Public submissions on rules, Extended Public Committees, Chapters 4 to 9 of Rules

Rules of the National Assembly

08 November 2012
Chairperson: Adv M Masutha (ANC)
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Meeting Summary

The Subcommittee received a report-back on the public submissions for review of the Rules that had been received so far. Submissions were made by Ethicore Political Consulting, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, Centre for Constitutional Rights, Equal Education Law Centre, Heinrich Boll Foundation, People’s Power People’s Parliament, Mr Molefe and Mr Mowela. All submissions, save for one that was still being translated, had been forwarded to the Members, and they were asked to consider the issues raised, in preparation for debate. The Committee Section would summarise and extract key issues. Some issues did not relate directly to the Rules themselves, and these would be passed on to the relevant bodies, or consideration given as to how issues that related to Parliamentary processes could be addressed.

The Subcommittee then turned to discussion of Extended Public Committees (EPCs), which had been used in other systems and prior to 1994, although they were then mostly limited to budgets. The Expert in the Sub-Committee outlined some proposals. Firstly, he recommended that they needed a name-change. Secondly, they could place greater impetus on the transformatory Parliament, in the South African context, and some suggestions were made on the options for use of the EPCs as an alternative forum for debates in Parliament. The EPCs could promote debates on matters of national interest, which had not been happening much in the past. Various rule changes could be required, depending on what the EPCs were to do, and there might be digression from the idea of only bills and votes being debated at this level, possibly to include motions and committee reports. It was noted that this was one way in which debates could be more interactive, but it was suggested that votes remain the preserve of the NA.

In the heated discussions that followed, Members took divergent views on the introduction of EPCs. Some Members who advocated for the use of EPCs said that the agendas for these forums could be include debates on motions, legislation, oversight and committee reports, and topical issues of national and public interest. They also suggested that the EPCs would be an ideal forum to obtain input from the executive. The members who were not in support of the immediate introduction of EPCs said that the introduction of an additional forum for debates was going to have a knock-on effect on other parliamentary activities, with implications on costs, administrative and political processes, and possible duplication of the activities of portfolio committees and the Assembly. They also suggested that the question and answer sessions in Parliament were invaluable. Some Members thought it premature to consider any change to the Rules at the moment, and suggested that the EPCs first be run as a trial, before getting into the technicalities, whilst others thought that it might be possible to amend some rules now, and some later. The Chairperson stressed that the discussions today were merely to brainstorm some ideas, and get suggestions on how the Rules might be restructured. He pointed out that full opportunities would still be given to individuals and parties to put further views and comments. The Committee was not merely reviewing the Rules for the sake of doing so, but was trying to identify particular areas where there was room for development, growth, improvement and innovation.

Meeting report

Chairperson’s opening remarks
The Chairperson reminded Members that this Committee sat to review the Rules that could expedite the work of Parliament, such as the debate around the role and functioning of Extended Public Committees (EPCs) and their use as a forum for budget debates. 

Public submissions received: Committee Secretary’s report
Mr Perran Hahndiek, Committee Secretary, noted that the public submissions were due by end-November, by which date eight public submissions had been received. These were from:  Ethicore Political Consulting, the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, The Centre for Constitutional Rights, Equal Education Law Centre, the Heinrich Boll Foundation, The Peoples Power the Peoples Parliament, Mr Molefe, and Mr Mowela. All but one of these submissions (which was still being translated) had been distributed to the Members.

The submissions, in summary, covered a wide range of subjects, relating to the electoral system, constituency work, parliamentary debates and questions to the executive. They also dealt with public participation, and public access to Parliament.

Mr Hahndiek recommended that this Committee should refer the submissions on public participation to the Task Team that had been established by the Joint Rules Committee to handle the issue of public participation. The work and the results from the Task Team could be integrated into and used by the Sub-Committee when it reviewed the Assembly Rules. Mr Hahndiek said that most of the submissions did not deal with the business of the day.

The Chairperson asked how it was intended to move forward, and whether the submissions would merely be compiled and distributed, or whether the key issues raised would be summarised.

Mr Hahndiek replied that the key issues were going to be extracted.

The Chairperson agreed that this would make for a quicker and easier process. Any issues that needed to be dealt with at policy-level would be passed to the relevant bodies, for further processing. It was important for the Committee to keep track of the finalisation of other policy issues.

Mr Hahndiek said that some of the people or organisations who made the submissions had indicated that they were willing to make oral submissions to the Committee.

Ms S Seaton, former MP, asked that if the Committee was going to allow tabling of individual inputs, party inputs should also be considered.

The Chairperson said that all inputs pertaining to a particular subject would be handled together, to allow the Committee to stay focused on a particular subject.

Mr A Watson (DA) said that he was drawing on his experience when serving in the Constitutional Review Committee. Many submissions were totally off-track, and he thought that when the submissions were summarised and the issues highlighted, it would be necessary for the Committee to decide how to handle those that did not in fact address the Rules, as it was not necessary for the Committee to consider these inputs.

The Chairperson said that if these submissions were raising issues which, although not directly linked to the Rules, were related to how Parliament conducted its business, the Committee may wish to “think out of the box” to find a way of handling the issues.

Ms Marina Griebenow, Parliamentary Committee Section, commented that a Global Parliamentary Report, prepared by the United Nations Development Programme, had been circulated to Members. This was a comparative and comprehensive report, based on the inputs from 129 Parliaments, which presented some fresh insights into issues such as the role of political parties, the role of Parliament in relation to the citizens, public participation and constituency work. The far-reaching content of the report could assist Members in incorporating the work done at their various constituencies into the work of Parliament.

The Chairperson said that the guidance of the lead expert would be critical, because the Committee was adopting a systematic approach. He asked the Members to go through the public submissions and prepare their comments in relation to the processing and packaging of the submissions.

Discussion: House Sittings and Plenary Debates (Chapters 4 – 9)
A document was tabled, which had been prepared by the Lead Expert of the Subcommittee, Mr Kasper Hahndiek, to assist the discussion on the Plenary Debates. It had been distributed to the Members of the Committee. It focused on the use of Extended Public Committees (EPC) as an alternative forum for debates.

Mr Kasper Hahndiek said that the issue of the nature of debates in the National Assembly (NA) was raised in two important source documents. The first was the Independent Assessment Panel Report,  which specifically referred to the need for a review of the way in which debates were conducted in the National Assembly. The second was the Oversight Model that was adopted by the National Assembly. The Oversight Model proposed that the Rules be amended and developed to accommodate sub-plenary sessions of the National Assembly, which purported to provide an extended avenue for debates and deliberations of issues of national concern. The issues arising from these sessions were to be tabled in the House for final consideration.

Mr Hahndiek noted that this would lead to a move away from the Westminster System, placing greater impetus on the transformatory Parliament, in the South African context. This tied in with the views around exploring the options of Extended Public Committees (EPC) as an alternative forum for debates in Parliament. 

Mr Hahndiek said that his proposal outlined the history of EPCs, which were inherited from the pre-1994 Parliament, and needed adjustments. Although they were primarily used for budget votes, the concept of having a parallel forum to the National Assembly itself was not new. Both Australia and the United Kingdom had adopted similar approaches. The main reason was to create extra time for the consideration of issues, since Parliament was always pressed by time limitations. Creating more time meant more possibility to debate more issues.

Mr Hahndiek also said that the EPCs could assist in a fuller debate of issues of national interest, which had not, to date, been happening a great deal. The idea of EPCs did, however, need to be reviewed and certainly renamed, as if it was called a “public committee” this created the impression that all other committees were closed. Essentially, the EPCs would be similar to portfolio committees, but with more members attending. It could be agreed that all members attending the EPC would be members of that particular forum on that day, and the attendance of members would be controlled essentially by the parties. He thought that it would be useful to seek a name that would reflect the African approach to the way Parliament represented the people.

Mr Hahndiek added that if this proposal was adopted, there would be various other rule changes required. There could be digression from the idea of only bills and votes for the EPCs, to include discussion of motions, and debating of committee reports. The EPCs could revisit the way in which the debates were structured. The debates could be made more interactive, in contrast to the major Chamber debates, that were not currently very interactive.

On the issue of time, the EPCs could set particular times for the spokesperson from each party, to ensure that many views were expressed in one session. The largest parties, who had more than 10 members in Parliament, could be granted slightly more time than the others. Time frames could range from three minutes to five minutes. There could be a slot also for responses and engagements from the members of the executive arm of government. He stressed that the purpose of the EPC would primarily be for debate. The taking of decisions would be done in the National Assembly.

He suggested that it could be possible for the EPCs to sit simultaneously with the House, with the proviso that  the EPC would suspend business to allow Members, when necessary, to go and take part in the decision-taking in the House. The situation could be adapted to a scenario where there were even two sets of EPCs and the House did not have to meet. Sufficient days could be provided to the National Assembly to take its decisions and attend to other issues that fell within its responsibility.

Mr F Cassiem, former MP, said that when he was a Member of Parliament, one major issue was whether, during the meetings of the EPCs, it would be necessary to have a full recording, or an abridged recording of the proceedings. A second issue, which had still not been resolved, was what happened to the reports of all the Chapter 9 institutions and Departments, for one of the complaints was that insufficient and inadequate attention was given to their reports, with many Committees not properly examining or disposing of the question of whether all targets and recommendations were met. The idea was that if the EPCs could sit to consider the vote, they could also constitute themselves in a similar way, to receive the departmental reports. He commented that invariably, reports of departments were written in the future tense, which indicated that the department was still proposing that it would do something, rather than  completing what it was assigned to do.

Mr J Jeffery (ANC) said that this issue had not been discussed at party level, so the views that would now be given must be understood as individual comment. He pointed out that the main work of Parliament was done at committee level. Departmental and Chapter 9 institution reports were dealt with in the committees, and the budget review process had improved, in that departments were now evaluated on what they reported upon, in their Annual Report. There was no point in taking reports to the EPC, if they could be dealt with by committees. He pointed out that the EPCs, when first started, worked with the budget process, and they had not been particularly well-received by some parties and the executive. They were used when there were time pressures. He did not think the notion of debating motions at the EPCs would work. He would rather recommend having a trial period for the EPCs, to see how they worked, rather than inserting them immediately into the rules. He agreed that more time had to be allocated to committee work. Whether a debate was held in the full plenary, or in the EPCs, would still impact on the functioning of committees. The plenary sittings used to sit till late in the evenings, and there were problems with staff overtime. Finally, Mr Jeffery commented that Mr Hahndiek had been somewhat contradictory, for he drew examples from Australia and the United Kingdom, whilst also saying that the use of EPCs was a step in the bid to “Africanise” the Parliament.

Ms Seaton thought the use of EPCs would be a good move. The biggest problem was that media time and coverage was given to the plenaries, and not the committees or EPCs, and that was why everyone wanted to be at the plenaries. If EPCs were used for proper debates on a regular basis, they had a fine potential.

Mr C Mulder (FF+) said that, regardless of the agenda points to be discussed at the EPCs, it was a fact that the debates at EPC level were more interactive than the plenary sittings. The configurations of the venues played very important roles in this regard. Of the thirteen parties in Parliament, only four were represented in all the committees, so the smaller parties needed the EPCs to help them function better.

Mr Watson said that during a previous workshop, it was agreed that the EPCs should be considered, and that consideration also be given to ways in which they could be made to work. However, EPCs should however not make use of proportionality, for he believed that it was necessary to find some way to avoid the majority party having more time than the smaller parties, who would be given little opportunity to make their input.

The Chairperson said that one important principle behind the discussion on the EPCs was the amount of time that was available to deal with all the work that the NA had to do. EPCs were a mechanism to deal with overflow of work, and could be seen as expanding the time and space for the Assembly to do its work. If the EPCs worked with votes, then there was a possibility that they could be configured to attend to some aspects of the NA’s work. He asked Members to consider whether, where the number of votes required in the House was prescribed in the Constitution, EPCs could be considered as a forum to process such decisions. It was important for members to start listing the categories of issues that could be taken to EPCs, and the pros and cons of the process. This Committee could also consider the section of Rules that may require amendment, and isolate those that could change immediately, and those that might stand over for change after the trial period as suggested by Mr Jeffery.

Mr Jeffery said that the EPCs should not be a decision making body. They were merely a forum for discussion. Debates on legislation belonged in the plenary. This meant that there was only a proposal that member or party motions should be debated in EPCs. He was not quite sure how and why the EPCs had to exist, and the capacity of parties in relation to the effectiveness of the EPCs also had to be considered. It was suggested that one advantage of the EPC was that not everybody had to be present, but in this case, he questioned what the other people would be doing, and whether parties, and the media, could really cope with running and covering two debates simultaneously.

The Chairperson said that two main issues had been raised. Firstly, the NA forum would remain, for decision making. Secondly, it was accepted that the NA did not have enough time to attend to all issues, and therefore the Subcommittee could consider a move of these issues to the EPCs. These could include topics for debate, motions and costings. It was also important to consider the capacity and administrative processes related to the entire idea of EPCs.

Adv M Malale (ANC) thought that EPCs could also consider committee and oversight reports.

The Chairperson asked if Members could agree that one forum could debate an issue, whilst another forum could adopt the resolutions.

Mr Watson said that the discussion of reports and treaties could also be done by the EPCs. He disagreed with Mr Jeffery, and thought that legislation could be debated in the EPCs. He pointed out that EPCs did not have to sit every day, but might be constituted when there was a build-up of work. Subjects of public interest could be debated in the EPCs as well. He felt that the EPCs were going to reestablish Parliament as the prime debating centre in the country.

The Chairperson said that this meeting would not come to a final decision; the Committee would still debate on the issues of house sittings and plenary debates.

Dr S Kalyan (DA) said that the capacity and administrative problems were real and of concern. However, oral questions in Parliament were important to enhance Parliament’s Constitutional and oversight role. Regular interactions and question sessions were the essence of Parliament. The EPCs could discuss matter of urgent public importance. The EPCs were also going to enhance the presence of members of the executive in Parliament. The practice was that the Ministers currently tended to send Director Generals and other senior managers to Parliament, and rarely presented themselves in Parliament.

She agreed that the name of the EPCs should be changed.

Ms Seaton asked if the ANC, as a party, was going to give an input on the debate, since this Committee did not yet have any idea of the ANC’s views on the matter.

The Chairperson stressed that, at the moment, this Committee was still brainstorming the issues. It would be necessary to “package” all the ideas, and Members would have more time to reflect on the matters raised. He pointed out that at the moment, the House made decisions and the follow up should be done by portfolio committees. The report of the Auditor-General pointed to certain aspects which, in some departments, continued, year in and year out, without being addressed. It was generally said that the recommendations of Parliament were not implemented by departments and Chapter 9 institutions. It was therefore important for Parliament to have a platform where the Executive could be called to account for the implementation of recommendations made by Parliament.

Mr Cassiem said that, in the last meeting, Mr Johnny De Lange had taken some time to support the idea of EPCs, and had wondered why they had not been used effectively. In 1994, the Speaker of Parliament wanted to know whether Parliament should not become a more deliberative organ, rather than simply copying the Westminster style of Parliamentary representation. He reiterated that an important issue of whether full recordings, or summarised versions, should be made of EPC proceedings. This was related to the issue of costs. The EPCs were also going to address the issue of closure on Parliamentary issues. During the 1994 era, there were Interpellations, or short quick debates on topical issues. This expedited the handling of issues.

Ms C September (ANC) said that the matter was complicated by the lack of reference to the knock-on activities of EPCs on other Parliamentary activities. She asked whether this Committee was considering EPCs simply to get more budget votes done more quickly, or because they would enhance the oversight role of Parliament. She agreed that most committees faced the challenge, at the moment, of too little time to cover the issues on their agendas properly. She questioned whether it would be advisable to add more issues for members to deal with. Parliament was not about debate, but about addressing the issues. She suggested that this Subcommittee could do a simulation exercise, to establish the effects of the introduction of EPCs.

Adv Malale said that it was important for the EPCs to be given an African name.

Mr M Ellis, former MP, wondered if there was any point in starting a discussion on the review of the Rules with such a lengthy discussion on EPCs. EPCs related to a very small portion of the Rules, and this Committee had now gone through a lengthy debate whose reasons were still not quite clear to him.

Mr Jeffery said that although the Committee was still brainstorming the rules, its mandate was to re-write the Rules of the National Assembly. The EPC issue was not something that could be written into the Rules yet.

The Chairperson noted that the Committee would not be spending such a long time on these issues in the future. The question was for what reason the EPCs should be used. The Committee was not merely reviewing the Rules for the sake of doing so, but was trying to identify particular areas where there was room for development, growth, improvement and innovation.

He noted that the Committee would meet again in the following week.

The meeting was adjourned.


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