A Ugandan political journalist's week in Westminster: ‘The British may be cynical about politics, but it’s a strong system’

While you criticise PMQs, questions are concise and answered precisely

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Indy Politics

Monday

Coming to Westminster after the Tunisian terror attack I am surprised by the lack of heightened checks.

In Uganda despite forking out the equivalent of £300,000 on state-of-the art security equipment, accessing parliament is tortuous – even for pass-holders.

Laptops have to be switched on and off and body searches are commonplace. The checks are so over-the-top that some MPs resort to abandoning their cars at the entrance.

It isn’t that effective either. Recently some youths managed to smuggle a couple of piglets in to protest at MPs’ snouts in the trough. The police responded by firing two officers who were manning the gates claiming their “pregnancy had got in the way of their work”.

Tuesday

My first culture shock is the so-called parliamentary reporters lobby. Journalists are banned from leaving the room during briefings by the Prime Minister’s spokeswoman and she cannot even be named.

Wednesday

The Speaker bellows out that it’s Prime Minister’s Question Time. What strikes me is the cacophony of MPs murmuring like kids on a picnic who irritate John Bercow, prompting his roars of ‘Orderrrrr’.

In my parliament, PMQs only started last July. MPs initially struggled with them: indulging in long-winded questions – to the annoyance of the Speaker. But they get it now – understanding that PMQs offers them a chance to get a soundbite on the radio.

Thursday

Joining two British journalists for lunch with an MP, I am surprised that it’s the custom for reporters to foot bills when meeting sources.

A Ugandan journalist will meet sources but reporters seldom pick up the bill, leaving it to the politician who is more than willing to do so. Aware that such freebies can lead to undue familiarity and compromise integrity, editorial policies bar such conduct.

Friday

In both countries MPs are expected to travel to their constituencies every Friday, to consult constituents.

In Uganda they get a mileage allowance. But with no tracking system, MPs rarely make these trips. And they often don’t turn up in parliament either.

The British may be cynical about politicians and Westminster but by Ugandan standards it’s a pretty strong system. And while you criticise PMQs, questions are concise and answered precisely and there is no derailing of debate with redundant points of order and procedure.

Solomon Arinaitwe worked with ‘The Independent’ as one of the 2015 David Astor Journalism Awards programme winners. The David Astor Journalism Awards Trust works to support independent journalism in Africa.

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