At a parliamentary workshop held in Tobago on Saturday for all MPs, a consultant addressed the group on strengthening parliamentary practice. This led to a discussion of the time that MPs currently devote to Parliament-related activities, and, consequently, how much they earn. It should be said at the outset that, given the uncertain state of the national economy, and the low levels of increases given to public-sector workers, now would not be a good time for MPs to award themselves a pay rise. Many members of the public feel that MPs are already overpaid, and, compared with some sectors of the working population, their salaries are indeed generous. That, of course, depends who they are being compared with. It’s often argued that MPs are paid little in comparison with their counterparts in the professions. Hence MPs often announce that they have taken a drop in income in order to serve the nation in a parliamentary role. Consequently, it has been argued that raising MPs’ pay would enable the political parties to attract a better class of candidate. It should be borne in mind, however, that MPs are exempted from paying taxes on new cars and receive low-interest loans to purchase them. Cabinet ministers’ salaries and perks are more generous, with their basic salaries pegged at $33,000, in addition to which they receive, inter alia, allowances for travel, overseas travel, and hotel accommodation or government housing for those who live far from Port-of-Spain.
Meanwhile, MPs who are not ministers generally continue to practise their professions—so their parliamentary salaries are not their only source of income. The larger question to be considered, then, is whether those MPs should be regarded as full-time parliamentarians—and not only paid accordingly, but function accordingly. This is an issue that has been raised several times in recent years, but has never been debated in Parliament and has yet to be decided on. The question applies to Opposition members of the Lower House, and to some members of the Senate, since recent practice is for every member of the government side, at least in the Lower House, to be a minister. Over the years, the growing concern over corruption and wastage in the spending of public funds, and the new emphasis on transparency and accountability in public affairs, have led to a greater emphasis on the oversight function of the Parliament. This has resulted in the development of the committee system—which has not been able to work as intended, owing to the small size of the local Parliament. At Westminster, with over 600 MPs, it is easy to draw committee members from the many backbenchers on both sides of the House. In Port-of-Spain, where every government member is a Cabinet minister or a junior minister, it barely functions, with committees often struggling to muster a quorum.
In 2007, the number of MPs in the Lower House was increased from 36 to 41, but that was in response to the stipulations of the Representation of the People Act, which concerns itself with the size of constituencies, not the workload of MPs. It may be that the time has come to raise that number further in order to provide better representation within Parliament, in terms of the nature of the tasks the legislature is equipped to perform and the thoroughness with which it can do them. It is the work of a few minutes to decide whether or not Parliament should approve a pay rise for its members in the present circumstances. But what is really required is a considered, non-partisan contemplation of Parliament’s present and projected role and the changing responsibilities of its members and the needs and expectations of the electorate.