Towards a stronger House | Daily News

Towards a stronger House

Every five years, Sri Lankans elect 196 Members of Parliament (MPs) at a General Election, while 29 more MPs are selected by their respective parties from the National List. Thus there are 225 MPs in Parliament. This is a comparatively high number of MPs for a 65,610 Sq Km country of 21 million.

It has now been revealed that the Government spends around half a billion rupees annually to maintain the MPs alone, without taking into account the expenditure on Parliament staff and buildings. The total expenditure on Parliament inclusive of those costs in 2017 stood at Rs 2,443 million, out of which Rs.939 million was spent on the salaries and allowances of nearly 900 Parliamentary staff.

A breakdown of the expenses on MPs reads as follows: Rs.118 million to pay the MPs’ salaries and sittings allowance, Rs. 115 million for the fuel allowance, Rs.135 million the postal and telecommunication allowance, Rs.259 million for rental and Rs. 25 million for the MPs’ transport allowance. This does not include the US$ 55,000 duty free car permit for MPs, which is generally sold to third parties, thus depriving the State of duties and taxes amounting to millions of Rupees. Newspapers reported that most MPs have already made use of this facility.

If one divides the total expenditure on Parliament by 365, Rs 6.6 million is spent average for a day. Although the staff members work for nearly 250 days, there are only around 100 sittings of Parliament per year. On each Parliament sitting day, the Government spends Rs.300,000 to prepare meals for about 150 MPs, plus the costs for electricity, water and Members sitting allowances. If the total expenditure is divided by the average number of sitting days, the figure is about Rs.24 million per sitting.

This is a truly staggering sum and the people have every right to know whether they are getting their money’s worth – after all, it is public funds that are being used for the MPs’ welfare. The ministers’ salaries are not included above as those are paid by the respective ministries, but ministers too are entitled to the above mentioned fuel, postal and telecommunication, rental and sittings allowances. Naturally, ministerial salaries too are paid from the public purse.

But are MPs actually making use of this August Assembly to further the lot of the public? It seems that only a few MPs from both sides of the divide are interested in doing so. There were recent reports that many MPs had attended less than seven sittings per year. Around three or four MPs had not spoken even one word during the many debates held through the year.

Sometimes sittings have to be adjourned because there is no quorum. Even the live televising of debates has not put a dampener on the lack of MPs’ enthusiasm, where row upon row empty benches are in full view of the entire country. Several websites and social media accounts have begun naming and shaming MPs who do not attend Parliament regularly, but it remains to be seen whether this will have any effect.

President Maithripala Sirisena has also weighed in, noting that Parliament wastes the most amount of food in the country, since only a few MPs are there to consume the food prepared for 225 MPs. In the light of this observation, Speaker Karu Jayasuriya has instructed the relevant officials to take steps to minimize food wastage in Parliament.

It is time that all political parties impress upon their elected representatives the need to attend Parliament sessions regularly. This situation clearly calls for firm action – for example, MPs can be told that nominations would not be given at the next election if they do not attend at least 75 to 80 sessions out of the 100.

If some MPs are too shy to speak or do not know much about the subjects being discussed, they should be coached and educated appropriately (As an aside, this is a wake-up call to include educated young professionals in the nomination lists). In fact, the same monitoring and mentoring processes could be followed for local bodies and provincial councils, which are thought of as stepping stones to Parliament.

There is another factor at play – most of the important work of Parliament is conducted through Consultative Committees on various subjects, which are not open to the press or televised. There is very little information on the attendance levels for these meetings, but if the main assembly is any indication, things cannot be so rosy at the committees either. Again, leaders of political parties must ensure that their representatives participate in these vital meetings.

The purpose of a Parliament or any other such body is to give a voice to the voters – the simple fact is that 21 million people cannot convene in one place to discuss the issues affecting them. Therefore, the MPs must voice our opinions and express our sentiments in the House. Those who fail to do so have clearly betrayed the trust placed in them by the people. This should be rectified immediately for democracy to flourish. 


 

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