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Parliamentary fiscal office on track

Lynley Donnelly

The independent body is expected to address weaknesses in the institution's technical capacity.

National Assembly speaker Max Sisulu says the budget office will give nonpartisan advice to parliamentary committees (Oupa Nkosi, M&G)

After more than three years of planning and nearly a decade of legislative wrangling, the establishment of a parliamentary budget office is within sight.

The body will enable the legislature to make amendments to the national budget under the auspices of the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act, which was passed in 2009.

The establishment of the office has been heavily contested, given the implications it will have for the budgeting process and the relationship between Parliament and the executive, particularly the treasury.

It was also delayed while the legislature determined the position of the office within the structures of Parliament and its reporting lines.

National Assembly speaker Max Sisulu has assured critics that the office will be independent, as will the advice and analysis it will provide to Parliament.

"At the end of the day, it is intended to assist Parliament in its oversight role," Sisulu said.

Technical support
Professor Mohammed Jahed of the Development Bank of Southern Africa, seconded by Parliament last year to work on the establishment of the office, stressed that it would be "nothing more" than technical support for parliamentary committees.

"It does not make ideological statements, it does not make assumptions, it provides technical support in a nonpartisan way to the committees of Parliament to undertake their function of fiscal oversight," he said.

Opposition parties broadly welcomed the news, especially as the office will contribute to addressing well-known weaknesses in Parliament's technical and research capacity.

But Narend Singh of the Inkatha Freedom Party said greater independence for the parliamentary budget office would have been preferred, particularly for the entity's budgetary allocation and reporting lines. The office will report to the executive of Parliament, which includes the speaker of the National Assembly and the chairperson of the National Council of Provinces.

As of April 1, the office will be financed by a transfer from Parliament's budgetary allocation. It will account to Parliament and its accounting officer, the secretary to Parliament, regarding the spending of funds.

"Parliament must ensure that the budget office is adequately financed to ensure it can do its work properly," said Singh.

The secretary to Parliament, Michael Coetzee, said that the executive would be responsible for appointing the budget office's director.

But according to the Act, the standing committees on finance and appropriations in the National Assembly and the select committees on finance and appropriations in the National Council of Provinces must recommend the office's director.

The appointment of a director must then be made by a resolution of both houses of Parliament.

Political appointment
The Act stipulates that the committees must recommend someone with the requisite qualifications, experience and leadership skills.

Cedric Frolick, the house chairperson in the National Assembly and chair of the parliamentary task team working to establish the office, said that it would not be a political appointment.

"It is purely based on the skill ­currently available," he said. Once chosen, the director must then appoint the necessary staff to populate the unit.

According to Sisulu, the office is initially intended to have 12 staff members who will provide technical support to the finance and appropriations committees.

After a period of 12 to 24 months, it will be reviewed to extend support to all committees.

Democratic Alliance financial spokesperson Tim Harris said the point of the office was to offer independent advice, which the governance structures set up in the Act made provision for.

He had faith in the committee process, he said, as there was a wide understanding among members of Parliament about the need for objective advice and analysis from the office.

Sisulu said the office would be up and running before the end of the fourth Parliament, which concludes with the next national elections in 2014.

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