New bid to give diplomatic passports to MPs, spouses

New bid to give diplomatic passports to MPs, spouses. (Photo: Courtesy)

It is an old story that elicits anger every time it is written: MPs passing laws for their personal benefit, while the millions of Kenyans they represent struggle with the high cost of living.

After more than four years of shilly-shallying, the lawmakers have dusted off a controversial law from the shelves and spruced it up. With just 15 parliamentary days left before they take their final break for campaigns, the MPs want to reform the Parliamentary Service Commission (PSC) through the Parliamentary Service Commission Bill 2017.

It will be their final act. A bold step. What they have in mind is an overhaul of the organisational structure of the PSC – the powerful organ that manages the two Houses of Parliament.

As expected, MPs had to take their last few days in Parliament to come out with something. And because they can’t increase their remuneration, they have gone for diplomatic passports for themselves and their spouses. The benefits of such passports are immense. Essentially, it means MPs and their wives will have diplomatic status and will be entitled to red carpet treatment and access to VIP or diplomatic lounges in airports abroad. In some countries, just having that passport will allow an MP or their spouse to legitimately seek and possibly get a meeting with officials of foreign governments.

New diplomats

If the Bill is assented to by the President, Kenya will have at least 836 new diplomats (349 MPs, 67 senators and their wives or husbands). It is a good deal and a fantastic sweetener to get the MPs who are fighting for their political future to suspend their campaigns and return to the august House to pass the law.

According to Majority Leader Aden Duale (Garissa Township) who has published the revised Bill, it is only the PSC which hasn’t upgraded its governing law to conform to the Constitution of Kenya, 2010.

The Public Service Commission, the Judicial Service Commission and all independent offices and constitutional commissions have new laws that are in tandem with the principles of the 2010 Constitution, Duale told Saturday Standard.

“PSC has sadly lagged behind in this exercise and this Bill seeks to address this shortcoming,” he said. But that’s not the only thing in the 36-page law. In it, there is a progressive attempt to cut the bureaucracy and sort nibble away at the powerful seat of the Secretary of the Commission, which is held by the Clerk of the Senate, Jeremiah Nyegenye.

Some may look at it as a power-grab in the political powerplay between the two Houses of Parliament.

The truth is, over the past four years, the National Assembly has found it difficult to submit to the Clerk of the Senate. Reason? The National Assembly has more staff and takes up a bigger portion of the parliamentary budget. Going by the number of MPs, the National Assembly is five times the size of the Senate.

To come to the Secretary of the Commission, who is the Clerk of the Senate as per the Constitution and therefore by extension the chief executive of Parliament, for simple approvals, has been a bureaucratic torment for the MPs.

Insiders told the Saturday Standard that the decision to clip the powers of the Clerk of the Senate came about because he had questioned a colossal variation of the budget of the multi-storeyed building at Parliament grounds, and why the commissioners were keen to buy a piece of land in rural Limuru for the parliamentary college at an inflated cost.

Accounting officer

That the Constitution made the National Assembly, whose Speaker is Justin Muturi, the chairman of the PSC does not matter to the MPs. They acknowledged that the Clerk of the Senate is the administrative boss of the parliamentary bureaucracy but ruled that he can’t be the accounting officer of the whole Parliament. They devolved the powers to the Clerk of the National Assembly, now, Michael Sialai.

In October 2015, the initial version of the Bill was published but it was mired in controversy. The controversial clauses including an offence of ‘contempt of Parliament’ had to be deleted and a new Bill published. In this new Bill published by Duale, the Muturi-led commission has proposed further designation of accounting officers especially for the Directorate of Joint Services and the Centre for Parliamentary Studies, for speedy execution of parliamentary agenda.

“(The goal is) to provide for the administrative functions and powers of the Clerk of each House over the members of staff of the clerks as to guarantee the administrative and functional autonomy of the Houses under the constitutive, supervisory and overall administrative powers of the Commission,” reads the memo of the Bill. On Thursday, PSC met and resolved to appoint a technical team to review the Duale bill and come up with probable amendments.

“As a commission we will review the Bill and propose amendments to address the concerns raised by members and ensure the bill aligns itself to the constitution and all other laws,” Speaker Muturi, who chairs PSC said.

This proposed administrative tweak will give the clerks and the designated accounting officers the authority and responsibility to act fast and efficiently, and put them “on the ground” in Parliament’s unending efforts to curb the integrity challenges among staff and MPs. But the questions remain: Why would Parliament, made up of just 418 MPs and an estimated 2,000 staff, have more than one accounting officer, whereas complex ministries such as Interior or even National Treasury or even the Judiciary have one?

Secondly, why a Bill that touches on both Houses has been declared as having nothing to do with the Senate, yet it recommends fairly easy steps to fire the clerk?

The senators are upset and have vowed to block the law.

This law and the proposed structure are likely to increase efficiency, but could open different power bases for collusion. To deal with security challenges, the PSC has recommended a Parliamentary Police Unit, specifically to guard the precincts of Parliament and the individual MPs. Parliament has persistently been a hot target for Al Shabaab terrorists, but the authorities have always been ahead and thwarted all the efforts.

Another mischievous proposal in the Bill is to limit access to parliamentary information if the PSC deems the information as “prejudicial to national security or the interests of Parliament in performance of its functions”. This effectively means that unless the PSC is comfortable with an information request made through the Access to Information Act, it has a wide leeway to reject the request citing this clause.