The Task Team which was commissioned by the Sub-Committee on the Review of Assembly Rules had the mandate of redrafting the Assembly Rules. The focus of the days’ meeting was discussions and deliberations on Chapter 8 and 9 of the Assembly Rules.
In a presentation on Chapter 8 of the Assembly Rules, the need to change the wording of the title of the debates covered in Rules 103 and 104 was highlighted. It was suggested that the debates be called “snap debates”. The Committee Staff had identified some guidelines which could serve as a test which the Speaker could apply to see whether a snap debate could happen or not. Some of the guidelines included the following: It must be over a matter which the government could be held responsible; the request must be definite and specific; the request must not deal with more than one issue; it must not be a matter that could be dealt with by some other means in the near future; sub judice applies, the rule of anticipation applies and if the debate was approved, the date was going to be subject to the availability of the responsible Minister.
In the discussions that followed, members asked questions relating to the effects of the unavailability of a Minister on debates and the definition of sub judice. Was there also a possibility for the question of privilege to be discussed under the rule? What were to reasons behind the guideline that not more than one matter must be discussed in one debate as there could be two very urgent things which happened almost at the same time?
During the discussions on Chapter 9 of the Rules, the majority party and the opposition held different positions regarding the response by Ministers to questions asked by Members of Parliament. The majority party held that any Minister could respond to questions as the executive arm of government functioned as one system. The opposition parties were of the opinion that responses had to be given only by a responsible Minister, his or her deputy or another Minister within the relevant cluster. The reason for this argument was to enhance accountability, responsibility and coherence.
In terms of progress, the Task Team agreed that its next meeting was going to focus on finalizing the redraft of Chapter 1 to 9 and this final draft was going to be submitted to the Sub-Committee on the Review of Assembly Rules. The rest of the Chapters were going to be considered and deliberated upon rule by rule as was the strategy of the Task Team.
Introduction by Chairperson
The Chairperson said that the focus of the day was to deliberate on Chapter 8 of the Rules. On the issue of motions of no confidence, the Task Team was going to wait for the outcomes of other processes at the level of the Rules Committee and the Sub-Committee on the Review of Assembly Rules. The discussions on Chapter 8 were going to start with Rule 103.
Deliberations on Chapter 8
Mr Kasper Hahndiek, Consultant and former Secretary to the National Assembly, said that the name of the debates under Rules 103 and 104 were not correct as they were matters of public importance and matters of urgent public importance, respectively. It was important to get the right wording to capture the nature of the debates. Popularly, they were known as snap debates. The reason for this was so that if it was announced that there was a snap debate, the media and other concerned parties could be there immediately as it was an indication that something important was going to be discussed.
Mr Perran Hahndiek, the Committee Secretary, had compiled some guidelines which could serve as a test which the Speaker could apply to see whether a snap debate could happen or not. Some of the guidelines included the following: It must be about a matter which the government could be held responsible; the request must be definite and specific; the request must not deal with more than one issue; it must not be a matter that could be dealt with by some other means in the near future; sub judice applies, the rule of anticipation applies and if the debate was approved, the date was going to be subject to the availability of the responsible Minister. This was also an opportunity to engage with the executive on particular matters.
Ms J Killian (COPE) said that she was concerned about the condition that the date of the debate had to be subject to the availability of the responsible Minister. What was going to happen in a situation where the Minister was out of the country or unavailable?
Ms S Kalyan (DA) said that it was proper that if the responsible Minister was not available, the Deputy Minister could respond.
Mr J Jeffery (ANC) said that the guide was much easier to read and much user friendly than the Rules. These guidelines had never really been used and even with the Marikana event, they were not used. The rules were an after-consultation with the leader of government business not an in-consultation so the discretion of whether to allow the debate or note rested with the Speaker and making it subject to the availability of the responsible minister is not in the rules.
Mr Mike Ellis, a former Member of Parliament, said that Mr Jeffery was right because it was difficult for Speakers to single handedly decide when an issue was a matter of urgent public importance. It was however important to note that the debates should be encouraged and more ideas should be put on the table regarding the debates. Mr Hahndiek was also right in saying that there was the need to find a new title for these particular set of Rules.
Ms Kalyan asked what the Task Team was going to do with regards to sub judice. Was a definition going to be included? Was there also a possibility for the question of privilege to be discussed under the rule? What were the reasons behind the guideline that not more than one matter must be discussed in one debate as there could be two very urgent things which happened almost at the same time?
Mr Jeffery said that he thought that sub judice was an issue which had already been dealt with. He did not see anything wrong with the title of the Rules. They could however not just be called snap debates as it was going to raise the question of what the snap debates were going to be about. Public importance and urgent public importance defined what the debates were going to be about. With regards to the availability of the responsible Minister, what needed to be provided for was that the responsible minister or any other minister may reply. On the issue of privilege, the Task Team had agreed that there was a need to define privilege.
Ms Kalyan said that insisting on having the responsible Minister before a debate could go through could be a hindrance to the process. She said that the DA had requested a debate on the Youth Wage Subsidy and although the Speaker had granted it, the date and the timing were problematic because, in consultation with the leader of government business, the relevant minister was unavailable. The DA felt that such unavailability was a way of dodging the debate so the DA went ahead to insist that whether the Minister was available or not, the Speaker had to grant the debate and they would like the debate to go ahead.
Mr Ellis said that Mr Jeffery had to realise that it was important to write the rules in a way that would encourage people to use the process and not in a way which would scare people away from it. He was saying this in relation to the title of the section.
The Chairperson said that more research was going to be put into the wording of the title.
Deliberations on Chapter 9
Mr Kasper Hahndiek said that with regards to Chapter 9, member statements were subject to the rules of debate. An example was the rule relating to parliamentary language. This rule applied to both debates and statements by members.
Mr Jeffery said that he was satisfied with five or six Ministers having the opportunity to respond but all the other issues should be left to the Rules Committee.
Ms Killian said that she needed clarity on how the Rules were going to deal with Ministerial responses. In these debates, Members had one minute to ask questions while Ministers had two minutes to respond. A practice was now developing where Ministers answered questions for several minutes. This practice had to be regulated by the rules. There had to be a very clear indication of who could answer questions in place of the Minister.
Ms Kalyan asked if it was possible for the Task Team to track the Speakers comments on this particular rule. In the absence of a Minister, the only other people who could respond were a deputy Minister or another Minister in the cluster concerned.
Mr Jeffery said that everything which was done in Parliament was political. Debates and statements were an opportunity for Members to make effective political contributions. He said that he did not see anything wrong with the rule. The current cabinet had clusters but there was no guarantee that the next cabinet was going to have clusters so Rules could not be drafted based on a practice which was not sure to last as long as the rules. The issue was a political and there was actually no problem. The opposition just wanted to have the focus on them. It was important to have the executive respond and not insist on particular Ministers.
Ms Killian said that a Minister who was responsible for a particular portfolio had to be given the first opportunity to respond to questions asked by Members.
The Chairperson said that the issue of questions and responses was an issue of management and running of a session and thus did not need to take front place in the rules.
Mr Jeffery said that the opposition was causing the discussion to be going around in circles. It was important for the Task Team to be careful not to over regulate certain issues as it could make the rules too rigid thereby stifling procedure and decision making.
Ms Killian said that when a Minister answered questions for a portfolio he was not responsible for, the whole essence of accountability and responsibility was defeated.
On Rule 106, Mr Jeffery said that the practice was that the comments which were not answered were postponed to the next sitting day for responses to be given by the Minister. The Task Team could work out different mechanisms as how different parties may want the issue of unanswered questions to the handled.
The Chairperson said that in this situation, the decision of a majority in the House was to be followed. There was also the option that such questions could be suspended.
Ms Killian said that the rules required that a copy of an executive statement must be delivered to Members of Parliament. Her concern was that only once had a copy been received from an executive member in terms of this rule. The rule did not say it was compulsory but such practice enhanced participation and made for better comment. Could the rules not make such practice compulsory?
The Chairperson asked the staff to do some research on the possibility and implications of the insertion of such an obligation into the rules.
Mr Perran Hahndiek said that Chapter 10 to 12 was on committee systems and both those Chapters required a great deal of work.
The Chairperson said that the Staff would look at the various rules and aspects contained in these chapters so that they could guide members through the discussions.
Mr Perran Hahndiek said that on Chapter 10, the Staff was going to do a discussion document for parties. The next meeting should start at the beginning and consider all the redrafts which had been done so far. This meant that the Task Team should not go on to Chapter 12 but restart from Chapter 1 with a focus on the drafts. Mr Hahndiek said that if the Task Team concluded its work on Chapters 1 to 9, it could submit that to the Sub-Committee on Rules. This was going to be a positive feedback with regards to the progress and work done by the task team.
Mr Kasper Hahndiek said that he was in the process of redrafting the rules as informed by the discussions and deliberations. He was going to be done with Chapters 1 to 9 by the end of February. There were however a range of issues such as Extended Public Committees where final decisions had not been reached. Such issues could be identified and noted for further discussion and deliberation.
The Chairperson said that it was important for the Task Team to try and finish its work before June as after that period members were going to be concerned with elections. The chapters and issues where it was very difficult for the Task Team to take decisions were going to be referred to the Sub-Committee on the Review of Assembly Rules.
Mr Kasper Hahndiek said that at the next meeting, the Task Team could go through the redrafted rules from chapter 1 to 9. The Task Team could also go through the other documents which the staff will prepare for the Team. The Task Team could then go through the remaining chapters rule by rule as it had been doing.
The meeting was adjourned.
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