Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe has defended government ministers who fail to respond to questions submitted to them by Parliament, saying they're just trying to be accurate.
Motlanthe was responding to a question posed in Parliament by Inkatha Freedom Party MP Velaphi Ndlovu who asked, "whether he intends to take steps to ensure that questions that were submitted to ministers before March 31 2012 are replied to. If not, why not; if so, what steps?"
Motlanthe said that he provides a report at each Cabinet meeting on the overdue replies to parliamentary questions, both in the House and the national council of provinces.
"Ministers are well aware of their obligation in terms of the Constitution, to account collectively and individually to Parliament for the exercise of their powers and the performance of their functions," he said.
"Having made inquiries regarding the reasons for failure to reply to the 13 outstanding questions in the period that the Honourable Ndlovu refers to, it would appear that the difficulty lies in the desire by ministers to provide accurate information so that they do not end up misleading the House."
He added that in some cases, the nature of the questions is "very extensive", particularly where the questions pertained to provinces as well as national issues, and said that in some cases this accounted for the delays.
"However, ministers are reminded [to respond] on a regular basis at each and every sitting at Cabinet," he said.
Ndlovu, who had asked the question, said that if ministers could not answer the questions put to them something should be done. "If the people who are supposed to respond to their questions are not suitable to that, they must fire them and employ other people who are qualified to do the job," he said.
But Motlanthe said that the power to impose penalties on those who do not account to Parliament rests with the House itself, saying, "Indeed if there [are] to be some disincentives, they've got to come from this House."
He said he regularly reminds ministers of their obligations to respond to questions asked in Parliament and insists they the "respond to all questions without failure".
DA MP Juli Killian argued that the undertakings by the president and deputy president to get ministers to respond were "not adequate". She said that there had been a 47% decline in the number of answers given to parliamentary questions between 2010 and 2011.
According to Killian, the president himself failed to respond to 22% of the questions. Other serial offenders were the departments of correctional services and cooperative governance, which failed to respond to almost half of all the questions put to them.
"This is totally unacceptable," she said.
Parliament allows ministers 10 working days in which to respond to questions but Killian said 254 questions remained unanswered by the end of last year.
"We want to know what other steps you are contemplating to make a turnaround to make sure the people respect the Constitution and their duty to account to Parliament, including possible deductions to their salaries," she asked.
DA MP Sandy Kalyan said that ministers’ failure to answer questions “smacks of arrogance” and that Motlanthe’s response indirectly pointed to their incompetence.
"In this day of IT and information [that is] readily available there should not be a waiting period of longer than 10 working days," she said.
Although Motlanthe had only been asked to respond concerning the 13 questions that were outstanding as of March 31, Kalyan said there were in fact 332 outstanding questions as of October 8.