Civil society activists have accused lawmakers and ministers of “greed” and being “insensitive” to national priorities after it emerged that they abandoned the budgeting process and travelled abroad, seeking “fat allowances”.
For the third year in a row, Parliament on Friday blew the deadline for approving this year’s Budget, prompting activists and political analysts to complain once again about parliamentary “fecklessness” on fiscal matters and bloated expenditures on foreign trips.
The Budget Act, 2011 requires Parliament to have passed the 2013/14 Budget by last Friday to facilitate the government deliver the services to the people. However, the absence of the lawmakers and some ministers, who chose to travel abroad in the middle of the budgeting process, the Daily Monitor understands that the Budget debate in Parliament has been temporarily put off until September 10.
While the law, with reasonable cause gives Speaker latitude to extend the August 30 deadline, in this case, the Daily Monitor investigation has revealed that there was no clear explanation for missing the deadline. This is the third year Parliament is missing the Budget deadline and the anomaly is beginning to get noticed.
Reacting to the decision by the lawmakers to travel abroad before approving the budget, Ms Cissy Kagaba, a member of Civil Society Advocacy Budget Monitoring Group, said: “This Parliament is gradually sinking and its priorities are misplaced. For the Budget deadline to pass because MPs are busy out of the country looking for money in conferences is absurd and speaks volumes as to the nature and caliber of the people called MPs.” She added: “Discussion on the Budget is of national importance and their absence shows an absent legislature that needs to be replaced as soon as possible come 2016.”
Mr Nicholas Opiyo, the secretary Uganda Law Society, who was speaking in his personal capacity said, the wider implication to the country is dire, adding that budgetary delays will affect civil servants and slow down the delivery of social services in the country.
On the political end, Mr Opiyo said, the representation of constituents on national matters will be abused for short-term political expedience of its representatives and that it will give an excuse for technocrats to circumvent budgetary procedures in an attempt to address the short falls and hence open up the country to a possibility of abuse and corruption.
Because majority of the MPs travelled out of the country, the Speaker was forced to suspend the sittings of Parliament, even after it emerged that most of the committees were ready to present their reports on the Budget. Those who travelled out of the country include members of the Finance committee who are supposed to examine the Finance Bills which are key in the passing of the Budget.
When contacted yesterday, the Acting Parliament Spokesperson, Mr Muhammad Katamba, said Parliament was adjourned to enable the sectoral committees finish their reports on the policy statements and that the Deputy Speaker was in his constituency.
Sources at the 25th Uganda North America Association Convention in Dallas, Texas yesterday said close to 30 MPs, including ministers, government officials and Parliament employees, all bankrolled by the taxpayer left the country last week to attend the conference.
The government delegation was led by Vice President Edward Kiwanuka Ssekandi.
Speaker Rebecca Kadaga also led another delegation to South Africa where she is apparently competing to take the leadership of the Commonwealth Women Parliamentarians (CWP). Ms Kadaga chairs CWP Africa was nominated for the post by South Africa, and backed by Singapore and Tanzania. If she is elected Chair, she will oversee women affairs in 54 Commonwealth countries.
Junior Finance Minister (General Duties), Fred Omach yesterday voiced concerns over delays in the passing of the Budget, saying the Vote on Accounts passed by Parliament in June - at the beginning of the calendar year - runs for up to four months only, adding that beyond the cut off, the bulk of the money in the Budget will not be available for service delivery.
“Delays in passing the Budget means, service delayed to the citizens,” another official at Treasury, who requested not to be named because he is not authorised to speak to the press, said. “When Parliament passes the Budget late, we also send the money late to the local governments and other government agencies.” According to Shadow Finance Minister Geoffrey Ekanya, the Budget is the government’s most important economic policy tool and provides a comprehensive statement of the nation’s priorities.
Mr Ekanya said Parliament is the appropriate place to ensure that the Budget best matches the nation’s needs with the available resources, an ability that is especially critical considering the current challenge to reprioritise between and within departments. Explaining why MPs chose to abandon the Budget, a senior official at Parliament said each MP pockets per diem amounting to $520 (about Shs1.5 million).
Last year, the Parliamentary Commission spent more than Shs9.5 billion on travel abroad, apparently for benchmarking missions and this year, they have budgeted for Shs9.8 billion. Details from the 2013/14 Budget statement for Parliament shows that last financial, Ms Kadaga travelled abroad 22 times to represent Parliament and government at various functions. Mr Ekanya also criticised his colleagues who abandoned the budgeting process and blamed Finance Minister Maria Kiwanuka for failure to implement the promise to cut wasteful expenditures on travel abroad.
The MP said he had been invited for the conference and was given $4,300 (about Shs11m) which he returned to Finance after he cancelled his trip to concentrate on the budget. “MPs must lead by example. There are organisations like Uganda Bureau of Statistics without the money for the population census but has a budget of Shs3b for travel abroad. Where is the priority?” Mr Ekanya asked.
There are fears that for years some unscrupulous MPs have been pocketing per diem and other travel allowances without leaving the country. Information from the Office of the Auditor General for the Financial Year 2010/11 revealed that lawmakers in the 8th Parliament failed to account for more than Shs4.6b in money they took to facilitate their foreign trips.
MPS IN FOREIGN COUNTRIES
Some MPs in Texas
Kiwanuka Ssekandi (VP)
Jack W. Wamanga
Dr Kenneth Omona
Col Fred Mwesigye
John C. Muyingo
Betty N Bakireke