Scopa Back on Track
Cape Town - Parliament's public accounts committee (Scopa) began 2002 deeply divided and maligned over the multi-billion rand arms deal, but new chairperson Francois Beukman is now confident Scopa is back on track for 2003.
Speaking at the end of a three-day planning workshop, he dismissed criticism that the watchdog committee was now just a "toothless tiger".
"If you look at the progress we've made, and the involvement of members, I am quite positive we are on the right track."
Beukman is scalding of Scopa's detractors who argue the committee is no longer the tough government financial watchdog of old, describing the criticism as "rhetoric".
"I would say that is absolutely nonsense, the people who make that allegation on the one hand never attended the committee meetings, so they did not go on our site visits, and they were not part of the decisions from the hearings.
"So, I think it is just rhetoric... if you look at what we did last year, I think it's just sour grapes," he said.
Critics - including former Scopa chair Gavin Woods and the United Democratic Movement's Gerhard Koornhof - have complained the once-powerful and respected committee has lost its bite.
Woods (IFP) claims the committee has lost its vibrancy and is functioning in a "conveyor belt" kind of way.
Scopa was torn apart in 2001 through in-fighting, along party lines, over the arms deal, with the African National Congress largely pitted against Woods and minority parties.
The opposition argued the ANC members had been reigned in by their principals, a contention backed up by the party's once-leader in Scopa Andrew Feinstein, who later resigned.
Woods quit as chairperson early last year after fighting a losing battle to keep Scopa at the forefront of the arms deal investigations.
The new chair took over the mantle in June, keeping up the record of an opposition party leading the committee, although the appointment was in line with a co-operation agreement between the ANC and NNP.
Beukman said Scopa would concentrate this year on improving financial management and controls in "problem departments", and had changed its approach to handling controversial issues.
A sub-group would in future iron out differences on contentious matters before they were debated in plenary meetings, rather than merely conducting "open debates" as in the past.
"With the arms deal, everything was a public debate and people played for the pavilion," he said.
This change is one of the recommendations of a special task group, a report from which is expected to be approved at Scopa's first meeting for 2003 this Wednesday.
The team - which included representatives from the committee, the auditor-general's office and the Parliament's secretariat - has put forward an operating procedure for handling such issues.
Debate major reports
In another break from previous practice, members will debate major reports, such as the Auditor-General Shauket Fakie's annual report, in the National Assembly.
Beukman said every government department would be called before the committee at least once over a three-year cycle, and not only those facing specific difficulties.
He said Scopa had, for the first time, undertaken site visits to troubled departments, travelling in November last year to examine court management in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal.
"I think our record over the last six months, the mere fact that we went to the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal... is an indication that we are trying to play that watchdog role actively.
"We can't just sit in a cool venue and debate the issues."
The committee would begin hearings from the end of next month, beginning with engagements with defence, Parliament and the South African Revenue Service.
"The mere fact that have consensus on those three departments shows you that the allegations made in certain quarters that Scopa is soft, and that we are not working, is totally untrue," he said.
Scopa is a multi-party parliamentary committee charged with oversight of government finances.
With acknowledgements to Sapa and News24.