Import Inspection Services at Department: Special Auditor General Report

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Meeting report

AGRICULTURE AND LAND AFFAIRS PORTFOLIO COMMITTEE
21 August 2007
IMPORT INSPECTION SERVICES AT DEPARTMENT: SPECIAL AUDITOR GENERAL REPORT

Chairperson:
Ms D Hlengethwa (ANC)

Documents Handed Out:
Auditor General’s Report

Audio recording of meeting

SUMMARY
Members of the Committee met with the Department of Agriculture in order to discuss the special report of the Auditor General on his performance audit of the inspection services. The Department noted that it was the Department itself that had requested the audit, and noted that the report had not reported on those areas being well performed, but only on the areas where improvement was needed. Although the Department did not go through each item on the report, Members focused on certain areas. Their questions were directed to shortage of staff at the import inspection points, which held the potential to threaten bio-security, the measures put in place to improve the dog unit and the implementation of inspectors, the training programmes for and skills levels of inspectors, the progress on pest risk assessments and the relevance of the Pesticides Act. Further questions were asked on the financing of the inspection services, the integration of information systems with the Department of Trade and Industry and the Revenue Service, the new data information system, and the operations and functions of the Border Operations Control Coordinating Committee. Members expressed their concern that there seemed to have been little progress over the years, and in particular expressed their dismay at the Auditor General’s finding that there had not been an action plan to facilitate the filling of long outstanding vacancies. It was noted that SCOPA had asked for a written plan, and that in regard to retention the Department was taking steps to tie its trainees in to working for a specific period after training. The issue of temporary releases of goods was also discussed.

MINUTES
Import Inspection Services: Department of Agriculture & Land Affairs (DOA) Briefing
Mr Masiphula Mbongwa, Director General, DOA, provided a general overview of the Auditor-General (AG) report on a performance audit of the Agricultural Product Inspection Services (the import inspections) of the Department that was circulated earlier to Members. Mr Mbongwa said that he could provide a general overview of what was contained in this report. However, he wished to state that in fact it was the Department that initiated the request to the AG to do the performance audit. It was intended to focus on the management measure in place to maintain efficient, effective and economical control over animal and plant diseases and pests in South Africa, in order to ensure bio-security and food safety and to promote public health. The focus areas identified had been human resource management, capacity, risk analysis and the information systems used for import inspection purposes. The review had covered the period 1 September 2004 to 28 February 2006.

Mr Mbongwa stated that he did not intend to read through the whole report, but would prefer to address the actions taken by the Department to correct some of the issues raised, and then take specific questions from Members.

Mr Eben Rademeyer, Chief Director: Animal Health and Safety, DOA then briefly outlined that the Department was busy with putting new electronic systems in place that could track imports better. The Department was addressing the question of vacancies and had begun not only identifying scarce skills but also putting in place its own training to try to address the difficulties in obtaining staff. The areas of inspection and risk management had been broadened. The new system would address the reconciliations between import permits and inspections, and in particular establish full links with the SA Revenue Service (SARS). The Department acknowledged the recommendations made by the AG in respect of the staffing strategy, but noted that it did adhere to government policies that were used across the public service. It also acknowledged a shortage of dogs in the dog unit, but more dogs and handlers were being procured. Measures to ensure better compliance were being introduced. It was already participating in the Border Control Operational Coordinating Committee (BCOCC) and would continue to address issues such as proper management of shared equipment at the ports.

Mr Mbongwa then stated that the Department was willing to receive the Committee’s questions and responses to the audit report, as opposed to continuing with a longer presentation.

Discussion
Mr D Dlali (ANC) referred to paragraphs 4.1 and 4.2.3 of the report that referred to bio-security and bio-safety and the shortage of staff at the import inspection points, which meant that border security threats included threats to bio-safety. He asked the Department to comment on the developments on the findings.

Mr Dlali also asked for comment on the audit report paragraph 5.1.1, which stated that a low percentage of high-risk consignments had been inspected. He asked the Department to state what mechanisms the Department had in place before it decided to initiate the report, and the reasons behind such initiation.  He asked the Department to comment on the skills levels of the inspectors, and what measures had been put in place to address the issues. He also asked for comment on the graphs on pages 8 – 9, illustrating vacancies, and number of flights covered by the dog unit emanating from Botswana, and from Kenya.

Mr Rademeyer responded that in regard to the question what had been done before, it must be noted that the agricultural trade had changed globally. The trade system that had been implemented dealt with what was being done domestically and there were other issues surrounding the imports and exports of materials. There had been areas where South Africa had done well, and other areas where South Africa was still developing. The report also failed to show that the department was rebuilding and was still a developmental stage when it came to addressing some of the issues raised

Mr Moketsa Ramasodi, Director, Agricultural Products, DOA, added that in terms of the skills levels of the inspectors, the department had come up with a specific training programme for inspectors. It was also decided to drop rigid pre-requisites for those applying to become an inspector, and instead develop in house training facilities that would train inspectors specifically in terms of the legislative mandates.

Mr S Abraham (ANC) referred to paragraph 5.1 and asked the Department to comment on the progress that had been made in maintaining a database containing details of pest risk assessments. The Department should also state whether there were any procedures that had been implemented to ensure that inspections that related to pests and diseases were prioritised according to the risks that they posed. The Department was also asked to state whether fully compliant officials were adequately trained and deployed. It should comment on the progress made with regard to fast tracking and the mentorship programmes. Mr Abraham wondered whether the Pesticides Act of 1947 was still relevant in addressing present issues. The Department was also requested to comment on the issue of the imported fertilisers that led to the contamination of South African pineapples.

Mr Mbongwa replied that in terms of the pest risk assessments, it should also be noted that there was an intricate system that addressed the monitoring procedures of goods. In the event that a diseased item was found, the question of the disease would be dealt with over and above the Department’s systems, and would have to be taken up with the country of origin. It should then be noted that part of the international system was the issue of traceability, in that it enabled countries to deal with the origin and nature of the disease. The Department had been attending to the matter, but it should also be noted that it had not yet achieved its traceability targets.

Dr Mike Modisane, Chief Director: Animal Health, Safety and Disaster Management,  DOA, added that it should be noted that every time there was a disease that was not prevalent in South Africa, the Department publicised the fact that they would inform the country of origin that any products coming into the country would be rejected.  With regard to the Act, although it dated back some years, it was in fact still in touch with what had been happening internationally, and it had been regularly updated.

Dr Modisane noted that with regard to the fertilisers, there had been non-compliance with regulation, as the importers had failed to declare the level of sulphate in the pineapples. The Department had been in the process of drafting policies to make sure that there was better regulation.

Mr A Nel (DA) stated that he was glad to hear that it was the Department that initiated the report. He asked the Department to detail the financing of the inspection services. The Department should try to make provision in the adjustment budget in order to accommodate the inspection services.

Mr Tommie Marais, Chief Director, Financial Management, DOA,  responded that funds had been allocated to a total of R100 million to the inspection services. It should be noted that in order to qualify for additional funds the service had to be classified either as unavoidable or unforeseen. This could not apply in the present case.

Ms B Ntuli (ANC) referred to the questions raised by the AG about the lack of an integrated information system for recording and reporting on import inspections. She asked the Department whether it was working with the Department of Trade and Industry on information assistance. The Department should also comment on the reasons behind the low percentage of high-risk consignments being inspected. 

Mr Rademeyer responded that the information system in agriculture would be linked to the SARS system, and cooperation with the Department of Trade and Industry would take place with regard to information assistance.


A member asked the department to provide clarity on whether the inspectors mentioned in paragraph 5.2.3, in relation to t inspectors at harbours and airports, was referring to departmental inspectors, or those from the Auditor General. He also asked for an indication of progress with regard to the outsourcing and developments of  the information system. He asked the Department to clarify the setting up of the data capturing systems and asked whether implementation of the standard operating procedures had been finalised.

Mr Rademeyer responded that it was initially decided that the information system should be developed in house, but the Department later decided not develop the system in house, but rather to put it out to tender. Depending on the user requirements and the development on the costs, the system would be included in the budget option for the next financial years.

Mr
Mbongwa added that with regard to the data capturing systems, it should be noted that the
Department placed a particular focus on what was agricultural, whereas the South African Revenue Services (SARS) focused on much more than the agricultural products.  Therefore the Department was not following the SARS system.

Mr
Ramasodi explained that according to legislation that the first port of declaration was SARS. After the Auditor General’s report had been tabled, the Department had engaged with SARS so that they could be aware of all consignments that had been declared. It should also be noted that the systems had been harmonised to ensure that the whole country was using a similar system.  In regard to the question on inspectors, he confirmed that the inspectors referred to in the report were DOA  inspectors, and the Department had had to rely on the inspectors working overtime.

Ms B Thompson (ANC) stated that the Department should provide clarity on what exactly what it wanted Parliament to do. The Department had done nothing to rectify some of the issues that had been raised over the years, and therefore was no point for the Department continuing to give reports if nothing had been done. She was extremely concerned to note that there was a continuing high vacancy rate, yet no action plan had been put in place to facilitate the filling of long outstanding vacancies.

Mr
Ramasodi responded that with regard to the issue of the dog unit, it should be noted that the dogs were sourced from the United States, and most dogs were then placed at the OR Tambo International Airport.  The Department had already procured more dogs and handlers so the number has increased from 4 to 10. The Auditor General’s report did not cover the second line inspections at the airport.

Ms L Nkompe-Ngwenya (ANC) also stated that the Department needed to provide clarity on what they wanted the Committee to do with the report, and that it was very sad to see resources being wasted.

Mr J Bici (UDM) commended the Department for taking the initiative to invite the Auditor General to perform an audit. The Department should, however, have told the Committee what had been done to address the issue paragraph by paragraph. The Department should also comment on the progress with regard to the agricultural exports and the swiftness of the inspections.

Mr Rademeyer stated that with regard to the exports it should be noted that the report only focused on import inspections and did not touch on the exports.  The Department had been involved in systems using partners such as the European Union for assistance. The Department had also stepped up on addressing the number of the ports of entry for agricultural products. The number of ports had increased from 5 to 11 ports - however they were not sufficiently staffed.

Mr Ramasodi said that the systems of pre-notifying the authorities were still not functioning at an optimal level, and the Department was looking at ways of monitoring and fast tracking the importation of commodity goods.

Ms Ntuli stated that the issue of lack of capacity, skills and co-ordination was cause for concern as it affected every Department. This Department should comment on whether the BCOCC lacked skills, capacity and experience, and also state how the situation could be improved.

Mr Mbongwa responded that the work to address the issues in the report had begun fairly early and many people had been posted across the globe to cover South Africa’s key major areas and trade relations. It should be noted that the original branch, that was responsible for 70% of the Department’s business, was split into two functions and would need to be split again. The BCOCC was not just a DOA body but spanned across several departments and there were some facilities posted at the borders. The Auditor General’s report focused on areas that needed attention as opposed to reporting on what had been done well. With regard to the vacancies, it should be noted that a high vacancy rate was common to all government departments in the country. Cabinet had been informed that the issue of skills was likely to get worse, as the potential entrants and applicants were becoming younger and less experienced, which would result in the need to import certain skills. The Department was looking for skilled people from other countries to help improve the situation. Therefore insofar as skills, capacity, and training were concerned then there would still be some problems in the future but the Department was attempting to cope with it.

Mr Rademeyer reported that the Standing Committee on Public Accounts (SCOPA) had asked for a written report in respect of the skills planning and this would be forwarded to Members.

Mr Rademeyer explained that the BCOCC was established to focus on bio-security at the ports of entry. The BCOCC was run by 5 key departments, which had their own inspectors.  It should also be noted that there was a budget assigned which was aimed at improving the infrastructure at the ports of entry.

Ms Ntuli asked the Department to provide details how many inspectors each Department had, and also whether the various commodity boards had any inspectors present.

Mr Rademeyer replied that at BCOCC there was a coordinated effort by all Departments to ensure that the ports of entry were secure, and to look after the infrastructure needs. There had been a document compiled that showed results of the coordinated effort and it should be available shortly.  

Mr Dlali referred to page 14 of the report, relating to equipment and infrastructure at the ports of entry. This stated that due to the lack of infrastructure a high percentage of the consignments arriving at ports of entry were not inspected at the port itself but were given a temporary release form and ordered to be inspected later at a predetermined site.  He asked the Department to state who was responsible for the monitoring of the movement of the consignment from one point to another. The Department should also comment on what was contained in the temporary release form, and also to elaborate further on their relationship with SARS. With regard to the lack of equipment the Department should comment on the progress that had been made with addressing the issues.

Mr Ramasodi stated that the issue of the temporary release had caused some tension at the SCOPA meeting as the wording was not clear. The Department had set up a system where it monitored the consignments, and the point at which the inspection had been performed would be recorded. The Department also relied on a government seal placed on the goods. If this was broken it would indicate that a consignment had been tampered with. With regard to the equipment, there was an x-ray machine at OR Tambo Airport, which was not used as SARS wanted to develop a free flow system for the green area. The Department, through the BCOCC, had gone through the route of stating that there needed to be sharing of equipment at the ports of entry, so that items such as forklifts would be used at the BCOCC level. The Department had also performed an internal inventory for articles to be used for inspections, in which it was stated that inspectors were to have the correct equipment. With regard to the monitoring of the equipment, it should be understood that the current state of the border posts does not allow the Department to perform all inspections at all borders.
           
Ms Nkompe-Ngwenya asked the Department to provide clarity on whether there were funds allocated to the training of inspectors.

Mr Ramasodi replied that funds had been allocated, and the Department was doing training. It had also accredited the individuals who had gone through the training with the South African Qualifications Authority.

Ms Nkompe-Ngwenya asked the Department to state what the problem was in training, if there was money for the training.

Mr Ramasodi responded that when the Department had identified the key areas with regard to inspections, it had also identified that the inspectors needed to have training on the legislation. 

Ms Ntuli asked whether there were any mechanisms for retaining the inspectors once appointed.

Mr Mbongwa responded that the issue of training was very troublesome and that the Department had compiled a contract for the trainees, binding them to work for the Department for a specific period after training before they could leave. It should also be noted that the African females were extremely mobile and moved job positions a great deal.

The Chairperson asked the Department to state whether there had been any progress on improving the management information, as the AG had reported that there were no guidelines for the preparation and compiling of the monthly reports. 

Mr Ramasodi responded that there were standard operating procedures now put in place, one of which dealt with compilation of reports, and the other dealt with inspection and record keeping. This was being instituted in order to assure the integrity of what was being reported to management.

Ms Ntuli stated that there should be a system whereby inspectors were always present at ports of entry. 

Mr Abraham stated that the Department needed to ensure that all South Africans enjoyed a consistently high quality of food.

Mr Mbongwa agreed that the Departments of Health and Agriculture needed to come together to focus on the issues arising from food safety, and in order to determine the way forward.

The meeting was adjourned. 

 

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