Uganda: A very expensive House

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9th Parliament loses battle for higher pay, but remains a drain on taxpayers.  Members of Parliament are inarguably among the highest-paid Ugandans, and a recent push to raise their pay drew harsh criticism from even amongst themselves.

With the annual expenditure on Parliament jumping by at least Shs 76bn within two financial years, the 9th  Parliament is making its mark in Uganda’s history as perhaps the most expensive legislature.

Budget estimates published by the ministry of Finance, Planning and Economic Development show that taxpayers spent Shs 158bn in the financial year 2010/11 to maintain the eighth Parliament.

That figure, however, has since jumped to Shs 237.5 in 2013/14 and is expected to go higher next financial year. The ministry of Finance, in explaining the huge expenditure on Parliament, says the number of MPs has shot up from 345 in 2010 to 389 now.

“The size of the 9th Parliament is bigger in terms of the number of legislators. In order to meet the wage bill and allowances for the members, more funding is needed on top of the ceiling provided in the Budget Call Circular,” says the National Budget Framework paper.

Yet Parliament’s wage bill did not only rise with the increase in the number of MPs, but also with the improvement in remuneration for each MP.

For instance by the close of the eighth Parliament, each MP was paid between Shs 10 and 12m. This increased to between Shs 15 and Shs 20m in the ninth Parliament, minus the Shs 103m each MP in the ninth Parliament got to buy cars.

For foreign travel, current figures show that in three years, MPs will have travelled round the world at a cost of Shs 29.2bn, a sum arguably enough to give 7,400 lowest-paid Ugandan teachers a 20 per cent pay rise for one year. The Shs 29.2bn travel bill is Shs 7bn more than the Shs 22bn the eighth Parliament spent in five years.

Parliament’s expenses have over the years exceeded projections in the National Budget Framework paper. For instance, in the year 2012/13, it was projected that Shs 167bn would be spent by the Parliamentary Commission; however, the eventual expenditure jumped to Shs 235.4bn. In the current financial year, the projection was Shs 191.902 but this shot up to Shs 237.5bn.

But Helen Kawesa, Parliament’s public relations manager, argues that the increase in expenditure needs to be contextualised.

“…This [increase in expenditure] has been due to the current rehabilitation work taking place at Parliament. You can see that there is a new car park that has been constructed, plumbing work is taking place and there is also construction of another floor to accommodate more members, which is also a means of cutting on the rent expenditure for Bauman house which houses some offices for MPs,” Kawesa said last week, adding that the increase in travel expenses was largely due to the increase in the number of MPs.

The current construction works Kawesa refers to will cost Shs 165bn, to be funded over six years (2011 to 2015). This year, at least Shs 8bn was allocated to the project.

According to the ministry of Finance budget estimates, the largest portion of the recurrent budget of the Parliamentary Commission is spent on salary, allowances, medical cover, travel abroad, and committee work for MPs, as well as facilitation of the offices of the speaker, deputy speaker, Parliamentary Commission Secretariat and the Leader of the Opposition.

Though there is public anger over Parliament expenditure, Kawesa urges the public to look not at the cost, but at the good work done by MPs.

That argument is rejected by Godber Tumushabe, a former executive director at the policy think tank Advocates Coalition for Development and Environment (Acode).

“In the first place this bloated Parliament, if it was not for the extension of the current regime’s longevity in power, it was uncalled for,” Tumushabe told us. “My opinion is that if we had maintained the size of Parliament at 150 to 180 MPs, it could have been easy for the taxpayer to facilitate it and also have it execute its mandate efficiently.”

Tumushabe says the huge cost could have been justified if the current Parliament executed its mandate as expected.

“Most of the MPs don’t contribute anything in the House, you will realise that most of the work that Parliament is expected to do is done by less than 100 MPs,” he said.

Records indicate that on some occasions Parliament has failed to raise quorum for plenary sessions and it is also indicated that most parliamentary committees hardly raise half of their membership during committee proceedings.

Whereas officially, the ministry of Finance believed that more facilitation will yield more efficient MPs, some sources at the ministry claim that this is against proper utilisation of the constrained public purse.

“If you assess the cost-benefit effect of this expenditure you will realise that the public is losing a lot of money,” one official said.

It was reported recently that Finance rejected a request from MPs to have their current salaries raised by at least $4,486 each annually. Confirming the reports, Jim Mugunga, the ministry spokesperson, said the MPs' request for a pay rise was deferred.

“It is right to have the MPs facilitated to execute their mandate efficiently. However, it is unfortunate that we are constrained to make the provision beyond what the budget can afford,” Mugunga said.

He said yielding to the MPs' demand would affect other priority areas like health, education and infrastructure. This parliament, some observers claim, is the most expensive this far.

This claim is premised on the fact that it has been facilitated more than any other Parliament, right from the continuous pay rises, Shs 103 million to buy cars, free iPads and increased allowances and now an impending proposal to write off their loans, all met by the taxpayer.

The opposition is now working to come out with concrete proposals for amendments to the Constitution, which include reducing the size of Parliament.

“We believe that this will help in cutting the cost on public administration and, indeed, it will promote effectiveness in legislation. We do not need a very big Parliament for effective legislation and oversight. What we need is quality, but not quantity,” said Abdu Katuntu (FDC, Bugweri) the shadow attorney general.

It is also suggested that the issue of Parliament determining its salaries has to be revisited since it has been abused by greedy MPs.

SOURCE: The Observer, April 13th 2014: