How to address legislators’ salaries demand

By Ken Opalo

Members of the National Assembly are at it again. Just like their colleagues in the last two parliaments, one of their first tasks since assuming office was to agitate for a pay rise.

 As expected, Kenyans have protested against this move. But in the process emotion and disgust has crowded out sound judgment and consideration of the matters at hand. Perhaps if we take time to consider the motive of MPs we may arrive at a settlement for the good of Kenya.

Members of the august House have argued they spend a lot of money on their constituents – paying school fees, funeral expenses, among other things. They have also argued according to the pay scale recommended by the Salaries and Remuneration Commission (SRC) they have been demoted in the pecking order of State officials. Lastly, the MPs have also argued at the time they decided to run for membership in the National Assembly their salaries had not yet been set.

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Let’s take these matters one by one. Firstly, it is true many Kenyans expect their MPs to pay for all manner of things. Back in 2003 MPs came up with the idea of Constituency Development Fund (CDF) partly to offset these extraneous costs. If there is need for more money it should come through other means, not salaries. The idea should be to institutionalise the help given to the poor. Merely increasing MPs salaries does not guarantee help to poor people, especially given the many publicised cases of financial problems incurred by sitting Members of Parliament.

Secondly, MPs are right to argue their pay scale has implications on their standing relative to other State officers. The journey to parliamentary strength and independence in Kenya has been torturous. For a long time the National Assembly was run as if it was a department of the Office of the President. It was not until the Parliamentary Commission was set up and MPs’ salaries were raised that Parliament started morphing into the strong institution that it is today.

Increasing their pay made it harder for MPs to be bribed - either by the Executive or any other vested interests - by raising the cost of doing so. This particular concern is grounds for further negotiation between the Public Service Commission and the SRC. We must ensure that the relative standing of MPs vis-à-vis other State officers is not diminished in order to preserve the independence and strength of the National Assembly.

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Thirdly, the timing of the SRC announcement of the pay scale for MPs is an argument that should be litigated in a court of law. If MPs feel that the SRC unfairly lowered their pay they should go to court to confirm the legality of the SRC’s actions. The Constitution appears to be on the SRC’s side on this matter.

Furthermore, it is not a good idea to have the MPs set their own salaries. In most civilised countries elected officials are not allowed to set their own salaries. There is no reason why Kenya should be different. With these points in mind, it becomes clear that public protest against the MPs’ hostility towards SRC should be tactful and measured.

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This brings me to the planned protest against the National Assembly next week. In my view confrontation alone will not work. The planned protest against MPs next week will be good for bringing public attention to the gravity of the matter. But it should not be an end in itself. Civil society groups should also seriously engage MPs and focus their energies on finding institutional solutions to the issue of constituency service by MPs. It is only in sober discussion that we as a country will arrive at solutions that will work for Kenyans.

Allowing MPs to better address the needs of their constituents is a key part of preserving the strength of Parliament, but increasing MPs’ salaries is not the best way to go about it. Instead, MPs should think about a proper poor relief regime. They, of all people, should know that we are a nation of institutions.

The writer is a PhD candidate at Stanford University

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National Assembly SRC Constituency Development Fund MPs