The quality of virtual meetings remains an ongoing concern of the National Assembly’ (NA’s) Programme Committee meeting. In today’s NA Programme Committee meeting, the NA’s House Chairperson for committees, Mr Cedric Frolick, and who chaired the meeting, assured members of the committee that his section is doing all it can to ensure that the migration to the hybrid system improves with time and does not compromise the quality of the oversight mandate of Parliament. “Not all is doom and gloom. There are many committee meetings that take place smoothly,” said Mr Frolick.

Mr Frolick told the committee that committee meetings are not shambolic as many would like us to believe. Furthermore, he said: “Last week I asked the leaders of political parties to raise any concerns with me regarding our virtual meetings, and I have not received any. Yes, in certain instances there is a room for improvement and we are working on that. We will improve with time.” 

On what steps Parliament’s Presiding Officers do to improve the quality of the virtual meetings, Mr Frolick said: “Parliament is looking at other systems available on the market to ensure that it does not limit itself to one or two systems, to see how these systems may help improve the quality of our service.”

Apart from the great strain brought to bear by social distancing regulations and the new virtual meeting regime Parliament adopted as a precautionary measure against the spread of the pandemic, the material challenge before it comprises the tabling of the Division of Revenue Bill and the Appropriation Bill by the Minister of Finance.

It was stressed in today’s Programme Committee meeting that the Bills have to come before Parliament because there won’t be legal or constitutional grounds for the executive to appropriate a budget that has not been presented before Parliament, and whose appropriation has not been approved by Parliament.

Also, the committee said, there is a matter of the adjustment of the budget and the annual performance plans of departments that would need to be reviewed by Parliament in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.  

According to deliberations in the committee, the Bills will come before Parliament through a hybrid system: the virtual and physical presence of Members of Parliament in Parliament. It was emphasised by members of the committee that all of that must take place in accordance with strict regulations of the current lockdown regime.

A concern was raised on how this would be done and how other members who are based in other provinces will travel to Parliament if the hybrid system is adopted – and how many Members of Parliament would be physically allowed to take part in these debates.  

Mr Frolick said the matter will be taken to the Chief Whips’ Forum for further discussion before there is a final announcement on it. He said what remains unchanged is that the tabling of the Division of Revenue Bill and the Appropriation Bill has to take place within the given time frame of 2 June 2020.

There is also a thorny issue of public participation that is mandatory before the Appropriation Bill is passed by Parliament. This poses another challenge that Parliament has to deal with. These are factors that are going to be thoroughly resolved by the programme committee.

For instance, the committee said as things stand now, there is no clear indication when these Bills will come before the NA, and how to ensure that Parliament complies with the stipulation that any Bill submitted to the President for accent must be accompanied by text in a second South African official language.

There was an issue of mini-plenaries that debate budget votes, how will they be composed and conducted? Mini-plenaries are adopted to ensure there is a speedy processing of the Appropriation Bill without compromising its quality. The Secretary to the NA, Mr Masibulele Xaso, stated that due to the pandemic, there would be a limited number of parliamentarians that would be allowed to part take in these plenaries. He said the determination of the number is still going to be resolved.

There was a view that to expedite the plenary process, there should be three plenary sessions per day, one in the morning, one at midday, and one in the afternoon. This, according to Mr Xaso, would enable the NA to dispose them within five days.

Furthermore, Mr Xaso said that arrangement would allow the passing of the Bill to be concluded much earlier and to allow the NCOP to debate it within the given time frame to meet the 2nd of June this year.

Mr Frolick assured members of political parties who are part of the programme committee that the Presiding Officers and parliamentary officials are working around the clock to tie the nots to ensure that these constitutional processes are undertaken without any compromise, but with due diligence and accordingly, as prescribed by parliamentary rules and procedures that govern them.

By Abel Mputing

 14 May 2020