Parliament gathers the information necessary for the execution of its constitutional mandate through its various Committees. Parliamentary Committees use various methods to gather information including public hearings, commissioned research, oral evidence and fact-finding visits. The method used depends on the nature of the issues being investigated. However, once the information is collected, it is considered by the Committee and the Committee’s findings and recommendations are compiled into a report for tabling before the House to which the Committee belongs.
Public hearings are open Committee meetings that are often conducted outside the precincts of Parliament to gather first-hand information from various stakeholders in order to assist the Committee to make informed findings and recommendations to Parliament. Good governance requires that all interested and affected parties be consulted on issues that have a bearing on their well-being as stated in Section 141 of the constitution. The input that is sought from stakeholders relates to proposed or existing policies, Bills, regulations and other issues or changes that would significantly affect the public if enacted or introduced.
At public hearings, the role of members of Parliament is limited to listening to and capturing stakeholder’s views; MPs do not engage in debate at public hearings. Members can only seek clarification of certain issues raised by the public.
Where a Parliamentary committee opines that it needs technical expertise to unpack an issue before it, such a Committee can resolve to engage an external specialist in that particular field. The Committee Clerk communicates the resolution of the Committee to the administration of Parliament to find the requisite specialist to assist the Committee on that particular inquiry.
Standing Orders 160 and 166 of the Senate and National Assembly, respectively, give Parliament Committees extensive powers to summon any person to appear before the Committee to give evidence on oath or affirmation, and to present documents the Committee requires. The same Standing Orders also give Committees the power to receive representations from interested parties.
Where the Committee summons a person to appear before it, the Committee elicits evidence from a witness by way of a set of questions previously agreed to by the Committee and follow up questions arising from the witness testimony. Select Committee Rule 12 (3) states that during the examination of a witness, Members shall not offer debate or express their own or the Committees’ opinion on the matter under discussion.
Parliamentary Committees can also conduct site/field visits which are of a fact-finding nature as part of their oversight function. The visits also entail Committees travelling beyond the precincts of Parliament.
Source: SAPST Training Module for CSOs and the Public on Parliamentary Processes and Procedures