The tabling of the adjusted budget by the Minister of Finance, Mr Tito Mboweni, has brought about significant adjustments to the third-term programme of Parliament. That was what the members of the Programme Committee of the National Assembly said in their programme meeting recently.

Most significantly, they said the adjusted budget has put a burden on Parliament to conduct oversight on various relief packages that amount to hundreds of billions of rands recently announced by the government as a means to bring about social relief, and to cushion our economy against the devastating impact of coronavirus, which could lead to untold socio-economic deprivations. 

As required by the Constitution, Parliament has to conduct oversight on any budget brought before it by the executive, to ensure that public funds are spent in a transparent and accountable manner.

The norm is that each portfolio, select or standing committee is required to scrutinise the budget of its sister department against its annual performance plan, and to ensure that it is in line with the broad strategic vision of government as often spelt out at the State of the Nation Address.

The adjusted budget by the National Treasury comes at the back of the coronavirus outbreak. It is seen as an emergency measure that seeks to arrest the unbearable and unexpected socio-economic impact that the pandemic has brought to bear on the fiscus.

The tabling of the adjusted budget by the National Treasury meant that there would be significant changes in how the budget would now be appropriated for, and by various departments. These adjustments would not come to effect if they are not approved by Parliament.

As stated in the parliamentary programme committee today, this will have an impact on the third-term of the parliamentary programme. 

An amended programme that will accommodate parliamentary processes that determine the appropriation of departments’ budgets will be devised to ensure that committees are given enough time to scrutinise the adjusted budgets.

This process is critical because according to the NA’s House Chairperson for committees, Mr Cedric Frolick, there are departments’ budgets that have been revised upwards and downwards.

“There are almost seven budgets that have been revised upwards and Social Development constitutes a lion’s share of that. In the same breath, there are those whose budgets have remained the same, and 31 departments whose budgets have been reduced. Relevant committees have to conduct their oversight work to determine how they will be affected by these cuts,” he said.  

This means there are funds that have been taken from other departments’ programmes. He said: “Relevant committees need to ensure these adjustments don’t have an adverse effect on service delivery or the strategic work of those departments. But most importantly, the relevant committees must determine how the adjusted budgets respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic.”

Those budgets that are adjusted upwards and downwards will be subjected to mini-plenaries and this will affect Parliament’s constituency period, as previously scheduled “These plenaries will be done virtually and will assess the impact of the adjusted budgets on interventions that seek to, on the one hand, arrest the spread of the pandemic, and on the other hand, to cushion its (the pandemic’s) effect on the economy.”

He said to determine this, committees will, as expected, interact with the heads of these departments to assess the efficacy of their strategic responses and how they will ensure that there is value for money and accountability to the emergency funds allocated to them.

As such, committees are expected to develop programmes to exercise oversight on these matters and report back their findings to the House.

He said these unexpected developments have affected the programme of Parliament significantly. The programme, as it stands now, is subject to change, the finer details of which will be communicated to all parties. But what seems certain for now is that the parliamentary adjusted budget process will encroach on Parliament’s constituency period.

Other members of the committees sensitised the Speaker of the National Assembly, Ms Thandi Modise, that Members of Parliament need to be informed of these impending adjustments, to ensure that the oversight process of the adjusted budgets is not compromised by requests of leave of absence by committee members, as many of them have already planned their activities based on the initial parliamentary programme.

Mr Frolick emphasised that the amendments to the parliamentary programme, as requested by the Presiding Officers of Parliament, are necessary because “we must be seized with the budget instruments before us to respond to the challenges posed by the pandemic. We need to do all the checks and balances as committees are mandated by the Constitution to ensure that funds allocated to this ideal are appropriated equitably and properly utilised”.

He further added: “There is a request to this effect that the National Assembly debates in the next term be as minimal as possible, to ensure that committees have sufficient time to deal with the special budget.”

He further reiterated that under normal circumstances, an adjusted budget is not referred to different committees as it is the case now, “but because of its substantial upwards and downwards adjustments and its urgency in response to the economic challenges posed by the pandemic to our fiscus, it has to be subjected to the normal parliamentary budget process.”

By Abel Mputing

 25 June 2020