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RULES COMMITTEE OF THE NATIONAL ASSEMBLY
2 March 2001
Chairperson: Dr F Ginwala, Speaker of the House
Rule 157 of National Assembly Rules (see Appendix)
The Committee raised concerns regarding the status and role of Parliamentary Committees. There was extensive discussion on the interpretation of Rule 157, the rule relating to confidential information, of the Rules of the National Assembly.
The Committee had various items for discussion on the Agenda.; however, the following are issues that were discussed extensively:
Interpretation of Rule 157
Rule 157 relates to confidential documentation, the disclosure of proceedings, evidence and reports. The Speaker stated that what needs to be considered by the Committee is how to deal with confidential documents and documents that are officially stamped as 'Secret', in terms of Rule 157. Also, Rule 157 should be considered in respect of Parliamentary Practice rather than in terms of the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA).
Mr D Gibson (DP) stated that our Constitution provides for access to information and Rule 157 should be interpreted according to our Constitution.
Adv J H De Lange responded that there are many statutes that do not conform to the Constitution. Rule 157 is not perfect but it gives clear guidance to the Committees. The Rule is a balanced one. The Rule allows for a Committee to decide whether a document should be confidential or not. Documents cannot be ruled as open to the public if they have been given in confidence. If one wants to open a document that is confidential, it must be subpoenaed. A document is not open if it is in the possession of the Committee Clerk. It is only when the presiding Member places the document, or permits it to be placed, before a committee or sub-committee, or when a person appearing before a committee or sub-committee as a witness or to make representations presents the document to the committee or sub-committee. Rule 157 is flexible that does not yet have any loopholes.
Mr DM Nkosi (ANC) said that cognisance must be given to the purpose of the Rule. If the Rule were not seen within the context of the purpose it seeks to achieve, it will be interpreted incorrectly.
The Chairperson stated, in agreement with Adv De Lange, Rule 157 is almost a perfect Rule. There is a need for the members of the Committee to familiarise themselves with the operation and implementation of the Rule. Thereafter the Committee can decide what measures should be taken in respect of Rule 157.
Role and Status of the Committees
Issues that need to be considered:
Â· Should there be clusters, over-arching committees or other set-ups?
Â· Evaluation of Committees as an individual Committee as opposed to as part of a Committee system
Â· Are committees autonomous from the National Assembly or are they not?
Â· Should the National Assembly be informed of the activities of the committees?
Â· Are the reports of committees communicated to the Executive?
Adv De Lange stated it is true that many things happen within the committees that should not occur. Sections 56, 57, and 58 of the Constitution clearly set out the role of committees as well as the powers of the National Assembly. Committees are recommendation-making structures, whereas only the National Assembly has the power to decide on the committees' recommendations.
It would also be beneficial if an external person or body could analyse the relevant provisions of the Constitution and advise committees on the scope and ambit of their powers. The committees can then discuss the problems or mistakes that are made within their respective committees. This would be a learning experience as well as helpful in finding solutions to problems.
Mr Gibson mentioned that there is no excuse for committees that do not inform the National Assembly of trips that they plan to make. He asserted that some committee members are prevented from playing a role in committees, as some committees are slow in operation. One committee has not even met yet in the year 2001. Certain committees are grossly disempowered in terms of legal advice or other expert advice.
Adv De Lange stated that a document setting out the practice within committees had to be created. This would enhance the effective functioning of the committees. Committee work is starting to improve, despite what is being said in the media. However time has been shortened for committee work. Monday is set aside for study groups. Although Friday should be a day when members are present till four o' clock, this does not happen in practice.
The committees should decide what should be on their agendas and specifically decide which issues need to be debated and which do not.
The Chairperson raised the issue of non-attendance of members and whether it should warrant deductions from salaries. Should deductions apply to the National Assembly Members or/and the Committees? Adv De Lange stated that there are different criteria for non-attendance and this should be taken into consideration. The circumstances that give rise to the non-attendance of members, vary within committees.
An ANC member stated that absenteeism at committee level is complicated. Some of the members have to attend more than one committee meeting at a time and must decide which meeting is the more crucial.
The Chairperson stated that a detailed report on the discussion would be drafted and there would be further discussion based on the report.
Meeting was adjourned.
National Assembly Rules
Publication or disclosure of proceedings, evidence, reports, etc.
157. (1) All documents officially before, or emanating from, a committee or subcommittee are open to the public, including the media, but the following documents may not be published, and their contents may not be disclosed, except with the permission of the committee, or the parent committee in the case of a subcommittee, or by order of the Speaker, or by resolution of the Assembly:
(a) The proceedings of, or evidence taken by or placed before, the committee or subcommittee while the public were excluded from a meeting in terms of Rule 152(1).
(b) Any report or summary of such proceedings or evidence.
(c) Any document placed before or presented to the committee or subcommittee as a confidential document and declared by it as a confidential document.
(d) Any document â€”
(i) submitted or to be submitted to members of the committee or subcommittee as a confidential document by order of the chairperson of the committee or subcommittee; or
(ii) after its submission to members declared by the chairperson as a confidential document.
(2) The permission, order or resolution authorising the publication, or the
disclosure of the contents, of documents mentioned in Subrule (1) may provide that specific parts of, or names mentioned in, the document may not be published or disclosed.
(3) For the purposes of Subrule (1) a document is officially before a committee or subcommittee when â€”
(a) the presiding member places the document, or permits the document to be placed. before the committee or subcommittee; or
(b) a person appearing before the committee or subcommittee as a witness or to make representations, presents the document to the committee or subcommittee.
(4) Subrule (1)(c) and (d) applies only to documents that â€”
(a) contain private information that is prejudicial to a particular person;
(b) are protected under parliamentary privilege, or for any other reason are privileged in terms of the law;
(c) are confidential in terms of legislation;
(d) are subject to a media embargo, until the embargo expires; or
(e) are of such a nature that their confidential treatment is for any other reason reasonable and justifiable in an open and democratic society.
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