Party chief whips’ failure to reign in truant legislators during parliamentary proceedings is costing taxpayers’ millions of kwachas, Nation Online has learnt.
The Nation Online’s calculations show that last Thursday and Friday alone—the two days during which legislators’ absenteeism reached new lows—the taxpayer paid around K18 million to members of Parliament (MPs) who either absconded the proceedings entirely or participated in part.
Yet—according to Parliament’s Standing Orders—legislators who have not attended proceedings without a valid reason to chief whips are supposed to be deducted allowances for that day.
Both Speaker of Parliament Richard Msowoya and Leader of the House Kondwani Nankhumwa—in separate interviews—fingered party chief whips for the problem.
Since the current 2017/18 Mid-Year Budget Review Meeting opened on February 5, The Nation observed glaring absenteeism.
For instance, on Thursday—a day dedicated to Private Members’ business, but on which the House had to adjourn barely 45 minutes into the meeting after legislators failed to come up with business to deliberate on—there were about 53 legislators and six Cabinet ministers.
This meant, out of the 190 MPs—which excludes the Speaker and his two deputies—currently available in the House, roughly 137 were absent at the time of suspending the proceedings. That means nearly 70 percent of MPs skipped work.
We could not independently verify how many MPs were present during the morning session, but going by the afternoon numbers on Thursday, we calculated that the taxpayer, without getting full value for the money, coughed at least K8 million on the truant MPs based on the K60 000 daily per diem package.
According to our records, each law maker gets K10 000 as daily sitting allowance, K45 000 as daily subsistence allowance and an extra K5 000. This money is paid in advance to the MPs’ bank accounts.
And on Friday morning, at the point the Speaker was entering the Chamber; just about 23 MPs and less than 10 Cabinet ministers were in attendance, representing 167 legislators missing.
That translates to an absenteeism of roughly 80 percent of the Assembly and K10 million spent on MPs who largely did not participate in the day’s parliamentary deliberations.
It is expected that by the end of the four-week meeting, government will have spent about K1 billion in MPs’ allowances alone.
If the two days were to be the average attendance rate, then at least 75 percent of this money—K750 million—could be wasted on legislators who have not done the jobs they were elected to do.
Over the past few years, the number of legislators absconding sittings has been growing despite pocketing the allowances to the extent that in June 2016, Parliament threatened to recover the money from MPs who abscond. To date, there has been no accountability on which MPs have been penalised and how much the taxpayer has saved.
The development has further compelled political, social and economic commentators as well as ordinary citizens to raise questions about how serious the MPs are with their legislative work.
Although the Speaker and Parliament secretariat have been failing to act on the errant MPs, Standing Order 41 (3) states that a “member who is absent without seeking leave of absence shall forfeit all allowances during the period of absence”.
According to Standing Orders 206 (3), the Speaker can grant leave of absence to an MP on two grounds that include illness or family emergency and to enable a member attend to public business locally or abroad.
Yesterday, when contacted to comment on the issue of absenteeism, Msowoya referred Nation Online to chief whips of political parties represented in Parliament and Leader of the House.
He said: “The issue is now with the chief whips of various political parties and Leader of the House. They are in a better position to explain than myself.”
But when asked whether Parliament is recovering the allowances from the missing MPs, Msowoya said they rely on chief whips to provide Parliament with names of who to deduct and “once they tell us, we deduct.”
Chief whips for the four major parties—Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) Henry Mussa; Malawi Congress Party (MCP) Lobin Lowe; People’s Party (PP) Roy Kachale; and United Democratic Front (UDF) Lillian Patel were all not available yesterday.
But in an interview, Nankhumwa, while bemoaning the level of absenteeism, said the House’s leadership would be meeting this week for the way forward.
“It’s a sad situation. Absenteeism derails the very purpose of debating important national issues… But the leadership of the House, which includes the Speaker, Leader of the House, Leader of Opposition, government chief whip and other parties’ chief whips, will meet within this week to discuss the matter and make recommendations.
“The matter is being taken seriously and a report will also be made for the Speaker and the Leader of the House to act upon,” he said.
Political analyst George Phiri said Parliament needed to put in place harsh measures to prevent the tendency of absconding deliberations, including only paying the MPs for the days they attend parliamentary proceedings.