On Watchdogs that need teeth

Questions in Parliament is one of the few ways MPs can use to hold the executive accountable. The efficacy of this oversight mechanism however, depends on the extend the executive answers and if they are present during oral question time or in committee meetings. This is not just important for oversight but also transparency as principles of for good governance. Ministers often come under fire for dodging questions. The DA last year took aim at former Social Development minister Bathabile Dlamini who they claimed failed to answer 93% of the questions relating to the South African Social Security Agency (Sassa).

She is not alone. Many South Africans were spectators when question time with former Pres. Jacob Zuma turned into chaos as opposition MPs felt he is not answering their questions especially those relating to the controversial upgrades of his private home in Nkandla. So, to address persistent challenges with “unanswered questions” Parliament’s Rules Committee decided on a monitoring system to see which members of the executive are not answering written or oral questions in a specific timeframe. It is also important to note this was a first for Parliament.  MPs established a subcommittee to monitor this and then report back to the Rules Committee. The subcommittee must also consult with the members of the executive on why questions were not answered.  The Rules committee must then consider this report and report it to the National Assembly. The Leader of Government Business (deputy president David Mabuza) must then be notified of this.

On paper this move is commendable.

Last week the Speaker tabled a consolidated report for the Leader of Government Business on unanswered questions in both the National Assembly and National Council of Provinces. It is interesting to note that since the opening of Parliament in February, members of the executive received a total of 2 386 written questions in the National Assembly. By last week 278 of these remain unanswered. Minister of Health Aaron Motsoaledi received the most written questions (361) of which 68 remained unanswered. The Minister of Police received the second greatest number of questions (186) of which 25 remain unanswered by last week. Only 5 ministers managed to answer all their written questions received but these ministers also received some of the lowest number of questions. This might explain Minister of Women in the Presidency Bathabile Dlamini’s sudden glowing score of 12 written questions received and all these questions answered.

The picture gets interesting when one looks at which questions were not answered. Some of the questions the Minister of Police failed to answer relates to questions from some DA MPs on the number of senior managers and SAPS members with criminal records and a breakdown of the type of crimes they were found guilty of. It can be argued that information like this is very relevant to citizens depending on the same police officers to keep them safe from crime. The Minister of Health failed to answer some questions relating to among others nurse and doctor vacancies in hospitals, qualifications of hospital administrators and bed capacity in health facilities. This type of information is arguably very important for MPs to give proper oversight and facilitate change and improvement in service delivery in public health facilities. 

So apart from the statistics it is not yet clear if and how these ministers will be sanctioned. Monitoring questions to the executive is a welcome step but its value will depend on the consequences these ministers will face. Any watchdog’s value is based on its teeth otherwise it risks becoming irrelevant. Members of the Rules Committee during their deliberations on the monitoring system, explored some options. According to PMG’s transcription of these meetings, one such option raised was to refer these cases to Parliament’s Powers and Privileges Committee as “an act of contempt according to NA Rule 10”. The Powers and Privileges Committee will then pass a resolution, investigate whether the conduct constitutes contempt of House Rules and then based on that, proceed against the offending minister.

Right now, we have a watchdog whose first statistics were tabled last week. Now it remains to see if this watchdog will have the teeth to tackle a persistent challenge eroding the very core of Parliament’s Constitutional mandate. Only time will tell.

By Alicestine October 

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