The Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) met for a review of the strategic plan and the method of work, and the tabling of the Committee Programme. A delegation from the Office of the Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA) interacted with Members of the Committee for the review, while a delegation from the National Treasury (NT) also made inputs in terms of advising how the SCOPA should work.
The report explained the core objectives of the 4th Parliament SCOPA which had to be taken over by the current Committee. The core objectives included improved cooperation with portfolio committees, involving members of the Executive in SCOPA hearings, improving understanding by the media of SCOPA`s plans and priorities, improving the effectiveness of oversight visits, improving the quality of SCOPA reports and resolutions, and considering all annual reports that were tabled.
On the issue of improving cooperation with portfolio committees, a Member said the current reality was that Members of Parliament outside of SCOPA were terrified of finances, so that was where they should start. The issue of inviting the chairperson was good, but it would not assist them because the reality was that the chairperson would come and listen, and would not come back until 18 months later. He proposed that they needed to schedule a quarterly joint Portfolio SCOPA meeting, or a cluster meeting, where they would sit and look at the financial positions for the year, because the intention was to educate other portfolio committees on the importance of financial oversight.
National Treasury said that there was a need for the various committees to work more closely, but also the guidance that was provided by SCOPA to provinces was currently not strong enough. Once Members had collaborated with their colleagues in the portfolio committees and decided on key areas that should be monitored, guidance should be given to provincial SCOPAs as well, so that they could focus on those areas. It was agreed that SCOPA should get some sort of uniformity on how they operated as SCOPA across the country, but a Member suggested that for them to give guidelines and to impose on provincial SCOPAs would be seen as interference and would create resistance, because there were turf wars in the provinces.
AGSA recommended that members of the Executive should be involved in SCOPA hearings. One of the key attributes of a effective committee was that they would develop the type of relationships that would allow them to enjoy support from the Executive to help to ensure there was cooperation with accounting officers. The other objective was to improve understanding by the media of SCOPA`s plans and priorities; improve the effectiveness of oversight visits; improve the quality of SCOPA reports and resolutions; and to consider all annual reports that were tabled.
A Member added that while they should not be seen as policemen, they should not lose sight of the accountability on the other side of the argument, and having the Executive appear in front of them was part of that. It was vitally important that they insisted that key Members of the Executive be present at meetings when they required them to be there -- and that included the Minister -- so as to make clear to them that there was a need for accountability. It was also important for the public at large to know that accountability existed.
The Chairperson opened the meeting by welcoming all present. He stated that the purpose of the meeting was to review the strategic plan and method of work, and the tabling of the Committee programme. The Office of the Auditor-General (AG) would be in charge of the meeting. There would be no presentation, but both the AG’s delegation and the National Treasury delegation would interact with the Committee in terms of inputs that would assist Members in their future work.
The Chairperson said that according to the programme, on 26 August 2014 there would be a briefing from the AG’s Office on the unauthorised expenditure, irregular expenditure and fruitless expenditure, as well as supply chain management. On Wednesday 27 August, they would start with the unauthorised expenditure of various departments, like the Department of Trade and Industry (DTI), the Presidency, Home Affairs, and the Department of Transport. On 9 and 10 September, they would also engage various departments on unauthorised expenditure.
SCOPA Strategic Planning Session
Ms Thandeka Zondi, Corporate Executive: Auditor-General of South Africa (AGSA), said that for this session they should look how far they would get with covering the key issues. She proposed that they work through the elements of what would make up a good oversight committee, as was stipulated by the Association of Public Accounts Committees (APAC) as well as what was included in the oversight model. They could just discuss some of those elements and then look at the elements of the strategic plan of the 4th Parliament of SCOPA to try and see to what extent those objectives remained relevant. They should have a discussion, because it was really a workshop and they would not have the opportunity to go into as much detail as they would want to in this meeting.
Ms Zondi said that in terms of the presentation, they had taken some of the elements that had been placed in the oversight model, as well as what APAC had prioritised, but had came across a booklet which could be applied to all SCOPAs right across the country. The first attribute an effective oversight committee related to the Committee’s adequate powers and functions, clearly articulated, and its mandate and role clearly understood by all who interacted with it. Enough time should be granted to Members of the Committee to meet in order to handle the affairs given to them in terms of their mandate. There should be more capacity building of Members and continuity of membership of the Committee. The Committee should be supported by a competent secretariat and professional support -- research and/or legal -- to look at annual oversight objectives and effective planning structures. There should be innovative oversight practices, for example, oversight inspections, constructive working relationship among Members, and reliance on assurance role players such as AGSA and the Audit Committee. There should be a positive relationship with the media and other stakeholders. There should be Executive Authority support and cooperation with accounting officers. There should be a self- assessment by the Committee and monitoring and evaluation of all committees by the Speaker’s office.
Mr Michael Sass, Accountant General: National Treasury (NT) said that the Committee was very powerful and had a strong message that could it communicate to the world. Therefore, when it came to the media, the Committee should debate some of the key issues it wanted to highlight. It had a broad spectrum of work it had to deal with, which was also important, but there should be five or six areas it wanted to focus on during its five-year tenure. It might be issues like unauthorised, irregular expenditure or big projects such as PRASA, because the media would always be present when the Committee met. If there was any message the Committee wanted to communicate to the world, the media became very important.
The Chairperson said people would often ask whether SCOPA had teeth or not. It was an important question, because it indicated how the public perceived them and how they understood the separation of powers. For instance, if someone had been found guilty of financial irregularities, it was thought that SCOPA should take action. In reality, however, that was not SCOPA’s responsibility -- they could not discipline people because they did not appoint civil servants, and as a Committee of Parliament they could not have powers that Parliament did not have. It was a situation which Members would come to experience over and over again. The reality was that in relation to the current configuration of powers and spheres of government, the Committee did its best and reported to Parliament. It received adequate support from Parliament to do its work, but it was a bit of a tricky area from time to time.
Ms Zondi suggested that they should reflect on the role of SCOPA in order to identify barriers towards effective cooperative governance in the context of the three spheres of government. They had oversight responsibilities that cut across these tiers, yet SCOPA’s engagement tended to be limited to national departments. It would be good to reflect on that, because when they were preparing for the meeting, there were few questions that were related to municipalities. As Members of SCOPA, there were naturally things they would see that would involve different spheres of government, and it would be very interesting to see how SCOPA played a part in driving effective cooperative governance throughout the country.
Ms Zondi said that in terms of SCOPA Core Objectives 2009 – 2014, the exercise had been a reflection of what had been done in the past, what needed to be done, and what they had achieved. It had also to start to inform their thinking about what their term should look like. The first strategic objective that had been set for the 4th Parliament of SCOPA related to ensuring that there was improved cooperation with portfolio committees.
Ms Zondi asked the Members of previous committees of the 4th Parliament how they had experienced collaboration with SCOPA, given where they were.
Mr R Lees (DA) said that as a Member of the Select Committee on Finance in the last term, he did not remember any collaboration or contact with SCOPA at all.
The Chairperson said that their standing practice, whenever they had hearings of particular departments, was religiously to invite the portfolio committees to attend. In some instances there would be attendance and in some there was no attendance, and in some instances the chairpersons would come and actively participate but in other instances they would not be there, only members. They wanted to improve on that, because that was the perhaps minimum they could have done. There was no specific programme to do that, because he personally always considered that such an exercise would probably require the involvement of the Office of the House Chairperson, which was responsible for committees. On one or two occasions he had raised the matter in their meeting of chairpersons, but there was no deliberate action to try and say how it would be done in practice. Mr Lees was right to identify that as a barrier.
Ms Zondi suggested that they should reflect on why it was important to interact with the portfolio committees and select committees. They had spoken earlier about the cooperative governance challenges and on page 4 there was an indication that it was important to collaborate with other Committees, whether in the NA or the NCOP, so that they could share information that was in the various reports that were available to them, and provide for ongoing monitoring and oversight of departments. She asked whether that was something Members wanted to be effected to enhance ongoing monitoring and oversight, as well as the element of cooperative governance.
Mr V Smith (ANC) said it was important to have ongoing monitoring and oversight and in some committees they had introduced quarterly meetings with the departments. When he had served on SCOPA many years ago, it was SCOPA which had started this trend. The current reality was that Members of Parliament outside of SCOPA were terrified of finances, so that was where they should start. The issue of inviting the chairperson was good, but it would not assist them because the reality was that the chairperson would come and listen, and would not come back until 18 months later. He proposed that they needed to schedule a quarterly joint Portfolio SCOPA meeting, or a cluster meeting, where they would sit and look at the financial positions for the year because the intention was to educate other portfolio committees on the importance of financial oversight. It was currently not important for those who thought SCOPA was going to do it for them.
Ms Zondi thanked Mr Smith for his proposal, and said that it was probably an improvement on what they currently had. Between now and their strategic planning session, they would continue to develop the idea. Once they had their general report and had a sense of what they wanted to do and identified the challenges, they could start to focus on the things they wanted to do. For example, once they have their quarterly meetings, they would know what issues they needed to tackle, and work on the implementation.
Ms Zondi asked whether the proposal was to capture only the Portfolio Committees in the NA, or would it also include Select Committees as well.
Mr Smith responded that he was referring to the portfolio committees, because the select committees that served in the NA had some challenges. He did not know if there was a committee that was specific to financial oversight, but if there was, it would be helpful to bring members from there. It would be difficult to get all the select committees together, but they could try to invite the chairpersons.
Mr Lees said that the NCOP did indeed have specialist committees on Finance and Appropriations. These were separate committees, and the members of the Finance Committee were also members of the Appropriations Committee. The number of people involved was in the region of 10, and it was not like other select committees, which were “cluster committees” dealing with a number of issues. The Finance and Appropriations Committees were quite exclusive.
Ms Zondi asked in terms of specific engagement with the House Chairperson to facilitate some of those processes on collaboration, whether were there any other issues they thought about differently. Was there any key input involved in driving the collaboration effort?
The Chairperson responded that he had mentioned the Office of the House Chairperson because the Chairpersons of Committees were under the House Chairperson’s direct supervision, but what Mr Smith had suggested did not exclude the possibility that they could themselves initiate the process. Already the Chairperson of the Appropriations Committee had made overtures regarding the need for his Committee and SCOPA to work more closely together. Therefore, the starting point for them would be to initiate the process and see how it went.
Mr Siyanda Daki, Senior Manager: AGSA said that SCOPA might gain mileage from the performance audits they had, because they were more department specific. Although they might have been referred to the AG, maybe there was a performance audit that might affect Correctional Services, for example. There might be another opportunity for collaboration, because they could have a joint hearing with a particular report without it having to be dealt with separately by separate committees. This was one area they could enforce cooperation.
Mr Sass said that there was a need for various committees to work more closely, but also the guidance that was provided by SCOPA to provinces was currently not strong enough. Once Members had collaborated with their colleagues in the portfolio committees and decided on key areas that should be monitored, guidance should be given to provincial SCOPAs as well, so that they could focus on those areas. They might do it at the moment, but he did not think the Committee met enough with their provincial counterparts, not just to impart knowledge, but also to guide them to focus on key areas that were important to the Committee, to make sure this was carried through to the provinces as well.
Mr Smith agreed with Mr Sass, emphasising that SCOPA in the provinces met once a year, as opposed to the Committee meeting once or twice a week. He heard of a provincial SCOPA only when it was doing its annual report. At an APAC level, they should have a standard method of work across the country. Without a standard method, things would be difficult. The Chairperson was correct to suggest that in their strategic plan, they should get some sort of uniformity on how they operated as SCOPA across the country, which might help them. For them to give guidelines and to impose on provincial SCOPAs would be seen as interference and would create resistance, because there were turf wars in the provinces. Therefore, at an APAC level, they should be able to convince people it was not about political parties, but about financial oversight. There was lot of work to be done and cooperation was needed, and those who were serving on APAC should put the issue of uniformity in the standard work method on the agenda.
Ms Zondi asked whether collaboration with provincial SCOPAs was not work for the NCOP as well.
Mr Daki said that Members should be aware that the NCOP dynamic was slightly different from the NA in terms of the rules. For example, the Appropriations Committee and the Select Committees focussed on provinces, while the Finance Committee dealt with local government. The peak period for provincial SCOPAs was around September and October, when they dedicated only two weeks to reports. After that they dealt with other matters, and for the rest of the year there were no SCOPA activities as such. It was difficult to find uniformity in terms of working together, but there was agreement that there should be an initiative to create that kind of uniformity. Currently the practice was totally different.
Mr Daki said that the other thing that compounded the problem even more was that in some provinces they were not even dealing with the reports that were current, like the 2012/13 report. And in Limpopo, they might be dealing with 2011/12 as well. So their budget circle was a year later than other provincial legislatures, which represented a totally different situation.
Mr Jayce Nair, Chief Director: Governance Monitoring and Compliance, National Treasury, said that in looking at the working methods of the Committee, maybe it should consider identifying those departments that had serious financial management problems, and whose reports were regularly qualified. Their work method should focus on those departments by calling them regularly and exerting pressure so as to ensure they improved on their financial management.
Ms Zondi recommended that members of the Executive should be involved in SCOPA hearings. One of the key attributes of a effective committee was that they would develop the type of relationships that would allow them to enjoy support from the Executive to help to ensure there was cooperation with accounting officers. The other objective was to improve understanding by the media of SCOPA`s plans and priorities; improve the effectiveness of oversight visits; improve the quality of SCOPA reports and resolutions; and to consider all annual reports that were tabled.
Ms K Litchfield-Tshabalala (EFF) said that it was critical not to see their role as policemen. They were there to enhance quality and the effective usage of resources that departments had been given. As critical as it was to have a sound relationship with committees, it was also important to have that relationship with the Executive. They needed to build a relationship that capacitated the committees so that they knew what was expected of them.
Mr T Brauteseth (DA) added that while they should not be seen as policemen, they should not lose sight of the accountability on the other side of the argument, and having the Executive appear in front of them was part of that. It was vitally important that they insisted that key Members of the Executive be present at meetings when they required them to be there -- and that included the Minister -- so as to make clear to them that there was a need for accountability. It was also important for the public at large to know that accountability existed.
Ms N Khunou (ANC) emphasised that the constitution allowed Members of Parliament to call anybody before Parliament. Therefore, it would not be as if they were forcing anyone -- it was their right as Members of Parliament to call anybody to come and account on anything, especially public funds.
The Chairperson said that there was a clause in the Public Finance Management Act (PFMA) in respect of accounting officers, which referred to gross negligence, and the word “gross” in legal terms became a minefield. Was gross referring to R5m, R10m or R1billion -- what constituted gross negligence? They therefore needed legal people to look at various pieces of legislation, not necessarily the PFMA, but other pieces of legislation that dealt with issues around corruption and advise them going forward.
The Chairperson said that they should make their own history because people in SCOPA, as a committee, worked much harder than the average Member of Parliament, but he was always worried they were losing that spirit. There was a need for mindset change, to say they were now in SCOPA and that was what it meant in terms of work. There was lot of work to be done and they needed to do it for the sake of Parliament and the country.
Ms Zondi thanked the Chairperson for that input, and said it was a good note to conclude on. The Committee did have a lot of work to do. Its mandate was clear, and they obviously needed to have a plan and also be responsive as areas of risk arose. AGSA would match the first circles about the attributes to the objectives, so that when the Committee went to its next session, they would have the two elements they had spoken about in the meeting in one picture.
The Chairperson thanked the delegations from AGSA and the NT for being present at the meeting.
The meeting was adjourned.
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