Parliament blows R1m on jaunt to London

2016-04-24 06:33

Questions raised about sidelining of union, why UK is the benchmark and the timing of the trip during the World Cup

Secretary to Parliament Gengezi Mgidlana and four of his top staff spent almost R1 million in the UK on a 10-day “benchmarking” exercise – travelling on SAA and British Airways business class flights and staying in five-star hotels.

A week later, Mgidlana took two of those officials and two others on another trip to Turkey to study how the Turkish Parliament works.

He ended his two weeks in Switzerland, where he travelled with yet another parliamentary official. The Turkey and Swiss trips cost a further R900 000.

The UK benchmarking exercise was meant to have been conducted with Parliament’s majority union, the National Education, Health and Allied Workers’ Union (Nehawu), according to an agreement signed early last year.
City Press has seen documents estimating the cost of the UK trip, taken in September last year, at R940 622, with travel documents describing it as an “oversight trip”. Parliament claimed the final costs were the same as the estimated costs.

Six months later, it remains unclear whether Parliament benefited from the junket. There has been no sign of any report compiled from the study visit.

The Geneva trip was for the interparliamentary union conference that was also supposed to be attended by Speaker Baleka Mbete, but she never arrived, according to a number of MPs.

Mgidlana; his deputy, Penelope Tyawa; acting deputy secretary Modibedi Phindela; former acting human resources executive Mpho Mokonyana; and Mgidlana’s personal assistant, Lolita Ntshinga; flew business class to London and then on to Edinburgh.

Documents City Press has obtained show that the group spent three nights at the luxurious Conrad London St James hotel, where Mgidlana’s room cost R14 050 a night.

The others stayed in single rooms costing between R6 900 and R10 870 a night each. Their three-night stay cost Parliament R177 350.

The group also hired chauffeur-driven vehicles, both in England and Scotland. These J-Class vehicles are described as “luxurious” by car rental companies and, according to the cost-estimate document, cost Parliament R65 118.

However, given the cost-cutting measures Treasury has put in place since late 2013, serious questions arise.

Conrad London St James Hotel 3 PHOTO:
in the lap of luxury Parliamentary staff spared no expense during their trip to London. They flew SAA business class and stayed at the five-star Conrad London St James hotel
Gengezi Mgidlana
Penelope Tyawa
Advocate Modibedi Phindela

Mgidlana’s London and Scotland trip took place during the rugby World Cup in England. It was approved by Mgidlana’s subordinate, acting executive manager for strategy and governance Sandisiwe Schalk.

Mgidlana told Speaker Baleka Mbete and National Council of Provinces chairperson Thandi Modise about the trip a day after it was approved by a junior manager. In a memo to them, Mgidlana recommended that Mbete and Modise “note the proposal”.

According to Parliament’s own 2006 procurement policy, division managers, including deputy secretaries, can only procure goods and services under R250 000. Written motivation for goods and services between R250 000 and R500 000 is needed for approval by the secretary to Parliament.

But Parliament’s spokesperson, Luzuko Jacobs, told City Press the trip was in line with parliamentary policy prescripts and the exercise targeted specific areas identified in Parliament’s 2014 to 2019 strategic plan. Jacobs said a report on the benchmarking exercise was presented to the “relevant management structures”, but he declined to say which one.

City Press made repeated requests for a copy of the report, both verbally and in writing, but is yet to receive it. Jacobs, however, insists Parliament got good value from the trip, which he said was “an eye-opener in several respects”.

“Some of the lessons learnt and experienced have already been implemented, and have influenced the institution’s plans and practices,” he said.

Jacobs said Parliament’s policy since 2009 allows the secretary to travel on business class and employees to do the same, provided that the international journey is longer than eight hours. They also used the VIP Protocol Lounges in the Cape Town International and OR Tambo airports, which ministers are allowed to use but ordinary MPs are not.

“The secretary and the accompanying officials did not use any facilities they were not entitled to,” he said.

But the Nehawu branch in Parliament is furious. The union’s Disang Mocumi said they were shocked that senior managers went on “an extravagant trip” in the run-up to the Nehawu parliamentary strike.

“Now we understand why the issues of workers could not be resolved; they were on an extravagant trip for two weeks.”

Nehawu said the trip contravened a collective agreement that the union and Parliament’s management would conduct benchmarking together.

Mocumi said news of the trip came at a time when more than 300 parliamentary staff had still not received their performance bonuses for last year and Nehawu was contesting this at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration.

United Democratic Movement chief whip Nqabayomzi Kwankwa has written to Mbete asking Parliament to investigate possible irregularities in the trip, saying “it is incredibly irregular to allow junior managers to approve expenses for their superiors”.

Kwankwa said that, according to the 2009 Financial Management of Parliament and Provincial Legislatures Act, the trip should have been authorised and approved by the Speaker’s office.

Kwankwa also questioned its timing.

“I am disinclined to believe the fact that the trip occurred during the 2015 rugby World Cup was a coincidence. From where we are sitting, this has all the signs of a holiday trip taken at the expense of the taxpayers, which is shocking and unpardonable.”

Kwankwa said there was no sign of any report compiled from the visit. DA chief whip John Steenhuisen said Parliament’s oversight authority met earlier this year and no mention was made of a benchmarking trip, nor was any report tabled.

“The trip flies in the face of the cost-cutting measures introduced some years ago,” he said, adding that questions should be asked about why Parliament benchmarked itself on UK parliaments.

“We are always accused of being Eurocentric when we cite Europe for best practice. Why do we then go to Westminster and Edinburgh, and not the developing countries’ or Brics [Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa] parliaments? Why is the House of Commons suddenly a benchmark?” he asked.

Jacobs said that reports from the study visits were referred to the “secretariat and management team”, and once fully processed, would be sent to Mbete and Modise.

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