Twenty-five years into the life of parliamentary democracy in Ghana, members of Parliament (MPs) are always under pressure by their constituents to deal with development constraints in their communities.
They are expected to repair bad roads, provide potable water and good classroom blocks for their people. It is not the role of MPs to initiate projects to provide these facilities.
Instead, their role is to serve as advocates of their people in Parliament; they are supposed to put across the challenges faced by their people on the floor of the House and demand action by the concerned central government agency.
The most popular tool available to MPs in this regard is question time, during which members put questions to ministers of the state on urgent developmental challenges confronting their people.
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This tool is used universally to seek answers from the horse’s own mouth and to make ministers alive to their responsibilities.
In Ghana, question time could be put on the agenda for any sitting of the House and time allotted appropriately for it, and the ministers of state are enjoined by Standing Order 60 (1) to attend the sittings of the House to answer the questions asked of them.
Question time in Ghana usually lasts one hour and more than 50 per cent of all questions that are asked in the House are road-related. In view of that, sittings on Fridays have been dedicated to the Minister of Roads and Highways.
Standing Order 60 (3) obliges the ministers, to whom questions are directed, to answer them within a maximum of three weeks.
A member could ask as many as three different questions on each occasion. Apart from the one who asked a particular question, other colleague members may also ask supplementary questions relating to the issue at stake.
Thus, a member may, on this occasion, also enjoy the solidarity of other members in raising awareness of the problem.
While answering the questions, ministers often promise to deal with the problem. These promises are noted down by the Committee on Government Assurances and at various times, the committee invites the concerned ministers to brief the House about the status of their promises. So the questions put by members on behalf of their people are not taken for granted by the House at all.
It is also important to note that sometimes, the ministers request the member who puts the question to follow up to their offices and work with them to deal with the problem.
A member may also ask urgent questions (without notice to the House) where the problem is an urgent one. For instance, if a bridge collapses in a member’s constituency and there is a sudden hold-up of movement as a result, the Speaker may admit a question from the MP directed to the minister responsible for roads without any notice.
Members may also, under Order 72, make statements on matters of public importance. Statements may also dwell on the developmental potentials and challenges of members’ own constituencies. During the last meeting, most of the newly elected members of the House took the opportunity to lay bare the plight of their people in statements, including the following: “The age-long socio-economic problems of Bosome-Freho and the way forward” and “The plight of the people of Fuveme and Kporkporgbor”.
By way of solidarising with their colleagues, other members of the House may comment on such statements, and the level of solidarity among our elected representatives on these occasions has been highly commendable.
There have also been occasions where the presiding officer has directed that a statement be referred to the government agency responsible for dealing with the subject matter at stake for their consideration.
Alternatively, the presiding officer may refer the statement to the select committee that oversees the concerned government agency for consideration and report to the House.
For instance, on June 30 this year, the National Democratic Congress MP for Builsa South, Dr Clement Apaak, made a statement on the felling and harvesting of rosewood in the Builsa South District.
In view of the seriousness that the House attaches to environmental conservation, the Speaker referred the statement to the Select Committee on Lands and Forestry for its consideration and report to plenary. As part of the consideration of the referral, the committee has visited some forest reserves in the northern sector to study the situation.
It is expected that the committee will effectively engage other stakeholders on the issue and make appropriate recommendations for policy or urgent action.
The committee’s recommendations will then be forwarded to the ministry, department or agency responsible for their consideration, after deliberations and adoption in plenary.
The most important measure as far as reducing the burden of MPs’ appears to be public education. In this regard, one of the strategic objectives of the Parliament of Ghana’s Enhanced Strategic Plan is to increase public awareness of the work and relevance of Parliament.
To achieve this objective, the plan provides, among others, for a public education programme. Under the programme, a number of activities are outlined. They include workshops and seminars on the work of Parliament; the formation of parliamentary youth clubs; encouraging advocacy groups to clear misconceptions of a parliamentarian being the provider of all social amenities; the maintenance of an effective parliamentary visitors’ programme; public–parliamentary education and designed training materials for trainer of trainers; the publication and distribution of a number of a series of pamphlets on different aspects of Parliament’s work and having ready access to necessary documentation. These are obviously measures whose results are long term in focus.
Of these activities, it is the formation of parliamentary youth clubs and the parliamentary visitors’ programme that appear to have taken shape, thanks to the efforts of the Public Relations Department of Parliament.
It does appear that the basic challenge to launching these other educational activities is funding.
Publicity campaigns are generally very expensive and no matter how equipped the outfit is with expert staff, success will depend a lot on financial wherewithal.
In addition to the public education, parliamentary candidates would also help the situation if they would stop giving potential voters promises during their campaigns of delivering one facility or the other to various communities.