Speaker orders probe after tax Bills collusion

Speaker of Parliament Anita Among . PHOTO | FILE

What you need to know:

  • The proposal that sought to impose a 0.5 percent excise duty on bank transactions captured in the Bill by the Finance committee had not formally undergone some of the requisite processes.

Speaker Anita Among has moved to address abuse of power by House committee chairpersons, this publication can reveal.

The development follows an attempt on Thursday by the Finance committee chair to include a 0.5 percent excise duty on withdrawal of cash through financial technology services provided via digital and online platforms. Speaker Among in no uncertain terms told Ms Jane Pacutho Avur, the Pakwach Woman lawmaker, who doubles as the Finance committee chair, that the proposal had been surreptitiously “smuggled” into the Excise Duty Amendment Bill, 2023.

“Can you give me more clarity on how it smuggled itself into the committee? Did you interact with the stakeholder and which stakeholders did you interact with? I am saying, ‘Did you interact with the regulator, with bankers association, and regulator meaning Bank of Uganda?” Ms Among probed before ordering that the proposal be deleted and an investigation into the matter duly take centre-stage.

The process

Ordinarily, like other clauses in any Bill, proposals that later form part of the bills are introduced formally. They are then subjected to scrutiny at committee stage by submissions from stakeholders believed to be authorities on the said matter.

It is after this that the committee later slides into a closed door session to deliberate whether to retain a given proposal with and or without alterations. The proposal could also be thrown out entirely. After the deliberation, a final report is presented to the House.

At this juncture, the whole House steered by presiding officer in the person of the Speaker or Deputy Speaker oversees final deliberations on the same Bill. The two cents of lawmakers, who are non-members of committee, are considered to decide the final ingredients of the Bill.

However, this particular proposal that sought to impose a 0.5 percent excise duty on bank transactions captured in the Bill by the Finance committee had not formally undergone some of the requisite processes. Had the proposal received the green light, every bank transaction would incur a monetary charge. For instance, a Shs2m cash withdrawal would attract a Shs10,000 deduction in form of tax as per the 0.5 percent levy. This would be in addition to the already existing bank charges shouldered by persons entrusting banks with the safety of their money.

Not a first

This was not the first time a proposal was attempting to be surreptitiously sneaked into a Bill. Nearly a fortnight ago, Deputy Speaker Thomas Tayebwa was also dismayed to witness factions within the parliamentary Committee on Defence and Internal Affairs clash on the floor over a matter that should have been resolved internally.

This was after Ms Rosemary Nyakikongoro—the Defence committee chairperson—recommended that the national identity (ID) cards deal for the upcoming mass enrolment registration exercise be given to Mühlbauer High Tech International. A section of the committee members accused their chair of acting in error by throwing her weight behind the German firm. They reasoned that she was erroneously taking on a procurement role.

Whereas he was openly displeased by what he had witnessed, Mr Tayebwa cautioned that such matters are supposed to be settled internally. He warned that lightning should not be allowed to strike twice.

Previous warning

A similar directive was issued by the former Speaker, the late Jacob Oulanyah. In his opening message to a plenary sitting on September 21, 2021, the late Oulanyah directed all House committees to cease holding inquiry sessions with government entities outside the precincts of Parliament.  The order was intended to undercut the influence of government ministries, departments and agencies (MDAs) on lawmakers. Mr Oulanyah said then that the influence, which bordered on corruption deterred lawmakers from executing their oversight role.

“No MDA shall finance the activities of committees of parliament because doing so will end up undermining the independence and authority of this institution,” Mr Oulanyah said.

The directive, Mr Oulanyah said, had been occasioned by the contents of the intelligence he had gathered indicating that outings funded by MDAs requiring House committees to meet with them at preferred locations would trigger or even fuel the corruption vice.

“Chairpersons, vice chairpersons, members [of Parliament], clerks to committees, this is directed to you. This independence that we sing about, glorify and shout about, this is the easiest way to erode it if you have people secretly financing it,” Mr Oulanyah said.

Ms Cecilia Ogwal, the Dokolo District Woman MP, concurred with Mr Oulanyah. She said: “I would prefer government agencies to use parliamentary premises. I find it difficult for us to hold meetings within the boardrooms of either URA or whatever it is when we have our humble conference hall.”

In furtherance to his instructions, Mr Oulanyah directed all persons who sought to hold interfaces with MDAs outside Parliament to get clearance from the House leadership.

“This House has leadership, which is known. The leadership of Finance [or any other MDA] does not give you [committee chairpersons] authority or direct you to go anywhere. I am the one who does or the deputy Speaker,” Mr Oulanyah said.

He added: “So if now you make secret arrangements with the Ministry of Finance that you just get out without my knowledge then that becomes a big problem. They cannot write to you directly. That would be bad manners. So just follow the procedure.”