Parliamentary Committees - the Engine Room of Legislative Change
WHAT ARE THE PARLIAMENTARY COMMITTEES?
Parliamentary committees are where much of the real work of Parliament takes place. They serve a number of purposes:
- increase the amount of work that can be done;
- ensure that issues are debated more fully than is possible in plenary sessions;
- enable MPs to develop expertise and in-depth knowledge of the committee's area of work;
- allow members of the public to make submissions on specific matters, which is not possible in full parliamentary session;
- provide a forum where people have to give evidence or produce documents relevant to the committee's work.
Each portfolio committee is responsible for monitoring the department it oversees, scrutinising what it does, investigating and making recommendations on any aspect of the legislative programme and the budget, rationalisation of the department, restructuring, functioning, organisation, structure, personnel, policy formulation and any other relevant matter.
Each committee elects its own chairperson, although the majority party caucus effectively determines who is chairperson. Nonetheless, some minority party members were selected by the ANC to chair committees on the basis of their individual expertise.
A committee may make enquiries and hear evidence, and it must debate, amend and put forward proposals for legislation. Committee meetings are generally open to the public, although committees may decide to close their meetings to the press and public if they have good reason to do so.
A parliamentary committee can summon anybody, including the President, a Minister or any department official, to appear before it to supply information. It provides a forum where ordinary citizens or their organisations can make formal representations to government on new laws or policy during the parliamentary process. The committees are therefore key structures to utilise for advocacy.
There are four types of parliamentary committee:
- Portfolio Committees: The National Assembly has 26 portfolio committees -- one to shadow each government department. Examples are the portfolio committees on housing, welfare, safety and security, education, and trade and industry. Portfolio committees are considered more important than select committees because of the greater power of the National Assembly in the hierarchy of Parliament.
- Select Committees: The NCOP has its own committees, known as select committees. There are currently eleven. NCOP committees are clustered in terms of the departments they cover, given the smaller number of delegates. An example is the select committee on economic and foreign affairs.
- Ad Hoc Committees: They are formed to consider specific issues. Recent examples of issues considered by ad hoc committees include abortion, the status of women and the remuneration of MPs.
- Joint Standing Committees: These are committees which have members from both the National Assembly and the NCOP. Examples are the Constitutional Review Committee and the Joint Standing Committee on Defence.
WHO ARE KEY PLAYERS IN PARLIAMENT?
- Speaker of the National Assembly and the Leader of the NCOP: They or their deputies will normally chair the sessions of their chambers and maintain control over the order of business and the manner in which it is conducted.
- Leader of Government Business: S/he represents the Cabinet in Parliament and plays a crucial role in deciding the programme of the House and is usually a Cabinet Minister. The Leader informs Parliament about Cabinet's priorities and places items on the agenda for discussion after consultation with party whips.
- Committee Chairpersons: The chairpersons are important targets for advocacy because they control the business conducted in their committees and would play a key role in deciding whether hearings will be held on a particular issue, and if so, who will testify.
- The "Inner Circle" on committees: Although committees have 30 members, certain members play a more active and informed role and regularly attend committee meetings. These are the members on whom lobbying should be concentrated.
- Political party structures
- Chief Whips: Party whips are elected to oversee their party's participation in Parliament. They speak on behalf of their parties, organise speeches and voting and generally make sure that parliamentary business runs smoothly. Party whips are formally appointed by the Speaker.
- Caucuses: Each party holds a caucus meeting at least once a week to discuss how the party will deal with the issues before Parliament. Caucus meetings are not open to the public, but key members should be lobbied before meetings to raise issues.
- Study groups: Parties may establish study groups to develop the knowledge and expertise of their members in the areas covered by the Portfolio Committees. The study group may be approached before an issue is debated in committee to help determine the party's position.
WHAT ARE THE KEY POINTS OF INTERVENTION IN THE PARLIAMENTARY PROCESSES?
Parliamentary questions and interpellations: Asking Ministers questions or summoning them to appear before committees can be a powerful way of keeping them accountable. Advocacy organisations should use MPs to ask questions of Ministers about their portfolios. There are three kinds of questions:
- An interpellation is a 15-minute debate between a questioner, a Minister and other MPs. It is placed on the question paper for reply at least one parliamentary working day later.
- Questions for oral reply are limited to two questions per member per day. The time allocated for these questions is 30 minutes.
- Questions for written reply may contain up to 15 subdivisions. They may be placed on the question paper for reply on any parliamentary working day. Questions for written reply are limited to three per MP in any parliamentary working week. If the responsible Minister has not responded within 10 parliamentary working days, the Secretary may place it on the question paper for oral reply at the request of the MP who placed the question.
- Portfolio Committee public hearing/submission: Usually after the first reading of a bill, it is referred to the relevant committee for debate. The committee may schedule public hearings. The dates, venue and closing date for written submissions are advertised in the Government Gazette and in the newspapers. Where it serves their campaign strategy, advocacy organisations should seek to ensure that there is public hearing, Even if there is no call for submissions, there is nothing to stop you sending a written submission. For these purposes it is useful to develop a good working relationship with both the committee chairperson and the committee clerk. In addition to a written submission, you should also ask to make an oral submission.
- Audience with the study group prior to committee decision-making and report-making: Advocacy organisations or individuals should attempt to secure a meeting with the party study groups to influence the outcome of decisions, reports or the party position on issues. These meetings are usually informal and private.
- Opposition briefing prior to first reading: briefing opposition parties before the first reading of a bill can be useful and can guide these parties in giving constructive and valid critiques of new legislation or government policy.
- The Provincial Loop (for section 76 bills): Similar interventions can be made in the NCOP, although the provincial loop means advocacy groups must also influence provincial party caucuses and opposition parties, and must be sensitive to the different priorities of provincial politics.
- Snap debates: Parties that want a snap debate on a current issue may ask the Speaker to allow this. Any MP may introduce a motion (or subject) for debate. An example of a snap debate was one on the activities of the People Against Gangsterism and Drugs (Pagad) in the Western Cape. Such a debate is a useful instrument in attracting public and media attention to an issue.
DO MEMBERS OF THE PUBLIC HAVE ACCESS TO PARLIAMENT?
Yes. The Constitution says that there must be public access and involvement in Parliament. Members of the public have the right to attend the meetings of Parliamentary Committees and all sittings of the National Assembly and the NCOP. You can stay informed regarding parliamentary agendas through the media, by contacting the Public Participation Information Section at Parliament, or through a political party. Members of the public also have the right to contact any MP or member of the NCOP to inform them of their views. This can be done through constituency offices or directly to the offices of Parliament in Cape Town.
WHAT ARE THE TYPES OF BILLS THAT CAN BE INTRODUCED IN PARLIAMENT?
There are four types of bills that come before parliament with different procedures for each.
- Bills that do not affect the provinces (Section 75 of the Constitution)
- Bills that affect the provinces (Section 76 of the Constitution)
- Amendments to the Constitution (Section 74 of the Constitution)
- Money bills (by which Parliament allocates money to the various departments; these are introduced into the National Assembly by the Minister of Finance - Sections 77 and 75 of the Constitution).
WHO CAN SUBMIT BILLS IN PARLIAMENT?
Bills may be submitted by:
- Parliamentary Committees
HOW DOES A BILL BECOME LAW?
A bill is proposed legislation that has been introduced in parliament. Parliament must either accept (pass), reject or amend a bill. All bills must be considered and voted on by both chambers -- the National Assembly and the National Council of Provinces. If they pass a bill, amended or unamended, the bill is sent to the President for his assent and signature and it then becomes law. Once a bill becomes law we refer to it as an Act of Parliament
What is a submission to Parliament?
A submission is an individual's or an organisation's comments on a piece of draft legislation (or Bill) that is being discussed by a Portfolio Committee in Parliament. A submission expresses support or opposition to the Bill. It may also propose changes. A submission is usually a written document. However, a person or organisation may also ask to make an oral presentation to the Portfolio Committee. A submission can be a very simple document, like a letter or a short statement. It can also be much longer. It depends on the writer and what she or he wants to say.
Why make a submission?
Submissions are one of the ways citizens can make their voices heard in the law-making process. MPs need to know whether or not the public supports a Bill. They also need suggestions from the public about how to improve Bills. You may have suggestions that would help make the law better. By making a submission, you can raise matters of concern or suggest solutions that MPs might not have thought of. It is a practical way to make sure we get strong gun control legislation.
When should we make our submissions on the Child Justice Bill?
After the Bill is introduced in Parliament, it will be sent to the Portfolio Committee on Justice and Constitutional Development. The Committee Secretary will call for submissions and possibly announce a public hearing. The name of the Committee Secretary is L Pakati. You can phone him on (021) 403 3758 or fax him on (021) 461 7969, to find out when you should send in your submission or make your appointment to come and address the Committee.
You should prepare for this deadline and begin working on your submission as soon as you have a copy of the Bill.
How should we write our submissions?
There is no set format for a submission. It can be a simple letter of support or opposition, or it can be a longer document with suggestions for changes. The important thing is to say what you want to say clearly.
Usually, the shorter and simpler the better. MPs are busy people and will probably not have time to read very long complicated submissions.
Know what the Bill says&
Read the Bill. Often Bills are written in complicated legalistic language and it may help to read the Memorandum at the back of the Bill. This explains the Bill.
The Child Justice Alliance has prepared a summary of the Bill that is available on the Child Justice Resources website (www.childjusitce.org.za/flowchart.htm). If you don't have access to the internet and would like a hard copy of the summary, please contact us and we will send it to you.
A copy of the draft version of the Child Justice Bill is also available on the Child Justice Resource website.
Writing the submission
Begin with a summary to make the main points If your submission is long, write a summary. Your summary should briefly outline your main points and recommendations.
Say who you are
If you are making the submission as an individual, explain why you want to comment on the legislation. If you have training or experience that is relevant to the issue, say so.
If you are making the submission as an organisation, describe the organisation: Who are its members? Why are they concerned about this Bill? Does the organisation have special expertise or experience in this issue?
Explain your point of view
This is the main part of your document. Start by saying whether you support or oppose the Bill. If you want to suggest changes, do so here.
General Tips to make your message read loud and clear
- Make your submission readable. Use clear type and a large font.
- You want it to be read, so make it easy!
- Use plain language and short words. Keep it simple.
- If you state a problem, try to propose a solution.
- Don't assume knowledge. Give MPs some background on a problem you raise. Even if they have heard it all before, it won't hurt them to hear it again!
- If you refer to a particular section of the Bill, give the number. Don't force the reader to look it up. S/he probably won't bother.
- Tell them what it's like out there. For example, talk about the way guns are killing and injuring the people you live and work with. MPs don't always have enough time to go out and find out what is happening on the ground. They need and want to know what is happening.
- Use the language of your choice
- Use the language you feel most comfortable with. The main language used in Parliament is English. However, the majority of MPs speak Xhosa, Zulu or Sotho. They will enjoy reading submissions in any of these languages. But remember, the media probably do not understand many South African languages. So attach a one-page summary of your main points in English.
What to do when you have finished your submission?
If you are in Cape Town, you can deliver your submission by hand to Parliament. Otherwise, you can post it to the Committee Secretary, Portfolio Committee on Justice and Constitutional Development, Parliament, PO Box 15, Cape Town 8000. Make sure you post it in time to arrive before the deadline.
Or, if your submission is short (five pages or less), you can fax it to the Committee Secretary, Portfolio Committee on Justice and Constitutional Development at (021) 403 3758.
If you want to make an oral submission, request this in a cover letter. Phone the Committee Secretary on (021) 403 3758 to find out if and when this will happen. Even if you are not making an oral submission, you may wish to attend the hearings.
If possible, forward a copy of your submission to the Child Justice Alliance Co-ordinator, Jacqui Gallinetti at
Community Law Centre
Private Bag X 17
Bellville 7535, RSA
Tel: (021) 959 2950
Fax: (021) 959 24111
(We would like to thank the Gun Control Alliance for providing us with these recommendations on how to make submissions. Please visit their website and support the important work that they continue to do, www.gca.org.za)
WHAT ARE SOME WAYS IN WHICH LOBBYING CAN BE CONDUCTED?
Some ways in which lobbying can be conducted are:
- writing brief position papers or memoranda explaining the key points and evidence underlying the position for which you are lobbying
- phone calls
- formal meetings
- informal meetings
- special events
- utilising other legislators who are already committed to the cause
- writing opinion or editorial pieces for newspapers
- radio or TV interviews or talk shows
These are illustrative, not comprehensive suggestions. The methods used will depend on the particular issue, the result sought, and the decision-makers involved.
WHAT ARE THE CHARACTERISTICS OF A GOOD LOBBYIST?
The following are some of the key characteristics of a good lobbyist:
- be well-prepared
- be precise
- be professional
- be polite
HOW SHOULD YOU PREPARE FOR YOUR LOBBYING ACTIVITY?
Some things to remember in preparing for lobbying are:
- Familiarise yourself with parliamentary structures and procedures, as well as other government policy-making processes.
- Understand the social psychology of the legislature.
- Keep track of the voting records and public positions of individual legislators, and look for shifts in position or vulnerabilities.
- With this information, be selective about which legislators to target, eg. initially those who have a demonstrated interest in your issue and a record which indicates they will probably support you.
- Make your appointment with the legislator(s) several weeks in advance and confirm your appointment nearer to the actual date.
- If possible, ask the legislator to meet with you on your own turf, eg. at your office or in your community hall, so that you will have his/her undivided attention and can exercise better control over the meeting's agenda.
- Do your homework:
- you must know your issue well enough to explain it clearly and intelligently;
- you must be abreast of the status of the issue or bill in Parliament -- to which committee has it been referred, who is supporting / opposing it, etc.;
- you must be familiar with your opponents' arguments against your position and develop reasonable responses to them in case the legislator(s) raise them.
- Personalise the issue where possible:
- relate examples of how the issue has affected the legislator(s)' constituents;
- bring along a person who has been directly affected -- this can be particularly persuasive.
- Prepare and bring with you to give to the legislator(s) a brief (eg. one page) fact sheet or position paper which states your position and the key facts behind it in a simple, short and straightforward manner.
- Sometimes it is helpful to attend such meetings with three or four colleagues who work with other related organisations or groups of stakeholders involved in lobbying on this issue -- this demonstrates to the legislator(s) that you have broad-based support.
- Meet in advance with your colleagues who will attend with you so that you all speak with one voice to create a stronger bargaining position.
- When meeting in a group delegation, designate a group leader to open and close the meeting and keep the discussion moving, but also assign each person in the delegation a role to play in the meeting.
WHAT DO WE MEAN BY PRECISION IN LOBBYING?
- Focus your energies.
- Begin the meeting, if possible, by noting an area of mutual agreement, eg. thanking the legislator for previous support or congratulating the legislator for the passage of a related bill, etc.
- Get right to the point and stick to it. Do not waste the legislator(s)' time and do not let the legislator sidetrack you onto other issues.
- Maintain your credibility. Never speculate, generalise or guess. It is better to say you don't know and follow up with a written response.
- If you are proposing an amendment to legislation or a specific change in the text of a draft bill, come prepared with the exact language you wish to have included.
- Ask the legislator for and make sure you get a firm commitment to a specific course of action, eg. to vote for or against a bill, to lobby other legislators, etc.
- Listen carefully to what the legislator is saying and try to steer him/her away from meaningless rhetoric and vague commitments (eg. "I'll get back to you") and back to specifics.
- Pay attention to their reactions to particular arguments or tactics -- there may be lessons you can learn for the next attempt.
- Try to address only one or two key issues. Otherwise, you may set yourself up for a trade-off, eg. the legislator may say "I can support you on this issue, but not on the others" or "If I support you on this issue, can you back off on the other"?
- If a legislator does offer to trade support on one issue for your support on another, be prepared to respond. However, avoid making commitments on the spot and say that you have to go back to your organisation for a mandate.
- If a legislator promises support, reconfirm this with him/her before a critical debate or vote.
- If a legislator will not support your position, try to determine the specific reasons behind this. This will help you develop responses to arguments being used against you.
- Ask legislators to take public positions in support of your issue or bill, eg. to co-sponsor a bill, to lobby other legislators, to speak out in debates, to issue a press statement, etc.
- Try to persuade legislators who do not agree with you to at least refrain from taking a strong and public position against you.