MPs, trade unions must stand up to be counted on the Finance Bill

President William Ruto assents to the Division of Revenue Bill 2023, at State House, Nairobi, where counties will receive Sh. 385.4 billion for the 2023/2024 Financial Year. [PCS]

The Finance Bill 2023 has raised quite a storm. In bars, on buses and workplaces, it is competing with the Shakahola massacre as the most emotive topic for discussion.

If Kenya Kwanza thought they could bulldoze the Bill through Parliament without a single comma change or a whimper, they have another thing coming and better be prepared for the juggernaut.

The Bill is lengthy, covering a variety of areas with amendments to a dozen current pieces of legislation. The overall aim, of course, is to increase state revenue to pay debts and keep the country ticking over.

A laudable aim but the Bill must garner support of not just 359 legislators - who frequently eat supper at State House on the eve of a crucial vote - but 50 million disgruntled citizens now expected to make further sacrifices on the IMF altar of austerity.

The two clauses enraging many are those concerning VAT on fuel and the Housing Tax.

Just about everyone knows increasing VAT from 8 per cent to 16 per cent will result in fuel costing Sh200 bob which in turn will lead to a jump in prices of everything at a time the government has promised a reduction in the cost of living.

The Housing Tax, on the other hand, is not just an assault on the pockets but on the intelligence of Kenyans.

Not a single hustler believes this sham tax will give him a home or that they can retrieve their contributions in seven years hence. The Housing Tax reminds every one of the dreaded Hut Tax forcefully collected by the colonial administration.

The same Hut Tax in Sierra Leone led to a war in 1898.

Insisting that the housing tax is mandatory even for someone who already owns their own home is so evocative of the arrogance, insensitivity and heartlessness of the colonial government.

Citizens are not opposed to playing their part in economic recovery but when they are informed that NHIF is broke and that NSSF has been looted severally over the decades, they will hardly trust this latest gimmick to rob them of their hard-earned cash.

What may infuriate them more however are the hidden perks for state officers in the Bill that most commentators have failed to notice or address. One sweetener for the legislators is that they will no longer be required to pay tax on their mileage claims.

Another incentive to say 'Aye' is that upon retirement they will receive a lump sum of one year's salary for each term they spent in Parliament as well as a monthly pension of 8 per cent of their last salary.

But if they held several positions as state officers, such as MP, Cabinet Secretary, PS, Governor or Speaker they can receive pensions and lump sums for each of those positions as well as free healthcare for their spouses and children.

Finally, the Bill proposes deletion of any provision that might deny them acquiring those benefits upon retirement.

Put another way, President Ruto is asking the working people to cough up more so that state officers can live and retire in luxury.

What is appalling, however, is the taciturn response of the trade unions on the matter. Cotu Secretary General Francis Atwoli has endorsed the government fleecing its citizens through the Finance Bill.

Isn't there something grotesque about Cotu leadership using it position and members' dues to defend an austere government taxing workers into destitution?

Pope Francis says "trade unions have been an essential force for social change, without which a semblance of a decent and humane society is impossible under capitalism".

But in Kenya, many unions have betrayed their members and misused their contributions. Unions together with politically elected representatives should be the heartbeat of a flourishing democracy, defending the masses from excesses of government, but most of them dupe their constituents.

There is still an opportunity for the government to review the most austere clauses in the Finance Bill but if they believe trade unions and MPs are in their pocket, they will hardly go into reverse mode.