Lloyd Gumbo Mr Speaker, Sir,
Parliamentary portfolio and thematic committees have done a lot by summoning public officials to appear before them and answer questions that are generally considered to be of public interest.
In their quest to shrug off the tag of being labelled toothless bulldogs, parliamentarians have used committees, that are open to members of the public, to portray themselves as people who are doing something after all.
They have grilled and embarrassed public officials who are regarded as untouchables in their ministries or departments.
One by one, they have left Parliament tails tucked in between their legs and silently swearing at the MPs who had cut them down to size, while giving oral evidence.
Mr Speaker Sir, some committees have indeed justified their existence, while others have struggled, but those that they have done well have in the process helped improve the image of all the struggling ones.
One cannot dispute the contributions that some committees have made in the governance of the country.
Neither can anyone begrudge them for standing their ground when big ego officials appear before them and try to lecture them about how to run their affairs, contrary to the provisions of the Standing Rules and Orders.
Again, there are some that have allowed witnesses to dictate how they should go about their business.
But today’s issue is not really about vibrant or weak committees, neither is it about strong or anaemic committee chairpersons, it is about the administration of committee meetings.
Mr Speaker Sir, Harare City Council Acting Town Clerk Josephine Ncube and an entourage of directors have appeared three times before different parliamentary portfolio committees between January 19 and February 14.
The officials appeared before the Portfolio Committee on Small and Medium Enterprises on January 19, to outline measures they were putting in place to ensure good working conditions for informal traders and SMEs in Harare.
They were before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Environment, Water, Tourism and Hospitality Industry on February 6, to explain the city’s waste management initiatives at Pomona dumpsite.
On February 14, Mrs Ncube and some directors again appeared before the Parliamentary Portfolio Committee on Local Government, Public Works and National Housing to give evidence on the council’s involvement in the Caledonia housing project.
We are told the committee was livid that Harare Mayor Mr Bernard Manyenyeni did not appear before them.
They wanted the mayor, who probably knows little about the subject matter, and not Mrs Ncube and directors who probably have a better appreciation of the status of the Caledonia housing project.
In short, one wonders whether or not the committee wanted political responses, from the mayor, who is a politician, rather than the factual position from the Town Clerk and managers who are probably hands on.
Mr Speaker Sir, the major talking point is whether the Town Clerk and her team should spend more time in Parliament or on service delivery?
At a time the city is grappling with water-borne diseases, potholed roads everywhere and burst sewage pipes, should the people who are supposed to be addressing those problems be spending more time in Parliament?
It probably takes no less than two days for officials to prepare oral evidence given that sometimes MPs ask for every minute details about a matter.
So, one could say for the three weeks that Mrs Ncube and her team were appearing in Parliament, one week could have been spent preparing for the oral evidence.
Mr Speaker Sir, the question is why can’t the committee meetings be collapsed into at most one, if the witnesses are the same as usually happens with joint sittings?
For instance, the City of Harare could have appeared once before one joint sitting of the three committees and answer all the critical questions.
This could be dealt with by making sure committee clerks submit their committee diaries to the Clerk of Parliament’s Office well in advance so that they can combine the committees when they realise that the same witnesses are expected to appear before different committees within the same month.
Surely, how can inquiries on the measures that the City of Harare is putting in place to ensure good working conditions of informal traders and SMEs in Harare take three hours of evidence submission?
Even the one on the Pomona dumpsite or the City’s involvement in Caledonia housing project, a joint sitting of the three respective committees could have sufficed.
As someone who has covered committee meetings for over 10 years, I know for a fact that real questions or issues are dealt with within the first 30-45 minutes, the rest of the oral evidence is usually repetitions and petty discussions yet some committees consider it an abomination to conclude their meetings within an hour even if there is nothing more substantial to talk about.
As if that was not enough, the Portfolio Committee on Defence, Home Affairs and Security Services went on a familiarisation tour of Police General Headquarters and other police stations in Harare on January 30 and two days later, the Thematic Committee on Peace and Security was also scheduled to tour the Police General Headquarters and other police facilities in Harare.
Surely, how can that happen as if the police are there to only respond to questions from different committees of Parliament unless this was an error?
Mr Speaker Sir, what has even compounded matters is the fact that some of the committees have become reactive.
They rush to summon officials to appear before them when the media breaks a story about something that relates to their committee, a development that smacks of a committee that has no diary to talk about.
And sometimes nothing new comes out of such committee meetings apart from the issues previously raised by the media.
Committees should guard against summoning officials just for the sake of it.
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