File picture - A demonstrator protests against the passing of the Protection of State Information Bill outside Parliament in Cape Town.

Work on the Protection of State Information Bill resumed on Tuesday, but was soon halted.

Ruling party MPs said they were not ready yet for clause-by-clause deliberations on the draft act.

The first meeting of the National Council of Provinces ad hoc committee finalising the bill, following damning public hearings in March, saw the Democratic Alliance move for a raft of amendments.

DA MP Alf Lees asked for changes to the definition of national security in the bill, and warned that the committee had no option but to revise section 1 (4).

He recalled that it was deemed unconstitutional by, among others, the Public Protector because it sought to override the constitutionally-mandated Promotion of Access to Information Act (PAIA).

“It trumps PAIA and it needs to be removed,” he argued.

At this point, ANC MPs asked committee chairman Raseriti Tau to suspend proceedings, to allow the party to caucus on how to respond to the suggestions.

Tau agreed, but told reporters that he had meant for the meeting to tackle the bill clause by clause.

He said it was important to give serious consideration to every part of the legislation to ensure that the end product passed constitutional muster.

“I think that is very important. We need to protect our Constitution and any piece of legislation needs to be a reflection of that.”

Lees said it appeared that at least some of his ANC colleagues were still waiting for political instructions, and were therefore unsure how to respond to proposals for changes.

“The ANC seemed to be concerned about how to proceed without a political mandate on amendments, period, never mind specific amendments.”

The committee's deadline for reporting back to Parliament on the bill is May 17, leaving members little more than a week to reflect on 18 comprehensive submissions made at the March hearings. All called for changes to the bill.

Among the presenters was Congress of SA Trade Unions general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, who reiterated that he would rush to the Constitutional Court to challenge the bill if it were signed into law in its present form.

Vavi warned that the legislation would place too much power in the hands of intelligence operatives and would deter whistle-blowers and journalists from exposing wrongdoing, by jailing those who aired state secrets for up to 25 years.

The committee is scheduled to resume its work on Wednesday.

The DA has called for the reporting deadline to be extended.

Tau has not excluded the possibility of an extension, and has scheduled two additional working sessions this week.

Since it was reintroduced in 2010, the bill has engendered more public opposition than any other piece of post-apartheid legislation.

Last month, Nobel literature laureate Nadine Gordimer told the New York Review of Books it was a threat to freedom of expression and should be rejected. - Sapa