Over the past few weeks, Parliament has been in the news for various reasons. Last month, the controversial comments of MP for Ablekuma West, Ursula Owusu-Ekuful put Parliament under the magnifying glass. In an interview on JoyFM, Mrs Ekuful claimed that “ some Members of Parliament are making up the numbers” because they do not add to any discourse in the House.
As Parliamentarians from both sides of the political divide prepare for primaries and the 2016 general elections now would be an appropriate time to assess their effectiveness.
Odekro.org has compiled data that provides a snapshot of MPs’ contributions to work in Parliament. We analysed data on the attendance records and questions asked by Members of Parliament between January 2013 and July 2014.
Attendance in Parliament
It is often said that the first step to success is showing up.
An MP’s absence from Parliament should be of great concern because unlike most other employees, MP’s do not go to work (Parliament) all year round. There are usually three meetings of Parliament each year namely : January- March ( 1st Meeting) , May-July ( 2nd Meeting) , October – December ( 3rd Meeting) . Consequently, MP’s typically do not attend Parliament in April or late July to September. MPs should be able to comfortably schedule any campaigning activities , project site visits or other activities germane to their role during these four months. Furthermore, Parliament’s regular working week runs from Tuesday to Friday. MPs who want to visit their constituencies or attend to other business can therefore do so over a long, 3-day weekend from Saturday to Monday. In 2013 for instance, MP’s only had to attend Parliament for 99 days.
Our constitution considers participation in Parliamentary activity so important that according to Article 97 clause 1 ( c ) , any MP who is absent, without the written permission of the Speaker from 15 sittings of a meeting of Parliament and is unable to offer a reasonable explanation for his absence to Parliament’s privileges committee must vacate his or her seat.
Many absentee MP’s seek the permission of the Speaker and therefore escape this sanction. However, on the basis of the records, the following MPs have already flouted article 97 1 (c)
Emmanuel Akolbire Opam-Brown,MP for Bolgatanga Central was absent without permission from 19 sittings of the 1st meeting of Parliament in 2013
Dr. Nii Oakley Quaye-Kumah was absent without permission from 26 sittings during the 3rd meeting of Parliament in 2013 (October-December).
Nana Amoakoh, MP for Upper Denkyira was also absent from 21 sittings.
During the 1st meeting of 2014, Mrs. Della Sowah MP for Kpandoh and Miss Alijata Sulemana MP for Sissala East were each absent without permission from 15 sittings.
During the 2nd meeting of 2014, Mr. Wahab Suhuyini MP for Tolon was an 18 time absentee.
Was article 97(1)(c) invoked in any of these instances?
Did each of these MPs provide timely explanations to the privileges committee for their excessive absences?
If so, what explanations did the MPs provide? Did the Privileges committee determine in each instance that the explanations, if any, were satisfactory and therefore reasonable?
If not, why have the offending MPs not been asked to vacate their seats?
MPs who seek and obtain the permission of the Speaker, though not in violation of article 97(1)(c), should not escape scrutiny, for in the final analysis MPs are accountable, first and foremost, to their constituents and the public as a whole. Ghanaians are therefore entitled to ask and know what these habitually absent MPs were doing during their periods of prolonged absence from Parliament. Were they attending to personal business or were they engaged in activities that had direct benefits for their constituents?
Do most MP’s just “make up the numbers?”
Presence or absence from Parliament alone, however, is not a sufficient measure of an MP’s performance. Indeed it is possible for an MP to sign in as present in the house but fail to contribute to discussions on the floor, suggest amendments, ask any questions or make any statements.
Questions to Ministers are of particular importance because they present MPs with the unique opportunity to put specific, concerted and public pressure on elected government officials. They are a crucial accountability tool at the disposal of MPs.
All Parliamentarians are allowed to submit written questions to Ministers of State to be answered either in writing or both in writing and orally on the floor of Parliament.
Clauses 60-69 of Parliament’s Standing orders govern the asking of questions by Members of Parliament. Besides written questions, which must be submitted to the clerk at least 10 sitting days before the Minister is due to answer them, the Standing Orders (64) also make provision for urgent questions which can be asked by MPs without prior written notice to the Clerk. MPs can also ask supplementary questions to extract more detailed information and specific promises from Ministers of State.
For example, on 13th June 2014 Ben Azure ( Binduri) asked the Minister for Roads and Highways what plans the Ministry had to commence the construction of the Bawku-Garu road that passes through Narango and Aniisi.
In the Minister’s reply, he stated that the surfaces of 2 of 3 lots of the road would be upgraded to bitumen surfaces.
Mr. D.A Azumah, asking the question on behalf of Ben Azure then inquired further whether the 3rd lot will also be upgraded to a bitumen surface. In his earlier answer the Minister also details the stage of construction of each of the roads.
Answers of such detail cannot usually be obtained from press conferences or Q&A sessions by politicians, journalists or other civil society actors.
Additionally, ministers are obliged to provide truthful answers because anyone who provides answers that are “deliberately misleading” or “calculated or intended to deceive Parliament” could be held in contempt according to Clause 29 (e) and (f) of Parliament’s Standing Orders.
Following a Minister’s answers, Parliament’s Government Assurances Committee is responsible for ensuring that Ministers fulfill the commitments they make to Parliament in response to questions. The committee discharges its duties by inspecting project sites across the country and soliciting feedback from citizens on the progress of development projects.
Unfortunately very few MP’s have taken advantage of these opportunities. In total, over nearly a two year period, only 48 of a total of 275 elected MP’s asked Ministers questions.That number represents only 17.45% of the MPs in Parliament.MP's who asked questions are highlighted in the chart below.
Of the MPs who asked questions the average number of questions asked per MP was 2.5. Most MPs however asked only one question with 24 of the 48 MP’s (50%) asking only one question over the two year period.
Furthermore, MP’s did not seem to probe Ministers of State about the most pressing issues of the day. For instance though the SADA scandal was a major issue of national concern between 2013 and 2014, not a single question was asked of any Minister about SADA by the 275 MPs of Ghana’s Parliament.
Only four MPs from the regions that comprise SADA’s main operational zone asked Ministers any questions between January 2013 and July 2014, but NONE of these questions was about SADA.
Conclusion: What has your MP done for you?
An MP’s presence or absence from Parliament and the questions he or she asks or fails to ask are not the only measures of his or her contributions to Parliament. Indeed SADA and other national issues have been debated at length by Parliament.
Debates and statements however often seem destined to end in one large shouting match where the aim of the parliamentary leadership is to score political points, and the very real problems of ordinary Ghanaians remain unresolved. When their energies are not consumed by these shouting matches, the Parliamentary leadership from both sides are usually organising press conferences to trade accusations and counter-accusations.
Questions posed to Ministers, on the other hand provide equal opportunities for all MPs to contribute to the primary functions of Parliament - representing all Ghanaians, and keeping the executive accountable.
This report has focused on two simple questions:
Do MPs show up?
Do MPs ask useful questions that keep the executive on its toes?
The answers to these questions are a very disappointing “sometimes” and “No”
Given the information above, what will the answer to the big question “What has your MP done for you?” be?
That is up to all Ghanaians to decide.
Lolan Sagoe-Moses spent two summers interning with Ghana’s Parliament. He is a final year law student at The University of Leeds and volunteers with Odekro. Data mining and visualisation support was provided by Ian Gregorio de Souza and Nehemiah Attigah, both of Odekro.
- Subsequent Odekro reports will examine the performance of MP’s from October 2014 till present, taking into account the statements made, questions asked and amendments contributed during the period.
All Odekro publications are prepared using publicly available information sourced in “soft” or “hard” copy from Parliament’s website or Parliament’s public relations office.