Prime Ministers Question Time defeats own objective

By: Timothy Chemonges

Over the years, the transformation of the Prime Ministers Question Time (PMQT) in Parliament to its current set-up, defeats its intended objective and purpose to serve Uganda.

The rules that set in motion the procedure fall short in creating a distinction between the substantive questions directed to the Prime Minister as the Leader of Government Business and the questions to the respective Ministers.

The rules also fail to spell out how such questions included in the Prime Minister’s Question Record Book, in case they are not among the fifteen questions by raffle conducted by the Clerk to Parliament, are supposed to be handled.

The provision that the PMQT is not supposed to exceed 45 minutes seems not to take into consideration the overwhelming number of Parliamentarians- 529 MPs in total, which might want to raise various questions and concerns that are of national importance, to the Premier.

Rule 41 of the Rules of Procedures of Parliament require the PMQT to commence at 4.00 p.m. of every Thursday but not exceed 45 minutes. The Rule, allows the Prime Minister to either make a statement or oral response to questions put to him/her on matters of national policy or the general performance of the Government and its Agencies.

The rule further provides that the questions to the Prime Minister shall be made in writing and submitted to the Clerk who shall enter all questions in the Prime Minister’s Question Record Book and select fifteen questions by the raffle which shall be forwarded to the Prime Minister for attention.

The PMQT is an important procedure in the Westminster system serving as one of the few mediums through which legislators hold the Prime Minister, directly accountable to Parliament.

In a bid to perform its oversight and representative role, Parliament adopted several oversight mechanisms including the PMQT. On February 29, 2012, the House adopted PMQT on recommendation by the Committee on Rules, Privileges and Discipline in its Report on the Rules of Procedure of Parliament.

However, the PMQT was not realized until November 2013, 21 months later after Kasilo County MP Elijah Okupa, raised concern over the non-adherence to the rule, on the floor of Parliament between August and November 2013.

During the 9th Parliament, the PMQT used to be scheduled every Wednesday starting 3pm of each plenary sitting and it lasted for 45 Minutes unless the Speaker in exceptional cases exercises his or her discretion to extend. However, the rules were amended to move the PMQT to every Thursday at 4pm for 45 minutes.

Then, the members were free to ask any (one) question on any matter except for the Leader of Opposition who was allowed to ask more than one question and the Prime Minister was expected to respond instantly though not often.

Credit must be accorded where it is due, and the PMQT, despite its shortcomings, has achieved a lot including enabling Members to bring to the attention of Government matters of emergency nature from their respective constituencies and reducing bureaucracy in various Government Ministries, Department and Agencies in the implementation of government programs.

However, it is important to point out that as the legal dispensation and practices transform, they should do so for the better as opposed to taking a retrogressive approach. Even if other parliamentary forums, such as the urgent question to the Ministers among others offer better avenues for scrutiny and influence, PMQs still offers a more frequent opportunity for fulfilling these functions, as well as for the fulfillment of a variety of other functions such as constituency representation and easing tensions.

During the 10th Parliament, a total of 858 questions by members were responded to during the Prime Minister’s question time of which, 641 were urgent questions. According to the Legacy report of the 10th Parliament had a total of 478 sittings.

One would wish to ask, why the low number of questions asked and responded to by the Prime Minister during that period? There are so many ways to look at it, but the bottom line is that the set-up equally failed to achieve the intended objective of the PMQT.

Absenteeism by the Prime Minister and the Ministers during the PMQT and plenary sittings respectively were one of the biggest challenges that the 10th Parliament faced and thus the idea of putting the executive to account in Parliament was not realized.

There is, therefore, a need to further review the aspect of the PMQT lest the prospects of this procedure for holding the Government accountable will continue to be negligible.

There is need to establish a follow-up mechanism for the unanswered questions to be addressed by the Prime Minister in time because the current set-up, defeats the notion of equity.

Parliament should be creative enough in thinking of ways to establish a clear distinction between questions asked during the PMQT and those to be asked to the respective Ministers to avoid duplication and review the time allotted to the procedure taking.