Parliament 2019/20 first half performance: Secretary to Parliament briefing

Joint Standing Committee on Financial Management of Parliament

13 November 2019
Chairperson: Ms B Mabe (ANC) and Ms D Mahlangu (ANC, Mpumalanga)
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Meeting Summary

The Acting Secretary of Parliament briefed the Committee on the performance of Parliament during the first half of the 2019/20 financial year. The highlights included the induction of Members and the establishment of committees; the passing of the 2019/20 national budget; discussions on procedures for the removal of the Public Protector;  discussions on the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill; the processing of the Special Appropriation Bill; and debates in the National Assembly (NA) and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on issues concerning the unemployment crisis in South Africa, incidents of violence and criminality against foreign nationals, and gender-based violence (GBV) and abuse against women.

Parliament had spent R1.258 billion (48%) of the annual budget of R2.608 billion for the first half of the financial year, and indications were that there would be overspending of 5%, or R139.657 million at the end of the financial year. Spending on the compensation of Members against the annual budget was 25% for the second quarter, and 60% by mid-year, indicating that there would be overspending of 21%, or R111.987 million of the R527.518m annual budget at the end of the financial year. It had managed to meet only six of its nine targets. 

Members wanted to know what savings had resulted from the Parliamentary reorganisation, such as the reduction of committees from 57 to 46. They were told that although the reconfiguration of government had taken place, the committees were still there – it was just that they had been integrated – which meant that the same services were still needed. As a result, they had not retrenched anyone, such as researchers and content advisors, so there had been no savings.

Other concerns raised included the need for adequate reasons for not meeting targets; the inefficiency of the study unit; the effect of the loss of gratuity funds, which were overspent; the need to increase the benefits of kitchen staff since they could barely survive on what they were earning; how the reconfiguration of the Cabinet had affected savings; and the need for Parliament to report on a quarterly basis, instead of only annually, to prevent the recurrence of long-standing challenges.

Meeting report

Ms Baby Tyawa, Acting Secretary of Parliament, briefed Members on the midyear Parliamentary highlights. These included the induction of Members and the establishment of committees; passing of the 2019/20 national budget; discussions on procedures for the removal of the Public Protector;  discussions on the National Health Insurance (NHI) Bill; the processing of the Special Appropriation Bill; and debates in the National Assembly (NA) and the National Council of Provinces (NCOP) on issues concerning the unemployment crisis in South Africa, incidents of violence and criminality against foreign nationals, and gender-based violence (GBV) and abuse against women.

Regarding the business of Parliament, there was a 37.82% rate of reply to questions, 28 sittings of the House, 13 Bills in committees, 360 committee meetings, 1 071 questions to the executive, three new bills introduced, 23 international relations policy advices, and 89.26% of procedural and information services and products delivered.

Parliament had spent R1.258 billion (48%) of the annual budget of R2.608 billion for the first half of the financial year, and indications were that there would be overspending of 5%, or R139.657 million at the end of the financial year. Spending on the compensation of Members against the annual budget was 25% for the second quarter, and 60% by mid-year, indicating that there would be overspending of 21%, or R111.987 million of the R527.518m annual budget at the end of the financial year. Spending on goods and services indicate overspending of R5.291 million at the end of the financial year. Capital expenditure was at 11% year to date, but it was expected the full annual appropriated budget of R22.957 million would be spent at the end of the financial year. Transfers were expected to be overspent by R4.206 million at the end of the financial year.

Looking at the programme performance, targets not met included reports not being produced within the stipulated seven days, so business processes were being enhanced to meet the service standard required. In the core business sector, targets were missed for procedural advice, policy advice, Hansard and documentation services, mainly as a result of high volumes experienced in the second quarter.

Discussion

Mr T Brauteseth (DA, KwaZulu-Natal) commented that he saw the combination of quarterly targets and annual targets as a weakness. He suggested that they implement a milestone system so that they avoided hearing at the end of the year that there had been a problem. There were three instances where targets were not met. He said they should be able to set realistic targets -- for example, were Hansard was concerned. On the issue of Members who were supposed to be compensated in two and a half days, which ended up being four days, he asked for the reason for not meeting the target. He also commented on the failure of the study unit, as he had heard a lot of Members complaining that it was not functioning properly. When they tried to communicate with the unit about their ongoing studies, there was no response.

Mr N Singh (IFP) asked if there had been any additional support for the facilities staff. Had they been capacitated to avoid putting them under unnecessary pressure? Had there been any additional legal advisors for the legal team? Were they on schedule for the opening of the library and dining facilities in the Old Assembly? He added that there was a need to make the place more comfortable, because it was too grey and cold.

Mr J Julius (DA) referred to the loss of gratuity funds, as there had been overspending. He asked if this would lead to a policy change in the future, as this had affected the budget. What was the strategic plan to deal with this? He asked if the policy could be made available to Members so that they could familiarise themselves.

He observed that there was projected overspending under programme five, and the reason given was that there was one more political party. He asked them to explain how the overspending was possible.

What impact would the restructuring of the organogram of Parliament have on the budget?

He said that there were about four restaurants in Parliament and about 70 staff, including the chefs. They were under serious strain. He asked if the situation was being looking into, and if there were any plans to increase the benefits, because these workers could barely survive on what they were currently earning.

Were there any recommendations with regard to the adjustment budget?

Mr X Qayiso (ANC) said a point was made about the service charter, and asked for clarity on it. He also noted that he continued to see the phrase, “high volume of work…target not reached” in the report. He asked if that did not suggest that the span of control had to be reviewed with the intention of reconfiguring.

Mr Brauteseth commented that the reason given for not meeting the target on policy advancement was that there was a high volume of work in the second quarter. He asked what that meant. The number of executives and committees had been reduced -- how much had they saved, and how was that saving being spent?

Chairperson Mabe referred to the organisational realignment structure which was implemented in June, and asked for a breakdown of the money spent on its implementation.

Mr M Moletsane (EFF, Free State) referred to the programme which dealt with the development of Members, which indicated that the target was achieved, yet it had been deferred. He asked for clarity on whether it was achieved or not, because there seemed to be a discrepancy in the reporting. What had actually been achieved?

Chairperson Mahlangu commented on the issue of organisational realignment, and said that they were lacking in the area of labour relations. An issue involving information technology (IT) had been raised, drawing attention to the fact that people were working under a contract which had expired. She asked for the way forward on the matter.

She said that the targets set by the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) programme needed to be realistic. What was the plan for the Treasury advice office? Regarding reports, they should have an annual plan, but quarterly reports should be submitted instead of waiting for annual reports.

She asked what had contributed to the over-expenditure reflected in the overall midyear financial performance, and what the mitigation plan was to resolve the issues identified in the Auditor General’s report on the 2018/19 financial year. How had the reconfiguration of the Cabinet affected savings?

Parliament’s response

Ms Tyawa referred to the information communication technology (ICT) issue, and said the current performance was at 82.1%, and that they might not reach 100% as a result of cyber attacks.

Although the reconfiguration of government had taken place, the committees were still there – it was just that they had been integrated – which meant that the same services were still needed. As a result, they had not retrenched anyone, such as researchers and content advisors, so there had been no savings.

Regarding human resources (HR) issues, a detailed report had been submitted. Because they were many matters involving HR, it would be best to have a meeting which was focused only on HR matters.

They were in the process of resolving the Treasury office matter, and had already drawn up an advertisement.

With the Money Bills Amendment Act, the Secretary of Parliament would no longer be responsible for the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO). In future, there would have to be a discussion by the Joint Committee on Finance on how they were going to set their targets.

Referring to not reaching targets with regard to Hansard and documentation, she gave the example of the effect of the Promotion to Access of Information Act (PAIA), where there had been five requests related to the funding of political parties from one organisation called “My Vote Counts.” These requests had to first go through a legal opinion, to make sure that they were processing them within the terms of the Act. The Act states that information surrounding political parties could be released after the elections. Four of those requests were missed by only one day which was due to a miscalculation of the 30 days provided.

On the realignment, she said that they had been sitting with vacancies for more than three years. There had been consultations with KPMG two years ago to do an analysis of how they worked. They had since organised a workshop to indicate the direction towards which they needed to work.

In the line of benefits and payment of workers, they are now paying them three times more than the companies which had been outsourcing them. With regard to the shortage of staff in the kitchens, she said this was mainly because of attrition as a result of employees who were now retiring. There was a plan to address those issues. She added that when they advertised for a bartender, there was an anguished response from the unions, saying that the Parliament was paying quite a lot of money for a person who just served alcohol.

On the issue of turnaround time, she said the volume being talked about was as a result of a lot of Members exiting. The manager was trying by all means possible to make sure that this was resolved in time.

The loss of the office gratuity was policy related, as indicated in the gazettes of 2008 and 2016 dealing with Members when they exit their duty. They had a budget for this, but it was hard to anticipate the number of Members that were going to resign. Overspending was related to the Members exit gratuities and the payment of medical aid for former Members of Parliament. Other overspending was related to the entitlements of Members, and also to other transfers.

To increase the capacity of the legal team, three legal advisors had already been appointed.

Further discussion

The Chairperson said there was a problem with study groups, as sometimes Parliament was delaying the payment of university fees for Members, and some did not have students’ cards. Some were failing to get their results after they had completed their courses.

Mr Moletsane said that he heard them speaking about looking for more funding for Parliament, and commented that in the previous Parliament they had about 57 committees, and now there were about 46. He wanted to know if they were any savings resulting from this reduction.

Mr Singh wanted to know was progress ws being made on the library, and whether it would be opened by the initial stipulated time.

Responses

The Committee was told that they were working with the Department of Public Works (DPW) to ensure that the Library was finished within the stipulated time. However, since these were old buildings, sometimes when one tried to fix one thing, another falls apart, so it might result in more time being taken.

Regarding the reduction of committees, nothing had changed because the committees were still there -- just that they had been integrated into other committees – so there were no savings.

Mr V Mavuso, Division Manager: Institutional Support Services, on the issue of the turnaround time, said that the advent of the sixth Parliament saw a high turnover of Members which had increased the workload of registration of Members for expense claims, and this had had a negative effect on the turnaround time. Secondly, the claims processing was done against the standing data that they normally collected for Members, which included for example the nearest airport that the Member would be travelling to, the constituency to which the Member belonged, and the Member’s home base. All this was needed for them to be accurate about what they were going to reimburse against. Claims could not be processed without the validation of the data, and as many Members were new, the validation itself took longer because they had to make a lot of corrections. This affected the turnaround time. Right now, everyone’s hands were on deck to make sure that the processing was done quickly to avoid Members being in an awkward predicament. They hoped that as time went by they would be able to change the way the data was collected, by moving to a more electronic process.

Regarding the capacity building of Members, the deputy speaker was the main custodian of capacity building for members. The policy needed to be changed to be in conformity with the outcomes of the strategic planning process.

Referring to the Member’s study issues, he said that the Nelson Mandela University programme was initially funded by the Human Settlements Department. Therefore, large portions of the sponsorship were still with that department, and not Parliament. Parliament had made their payments, and the other portion had to be paid by Human Settlements.

The Old Assembly (NCOP) project had been divided into three phases. Progress on phase one, which was mainly the office of the Chairperson, was at 95%.  Phase two was between 93% and 95% completed. With phase three, which involved the library, they were at 52%. They had still been on target for opening the library this November. However, issues had been raised in the progress meeting and they had concluded that the contractor must come back and tell them the actual completion date. They had also promised that the kitchen and the dining facility would be handed over before the 2020 State of the Nation Address (SONA).

Chairperson Mabe advised the Acting Secretary that they needed to be more efficient in approving the travel allowances for Members, otherwise this would result in some not being able to make it to the meetings because they could not afford to make other arrangements. She also observed that there was a lack of capacity to deal with this matter, as there was only one person who handled the claims. They needed to add more people, as there was a strain on one person.

She commented that since their first meeting after the commencement of the sixth Parliament, the Committee had been talking about the same issues. The only matter that had been dealt with was the installation of an extra vending machine – and that was not working.

They needed to devise a programme which dealt with the issues that keep recurring, and if they faced any challenges they should report back to the Parliament so that they can eliminate them.

The meeting was adjourned.

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