Parliamentary oversight: Few consequences

4 Sep 2015 (7 years ago)

By Troye Lund

PUBLIC protector Thuli Madonsela’s revelations of widespread corruption, nepotism and maladministration at the Passenger Rail Agency of SA (Prasa) did not come as a surprise to members of parliament who are charged with overseeing the state entity.

In 2013 the auditor-general (AG) was warning MPs on parliamentary committees that procurement and public finance laws were being flouted by the agency. Then Prasa CEO Lucky Montana took exception to former auditor-general Terence Nombembe’s 2013 finding that contracts at the agency were being awarded without following procurement procedures. Montana told parliament that Nombembe had got it wrong.

While Nombembe stood by his findings, the legislature’s public accounts committee (Scopa) instructed Montana and the AG to resolve their differences and asked for a report when this was done. Nothing more came of that.

The following year the DA’s then shadow minister of transport, Ian Ollis, asked AG Kimi Makwetu to investigate Prasa’s R3,5bn deal to procure 88 dual diesel electric locomotives from Swifambo Rail Leasing. These locomotives would be bought from the Spanish company, Vossloh, and would cost R50m each compared to the R25m per locomotive that a local supplier could reportedly offer them at.

Makwetu found that Prasa had flouted procurement regulations and recommended that the winning bidder be disqualified. But it wasn’t. Montana was not called to parliament to explain.

There was also no reaction at the time by cabinet or the chair of parliament’s portfolio committee at the time, Ruth Bhengu (ANC MP).

After the Prasa board fired Montana in July this year, cabinet stepped into the fray with an announcement by transport minister Dipuo Peters that she would be asking the AG to investigate allegations of financial mismanagement at Prasa, including the awarding of contracts.

While some ANC MPs feel that Montana is a “convenient scapegoat” because the facts have come out and the party must be seen to be taking action, DA chief whip John Steenhuisen argues that parliament’s oversight model is weakened by the ability ANC MPs have as the majority in committees and in the national assembly to protect ANC deployees and shield cabinet from difficult questions.

ANC MPs chair all portfolio committees except Scopa, which is usually chaired by an opposition MP. Scopa is currently chaired by African People’s Congress leader Themba Godi, who is the only representative of his party in parliament. However, it’s simple for the ANC to use its majority in the national assembly to replace all chairmen if they step on powerful toes in the ANC.

During previous interviews with the Financial Mail Godi has expressed frustration that Scopa’s reports and recommendations, which are tabled and adopted by the national assembly, are neither acted upon nor monitored.

Former ANC MP and longstanding member of Scopa Roy Ainslie believes that parliamentary committees do a thorough job of interrogating officials. But he agrees that the system is undermined by the lack of accountability and consequence for wrongdoing as well as a hands-off approach by the ministers in addressing issues raised by parliament.

Parliament, in turn, does not put pressure on the executive to take action because ruling party MPs are beholden to party leaders in cabinet if they want to keep their jobs.

“When ministers intervene and take action the improvements are significant,” says Ainslie.

A 2007 panel looking into parliamentary oversight warned that oversight was compromised when MPs relied on party leaders for their positions.

“The effectiveness of parliament’s oversight work is directly related to the independence of the institution and the ability of individual members to raise a critical voice against shortcomings identified in other organs of state, particularly the executive.” The panel report warns against a culture of subservience to leaders.

DA Scopa member Tim Brauteseth says this culture gives rise to an environment in which there is no real consequence for contraventions and, as a result, some departments and state entities appear before parliament to explain the same audit concerns each year. Among the list of repeat offenders, for example, are the departments of correctional services, home affairs, water & sanitation and its water trading entity.

For example, since the 2005/2006 financial year the department of water affairs has consistently appeared before the water and sanitation portfolio committee as well as Scopa for failing to record intangible assets properly and for contravening supply chain management procedures.

Correctional services has been receiving qualified and disclaimer audit opinions for the past 20 years. It not only appears regularly before the portfolio committee on correctional services, it has been invited on several occasions to explain recurring audit shortcomings to Scopa, which include inaccurate recording of tangible assets, noncompliance with laws and regulations and material misstatements in financial statements.

While MPs rely on audit reports to uncover corruption and irregularities and while MPs tend to interrogate departments long after the audit and often when there are new officials in charge of a department, site visits by committees are an effective way to assess the quality of service delivery.

But getting results after instructing government officials to make improvements is often difficult. For example, the labour portfolio committee recently visited the labour centre in Langa to see what progress had been made since their visit a year earlier. There had been no improvement.

ANC chief whip Stone Sizani says the job of oversight is complicated but admits there is room for improvement.

“Generally, we are satisfied with the oversight work taking place in committees as well as the efforts being made by members to scrutinise department reports and operations, especially those that warrant swift corrective intervention,” he said in a statement responding to Financial Mail questions. “Committees go through hundreds of reports of departments, parastatals and other state institutions with a fine-tooth comb on a daily basis — which requires extraordinary attention to detail, dedication, diligence and energy. Satisfied as we are with the quality of work driven by our members in committees, we believe that, as with any type of function, there is always room for improvement in order to do even better.”

This aricle was first featured in the Financial Mail of 3 September 2015.


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