The office of the Leader of Government Business has noted reports citing absence of some Ministers from Parliament when they were expected to answer Parliamentary Questions.
With regard to the five National Assembly Question sessions held this year all Oral Questions put to Ministers during Question Time were either answered by that Minister or their Deputy Minister. The only exception to this was on 19 August 2010 when Minister Baloyi was unable, at the last minute, to respond to his Parliamentary Questions and those of the Minister of Cooperative Governance and Traditional Affairs who was unwell.
Minister Baloyi’s sudden unavailability was occasioned by having to attend to the public sector strike. Minister Manuel was also unavailable on this Question Day but had made arrangements for Minister Mdladlana to respond to his Questions. It must be noted that the Question Day on 19 August was moved from the usual Wednesday to a Thursday due to the Joint Sitting on the FIFA World Cup. It must also be noted that in terms of the Rules of the National Assembly (Rule 109(3)) that the Deputy Minister or another Cabinet Member may answer the Questions for an absent Minister.
Similarly with regard to the six National Assembly Question sessions held by the 4th Parliament in 2009, certain Ministers were unable to attend the relevant Question Days due to important international commitments or concurrent commitments in the National Council of Provinces. Arrangements were made for Deputy Ministers or another Minister to reply on their behalf.
As far as the Leader of Government Business is aware, Ministers do provide Parliament with explanations when they are not able to be present in the House for their Questions and Parliament may wish to consider improving on its internal communications so as to ensure that chief whips of parties are aware of the reason for the absence.
The Leader of Government Business regards the answering of Parliamentary Questions by Ministers as very important.
On 3 March this year, the Leader of Government Business, in his response to an Oral Question about Ministers not responding to Questions, informed the National Assembly that he had written to all Ministers who had unanswered Questions and requested an explanation for each unanswered Question as well as the steps Ministers would take to ensure that they answer all Parliamentary Questions as prescribed.
As a standard procedure, the Leader of Government Business presents fortnightly reports to Cabinet which, in addition to updating the Executive on the Parliamentary Programme, details the number of unanswered Questions per Minister.
In his report to Cabinet dated 2 June 2010, the Leader of Government Business once again informed Cabinet that he had written to all affected Ministers who had not replied to Questions in the first half of the year, requesting explanations for non-compliance.
Most Ministers responded positively by sending replies to Parliament as expected. Others explained the constraints and committed to comply as soon as practicable.
Part of the explanation given for failure or delays in answering questions, Ministers highlighted:
- Inadequate capacity within Ministries and Departments to collate and compile information required for the replies;
- Misplaced questions i.e. some questions required information which resides outside departments and in some instances is actually a prerogative of others spheres of government. In other words, some of the questions directed at Ministers belonged to Provincial Legislatures yet they are expected to answer; and
- Questions that could not be answered because the processes about which the question was asked had not been completed.
Having assessed constraints raised by the Ministers, the Leader of Government Business proposed and secured a commitment from Cabinet stating that henceforth:
- Directors-General would play an active role in preparing Replies to Parliamentary Questions;
- Parliamentary Liaison Officers would receive additional training on the management of Parliamentary Question, including sending advanced notices to Parliament when Ministers’ commitments prevent them from attending Questions sessions;
- In instances where Questions posed belonged to another sphere of government or entities/organizations where Ministers have no authority, they would still send replies pointing this out; and
- In instances where Questions could not be answered on time because of the volume and specificity of information required, extensions would be requested in writing to the Presiding Officer and the Member who asked the Question.
Notwithstanding these interventions, it is instructive to note that Section 92 (2) of the Constitution of the Republic stipulates that Cabinet Members are accountable to Parliament for the performance of their functions. This includes the answering of Parliamentary Questions.
As stated by the Leader of Government Business on the 3rd of March in the National Assembly: “It is also up to this House to discuss the matter and to decide if they want to institute any sanctions against Cabinet Ministers who do not answer a Parliamentary Question.”
This is so because the answering of Parliamentary Question is provided for in the Rules of each House of Parliament and it is up to each House to enforce its own rules. It is worth noting that there has been no request that the office of the Leader of Government Business is aware of, by any Member of Parliament for a Question posed to a Minister who was not present to be placed on the Question Paper for the next Question Day as provided by the Rules.
As it is known, the Leader of Government Business fulfils a function of aligning and coordinating the programmes of the Executive and Parliament especially around the processing of legislation. He does so in cognisance of the crucial role that Parliament plays in holding the executive to account and performing oversight over the workings of government.
Evidence suggests that all Members of the Executive appreciate their obligations and are in fact doing more than just compliance, even as they face mammoth service delivery obligations which often demand their involvement in activities away from the National Assembly.
Once again, should Parliament deem it fit to review its rules in order to augment and counter perceived non-compliance, it is within its right to do so. Members must respect this principle and in fact direct or send suggestions to the Speaker of the National Assembly since he leads the institution.
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Issued by: Government Communications (GCIS)