/ 4 March 2011

Ad hoc decision stalls ‘secrecy Bill’

Ad Hoc Decision Stalls 'secrecy Bill'

The Protection of Information Bill has been in limbo for more than a month as Parliament battles over the reconstitution of the ad hoc committee set up to process the controversial legislation.

And civil society observers are concerned that, while political parties thrash out the terms of the committee’s re-establishment, party positions on the substance of the Bill will harden, making a difficult legislative process even more fraught.

The “secrecy Bill” aims to create a new dispensation for the classification and protection of state information. The committee’s lifespan ended on January 28, after its mandate had already been extended last year.

Deputy parliamentary speaker Nomaindia Mfeketo, acting as speaker, then extended its life for another two months, referring to Rule 2 of the National Assembly, which allows the speaker to make a ruling in the light of “unforeseen eventualities”.

Opposition parties argued that they had warned Parliament that the committee’s term was ending so its expiry was not unforeseen. The unhappiness about Mfeketo’s move resulted in opposition MPs from the Democratic Alliance, Inkatha Freedom Party and African Christian Democratic Party walking out of the committee’s last meeting.

Under Rule 214 (6)(c), an ad hoc committee ceases to exist “if it has not completed its task by the date set for completion”. Opposition MPs argue that the committee can be reconstituted only by a resolution of the National Assembly. Mfeketo’s bid to extend the committee’s life and have the decision ratified by a sitting of the National Assembly is unprocedural, they argue.

“Parliament has been caught napping,” said Steve Swart, an ACDP member of the committee. “It’s important that we stick strictly to parliamentary rules, given the public interest in this Bill and the distinct possibility of a Constitutional Court challenge.”

The DA’s Dene Smuts said: “We want everything procedurally correct so that there is no issue of unconstitutionality in respect of procedure, in addition to the more contentious content issues [of the Bill].”

The ANC has thrown its weight behind the deputy speaker, calling the objections a frivolous attempt to question her integrity. “The speaker extended the life of the committee and the decision is awaiting ratification by the National Assembly, which is expected next Tuesday,” said Moloto Mothapo, ANC parliamentary caucus spokesperson.

He said that under parliamentary rules an ad hoc committee’s term ends only when it has completed its work and reported to the assembly. The rules contradict each other, he conceded, but, in conformity with the latter clause a new committee will have to be formed.

“Re-establishing the committee and redoing the public hearings would be a waste of time, resources and taxpayers’ money,” he said. Mfeketo had also sought to extend the life of two other ad hoc committees, one deliberating on the forensic investigation into the Commission for Gender Equality and the other considering judicial conduct and disclosure of interests, and no one had objected, Mothapo said.