The Task Team met to continue its discussions on the review of Chapter 10 of the National Assembly Rules. With a memorandum for review, the Questions Office of the National Assembly took the Committee through Urgent Questions, Times allotted and time limits, Unanswered questions, Questions standing over, Form and placing of questions.
The National Assembly Questions Office told the Committee that with Urgent Questions as dealt with in Rule 112(1), a Member of Parliament could, with the permission of the Speaker, place an urgent question for oral reply on the Question Paper for a question day on which such a question would not normally be dealt with. The proposal from the National Assembly Table Staff was that the rule should be brought in line with the practice whereby notice was always presented through the Internal Question Paper.
Members commented on the link between Urgent Questions and Cluster time. The importance and role of clusters was also discussed and the Chairperson noted that the Rules did not provide for Clusters. Cluster Question time ordered according to government clusters was simply a practical arrangement to assist Parliament in carrying out effective oversight of the executive while still allowing the executive to effectively run government. The importance of Urgent Questions in Parliament was emphasized with the major role played by the Speaker in deciding if a questions could be considered urgent or not.
An ANC Member commented that it was good for Members to bear in mind that an activist Parliament was required, so Members had to be free to raise issues which affected them in their constituencies. It was important for the public to see that the issues which had been raised were taken seriously by Parliament. It was not a good sign to have very serious things happening around the country with Parliament not discussing or doing anything about it - but just observing protocol. The principle had to remain but all the administrative issues should not affect the principle. In this case the principle was to make Members know that they had an opportunity to raise burning concerns about their constituencies.
With regards to time allotted and time limits, the Table Staff told the Committee that Questions For Oral Reply had precedence on Wednesdays. It was recommended that specifying the day should be avoided in the drafting of the rules. The reply to a question was limited to three minutes but if the presiding officer was of the opinion that the matter was of sufficient importance an additional two minutes was allowed. Currently, the initial reply was limited to three minutes and subsequent replies to supplementary questions were two minutes. Table Staff suggested that these times be reduced to ensure that Cabinet members provide succinct and focused replies so that more questions could be dealt with on a question day. A member who asked a supplementary question may make a statement or express an opinion, but may not speak for more than one minute. A supplementary question may not consist of more than one question. It was the view of the Table Staff that to ensure more oral questions were dealt with, that the times allotted to supplementary questions and reply be reduced.
During the discussions that followed, the Democratic Alliance asked why there was no provision for questions to be asked of the Speaker. Research should be conducted to find out what other parliaments around the world were doing about posing questions to the Speaker of the House. The reply from the Table Staff was that there were internal processes which served as a forum for questions to be asked of the Speaker. The Committee agreed that research should be done on issue.
The Task Team received a briefing about the public submissions on Chapter 10.
The Rules Committee would meet in the coming week to appoint members of the Rules Sub-Committee and to receive a briefing on Motion Of No Confidence. The likelihood was that the Motion Of No Confidence was going to be referred to the Sub-Committee for development. The Chairperson said that the court had ruled on the matter so it was not going to be very difficult to set up the rules. It was a very emotional issue and had to be tackled carefully. He also noted that Extended Public Committees (EPCs) had not been finalised. In the next meeting, any flagged matters were going to be picked up.
The Chairperson indicated that the Committee had completed Questions to the President and the discussion would start with Rule 112.
Rule 112 – Urgent Questions
Mr Michael Plaatjies, Chief Editor: National Assembly Questions, said that Urgent Questions which were dealt with in Rule 112(1), a member could, with the permission of the Speaker, place an urgent question for oral reply on the Question Paper for a question day on which such a question would not normally be dealt with. The proposal from the Table Staff was that the rule should be brought in line with the practice in terms of which the notice on questions was always presented through the Internal Question Paper.
Mr Kasper Hahndiek, former Secretary to the National Assembly and consultant, said that the only thing which an urgent question achieved was for the question to be posed outside of its appointed cluster time. This made it important for the Urgent Questions process to be maintained.
The Chairperson replied that it was important to have Urgent Questions as there could be an urgent issue which could require attention during the proceedings of another cluster so a Member should be allowed to raise such a question even if it was not relevant to the assigned cluster of portfolios for that day. This allowed for very urgent matters to be attended to. Sometimes these urgent matters were in constituencies and it was the objective of the rules to encourage Members to raise questions about their constituencies. The Urgent Questions process had to be retained.
The Committee Secretary, Mr Perran Hahndiek, asked if the notice period for the Urgent Questions was going to be three days.
The Chairperson replied that three days was appropriate for Urgent Questions. He added that the Urgent Questions also had to be limited in terms of numbers.
Mr Plaatjies said that according to Rule 112(2), a member who wanted to place an urgent question on the Question Paper had to deliver a signed copy of the question to the Speaker, clearly indicating that it was an urgent question, before 12:00 on the Tuesday in the week preceding the week in which the question was to be answered. The proposal of the Table Staff was that the reference to a specified day should be avoided.
The Chairperson asked if Members had any objections to the proposal by the Table Staff. There were none.
Mr Plaatjies said in terms of Rule 112(3), if the Speaker approved an urgent question, it had to appear on the Question Paper before or on the Friday of the week preceding the week in which the question was to be answered. The opinion of the Table Staff was that as earlier mentioned, it was the practice that notice of questions was given through the Internal Question Paper.
The Chairperson confirmed with the Members that there was no objection or comment on Rule 112(3).
Mr Plaatjies said that it was important for the Task Team to look for criteria which could make it easy for Members to access the Executive with an urgent question. The formulation of Rule 112(1) had to be relooked at.
Mr Booi (ANC) said that Mr Plaatjies was missing the essence of the Rule which was the Speaker had to give approval in terms of Urgent Questions, so why did Member have to access the Executive? The matter had to be approached on the basis that a member wanted to ask a question and normal procedures had to be followed. If there was approval from the Speaker, then the question was placed on the Question Paper. The Rules review process was aimed at managing the functioning of Parliament but it was also important to make the Executive understand the Rules of Parliament. The moment Members were encouraged to start accessing the Executive then the whole parliamentary system and the separation of powers was being broken. He was not willing to buy into a proposal which could undermine the separation of powers.
Mr Kasper Hahndiek added that the problem was slightly different in this case as the permission from the Speaker was not about compliance with rules and guidelines. The permission from the Speaker in this case was that the Speaker had to be convinced to allow the question to be asked out of cluster. This meant that a Minister had to come, out of cluster, to answer that particular question. There had to be a convincing and reasonable reason which the Speaker could accept as to why the urgent question had to be made. There had to be valid reasons why the question could not wait for the cluster sitting where that Minister. The issue was about what criteria would apply.
Mr Plaatjies said that he was not seeking to undermine the separation of powers.
Ms S Kalyan (DA) asked if the proposal was to take away the phrase “would not normally have been asked in that cluster”.
Mr Plaatjies agreed that that was the proposal.
Ms J Kilian (COPE) said that an urgent question was an urgent question and it was important to note that the Rules of the National Assembly did not provide for clusters.
The Chairperson replied that cluster questioning was an internal arrangement of Parliament and these clusters were introduced to make the work of Parliament easier. This was because the Executive was based in Pretoria and it was important to avoid a situation where all the Ministers had to be present in Cape Town on question days. The cluster idea was for practical purposes so that Minister could, at the same time, both run government and be held accountable in Parliament. Clusters were not part of the Rules. The urgent question issue was clear. Once the Speaker said that he agreed that a matter was urgent, the Office of the Speaker was going to contact the relevant Minister to be present to answer the question. If the Minister was not available, the Deputy Minister could come instead to answer the question. Besides, it was very rare to have these questions and it did not cause a lot of harm to allow the Speaker to deal with them.
Mr Plaatjies said that in other parliaments around the world, Urgent Questions were used quite frequently. The rationale behind the proposal was to make the mechanism more accessible to Members.
Mr Kasper Hahndiek said that the whole idea of Urgent Questions was about questions being taken out of their appropriate cluster. If Mr Plaatjies proposal was put through, then it meant that an urgent question could even be asked during a period when the relevant cluster was sitting.
Mr Plaatjies agreed that it was possible for an urgent question to be asked during the sitting of the relevant cluster.
A former Member of Parliament and consultant, Mr Mike Ellis said that the essence of Urgent Questions was about time and not clusters. If questions had been placed on the Question Paper and shortly before the sitting and incident happened which required urgent attention, the mechanism of Urgent Questions could be used. Even though the relevant cluster was meeting, an urgent question could still be asked.
Ms Marina Griebenow, National Assembly Table Staff, asked if the urgent question was going to be given priority in the House during the answering of questions.
The Chairperson said that once the Speaker had confirmed that a question was urgent, it had to be given priority otherwise it was not going to be an urgent question.
Mr Plaatjies added that Urgent Questions were given precedence and were answered before all other questions on that day. The deadline was 24 hours and the question had to be edited and approved.
The Chairperson said that the rule had to be amended accordingly to capture the discussion and proposals.
Mr Kasper Hahndiek said that he wanted to clarify the issue that an urgent question to a Minister could not be asked on a day set aside for Questions to the President.
Ms Kilian agreed with Mr Hahndiek but said that special provision had to be made to state that Urgent Questions would not be scheduled on a day when the President was answering questions. This had to be made very clear in the Rules. Provision also had to be made for Urgent Questions which could be asked of the President and these should take priority over the other questions intended for the President.
The Chairperson said that the criteria for all of these issues regarding Urgent Questions lay with the Speaker. If it was not limited, the House was going to be flooded with questions which could be asked in the Committees. it was important to note that questions to Ministers were political questions and were not supposed to include day-to-day functioning and operational matters. If information was required, then it was a Written Question and a written response was used and not Urgent Questions.
Mr Kasper Hahndiek asked if an urgent question could be taken on a non-question day.
The Chairperson said that it was a difficult situation because urgent matters could happen even if it was not a question day. It was an issue for the Task Team to apply its mind on. The essence of Urgent Questions was to accommodate Members of Parliament when there was an urgent issue. Planning was going to be difficult as some of these urgent matters were not planned but had to be responded to urgently. What of a situation where there was an urgent matter but no questions days were available in the very near future.
Ms Kilian said it was important to safeguard the mechanisms available to Members of Parliament when an urgent issue came up. She agreed that there needed to be balance. Constituency matters which the Speaker considered urgent could not be ignored. She proposed that the Rules should provide for Urgent Questions to be dealt with on any day. Preferably, such matters could take precedence over the agenda of the day.
The Chairperson said that the review process had to proceed and a compromise approach could be taken. He suggested that the matter should be flagged and discussed at a later stage when Members had properly applied their minds to the issue.
Mr Booi said that it was good for Members to bear in mind that an activist Parliament was required, so Members had to be free to raise issues which affected them in their constituencies. It was important for the public to see that the issues which had been raised were taken seriously by Parliament. It was not a good sign to have very serious things happening around the country but Parliament was not doing anything about it - but just waiting on procedures and observing protocol. The principle had to remain but all the administrative issues should not affect the principles. In this case the principle was to make Members know that they had an opportunity to raise burning concerns about their constituencies.
The Chairperson said that the matter was going to be flagged and the applicability of the issue was going to be considered.
Rule 113 – Time allotted and time limits
The Chairperson said he did not understand why there was the need to include time in the Rules. He had always understood that time allocation was the duty of the Whips Forum. It was a danger to include time in the rules.
Mr Kasper Hahndiek replied that the reason for the time allocation was to protect Members and their right to ask questions. Currently, the House did not always get through the questions on question day and therefore Members would have the security of knowing that their questions would be answered.
The Chairperson said that the purpose was logical and understandable.
A former Member of Parliament and consultant, Ms Sybil Seaton, said that consideration should be given to increasing the time allocated to a minimum of three hours.
Ms Kilian said that she agreed and three hours was going to be good enough.
Mr Ellis said that it seemed as if Ms Seaton and Ms Kilian had forgotten that the current question session was probably the most boring part of Parliament and to take that from two to three hours was probably the most hideous thought in the world.
The Chairperson said that the question session had to be made more interesting. The point was one needed to allow enough time to pose questions for oral responses from Ministers. Three hours was not very bad for a cluster.
The Chairperson remarked that the intention of the Task Team was to complete Questions during this meeting so it was important for the Members not to delve into very minute details. The Task Team agreed on the broader issues of accountability and only the mechanics of the Rules had to be worked on.
In terms of Rules 113 and 114, Mr Plaatjies explained that Questions For Oral Reply had precedence on Wednesdays. It was recommended that specifying the day should be avoided. The reply to a question was limited to three minutes but if the presiding officer was of the opinion that the matter was of sufficient importance an additional two minutes may be allowed. While the initial reply had been three minutes and subsequent replies to supplementary questions were two minutes, it was the view of the Table Staff that these times should be reduced to ensure Cabinet members provide succinct and focused replies and that more questions were dealt with on a question day. A member who asked a supplementary question may make a statement or express an opinion, but may not speak for more than one minute and a supplementary question may not consist of more than one question. It was the view of the Table Staff that to ensure that more Questions For Oral Reply are dealt with, the times allotted to supplementary questions and reply be reconsidered.
Rule 114 – Unanswered questions
Mr Plaatjies explained that those Replies To Questions For Oral Reply which had not been reached during the time allotted on a question day, had to be submitted in writing to the Secretary for inclusion in the Official Report of the Debates of the Assembly. In accordance with practice, both the written question and reply of Replies To Questions For Oral Reply were recorded in the Hansard “National Assembly Questions and Replies.
Mr Plaatjies read from the rule: "If a reply to an oral question was not received by the Secretary by 12:00 on the Thursday following the question day concerned, the question must be regarded as standing over. For all oral questions that have stood over in terms of (a) or Rule 115(1), the Question Paper must be endorsed to the effect that the question has not been replied to.
He said the Table Staff again recommended that reference to a specified day should be avoided.
Ms Kalyan said that the Speaker had ultimate responsibility in the whole process and she would like to see him table a report so that Members could look at it and debate on it. She had been thinking about Questions and it had occurred to her: where in the whole process did the Speaker get to be asked questions. He was the final arbiter but at the same time, there was no mechanism to question him. She knew that in other parliaments there were such processes. Was it possible to get some research on this issue?
Mr Kasper Hahndiek said that all the Ministers who received questions were assumed to have their replies with them so if there were 20 questions, there had to be 20 replies. The idea was that as the Ministers left the Chamber, they should table their replies to the questions. He was not even sure why it was ever extended to 12:00 the following day because this opened the door to even longer delays. Ministers had to be required to table their replies at the end of the question session. On the issue raised by Ms Kalyan, it was important to note that this section was dealing particularly with questions to the executive. Questions to the Speaker had to be an internal process and should not be part of a question session. His personal view was that there were many internal forums where Members engaged with the Speaker and the management of Parliament. Those were the forums where such issues could be sorted out. To start asking questions to the Speaker in the House could be a problem and could be done only in cases of extreme problems where the Speaker was really refusing or failing to perform his duties.
Ms Kalyan said she was aware of the opportunities in the Budget Vote debate to ask question of the Speaker. Looking at the governance model of Parliament, it was limited only to certain individuals and everybody was not there and because it was a closed meeting, it was not very accountable. The internal forums which were there were not as powerful as open questions in the House. She insisted that she would like to see what research was available on the topic before it could be taken further.
The Chairperson said that it was true that more research had to be done on the topic of open questions to the Speaker in the House and the Task Team could discuss it again.
Mr Ellis was aware that it was not good to make examples of anything which happened before 1994, but then there was a system where on question day, before a Member got to his office, the answers to your questions were in the pigeon hole whether they had been answered in the House or not. It was a simultaneous thing on question day and it enabled Members to handle issues with the public and the media straight away and it was very practical. If such a system could be reintroduced it would make much sense. On the day which questions were asked, the answers to all questions should be provided to Members.
Ms Seaton said that on the questions to the Speaker, she agreed that the Parliamentary Oversight Authority (POA) was not the appropriate forum. The Rules Committee could be considered for such a purpose.
Ms Kilian said that there was no excuse why the answers were not ready at the end of the question session. She suggested that the deadline for responses should not be shifted to the next day. The deadline should be the close of business on the day the questions were asked.
Mr Booi said that he was not sure what the Members were expecting from the Task Team. It had already been agreed that the Speaker was in charge of the process and how he managed the process was not the responsibility of the Members and thus could not be decided by them. The Task Team could not be too prescriptive.
Mr Plaatjies said that he was of the opinion that questions to Ministers who did not submit the answers after question time could be transferred to the next question day.
Mr Booi said that the objective was to make Parliament more interactive than procedural. Having too many systems was not going to work and they were making Parliament a comfort zone for Ministers. The reality was that these Ministers were human beings and they had to be tested and answer their own questions. The comfortableness which Mr Plaatjies was trying to work out for the executive was not working.
The Chairperson said that all that Mr Plaatjies was doing was trying to make sure that things worked out in Parliament. He was making a contribution. At the end of the day, it was the Speaker who was responsible for the running of Parliament. The Office of the Speaker had to set up the mechanisms to ensure that questions were answered and if not, there had to be valid explanations and reasons. The Task Team did not have the mandate to design a system for the Speaker. There was no need to speak forever on a simple issue like this.
Rule 115 – Questions standing over
The Chairperson confirmed that there was no proposal from the Table Staff on Rule 115.
Part 3 – Questions for written reply
Mr Plaatjies explained that in terms of the form and placing of questions, a question for written reply may be placed on the Question Paper for any working day and must be delivered to the Secretary before 12:00 on the Tuesday of the week during which it was to be placed on the Question Paper for reply. The proposal from the Table Staff was that the reference to a specified day should be avoided and that "working day" was defined as days on which the National Assembly and/or its committees were sitting. A Question For Written Reply was not supposed to contain more than 15 subdivisions. Thus far the practice had been to keep it to five subdivisions. This proved to make for cumbersome questions and questions including more than one primary idea. A subdivision could include further points, but they should be restricted to the primary idea in the subdivision. If a question standing over was not answered, either orally or in terms of Rule 114(1), the Question Paper must be endorsed to the effect that the question had not been replied to. The rule under the heading of Questions For Written Reply was a repetition of Rule 115(4) that specifically dealt with Questions For Oral Reply. Hence the language of the rule was ambiguous and should be reconsidered.
Ms Kilian said that this issue had been debated by the Task Team and it was said that irrespective of the business of the House, Members had to be able to submit questions. Even when a Member was in his or her constituency and they found something wrong, they could compile and electronically submit a question. It was not supposed to be in accordance with the scheduling of the programming committee. Members must be able to submit on any working day.
The Chairperson replied that the executive did not go for constituency periods and they worked every working day and answers were from the executive so wherever members were, if they put through questions, the executive had to be able to answer. The executive machinery worked day and night so they had to be able to answer the questions.
Mr Kasper Hahndiek said that the concern was that when the Questions Office received such a question, was the office required to print the Question Paper every day. What could be done was to simply supply a copy of the question to the Department.
The Chairperson said that it was up to the Questions Office to deal with the mechanisms and the administrative issues relating to the submission and relaying of questions. The principle was that a Member of Parliament had to be able to put a written question on any working day.
The Chairperson referred to the sub-divisions of Questions For Written Reply, saying the provision for 15 sub-divisions was too many.
Mr Plaatjies said that according to current practice in the Questions Office, the sub-divisions had always been limited to five subdivisions. If it went over that limit, the question was beginning to acquire a lot of side issues. It was thus advisable to keep it at five subdivisions.
Ms Kilian said that she would like to negotiate for 10 subdivisions. The reason for this was because in compiling a question, there was always the effort to make sure that the executive could not escape answering the question. Providing for 10 subdivisions was tightening the question and closing all loopholes.
Mr Plaatjies said that the complexity of many of the subdivisions was that some of the subdivisions could fall under the jurisdictional competence of another Minister. Also, the longer the question, the less focused it was from the central idea. A question was supposed to have one central idea.
Mr Plaatjies explained that if the responsible Cabinet Member had not replied in writing to a question within ten working days of the day for which the question was set down for written reply, and the Member in whose name the question stood, or who took charge of the question in terms of Rule 107(7), so requests, the Secretary had to place the question on the Question Paper for Oral Reply. In view of providing certainty to the Executive in respect of the last Internal Question Paper of the annual session it was useful to include the provision for the last IQP and of questions that lapse in accordance with Rule 316.
The Chairperson said that he was quite happy with the reviews which were being proposed but it was important to bear in mind that there were bigger political issues at play here. Every rule which was being put in place had to be justifiable, both politically and administratively, and that the rule fit the purpose for which it was meant to achieve. Otherwise the entire process could be a wasteful one. Every rule had to convincingly stand the test of time.
The Chairperson said that he was aware that the issue of Questions had drawn input from external bodies. He asked Mr Plaatjies to briefly present these inputs.
Mr Plaatjies told the Committee that the Report of the Independent Panel Assessment of Parliament (RIPAP) acknowledged both the problem of poorly replied to questions and questions not replied to. It therefore recommended that the system through which the Presiding Officers held the Executive to account for unanswered questions be reviewed and necessary changes be made to increase the efficacy of these procedures.
With regards to the submission from the Centre for Constitutional Rights (CCR) and notwithstanding Rule 107, Questions to the Deputy President must be submitted by party representatives in prioritized order before 12:00 on the Monday nine days before the question day on which they are to be answered. The CCR was of the view that this period of nine days should provide for better answers. However, in respect of policy and executive decisions, the Deputy President should be able to explain his/her position or decision without any preparation or forewarning.
In terms of Rule 111(1), the Centre for Constitutional Rights was of the view that the formulation of the rule suggested that the President may potentially handpick his/her questions. The interpretation of the rule, in practice, never had the impact suggested by the CCR.
Mr Plaatjies explained that it remained the view of the NA Table Questions Office that Questions For Oral Reply to the President that were not of national and international importance, should be directed to the relevant Minister or the Deputy President. Questions For Oral Reply were never blocked by invoking this provision, but the Table Staff had no concern if the rule was amended or deleted.
The proposal of the CCR was to include more regular question days for the President in light of the significant constitutional powers given to that Office. The CCR expressed the view that given the extent of the President’s powers and functions in terms of section 84 of the Constitution as well as his/her executive authority in terms of section 85 of the Constitution, it was incomprehensible that it was required of him/her to appear only once per term to answer questions. The Deputy President, on the other hand, with less executive authority, had to answer questions in the National Assembly at least every other week.
The CCR proposed that there should be at least monthly question sessions to the President, if not twice a month. The questions should be asked by a set number of members on any subject matter. It should be without prior notice and allow for proper interpellation and supplementary questions. In its view this was going to enhance parliamentary oversight.
The Chairperson thanked Mr Plaatjies for the input. He told Members that in the month of November, the Deputy Minister of Home Affairs, Ms Fatima Chohan, was going to be joining the Task Team to assist it with some of the procedural and legislative issues. He asked the Committee Secretary what was the programme for the next week.
Mr Perran Hahndiek replied that the Rules Committee meeting of 24 October 2013 was aimed at electing new Members of the Rules Sub-Committee and to have a briefing on the Motion Of No Confidence. The likelihood was that the Motion Of No Confidence was going to be referred to the Rules Sub-Committee for development.
The Chairperson said that the court had ruled on the matter so it was not going to be very difficult to set up the rules. It was a very emotional issue and had to be tackled carefully. It was also important to remember that Extended Public Committees (EPCs) had not been finalised. In the next meeting, any other issues which were not yet dealt with thoroughly were going to be picked up. He thanked the Members and the Table Staff for their participation and contribution.
The meeting was adjourned.
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