Your MPs are supposedly off doing "constituency work" that costs R339m – but where are the results?

Parties represented in Parliament get paid about R339m a year out of public funds to do constituency work. What work are MPs doing for this money during the current unusually lengthy constituency period of 10 weeks, or is this just an excuse for long leave?

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28/07/2021 06:45:34

Your MPs are supposedly off doing ‘constituency work’ that costs R339m – but where are the results?
This opinion piece by Chris Scholtz and Liz McDaid was first published in the Daily Maverick

South Africans are struggling to pick up the pieces of ruined businesses and failed governance after this month’s unprecedented violence and turmoil against the background of an ongoing pandemic, but Parliament is in its longest recess ever. Even the Cabinet is taking a short recess.

What is going on?

While we have seen communities working together to protect themselves, clean up and rebuild, Parliament has hardly said a word. This would seem to be a moment to recall Parliament from its slumbers, and for members of Parliament to investigate what happened and why, and how to prevent it from happening again. The president has not briefed Parliament (supposedly the representatives of the people) but rather made public statements some days after the worst of the violence.

Some parliamentary committees finally started discussing the violence: the Joint Standing Committees on Defence and on Intelligence, and the Portfolio Committee on Police. These deal with the security cluster, which was disgraced by its inadequate response to the turmoil. By 21 July, there were suggestions that an inquiry might be held. None of the committees dealing with underlying social conditions are discussing the violence.

Parliament itself does not deem what the president called a failed insurrection important enough to reconvene: on 20 July, the Speaker of the National Assembly, Thandi Modise, said it was not necessary to reconvene as MPs were “in their constituency areas, providing guidance and leadership”. This is an extraordinary statement, given that under Covid-19 lockdown, MPs meet virtually. Instead, Parliament will hold an “extraordinary extended” debate, but only after it reconvenes in mid-August.

Parliament always has a mid-year recess. In Parliament’s schedule for 2021, this entire period is specifically listed as a “constituency period” for both houses. This is for MPs to engage with the communities which they represent. Traditionally, the recess included two or three weeks for constituency work and another two weeks of leave for MPs. Parliamentary programmes show that in 2010, the recess was five weeks, and in subsequent years, two to four weeks. In 2020, the year when Covid-19 arrived, MPs took six weeks. But in 2021, it is much longer: the National Assembly closed on 7 June for 10 weeks and the National Council of Provinces closed on 21 June for eight weeks. Both houses resume on 16 August.

Cabinet, which usually meets every second week, is also on recess. It hasn’t met during July and isn’t expected to meet for at least another week.

July 2021 has arguably seen the biggest test of our democracy since getting through the 1994 election. This is not the time for MPs and ministers to be missing in action, particularly after the Cabinet’s slow response to the violence.

Also during the recess, we have seen controversy erupt over the SAA equity deal, the rejection of the controversial Karpowership deal on environmental grounds, and the Covid-19 case numbers – particularly in Gauteng – resembling the trajectory of a NASA rocket launch.

These are all critical matters on which MPs are expected to hold ministers and their departments to account. What is the plan for filling the short-term power gap? How far is the minister of mineral resources and energy in following the president’s instructions for raising the cap for self-generation to 100MW? What is happening with the vaccination rollout, particularly in the light of the looting?

There is legislation waiting to be finalised, some of it for years. These include the Municipal Systems Amendment Bill – essential to help block State Capture in municipalities – which MPs missed the Constitutional Court deadline to rewrite. The Prevention of Hate Crimes and Hate Speech Bill, the International Crimes Bill and the Public Finance Management Amendment Bill have all been sitting in Parliament since October 2019.

What happens to Parliament during recess?

During recess, the National Assembly and NCOP do not sit, although there is a mechanism for tabling reports.

The dozens of parliamentary committees are the engine rooms where the work happens. These committees are where oversight of departments and state entities, and processing of legislation, is meant to take place. During the working term, the 30 National Assembly committees meet sometimes more than once a week. During recess, committee work slows considerably. This year, possibly due to the introduction of virtual meetings, there have been more committee meetings during the recess than usual, most apparently catching up unfinished work.

You pay R339m a year for constituency work, but is it being done?

Constituency work, when MPs are in the constituencies assigned to them to help the public, is supposed to be the bridge between communities and Parliament and is funded with public money.

However, there is little transparency over the constituency work done or the use of the public money funding it. Instead, the public must rely on the honesty and work ethic of individual MPs.

Parliament funds political parties through its Programme 5 (Associated Services), which provides travel, communication and facilities to enable MPs to fulfil their duties as public representatives. It also includes significant financial support to the MPs’ parties and constituency offices.

Parliament’s annual report for 2019/20 shows it transferred R470.7-million to parties that year, including R338.4-million for “constituency allowance”. Parliament’s annual performance plan for 2021/22 budgets R510.1-million (an 8% increase) for transfers to parties, with no breakdown for the constituency allowance. Parties must report back on the use of these funds, but this is not in Parliament’s reports.

This funding is in addition to the Represented Political Parties Fund which the Independent Electoral Commission distributes to parties (R158-million in 2019/20, including R143-million to National Assembly parties).

OUTA has been unable to find a comprehensive list of the party constituency offices, which the parliamentary transfers pay for.

Parliament’s website contains little about constituency offices or their performance. It is difficult for the public to find out which MPs are supposedly assigned to their constituencies, or where to find those constituency offices.

OUTA asked Parliament and the parties for constituency office details but could not get full information, which raises questions of how many of these offices exist. We received complete constituency office lists from the ACDP, AIC, FF Plus, UDM, GOOD, AL Jamah-ah, and IFP.

Lists from the ANC, DA and EFF have not been forthcoming.

We want MPs to account for their time and the public funds spent on their “constituency work”. Without any accountability, it is difficult to understand why MPs earning more than R1.1-million a year take 10 weeks of recess but do not have to report back, or why their parties are given R339-million a year without any accountability.

The best way for MPs to show that they are worth voting for would be to be more responsive and transparent. MPs should show up for work and work longer hours, to play their part in pulling South Africa out of its current crisis, rather than making more desperate, empty promises to an increasingly cynical voting public.

Picture: OUTA