MP’s and their benefits:whats the way forward?
Ms. Catherine Namugala – Member of Parliament for Mafinga constituency in Isoka – recently stirred a hornet’s nest by proposing an increase in salaries and allowances of parliamentarians. Her basic point is that MP’s do not earn enough to attend to their parliamentary duties and to adequately address the needs of their constituents. The suggestion raised intense debate and prompted largely negative reaction amongst ordinary Zambians. This is not surprising. Many people are struggling to find a job and to put food on the table for their families. They feel that such claims completely disregard their situation.
Just so that everyone is clear about this from the very outset, I am personally opposed to any increase in MP salaries at this point in time. However, Ms. Namugala is an experienced politician whose views on this matter should not be brushed aside lightly. In keeping with our issue-based approach as a Party, I will set out what I believe is really at stake in this discussion and offer a way forward in a manner that does not simply politicise the whole debate.
Role of MP’s
MP’s have three main responsibilities:
(i) attending to the concerns of their constituents as they champion development programmes to improve living standards;
(ii) passing and amending statutes (appropriately called Acts of Parliament) as the nation’s key law-making body; and (iii) providing checks and balances by approving constitutional appointments and ensuring that the republican president and his administration govern in accordance with the law.
Remuneration of MP’s
To help with discharging parliamentary responsibilities, each MP draws a net monthly salary of approximately K23,000. This includes a special allowance, utility allowance and a motor vehicle maintenance allowance. There are also a few lucrative indirect benefits such as a monthly fuel entitlement of 500 litres and a standard sitting allowance of K1,500 per day for each parliamentary session and each committee meeting. This means that an MP can earn an extra K3,500-K6,000 per day depending on how many committee meetings and parliamentary sessions they attend. With parliament meeting three times a year for a total average of 140 days, this gives MP’s the opportunity to more than double their monthly salary from allowances alone. They are also entitled to an interest-free loan to import a duty-free car of their choice worth up to US$65,000.
At the end of their term, MP’s receive a gratuity of 100 percent of their total parliamentary salary which is paid out twice, once in the third year as an advance (the so-called mid-term gratuity) and the balance in the fifth year. The current MP’s are due to receive their mid-term gratuity in October. Depending on the distance to their constituency they could also receive a fuel allowance for attending parliament of up to K3,000 for the round trip. Accommodation while on parliamentary duty is funded by taxpayers including the cost of their stay at Parliament Motel (although, admittedly, it has seen better days).
Adding all this up, it is difficult to see how MP’s (many of whom have independent incomes through regular jobs, consultancies or successful businesses), can complain about their pay. One would assume that such a generous package is enough to enable them to attend to family demands and address constituency needs.
What is at stake for MP’s?
Rightly or wrongly, the electorate in Zambia expect a person running for the office of MP to make personal sacrifices as they discharge the duty of representing their communities. Once elected, however, many MP’s struggle to tour their constituencies and to attend to pressing demands for food, transport money, funeral assistance, school fees, empowerment funds, talk time, house rentals, t-shirts, chitenges and beer (yes, beer). Some MP’s are successful businessmen and can afford to donate their entire gratuity to their constituents as recently demonstrated by the Kasama Central member of parliament, Geoffrey Bwalya Mwamba.
For many MP’s, however, it seems that personal and public financial demands are not only never-ending, they create such apprehension that a number of them simply avoid visiting large areas of their constituencies altogether. In my travels around the country, I am constantly told: “The MP has not been here since the election”. Demands on MP’s are indeed heavy, particularly those from remote rural constituencies who have to cover vast and often impassable areas. Because parliamentary benefits are pretty much the same across the board, there is clearly a built-in advantage for those MP’s whose constituencies are within or close to the nation’s most “developed” cities.
It is not unusual for MP’s the world over to periodically compare their salaries to MP’s in other countries or to government officials in order to justify proposed increases in pay. But even if MP’s earned 10 times the salaries they currently take home, the demands from constituents would still be too high to be met. The idea that the taxpayer should somehow bear the burden faced by MP’s to attend to the demands of constituents is therefore rather misguided. In my view, this argument misses the whole point. There are three reasons for this.
First, an MP should not think he or she can address community needs by getting more pay. This would probably only lead to selective distribution of taxpayers’ resources to cronies of the MP – if in fact any such extra money ever made it into the constituency in the first place. Second, if we accept the principle that MP’s needed more money to help them discharge their functions, not all MP’s should get the same amount since road infrastructure, distances to and sizes of the various constituencies are not the same. Third, if being an MP is so tough, why do they repeatedly contest their seats?
What is at stake for ordinary Zambians?
The ordinary Zambian just wants to have a chance at a decent life. However, because there is little or no change in a person’s welfare before and after an election, many simply adopt the view that they will extract whatever they can from their MP whenever he or she is available.
One of the reasons for introducing the Constituency Development Fund (CDF) was to address community needs identified in the constituency by the constituents themselves through stakeholder representatives. If the concern of MP’s was about the needs of communities, you would expect that they would be advocating an increase in CDF, rather than an increase in their pay and allowances. The fact that they are asking for more pay is an indication that they feel they are not getting what they think they deserve.
As part of their role of providing checks and balances, however, MP’s should be able to expose areas where government institutions are not being effective. The pay MP’s earn should therefore ensure that they can properly tour their constituencies. After all, if the MP is not actually getting to all areas of his or her constituency, how will the nation’s law-making body be able to ensure that development is taken to every Zambian? Based on the current take-home pay and benefits, however, it seems hard to argue that MP’S are somehow hampered from playing this role because if poor funding.
So what is the way forward?
The biggest concerns with increasing MP pay are what it will cost the nation and how this will improve effectiveness. Assuming each MP is awarded an additional average amount of Kw10,000 per month, this would add a whopping Kw18,000,000 to the annual government expenditure. Given the planned increase in the number of MP’s by an additional 85 constituencies (as well as an additional 8 nominated MP’s) and the tight liquidity in the economy, this will put a severe strain in service delivery and other development programmes, without anything tangible to show for it. We therefore need to think carefully about how we address any demand for increased pay.
Parliament should not be another unaccountable distribution channel for aid to communities. MP’s have every right to raise the debate about the challenges they face in meeting the demands of their office. However, they should not complain when people facing hardships in the current economic climate condemn them for seeming insensitive.
I believe that the solution lies in a complete restructuring of how people at all levels of society engage with central government. In the NAREP “Party Manifesto” (issued in 2010), we proposed a new “community assemblies” system to tackle the problem of resource allocation and prioritisation in constituencies:
“…resources will be allocated for direct use by the communities at ward level. These amounts will be voted on and allocated by stakeholders in the wards. Stakeholders will include chiefs, headmen, community groups and churches. Members of parliament will be accountable to community assemblies in respect of provincial plans and their implementation. Councillors will be accountable to community at ward level for allocation of specific resources. Councillors and members of parliament will participate but not vote in these stakeholder meetings. Debates will be public and accessible to all.”
If the argument is that MP’s need more money to get into and around their constituencies, they should be prepared to introduce a transparent financing mechanism that can allow for the accountability of their constituency travels. This could work through an imprest system where, rather than giving standardised amounts to MP’s for their constituency work, money is instead advanced for constituency travel and the MP brings receipts for the expenditure of fuel and other pre-approved costs. Such a system would, admittedly, create a whole new level of financial administration and is not free of challenges (such as false invoicing and overpricing) but it can be made to work and would allow the nation to address the cry for more pay by MP’s in a manner that promotes accountability without unduly straining the taxpayer.
The problem with the MP’s demands is not only about whether they deserve an increase in their salaries to carry out their basic responsibilities; they are also going to find it hard to defend the accusation that they are pandering to the “me first” approach to leadership. Our policemen, nurses, teachers and extension workers all need more money in order to cope with the daily challenges of an economy that is punishing ordinary Zambians with high costs and little or no money in their pockets. Our women and youth need empowerment. Our children need a decent education. We all need better healthcare.
Given that over 60 per cent of the national budget is going towards consumption – leaving very little for development – we should not be adding to the consumptive trend but seeking to develop ways of generating greater economic empowerment for everyone. If the MP’s really want sympathy, let them responsibly champion the fight for better living conditions for all Zambians and not only for themselves. Let them fight for our teachers, policemen, nurses, doctors, extension workers, council employees and the mothers and youth on our streets.
Elias C. Chipimo
National Restoration Party