This article was published in Dawn on June 29, 2020 and is available at the following link
Around mid-June, the Senate Standing Committee on Finance unanimously cleared an amendment to the Members of Parliament (Salaries and Allowances) Act that allowed the family members of parliamentarians to avail air tickets un-utilized by parliamentarians.
An uproar in mainstream and social media followed immediately. One newspaper editorial called it ‘a blatant show of greed’. Although the amendment did not add to the financial liability of the public exchequer, the timing of the amendment in the midst of a pandemic was no doubt outrageous.
This public outcry is not limited to this incident only. Any time the raise in legislators’ salaries is discussed, public reaction is resoundingly negative – not only in Pakistan but almost everywhere around the world.
The most important question to be settled in the debate about legislators’ salaries is whether they are full-time public officials or their job is only part-time– which would allow them to work elsewhere to earn their livelihoods.
There was a time when legislators were required to give only a fraction of their time by attending sessions of legislatures. Over a period of time, there has been a tremendous increase in the demand on the time of legislators.
If we do not wish that legislatures become exclusive clubs of the elite and super rich, we will need to provide a package for full-time legislators that is comparable to that of a senior professional in the corporate sector, a judge of the superior judiciary or a senior civil servant.
Ahmed Bilal Mehboob
The National Assembly of Pakistan, for example, has to meet for a minimum of 130 days in a year. A member is expected to attend all sittings and if, for some reason, he or she is unable to do so, a leave has to be requested from the legislature. In addition, a member of the National Assembly (MNA) has to attend meetings of various committees.
Since most legislators are not based in the federal or provincial capitals, they constantly need to commute between their constituencies where they typically spend their weekends at the venue of the legislature.
The most time-consuming responsibility of Pakistani legislators is to attend to the demands of their constituents to intercede on their behalf with federal, provincial and local authorities. In addition is the inescapable duty of social and political calls within the constituency.
Each National Assembly member represents on average 400,000 voters. They, especially the supporters, expect that elected representatives attend at least the weddings and funerals of their families if not other social occasions.
Most legislators are also members of various statutory bodies such as university syndicates, local development committees, Public Safety Commissions and scores of other such bodies and they are expected to attend such meetings also. If we include the legislators’ responsibilities of attending political party meetings and other events, a legislator’s job is certainly more than a full-time one.
In old times, most of the elected legislators came from rich land-owning families and therefore had ample personal resources for their upkeep. Although many legislators are still well-to-do, an increasing number come from a professional class who depend on their salaries as the only or major source of income. The ‘rich’ image of legislators is, therefore, outdated and, at best, partly true.
A member of the Senate or National Assembly in Pakistan is currently paid a monthly salary of Rs150,000 which, after the addition of allowances, amounts to Rs188,000.
Provincial Assembly members are generally paid a little less; ranging from Rs145,000 for Sindh, Rs154,000 for KP and Rs176,000 for Punjab. Members of the Provincial Assembly of Balochistan, however, receive the highest monthly emoluments totalling Rs440,000.
In addition, legislators are paid a traveling and daily allowance during the days of the meetings. If one compares these packages with the average monthly emoluments of around Rs1 million for a judge of the superior court or around Rs700,000 for a contract employee of the government in MP-1 scale or about Rs350,000 for a Grade 22 civil servant, the legislators’ emoluments appear to be on the lower side, especially if we consider that the legislators, unlike public officials, do not have a system of post-retirement pensions.
If we do not wish that legislatures become exclusive clubs of the elite and super rich, we will need to provide a package for full-time legislators that is comparable to that of a senior professional in the corporate sector, a judge of the superior judiciary or a senior civil servant. In addition, some kind of pension plan may also have to be devised for legislators as has been done, for example, in India.
At the same time, it is important that some key parliamentary reforms are undertaken. First, it should be ensured that legislators do not have any business or occupation which constitutes conflict of interest. Second, the attendance of legislators should improve so that quorum issues do not arise and third, the duration of each sitting of legislatures should also increase to about six hours on the average from the current two hours.