MPs ignore Museveni, vote Shs420b for trips

Monday May 03 2021
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Kira Municipality MP Ibrahim Ssemujju Nganda addresses fellow legislators during a plenary session on February 20 last year. PHOTO/ DAVID LUBOWA

By Yasiin Mugerwa

Parliament has increased travel and allowance budget for its members and staff by Shs20b to Shs420b in an era of subdued cross-border trips due to pandemic-related restrictions and corresponding uptick in virtual meetings.  

Details of the planned increase in foreign trip expenditure on the11th Parliament, whose members will be more by almost 100, are contained in the tightly-guarded Parliamentary Commission Policy Statement for the 2021/2022 Financial Year.

Questions about the rising spending on a bloated government has on the one hand opened the ruling National Resistance Movement (NRM) party to criticism by civil society and Opposition politicians and, on the other hand, created internal friction between different government branches.

For instance, while delivering a keynote address to first-time MPs elected either on NRM or Independent tickets, President Museveni on April 15 derided overseas travel by legislators as “lavish” and a form of “pure corruption”.

Members of the 10th Parliament, among them being Opposition Chief Whip Ibrahim Ssemujju, have previously pushed back against the Executive, accusing it of playing double standards and haemorrhaging public resources through unending supplementary budget requests, some of which are submitted for retrospective approval.

Allocations
Our analysis of the Parliamentary Commission budget shows that under programme 02 of Parliament, Shs420b has been allocated exclusively for members’ allowances and travel, up from Shs400.7b in 2020/2021.

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By the end of last year, MPs had spent Shs207b, about half of the item’s allocation in the ending financial year’s budget, partly because they were largely marooned in Uganda after countries shutdown their frontiers as Covid-19 spread and enveloped the world.

The newly-elected MPs are scheduled to be sworn in on May 17-19 after which they will elect a Speaker and Deputy Speaker who, working with partly leaders, will assign members to constitute different House committees before commencing formal business.

Whereas President Museveni, due to be inaugurated for a sixth elective term on May 12, is opposed to MPs’ foreign travels, some re-elected legislators, among them Mr Mathias Mpuuga of the National Unity Platform (NUP) defended such trips as necessary. 

In an interview on Friday, Parliament’s acting Director for Communication and Public Affairs, Ms Helen Kaweesa said: “We are a people-centred Parliament, we will try and operate within the approved budget. We are not oblivious to what is going on in the country, but there are essential activities that requires members and staff to travel. We have global partnerships with international parliamentary fora we subscribe to.

These partnerships are important for our country.” Uganda is, among others, a member of the Commonwealth Parliament Association (CPA), the African, Caribbean and Pacific – European Union (ACP-EU), Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU), and, Parliamentary Union of the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (PUIC, OIC).

It has hosted conferences of some of these groupings, and Ms Kaweesa argued that Uganda is obligated to participate in future such summits to defend or advance its interests in the community of nations.
In separate interviews with this newspaper, some of the lawmakers who sit on the Legal and Parliamentary Affairs Committee said Parliament’s budget is kept under wraps to safeguard the institution’s image and integrity of individual MPs who some voters accuse of being “greedy” and “insensitive”.

More details on per diem/ trips
MP per night abroad                                                               Shs2.6m each
Speaker per night                                                                     Shs4.5m
Deputy Speaker per night                                                      Shs3.6m
Parliament Staff per night                                                     Shs1.9m 
Travel and Transport- Air Tickets                                         Shs34.4 billion
Travel Abroad - African Parliaments                                   Shs1.051 billion
Travel Abroad - House of Commons                                   Shs1 billion
Travel Abroad- Inter-Parliamentary Union             (Undisclosed)
Travel Abroad- European Parliament                                   (Undisclosed)
Travel Abroad – Workshops & Seminars                        shs2.102 billion
Travel Abroad- Benchmarking                                               Unspecified
Travel abroad- Medical tourism                                             Unspecified
Travel abroad- Accountability (missions abroad)             (Unspecified)

What can Shs420b do?
In the new Parliament budget, the Commission chaired by Speaker Rebecca Kadaga, has allocated billions of shillings for members travel abroad and in-land. 
The budget will also cater for allowances of members and staff. The money for travels is spread across 23 out of 25 sub-programmes and departments in Parliament.

The budget allocations are tagged on undisclosed number of air tickets, per diem/allowances, and accommodation expenses under benchmarking or conferences, workshops and seminars abroad.
The schism between the Executive and the Legislature over foreign travels, without taking the justification for some of the spending, raises question over what the assigned money could do at home if MPs forfeited some of the trips or substituted physical presence with virtual attendance. 

We were unable to obtain figures for State House foreign trip expenses for the coming financial year to ascertain whether the President or Legislature plan to spend more on globe-trotting and, put together, what the funds could alternatively be applied to.

For instance, the Shs420b budgeted for MPs foreign trips and allowances could be used to increase salaries for senior lecturers and other lower-level academics at all public universities.
This pay raise, whose demand has perennially plunged public universities into staff strikes, requires only Shs179.2b. 

For months, the latest standoff paralysed teaching at the affected institutions where students eager to resume studies after a year away due to Covid were instead started by lecture rooms emptied by lecturers.

The aggrieved academic staff in public universities laid down tools in February, demanding Shs179.2b in arrears dating back to 2015 when the government promised to pay a professor Shs15m monthly salary and Shs12.2m for a senior lecturer. 
The professors were sorted while the offer dangled to lecturers remains pending with the government citing lack of funds.   

Some of the disaffected lecturers have accepted to call off the strike and given government more time to look for the required funds, setting the stage for a repeat industrial action if the promise remains unfulfilled.
If the planned MPs’ travel money was applied to sort lecturers’ pay, the Shs240.8b balance would be enough to increase salaries of non-teaching staff at all public universities who, like lecturers, have routinely gone on strike over pay.

For years, the non-academic staff have been demanding Shs91.3b for salary enhancement.
The contestation between the Executive and Legislature over the necessity and usefulness of foreign trips, many for benchmarking, signposts how right or wrong our leaders are setting national priorities at a time Covid-19 has reduced cash inflows to the Treasury, and Finance minister Matia Kasaija says he has a Shs420b hole for vaccine acquisition.

In addition, the Auditor General has previously raised the possibility that some of the MPs claim money for foreign trips they do not make, pocket cash and hibernate in the country while those that travel submit no reports, making it difficult to establish the usefulness of the overseas conferences, the legislators’ contributions and value for money.

Abused foreign trips
In his report on the Financial Year 2010/2011, the Auditor General revealed that lawmakers in the 8th Parliament failed to account for more than Shs4.6b given to facilitate their foreign trips. 
Some took public funds money, but never left the country. There was no evidence in form of boarding passes and air tickets.

It also emerged that some MPs, whose details were not disclosed, used underhand methods to obtain facilitation for official travel abroad but never produced a single report to Parliament.
The AG found that expenditure vouchers some MPs submitted for accountability of per diem they received lacked relevant supporting documents such as copies of air ticket/coupons, certificate of attendance and briefing notes.

In absence of the accountability and reports, the Auditor General, Mr John Muwanga, said: “I couldn’t ascertain whether the travels were undertaken.”

After the Auditor General’s value for money audit report revealed serious problems in the procurement of air tickets for MPs and staff, business committee discussed the matter and instructed the Parliamentary Commission to take action. 

The item has since been removed from procurement department and taken to the Office of the Director Communications and Public Affairs.   

The Shs420b, however, flies in the face of a presidential rebuke of such travels as being conduits for self-enrichment of MPs.

“And then this travelling outside, pure corruption. MPs; that they are going to benchmark. That is corruption. This time I must tell you as members of the NRM that this time we shall fight. They end up involving all of us in mistakes. It is not right to squander and waste resources for the country [through] traveling [around the world],” Mr Museveni told MPs-elect at the official launch of the NRM Kyankwanzi retreat on April 15.

He added: “Our late comrade [John Pombe] Magufuli fought this travelling [problem] and saved a lot of money which he used for development. So please, this time, do not misuse your chance [by over traveling].”

The President has prioritised wealth creation in the new parish model arrangement, targeting the 68 per cent that is currently trapped in subsistence farming.
He warned the MPs-elect, as he did to their predecessors five years ago, that he will in the new term not accept increasing salaries and wasting public funds through unnecessary foreign trips.

Mr Museveni asked the new MPs to avoid travels abroad that he said have strained the limited resource envelop in the midst of pressing government priorities.

How MPs, staff have shared travel cash
Beneficiaries
                                                Travel abroad                          Travel in-land
MPs travel abroad/ allowances                 Shs420.9b                               Undisclosed
Committee Affairs                                       Shs6.3billion                           Shs5.2 billion
 Speaker                                                        Shs395.04m                            Shs1.19 billion
Deputy Speaker                                            Shs284.3m                              Shs624.2m
Leader of Opposition                                  Shs1.4b                                     Shs485.5m
Leader of Govt  Business                           Shs457.3m                               Shs196.5m
Parliamentary Commsn                              Shs739.2m                               Shs641.1m
Clerks Department                                      Shs200.7m                               Shs18m
Finance and Admin                                     Shs96.7m                                 Shs18m
Library and Research                                  Shs67.7m                                 Shs37.8m
Legal & Legislative Services                      Shs295.9m                               Shs18m
Sergeant At-arms                                         Shs132.9m                               Shs18m
Official Report                                               Shs360.2m                              Shs18m
Budget Office                                                Shs132.8m                              Shs255.1m
Planning & coordination office                   Shs189.3m                             Shs18m
ICT department                                             Shs214.8m                             Shs18m
Human Resource                                          Shs368.05m                          Shs38.0m
 Public Relations Office                                Shs717.8m                            Shs356.5m
Office of Clerk to Parliament                       Shs179.4m                            Shs242.4m
Internal Audit                                                 Shs336.1m                             nil
Parliamentary Research Services              Shs481.4m                            Shs471.3m
 Admin & Transport logistics                      Shs341.5m                            Shs471.0m
Litigation and Compliance                          Shs321.8m                            Shs18m

MPs defend trips
Some of the MPs-elect who spoke to Daily Monitor, however, defended the foreign trips as “a necessary evil”, cited State House “double standards” and reminded the President that irrespective of the price, “exposure for politicians is inevitable especially for small and confused economies.”   

Mr Mpuuga, one of the favourites for Leader of Opposition pick, said “there could be elements of abuse [with foreign trips], but that can be administratively handled. [President] Museveni is trying to lead both the Executive and Parliament. The leadership at Parliament should reject this manoeuvre.”    

He added: “There could be elements using travel abroad to patronise Parliament, these too can be streamlined through more considered administrative arrangements. I don’t know about other MPs, but for me all the travels I have made are purposeful, and I report to Parliament with evidence of the trips.” 

Mr Thomas Tayeebwa (Ruhinda North, NRM MP-elect), one of candidates in the Deputy Speaker race, said expenditure on travels abroad for lawmakers is “inescapable” and asked the President to reconsider his position on the matter.  

“How can a whole MP take unnecessary trip?” Mr Tayeebwa asked, adding, “All trips taken by MPs are based on the need for benchmarking and building synergies with other countries in relation to legislation. We learn a lot from other legislative jurisdictions, thus, enabling us to make well-informed decisions in as far as our work is concerned.”

He said both foreign and domestic travels help to “take Parliament to the people”.
“I have not seen MPs using taxpayers’ money to go to a disco[theque] in America or buy designer suits in luxurious [shops]. The purpose [of the trips] is always in line with the institutional priorities.  I intend to push for more travel opportunities for members [if elected Deputy Speaker] to enable us build sufficient capacity to carry out oversight and listen to peoples’ problems,” he added. 
 
Parliament responds
 In the Friday interview, Ms Kaweesa confirmed the allocations in the 2021/2022 budget and volunteered “virtual benchmarking” for MPs as a possible cost-cutting measure.
She said Speaker Rebecca Kadaga is already using virtual platforms to interface with others around the world and encouraged other MPs to do the same.
Ms Kaweesa, however, clarified that not every meeting can or will be conducted, for instance, via Zoom or teleconferencing, justifying allocations for foreign travels.

Parliament on foreign trip budget 

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Parliament spokesperson, Helen Kaweesa. PHOTO/FILE

We gave in our 2021/2022 budget for travel but they have not finalised appropriation process. We made a budget but we don’t know what is going to be appropriated to us in the next Financial Year. Whatever they will give us, we will work within that budget ceiling. But there are deductions in our budget because of the Covid-19 situation we are in and considerations have been made in the budget for travel abroad and in-land.

Ugandans should not expect an adjusted budget. We are now in a virtual era, as a people-centered Parliament, we can make arrangements for members to do virtual benchmarking, and big meetings have been happening here in Uganda, and the speaker has participated in them with her delegation.

This is something we are doing as a Parliament that is responsive to the current situation in the country. We are not wasteful; travel is an essential component of our activities as a Parliament because we are global partners.

However, in the prevailing circumstances, we note that there are alternatives ways of participating in those transnational meetings virtually and for such meetings, deductions will certainly be done accordingly,” Helen Kaweesa, Parliament spokesperson

Parliament Budget at a glance
 2020/21    2021/22
Shs672.829b    Shs698.333b

2021/2022 Budget for the bigshots
Speaker    Shs3.87billion
Deputy Speaker    Shs2.76billion
Leader of Opposition      Shs3.89 billion
Leader of Govt Business    ShsShs1.4billion
Dean of independents    Undisclosed
Office of the Clerk    Shs1.6 billion

editorial@ug.nationmedia.com 

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