a massive public education campaign to the building of democracy, saying that the loss of confidence in Members of Parliament, and the belief that they were not honest, had undermined democracy itself. Based on the findings of the surveys, a comprehensive education campaign would be conducted, informing people what the mechanisms were that they could access to deal with improper conduct. They would also learn how to make focused submissions of their dissatisfactions. The Joint Committee should caucus for hearings both within Parliament and in the provinces to hear from communities directly and not just from experts. Out of this there should be a Conference and seminars.

The proportional representation system should also be examined. Party influence was very powerful in determining the consequences for improper behaviour of each party’s elected representatives, so the commitment from political parties on the standards of acceptable behaviour for their members was important. It would serve as a public pledge showing the political will to attain ethical behaviour.

An amendment would be drafted, the relevant legislation would be prepared by a legal expert for Parliament, and the outcome would be a revised Code of Conduct. Recommendations on national ethical standards would exclude the public service because that would be too big an undertaking, but this would be a major co-operative venture involving national, provincial and local government. Logistically the process could only start after the World Cup. The Chief Whips had to agree to extend the mandate of the Committee and the Chairperson was to give a report back on that. Once passed by the Chief Whips Forum, the resolution must be passed by both houses before the process could go forward.

Ms D Kohler-Barnard (DA) asked Ms Mohammed to clarify how the finding that 95% of South Africans could not identify any members of Parliament was within the mandate of the Committee. The Committee was responsible for calling Members to account for breaching parliamentary ethics. She questioned of what relevance this finding was to the Committee’s mandate.

Ms Mohammed responded that while the comment was really an aside, it did reflect the image of Parliament in the public domain, and who and what MPs were perceived to be. By conducting surveys one could get a sense of the assumptions and perceptions informing people’s attitudes and opinions, and this should be taken into account if change was desired.

Ms P De Lille (ID) commended Ms Mohammed for the work she had done, which she commented was long overdue. She said MPs had become complacent about the public’s perception of them and should realise that it mattered what the public thought of them. She noted that the culmination of the process was to be a revised Code of Conduct. However, she thought that an Act of Parliament was needed. She asked how the Rules accommodated the Committee in achieving this. She assumed that it was not part of the Committee’s mandate but she wanted to know if the Joint Committee could also draft legislation. If not, she wanted the Committee to request that the Chief Whips Forum must extend the mandate to include this function.

The Chairperson stated that once things gained momentum this would have a snowball effect. The Committee had thought about legislation, but should not get ahead of itself. He said the Committee should proceed gradually, beginning with getting the Committee’s mandate extended, and slowly build a solid foundation for the way forward.

Mr B Radebe (ANC) concurred with Ms De Lille and commended Ms Mohammed for her good work. He fully supported the Committee in addressing the problem of unethical behaviour. He stated that the problem with the Code of Conduct was that the sanctions were not strong enough. People guilty of misdemeanours, might, for example, get a fine of one weeks salary, no matter what might be the damage done to the image of Parliament. On the other hand, Members who did their best were given no recognition. He felt that there should be an Act of Parliament governing the Committee’s work so that its decisions were binding and enforceable. He cautioned that there could be malicious persons who could possibly abuse the system to discredit MPs, and Members should be protected from this.

Ms D Nhlengethwa (ANC) supported the idea of public education, public involvement and public hearings. However, she wanted the Provincial legislatures to be included because they were governed by the same Code of Conduct. Pamphlets should be part of the public education campaign. She supported the recommendations that loopholes in the Code of Conduct had to be eradicated.

Ms Kohler-Barnard felt that the image of Parliament had been badly damaged by the Travelgate matter, and the “slaps on the wrist” given to offenders had compromised all members in the eyes of the public. The public would welcome legislation that would specify the punishment for offences of such magnitude, and harsh sanctions would help restore public trust in Parliament.

Ms M Mangena (ANC) supported the use of pamphlets in the public education campaign but stated that these should be issued in the communities’ own languages. This was most appreciated by senior citizens who also wished to be informed and enjoyed reading. She was concerned about the 95% of the population who could not identify any Members of Parliament and wanted to know more about the research.

The Chairperson stated the survey was done independently and that it was based on perception. The Chairperson noted the great interest the discussion had elicited from Members and said that he, the Registrar and his co-chair had anticipated that once the process started it would generate its own momentum. When taken to a bigger forum of civil society and NGOs, the ideas that would emerge would be enormously helpful.

Ms De Lille was enthusiastic about the scope of the programme as outlined by Ms Mohammed, especially her reference to the Proportional Representation system, which linked the debate to political parties themselves. This raised the issue of private election funding by political parties, which was a controversial topic which had to be interrogated. It had a long history, starting with the 2005 court case of the Institute of Democracy in South Africa (IDASA). The Independent Democrats (ID) had been trying to put this topic on the agenda for three years, but had been blocked. She hoped that the Joint Committee would be the appropriate channel to raise these concerns. Political parties were powerful entities and the South African Code of Conduct and ethics applied to MPs, MPLs and Ministers only. The inclusion of political parties should be explored, if it was within the Committee’s brief. She was also concerned about the public perception that MPs were “cowboys” or “crooks” and the issue of accountability. In terms of the separation of powers, the Executive was responsible to Parliament and the Committee had oversight over the Executive and Parliament. The Committee Members were the watchdogs. However, the question to be posed was “Who watched the watchdogs”. She expressed concern that when seeking information about Parliament, she had been told to use the Promotion of Access to Information Act, which meant that she had to go to a court of law to access the information, even though she herself was a Member of Parliament. She hoped that the Joint Committee would be a forum where these concerns could be raised, and a closed brainstorming session on these issues would be useful.

Mr Radebe reminded the Committee that there was no Act of parliament and mandate yet and that it would be an upward struggle just to market the idea. He agreed with Ms de Lille that the issue of political party funding was controversial, and that it did impact on the image of Parliament. It had to be established that this was the right forum to handle the matter. He agreed that while the ideas could be debated the Committee had to proceed slowly and not take on more than they could handle.

Ms Nhlengethwa referred to resolutions passed by the previous meeting, such as getting a researcher who would do an audit of the current Code of Conduct, after which the draft was to be taken for legal opinion. The researcher also had to investigate international standards and other Codes of Conduct. There had also been a recommendation that the programme should be costed. She proposed that this be done for the next meeting.

The Chairperson reported that the Co-Chairperson had been tasked to brief the Chief Whip of the majority party to try to get him on board. The Chief Whip had given his blessing and had requested a document so that he had something in writing to sign. However, this was where the process was stuck at the moment. The Registrar's office sent that document to his office, but it got lost. The Chairperson personally took a second copy to the Chief Whip this week. Yesterday the Chief Whip had informed him that he would be away but that the Deputy Chief Whip was to sit down with Advocate M Masutha to look at the legal implications, as he did not want to commit to anything without knowing all the implications. The Chairperson hoped to meet with the Deputy Chief Whip and Adv Masutha today. Once the formal go-ahead was given, the Committee could proceed to the next step, as outlined in the document submitted, which requested that the House adopt a resolution expanding the Committee’s mandate. There were also budgetary implications. Initially the Committee had thought of engaging an NGO for the task, but Parliament was best placed to lead the process and this involved money for the conference or seminar.

Ms Mohammed, responding to the query on the employment of a researcher, stated that she had spoken to the Parliamentary Research Unit and that instead of tying up one researcher it could outsource. A Research Institute could do the major research, such as the national survey and some of the audits. She had formulated a Draft Terms of Reference document, but without approval she could not table that document. She had done three proposals for request for research and was optimistic about getting the money if there was a buy-in at a political level, and if the Houses resolved that this campaign must continue. She had done the costing but she did not want to pre-empt the Chief Whip; once again she said that no documents could be tabled until there was formal approval. However, she confirmed that the documents had been prepared. There was a massive media strategy in all languages that formed part of the plan. Members would be given the opportunity to go through all the project plans and could give their input on all the proposals.

Ms Kohler-Barnard expressed concern that the Committee was seen as a toothless watchdog and the Committee should ensure that the proposals would be effective and capable of dealing with what amounted to criminality in the eyes of the public. She hoped there would be consensus amongst political parties on these issues.

The Chairperson said that the discussion had been good, and there was only one outstanding item. Although June was normally the deadline for the declaration of members interests, the Committee would have to be more flexible in view of the World Cup. The Committee was normally given a month to distribute declaration forms and to ensure that they were returned. In discussion with the Registrar, it was decided to distribute the forms towards the end of May and collect them when Parliament reconvened, which would be on 19 July. Members would thus be given more than a month to complete the declaration forms, and there should be no excuses for non-compliance. Members would be sent constant reminders through the media and email to complete their declarations by the due date.

Members agreed to determine the date for the distribution of the declaration forms at the next Committee meeting, which would be after the next weeks recess.

A Member requested that the meetings be scheduled in time as it was difficult to attend meetings if they were not programmed and adequate notice had not been given.

The Chairperson replied that because the Committee was a joint committee, it should meet on Fridays, as determined by the Joint Rules Committee. He noted her concern and said adequate notice of two weeks would be given for meetings in future.

Mr A Mlangeni (ANC) felt very strongly that the Committee should not meet at 08:00, as suggested by some members.

The meeting was adjourned.


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