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Info Bill sent back to ad hoc committee

The National Assembly has referred the Protection of State Information Bill back to the ad hoc committee that drafted and recently reviewed the legislation because it failed to observe procedural rules.

The step was prompted on Tuesday in an appeal by Inkatha Freedom Party MP Mario Oriani-Ambrosini to the Speaker, noting that the committee had failed to properly include minority views and full minutes of its proceedings.

It leaves room only for these matters to be corrected and not for further amendments to the official secrets Bill.

"There were procedural issues that needed to be addressed, and the only way to do that is to introduce a new committee in terms of the rules of Parliament, as the old committee had ceased to exist," said Moloto Mothapo, the spokesperson for the office of the ANC Chief Whip.

"It was referred back to the committee on technical grounds to ensure the report is adjusted in line with the rules of Parliament. It had to take into consideration all the work that all the previous committees did."

The legislature agreed to reconstitute the committee and to give it until November 7 to report back on its work.

Flawed process
A fortnight ago, the ANC majority on the committee pushed through limited changes to the official secrets Bill, overruling objections from other parties that the process was flawed.

This resulted in corrections to two technical errors in two sections of the Bill that were singled out by President Jacob Zuma when he sent it back to Parliament in September.

All opposition parties abstained from the vote, arguing that although the changes were welcome, Zuma had fallen foul of the Constitution by failing to give MPs an exact brief.

At issue was whether Zuma had intended MPs to confine their review to sections 42 and 45, or whether he had intended them to interrogate other, unnamed, sections of the Bill when he raised reservations of constitutionality and referred it back to the legislature.

The opposition wrote to the president to seek clarity, but he did not respond.

In the end, chief state law adviser Enver Daniels ruled that the review had to be confined to the two sections explicitly mentioned by Zuma, dashing activists' hopes for a comprehensive review of arguably the most bitterly contested piece of post-apartheid legislation.

Indulged the opposition
MPs fixed an incorrect cross-reference in section 42 and a punctuation error in section 45 that in effect rendered meaningless a hard-won safeguard on the state's powers to classify information.

After the vote, ANC hardliners tried to block a demand from the Democratic Alliance, the Congress of the People and the IFP that their reasons for objecting be included in full in the committee's report to the National Assembly.

ANC MP Jerome Maake said the committee had already indulged the opposition sufficiently by hearing their arguments.

Committee chairperson Cecil Burgess finally allowed a terse reference to the opposition's objections to be noted in the committee report.

African Christian Democratic Party MP Steve Swart said the appeal to the Speaker was mainly prompted by the opposition's position that they had the right to have their arguments on the president's referral included in the report in full.

"The main point relates to the inclusion of a minority report as to why the opposition parties abstained from the vote. We wanted to explain why we objected to the process."

Opponents of the Bill said that although it underwent many changes during three years of drafting, the Bill still raises the spectre of excessive state secrecy and will not pass constitutional muster on many grounds. – Sapa

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