Saturday, February 24, 2018

Pensions — another view

 Increasing the emoluments and retiring benefits of members of Parliament (MPs) will never be a popular course of action. The thinking of the general public is that MPs and former MPs do not deserve even what they currently receive let alone any increase. Since they have pledged to do public service, they should work for a mere financial pittance. The consequence of this line of reasoning is that filling the position of MP may be restricted to the wealthy or persons of means. Such a view avoids the question of the value and worth of the resources of time, energy, skills and financial outlay required to do the job of a MP.  What would a comparable position in the private sector, if there is one, pay and what emoluments and retiring benefits do similar jurisdictions in the Caribbean and elsewhere settle upon for their parliamentary representatives?

I am not aware that any proper evaluation has been made in respect of the MP’s position in this country. It is reported that the institution charged with this responsibility—the Salaries Review Commission—is unable to arrive at an evaluation, is unresponsive and virtually non-functional. Furthermore, the question arises as to how independent is the commission in terms of the objectivity of their members and their freedom from popular bias. The question of whether a MP’s job is either part-time or full-time is irrelevant. What we are concerned with is the evaluation of the position and emoluments associated with it. In the last few years, I wrote the chairman on three occasions on the need to increase pensions for MPs in light of the escalation in the cost of living and there was no response. In such a scenario what is the responsibility of the Government?

Another reason why the general public thinks that MPs should not be given increases is that they aspire to office to engage in corruption and to enrich or “fix” themselves. That is regarded as par for the course because it is alleged that they all (without exception) do it and nothing can be done to prevent it. It reflects a mindless acquiescence to alleged wrong-doing and a grudging tolerance of it. Such thinking tells us more about the nature of the society than it does about the alleged propensity of MPs and politicians. But, indeed, if these allegations have any merit, one has to ask how functional and effective are the public institutions established to promote integrity and prevent corruption and illegality on the part of those engaged in public office.

A third reason for public hostility is that MPs do not perform. This raises the issue of how performance is to be evaluated whether by subjective or relatively objective criteria and whose responsibility it is to carry out this evaluation —whether party, Parliament or Government—and what sanctions can be employed. But we have to bear in mind that performance evaluation comes after commencement of the job and it is at the time of commencement or before that emoluments and benefits are determined.

Then there is concern for the burden on the Treasury if pension increases for MPs are to be implemented. I am not certain of the figures involved here. One report in the press stated that the Minister of Finance was seeking approval for $12m for this purpose. Let us assume that the cost is five times this figure at $60m. Is this affordable by a country which spends over $2b a year in fuel subsidies which distort the fiscal profile, over $1b a year for CEPEP and URP, a total of $300m a year for LifeSport with all its irregularities, over $150m a year to support Carnival and millions for soca, calypso and chutney artistes and their support groups not to mention hosting billion-dollar international summits and conferences.

Some commentators have expressed agony over the recommended increases in MPs pensions when there are so many poor people in this country. Well, the poor will always be with us. Does this mean that no increases in pay and emoluments should be sanctioned in both public and private sectors until poverty is completely eradicated? And if we assume the poverty level to be at 16 per cent, we are speaking of 208,000 persons in T&T under the poverty line. Divide $60m by 208,000 and we come up with the princely sum of $287 to be distributed to each poor person in lieu of the expenditure on increased pension for MPs.

As regards obtaining suitable or any employment after parliamentary service, it is easier to see the face of God. There is ostracisation by both private and public sectors. Many with independent professions have had to abandon them after parliamentary life or to operate with drastically reduced clienteles and incomes. It is not a happy outcome for MPs except for those who have enriched themselves while in office.