How MPs can do House-work better

The Indian Express, May 16, 2013

Parliamentarians need ? and don’t have ? a fully functioning office and a staff of high-quality researchers to contribute effectively

This paper’s lead story yesterday highlighted how members of Parliament (MPs) from both houses have employed their relatives as personal assistants (`It’s all in the family: 146 MPs employ relatives as their personal assistants’, May 15). The story pointed out that the salaries for these personal assistants (PAs) is paid out of the office allowance given to MPs by Parliament. The story drew attention to the fact that while procedural irregularities may not have been committed by MPs, the practice raised questions of ethics and propriety.

This story also highlights a larger question about the effectiveness with which our MPs can discharge their responsibilities with the resources available to them while trying to meet the high standards of public expectation. It is useful to point out that currently, MPs do not have any office space. Only political parties, the leaders of the opposition and the ruling party are allocated office space inside Parliament. All other MPs have to entertain their visitors and hold meetings either in their living rooms or in their outhouses. The money required by MPs to run their office and pay their PAs is regulated under the Salaries, Allowances and Pension of Members of Parliament Act, 1954. Until 1987, MPs were not provided any allowance for their office expenses. The first attempt to recognise the need for MPs to be provided with office amenities and infrastructure was in 1987, when the act was amended to include a Rs 1,000 office allowance available to MPs as part of their salary and benefits. Currently, MPs are entitled to an office allowance of Rs 45,000 per month. This includes Rs 28,000 for staff costs, and the balance to cover costs associated with office equipment, stationery, postage and other amenities.

The office allowance given to MPs has to be judged in light of the work expected from them. Each MP is required to represent the interests of approximately 15 lakh constituents in Parliament, formulate legislation on important national matters, review financial decisions and matters of government, and play an essential oversight function to hold the government accountable for the implementation of legislative and policy initiatives. The office allowance available now would not even cover postage costs for writing letters to each of their constituents.

The lack of institutional and official support available to MPs is particularly glaring when we consider what it takes for an MP to hold government accountable. For example, during Question Hour, an MP is required to conduct oversight on the government by regularly questioning the government on the implementation of various policies and programmes. Due to information asymmetry between ministers and MPs, significant resources and effort is required for MPs to question the actions of the government in an informed and effective manner. It is well known that a few weeks before every Parliament session, bureaucrats in North and South Block are focused on gathering detailed information to prepare ministers to respond to every plausible question posed to them on the floor of the House. While ministers are serviced by bureaucracy, MPs are particularly disadvantaged at making impactful interventions in Parliament due to lack of access to high-quality information and analysis on the government’s performance. In this context, the research and information requirements for MPs cannot be effectively serviced by the meagre office allowance.

Parliament typically passes about 60 bills a year on highly technical and complex issues across sectors. In the 15th Lok Sabha, legislative proposals considered by MPs have addressed diverse issues such as the civil liability for nuclear damage, land acquisition and the direct taxes code. In addition to passing legislation, MPs spend a significant amount of time in parliamentary committees where they scrutinise the government’s policies, finances and legislation. For example, to be effective members of the JPC on the allocation of 2G spectrum, MPs are required to have an in-depth understanding of the nuances of the telecom sector and the vast body of research on different mechanisms for the allocation of natural resources. Further, during a session of Parliament, an MP receives about 1,400 official documents that contain detailed and diverse information across sectors. Building the professional capacity of MPs to grasp issues and review the work of government requires them to have access to high-quality professionals who can provide them with timely and credible inputs. Having one PA to help them with their diary and appointments would not enable them to make effective contributions to the legislative process.

Most advanced democracies pay their national legislators significantly higher than in India (after adjusting for purchasing power parity). We compare poorly when it comes to the quantity and quality of office staff and infrastructure available to national legislators in other countries. Typically, in the United States, a legislator is provided office space next to Congress, and a staff of about 18 (House of Representative) to 60 (Senate) persons with a limit of over Rs 4 crore per year. In the UK, the cost of office space and salary of staff members are reimbursed to MPs to the tune of Rs 86 lakh per year.

The institutional research support within Parliament to cater to the varying and complex research and information needs of MPs is limited. The Parliament Library and Reference Service (LARRDIS) does a commendable job and has made some inroads, but is constrained by resources. More recently, there have been efforts within Parliament and outside to respond to the institutional vacuum of inadequate research support to MPs and demonstrate the impact of professional research support for MPs. The LAMP Fellowship has been designed to provide young graduates an opportunity to work with an MP for a year and provide them research support for their parliamentary work. The Policy Research Group set up by the Rajiv Gandhi Institute of Contemporary Studies provides a pool of research assistants to MPs from the Congress party to support their legislative work. The Lok Sabha secretariat has instituted the a fellowship which gives young individual an opportunity to work in the Lok Sabha secretariat for a year.

However, more needs to be done. For our MPs to do their job effectively, they need a fully functioning office, serviced by a staff of high-quality researchers who can help them with individualised research so that they can contribute to technical and policy issues being debated in Parliament. This would first require a change in mindset with which we view an increase in the salaries and allowances of MPs. Then, it would require a significant outlay of resources.

In August 2010 , during the debate on the Salaries, Allowances and Pension of MPs Bill, MPs proposed two alternatives. Some suggested the need to change the existing procedure for determining resources available to them and recommended establishing an independent commission to assess and recommend the salary and allowances payable to MPs. Others recommended that the salary and allowances of MPs are pegged to those of the secretary of the Government of India. This would also result in the automatic revision of MPs’ salaries with each pay commission award. More, there was overall consensus that MPs themselves determining the resources they should have access to is ridden with the possibility of conflicts of interest. Perhaps the time has come for an independent review of what institutional mechanisms and processes need to change for MPs to perform their role in Parliament more effectively.

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