Quorum hitches rock parliament over scrapped Sh5,000 allowance

Parliament Sitting

Members of the National Assembly during a past sitting in Nairobi.  

Photo credit: File I Nation Media Group

What you need to know:

  • Article 121 of the Constitution determines the quorum of parliament at 50 members in the case of the National Assembly and 15 members for the Senate. 
  • Either House cannot start business or take a vote on critical matters such as budget or Bills among others, without attaining the requisite quorum. 

That quorum hitches in the National Assembly have now become a common occurrence making it difficult for the executive to have its business in the House fast-tracked, is no longer unique. 

They hitches, usually at the beginning of every sitting, have become so typical that the House cannot transact its business without a quorum bell being rang to whip the members into the debating chamber. 

In some instances, the House has had to adjourn prematurely because of the quorum issues. Article 121 of the Constitution determines the quorum of parliament at 50 members in the case of the National Assembly and 15 members for the Senate. 

Either House cannot start business or take a vote on critical matters such as budget or Bills among others, without attaining the requisite quorum. 

On November 21, 2023, Speaker Moses Wetang’ula openly expressed frustrations after he was humbled in the chair waiting for members to stream in the debating chamber for the House to start its business. 

The Speaker, having had enough of the hitches, turned the heat on the office of the House leader of majority. 

“Leader of the Majority Party, what happened to our covenant on quorum? I do not see any of the Chief Whips from either side!” Mr Wetang’ula said. 

“You assured the House as an Office that at the beginning of every sitting, all chairpersons of committees must be in the House because their numbers alone constitute a quorum. We have more than enough members when you add the vice-chairpersons. What happened?” posed the Speaker.

The Speaker demanded that the leader of majority reassures the House of “that commitment.” 

“It is very unkind to allow the Speaker to come and sit here helplessly as we continue ringing the quorum Bell when we have enough members to whip themselves to be in the House, even without being whipped,” a seemingly frustrated Speaker said. 

However, leader of majority Kimani Ichung’wah (Kikuyu) was not in the chamber at the time leaving his deputy Owen Baya (Kilifi North) to absorb the Speaker’s frustrations. 

“Speaker, it is very unfortunate that this is happening. As you said, we have the numbers, especially chairpersons and vice-chairpersons of committees. I want to be very categorical that they lack a sense of responsibility,” said Mr Baya. 

South Mugirango MP Sylvanus Osoro (UDA) is the majority whip in the House and his Suna East colleague Junet Mohamed (ODM) the minority whip.

They are deputised by Marsabit Woman Representative Naomi Waqo (UDA) and Embakasi West MP Mark Mwenje (ODM).

But Speaker Wetang’ula was not amused with Mr Baya’s response. 

“It is not that you do not have choices because you do,” the Speaker reminded the Kilifi North MP, who in turn promised that things will change in “the next session of parliament” that begins in February 2024 once it adjourns for Christmas recess on December 7, 2023. 

“Yes, we have choices. I assure you that as we approach the next session of Parliament, we will crack the whip on our chairpersons and vice-chairpersons. We will ensure that we do not have this problem after we come back from recess. It also embarrasses us as leadership,” Mr Baya reassured the House. 

MPs we spoke to but who did not want to go on record, blamed the now common quorum hitches to the abolished plenary sitting allowance for members. 

“A majority of the members only come to the House to register their biometric attendance and leave immediately even before a sitting has commenced to ensure they are on the safe side of the law,” a third-term MP said. 

The MP spoke well aware of Article 103 (1) (b) of the Constitution. 

The Article provides that if during any session of Parliament, a member is absent from eight sittings of the relevant House without permission in writing from the Speaker and is unable to offer a satisfactory explanation for the absence to the relevant committee, he loses his/her seat. 

Another MPs noted that it is more important “for me to come and register my presence then leave for other duties.” 

“If I stay here the entire sitting minus a sitting allowance it means I will have wasted (sic) my day,” the member said. 

On July 28, 2023, the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) in a gazette notice that came into force immediately after the August 9, 2022 General Election, abolished the Sh5,000 plenary sitting allowance for 416 MPs in the National Assembly and the Senate. 

This as the SRC set the remuneration and benefits for State officers in the executive and legislature at the two levels of government. 

In doing so, the commission set Sh710,000 as the basic pay for each of the 416 MPs that includes Sh150,000 as their monthly house allowance. 

While ending the plenary sitting allowance, SRC argued that it was unnecessary as there was no need for the MPs to pocket an allowance for what they are paid to do. 

SRC maintained that the salary review for MPs was based on their duties as provided for in the Constitution which includes oversight over the other two arms of government- the executive and the judiciary, budget making, representation and legislation. 

However, the plenary sitting allowance may be reintroduced if a Bill that seeks to deny SRC the power to determine the allowances payable to members and instead give it to the Parliamentary Service Commission (PSC) is enacted. 

At the time the SRC abolished the plenary sitting allowance for MPs, then National Assembly Speaker Justin Muturi warned that the move “will greatly” affect the consideration of government business in the House.

“MPs in the two Houses have always been motivated to attend plenary sittings well aware that they will pocket a sitting allowance. If you remove it, it means they will gain nothing and therefore, may opt to stay away because after all, their salaries are guaranteed,” the then Speaker Muturi spoke at the time.

In some instances, MPs have had to be induced through cash handouts to attend plenary and to some extent, committee sittings.

Quorum hitches may also manifest when the House is already transacting its business.

In this case, the Speaker or whoever is in the chair will order for the quorum bell to be rang and if at the end of it there is still no quorum, the House will rise for the next sitting day. 

Previously, in such instances, members would forfeit the plenary sitting allowance for the aborted sitting.