The Parliamentary Questions Unit is no longer accepting ministerial responses to Parliamentary questions as answers unless they address the issues raised.
The Democratic Alliance (DA) has long complained that some ministers, including defence and veterans affairs minister Lindiwe Sisulu provided “non answers” to questions.
DA chief whip Mike Ellis says it “has been a longstanding tendency of Minister Sisulu, even during her tenure as Minister of Housing, to ‘reply’ to parliamentary questions by simply stating ‘We have requested the necessary information as soon as that has been received a substantive follow up response will be forwarded’.”
He laments that the follow-up responses are never forthcoming.
“By doing this the minister ensures that the question gets taken off the question paper and that she cannot be held to account for her actions,” he avers.
At least one question answered in this manner concerned whether any renovations or improvements had been done to her ministerial homes since her appointment to the defence and military veterans portfolio in May.
“It has been the practice of the Parliamentary Questions Unit to accept such responses as valid replies; but, in a welcome move, the Unit recently put its foot down and refused to accept that answer as a reply,” Ellis adds.
The DA says Parliamentary official Michael Plaatjies last Monday told the DoD in an email copied to Sisulu’s brother, Speaker of Parliament Max Sisulu, that the response “We have requested the necessary information as soon as that has been received a substantive follow up response will be forwarded” was not an answer but merely information.
“After careful consideration we have determined that the responses provided were not replies to the questions, but were information. We have therefore returned all such questions to the question paper until the replies are provided,” Plaatjies wrote.
“Our practice recognises that the Speaker is unable to lay down the form in which a Minister should reply to a question. A reply can also not be insisted on if a Minister refuses a reply to a question. But our practice also determines that a Minister in replying to a question is expected to confine him- or herself to the points contained in the question,” he added.
“In the United Kingdom the Arms to Iraq affair resulted in the Scott Report in which an in-depth analysis of ministerial responsibility was made by Sir Richard Scott, the Inquiry chairman. This doctrine of ministerial responsibility forms the basis of our doctrine on questions to the executive or members of Cabinet. In this regard the Scott report founded that: ‘A failure by Ministers to meet the obligations of ministerial accountability by providing information about the activities of their department engenders cynicism about government and undermines, in my opinion, the democratic process.’
“For the representatives to express their views and for those views to be legitimate in a strong democracy, it should be based on adequate knowledge of government activities.
“We have therefore returned the questions of your Minister to the paper and those questions will remain there to offer your Minister an opportunity to respond to them fully,” Plaatjies wrote.
Ellis says the DoD’s response can at “best described as undemocratic and reveals the Minister’s true intent: to avoid answering parliamentary questions and by-pass the Constitution.”
“It is an indictment of the Minister and her officials and constitutes further evidence of the complete disdain Minister Sisulu continues to show toward Parliament and best democratic practice,” he added.
The DoD’s Francois Hugo replied Tuesday that they would raise the matter with Sisulu and respond.
Hugo added though that the minister “has informed members of the Portfolio Committee on Defence that they have no authority to challenge her replies to parliamentary questions.
“Should they not be in agreement with the responses, they could submit another question on the same topic, but they can not challenge whatever she deems to be her reply,” Hugo said.
“We were unable to find any parliamentary ruling on what would constitute a reply. We therefore deem any response given as a reply, even if the member asking the question is not satisfied with the answer.”
Ellis said in one of the emails, the DoD said that Sisulu had referred the matter to Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe as the Head of Government Business.
“Recently the Deputy President, in response to an oral question, gave Parliament the assurance that he was personally committed to ensuring that the executive answered Parliamentary questions. This then constitutes the first real test of that commitment. Will the Deputy President force the Minister to answer questions, or allow her to get away with by-passing the Constitution?”
Ellis says the DA will be submitting a written question to the Deputy President to ask whether he has been approached by the Minister of Defence in this regard and, if so, what his decision on the matter was.