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Why the debate on MPs’ car grant needs refocusing

FOCUS ON PARLIAMENT

Main entrance to the Parliament of Uganda,   (Inset) is the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga
Main entrance to the Parliament of Uganda, (Inset) is the Speaker of Parliament Rebecca Kadaga

A stranger to Uganda who has keenly followed the debate on vehicle facilitation for Members of Parliament would be forgiven if he imagines that the MPs are the only public servants who receive vehicles/vehicle grant from the public coffers.

But such a belief, of course, would be completely mistaken. The President, Ministers, Permanent Secretaries, Undersecretaries, Directors and a number of other officials in Ministries, other government Departments and Agencies are entitled to more costly chauffeur-driven vehicles at the tax-payers’ expense.

All the other public servants and civil servants who are, by virtue of employment, entitled to vehicles, do not have to endure the dizzying debate that MPs face when it comes to being allocated vehicles. Once one takes office, arrangements are made for his/her transportation often outside the glare of the public eye.

But when it comes to MPs, the debate about vehicles has usually been very public, and often singles out MPs as greedy and looking to reap off the public. We admit that what the MPs do is possibly more likely to attract public interest than what most other public servants and politicians do since the MPs are in most cases the most direct link between the members of the public and the Government.

The MPs ‘car’ versus the task they face

Parliamentarians need transport by the nature of their work
Parliamentarians need transport by the very nature of their work

Whenever the citizens have grievances, Parliament, through their MPs, is often one of the very first points of call for them as they seek redress. That is why Parliament usually receives a big number of petitions from different corners of the country, touching on a broad range of issues.

If the citizens cannot directly petition Parliament through the Speaker, they will usually channel their grievances through their MPs, who may in turn put the matter as a question to the Prime Minister, who is the Leader of Government Business in parliament, on the Floor of Parliament, and require an answer for his Constituents. The MP, alternatively, can raise the issue as a matter of national importance.

Whichever way this discourse takes, the point we are making here is that MPs are closer to the people than most other public servants/politicians and civil servants.

When MPs visit their constituencies, it is the case, therefore, that they are inundated by throngs of their constituents who may want to have a word with them on different matters.

Whereas, therefore, the MP is elected to go to Parliament and his primary work is in the Parliament building, an effective MP has at least two offices – at Parliament and in the constituency. In fact, the majority of MPs will have more than one office in their constituencies.

This means that the MP keeps darting from his constituency to Parliament throughout the five-year tenure, with many going to the constituencies almost every weekend.

It goes without saying, of course, that MPs need transport to do this. It is only the “how” that can be discussed.

Should public servants get vehicles?

The idea behind providing public officials and senior civil servants with vehicles and other facilitation is, of course, to enable them to do their work well.

The Public Service competes with the private sector for personnel from the same pool of people and since in many cases the private sector rewards employees better than the public service, many excellent personnel naturally opt for private sector employment.

We are aware of the argument, of course, that those who end up in the Public Service, especially politicians, should be public-service spirited and not necessarily driven by pecuniary benefits from their employment. This thinking can be debated, but it seems fair to imagine that public service is too important a function to be left to volunteers.

A society should be in position to pay its way to excellent service delivery, for it is employees who are well paid and facilitated that can be relied upon to do an excellent job and can reasonably be held accountable.

We are aware that arguing this way, questions will be raised as to whether Parliament has done its job well and MPs deserve to get paid well. The critics of Parliament have argued that this is not the case, and some have claimed that MPs are too many and are overpaid considering what they do. Others have raised issues about the quality of MPs, claiming it is poor.

Is Parliament too big?

Parliament in Session
Parliament in Session

On MPs being too many, President Museveni recently absolved Parliament of any responsibility for this perception. Those who followed the debate during the campaigns for the February 2016 elections will have heard Dr Kizza Besigye, the presidential candidate of the Forum for Democratic Change, saying that if he won, he would work to reduce the number of MPs from the about 450 members currently to 150. Dr Besigye said Parliament is too big and imposes a big burden on the tax payers.

On the other hand, President Museveni is comfortable with the size of the current Parliament and is even keen to take responsibility for it. When the President presided over the elections of the Speaker and Deputy Speaker of the 10th Parliament, he made this point clear in Parliament.

The President was happy, for instance, that the Ik people of Karamoja region had for the first time in history sent one of their own as an MP. To him, this is an opportunity for these people who had been excluded from the national discourse all the time.

The President expressed regret, in fact, that some societies still remained “unrepresented” in Parliament. He singled out the people of Koome Island in Lake Victoria, for instance, who he said he had forgotten about when new constituencies were demarcated recently, but he said he would redress the issue in time.

To President Museveni, therefore, the argument is that having Uganda’s diverse peoples represented in Parliament and therefore  avoiding their exclusion, is a way of ensuring stability in the country, which is the paramount consideration if Uganda is to develop.

In the end, it does not matter where one stands on the debate on whether to have more or less MPs. The simple fact is that we have the number of MPs that we have now, and this number will continue to grow as new districts and constituencies are created.

Some have argued that Parliament has the power to stop the creation of districts and constituencies, but this argument can only be partly true. The Executive, in our democracy, has been the source of the overwhelming number of Bills and other sources of legislation, and it will continue to be. More to that, the ruling party has had an overwhelming majority of MPs since the country returned to multiparty politics in 2006.

The role of the leadership of Parliament, the Speaker in this case, is to preside over the debate on Bills and other business before the House. The side that has the biggest numbers eventually carries the day.

This being as it is, therefore, Parliament in the end may have very little to do with whether a district is created or not. For a district to be created, for instance, there will have to be a process that involves resolutions by the concerned Local Government council(s) for such an action to be taken. By the time the matter is presented to Parliament it is almost a fait accompli. And once a district is created the number of MPs will increase by at least one person since the new district will have a woman representative.

On whether Uganda MPs are overpaid, there has been debate on this for a long time now, and the benchmarking that has been done shows that relative to what MPs elsewhere in the region get paid, Ugandan MPs are actually not as well paid. The stand-out case is Kenya, where MPs get paid twice as  much better.

Are our MPs of poor quality?

For those who say the quality of our MPs is poor, we believe that this is a question that would best be directed to the voters.

According to our Constitution, absolute power belongs to the people, who exercise it by electing their representatives and deciding on important issues through regular, free and fair elections and referenda. This is Article One of the Constitution, just in case its importance needs to be emphasised.

The spirit here is that the judgement of Ugandans is supreme and they are deemed capable of deciding who should represent them regardless of what one may think. This does not mean, of course that the majority will always choose the candidate who is best suited to the task at hand in terms of skills  experience and training.

In fact, the electorate may in some cases choose the candidate who to some people may appear to be the least qualified to do the job at hand. But the most important thing is that they choose. Because if we aspire to be a democracy, how else should we choose our leaders? Is the option of having people savagely fight  for power better?

As one thoughtful individual observed, democracy is the worst form of government, but it is still better  than any other that has ever been tried. To add to this, we put assert that most people will agree that a parliament, in fact any form  of parliament, is better than having no parliament at all.

To further assuage the fears of those who feel the voters send to Parliament people who are ill qualified and leave out those who would do a better job, it is important to take note that democracy, particularly the exercise of electing leaders, is a learning process based on trial-and-error, just as it is the case in many other areas of human endeavor.

The same voters who at one point may send a professor of public administration to Parliament may turn around and send a 20-year old who has just completed A-level, the minimum academic qualification to become MP.

What would explain such a turn of events? It is difficult to say. But to attempt an explanation, most human beings seem to act depending on the state of their minds at any particular point in time.

If, for instance, a voter who elected a professor to Parliament five years earlier feels that the professor has not done much to improve his lot, that same voter may decide to reject the professor and in his place send to Parliament an individual with just the basic academic requirement. In that voter’s mind, he may consider that academic qualification or experience or success in any particular endeavor is not a basic requirement for one to succeed as a legislator.

Whatever consideration voters may have for sending whoever they send to Parliament, it is not the business of Parliament to judge. What is important for Parliament is to provide the MPs with the tools so that they have the best possible conditions under which to do their work.

According to the Public Service protocol handbook, MPs are entitled to the same treatment as Permanent Secretaries. Regarding transport, Permanent Secretaries get chauffeur-driven brand new cars of 4000cc, which are serviced, fueled and maintained by the government.

The information that has been made available is that such vehicles, if procured through the existing government channels, will cost about Ushs400m.

The MPs, on the other hand, are getting Ushs150m as a grant to buy cars, which they will service and maintain by themselves, and pay their own drivers. The MPs will only continue to get a mileage allowance to cover fuel expenses, but they will also have to insure their vehicles because in case the cars they buy are stolen or are demolished in an accident, they will not be entitled to another car grant.

On the other hand, a Permanent Secretary whose vehicle is damaged or is stolen gets another one from the Ministry.

The only difference is that the MP will not have to return the vehicle he bought on the expiry of hi five-year tenure in Parliament, whereas the vehicle in which a Permanent Secretary is driven is a property of the government. However, it is important to note that five years is usually the time government vehicles take to be written off and sold off for scrap value.

To look at the numbers, the much-debated MPs’ grant of Ushs150m, if divided by the number of days in five years, means that Parliament gives an MP Ushs82,000 per day to buy a car, pay a driver, and pay for maintenance, servicing and insurance. It does not sound as expensive as it has been made to appear.

One key issue to address here is that Parliament is not being called upon to pay a driver for the MP, which would be a requirement in case the MPs were given public chauffeur-driven  vehicles.

In that case, apart from having to pay the driver a salary, gratuity and pension, the public would also have to pay the driver’s allowances. According to the information we have seen in this regard, a driver at that level would be entitled to Ushs55,000 per night  he spends out of station whenever the MP would be out on official duty. The financial implication in that case would be massive.

Going back to the debate on whether the current MPs deserve it, given that some people have criticized them over what the critics perceive as the MPs being of poor quality or not doing enough, our take  is that democracy must be given a chance.

It is important to note that human beings are rational in the way they make decisions, and they learn from their mistakes. If indeed it is true that the current crop of MPs is poor, it will show with time, and the people will correct it. In the future, as the people keep voting and their expectations of MPs change, they will adjust their voting behavior towards as close to voting for as ideal an MP as they may deserve.

The point we are making here is that the natural course of things should be left to play out as our democracy matures and steadily gets more refined.

Available options

And in talking about refining our democracy and governance, the current debate opens possibilities on a debate about how to facilitate our civil servants and public servants.

Should the current system of buying vehicles for public servants and civil servants continue, or should it be scrapped and replaced by another system that may prove less costly to the public and more efficient?

A debate of this nature would be proper if it cuts across all sectors and does not just single out MPs, because singling out only MPs for criticism while other public and civil servants have even bigger privileges in this regard is likely, as it has already done, to put MPs on the defensive as they feel targeted and badmouthed.

This debate is especially necessary because there is a lot of wastage and inefficiency when it comes to managing the public fleet. Many parking yards of Ministries, government Departments and Agencies are full of grounded vehicles, many of which would still be roadworthy but have been mismanaged. Even those which have been written off still lie in parking yards instead of being auctioned off for scrap value.

There are also complaints about public officials using public vehicles on private trips, raising expenses on fuel, servicing and maintenance, among other complaints.

These are concerns, of course, which a serious society cannot gloss over. There have been suggestions regarding this, with many calling for a revision of government’s policy on vehicles.

Some have called for buying less expensive vehicles, while others have advocated for a “zero fleet policy” as the one adopted by Rwanda, where government vehicles will be auctioned off and public officials on official duty are instead given a transport allowance. Those who may wish to buy cars may be given car loans.

A debate of this nature, it is clear, needs to continue in a more structured and serious manner. So long as it does not single out only the MPs and applies to everyone, it should be able to attract bi-partisan support in Parliament and will certainly greatly appeal to the general public.

And whatever option is adopted, the implementation should be structured in a non-disruptive manner and should not be abrupt. Uganda has waited for many decades for such a progressive policy; the country can wait for even five more years for it to be discussed and implemented.

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