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FOLLOWING threats by the Speaker of Parliament to slash sitting allowances for absconding Members of Parliament, attendance in the August House, especially by Cabinet ministers, has vastly improved. Non attendance of Parliament by ministers in President Robert Mugabe’s Cabinet had been causing a gridlock in the business of the legislature, which has perennially failed to accomplish its legislative agenda within the defined period.

The situation had been affecting the Senate more than the National Assembly, with attendance at ministerial level being as low as one bureaucrat in some of the sessions. Questions directed at certain ministers were therefore, going for weeks without being responded to, giving the impression that Cabinet ministers were valuing their executive functions more than their legislative roles.

At one point in February, Parliament business came to a halt when only Mines and Mining Development Minister Walter Chidhakwa was present out of the entire Cabinet, which comprises about 30 ministers, excluding their deputies. This saw the Speaker of the House of Assembly, Jacob Mudenda, threatening to cut allowances for absconding ministers estimated at about US$75 per sitting. Mudenda said the situation has since improved.

“I can say we are happy with the importance the ministers are giving to the question time. Their attendance has vastly improved and we can safely say we currently do not have many questions that are still pending as has been the case before,” he said. The general attendance of MPs has also improved, which the Speaker said was clear evidence that they are now taking Parliamentary business more seriously unlike before.

“As we speak, the MPs are out in the field on committee business, but we are very pleased with their attendance,” said Mudenda.

Parliamentary Monitoring Trust director, Sibanengi Ncube, concurred that the attendance of ministers at the Wednesday question time had satisfactorily improved. The Parliamentary Monitoring Trust is a watchdog which conducts independent checks on Parliament to ensure parliamentarians adhere to their roles.

“As a monitoring group, we are currently pleased with the attendance of ministers at this question time. There is quite a remarkable improvement in this regard and we would like to give them credit for that,” said Ncube.

“Comparatively, we can say the current Parliament is better than the previous one in terms of attendance as you would remember that the last Parliament left a lot of critical questions unanswered,” he added. This, he said, is owed to the dominance of ZANU-PF in Parliament.

“Perhaps, the dominance of ZANU-PF as they now have confidence to attend given that they are assured of a dominant voice with most of the MPs being their own,” he said. Absenteeism by an MP from plenary sessions in either the National Assembly or Senate for more than 21 consecutive days can attract punitive measures including loss of one’s parliamentary seat.

MPs also register their presence at every parliamentary sitting day or at committees and there is provision for them to give an excuse if they cannot attend. In countries like Germany, strict measures have been introduced to rein in their own truant MPs. German legislators are made to sign a register of attendance every sitting day and if they do not attend, they are required to give a formal excuse why they were unable to attend Parliament.

Truant MPs who cannot give convincing reasons why they fail to attend Parliament are made to pay deterrent fines depending on the extent of their absence.

South Africa, closer to home, has proposed tough initiatives to regulate the leave and attendance of MPs. The leave and attendance policy (which proposes various sanctions to deal with unauthorised absence) and the recently proposed electronic monitoring system (aimed electronically recording attendance of MPs) will go a long way in addressing the challenge of absenteeism in the South African parliament.

Section 47(3) of the South African constitution enjoins parliament to put in place rules and orders to govern attendance of MPs, including circumstances under which MPs might lose membership of parliament. The South African parliament has proposed a combination of two technologies, radio frequency identification and biometric (fingerprint), to monitor the attendance of MPs at sittings of the houses of parliament and committee meetings.

Source : Financial Gazette