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MPs give selves windfall

Bongiwe Zihlangu 


MASERU — MPs have approved an amendment to their conditions of service that will see them getting an advance gratuity of M315 000 — what an ordinary civil servant can only earn in 20 years — after serving in parliament for only two years.

In other words, the lawmakers have given themselves permission to withdraw a chunk of their terminal benefits before their parliamentary terms end or before they retire.

In simple terms, it is almost the same as giving a civil servant access to a portion of their pension before he or she reaches the statutory retirement age of 60.

According to the Members of Parliament Salaries (Amendment) Bill 2010 that parliament unanimously approved on Wednesday, MPs can now — after serving just two years in the august house — get 25 percent of the gratuity they are eligible to receive at the end of their five-year term.

In the past MPs were only supposed to get their gratuities, equivalent to the total amount of money they earned in salaries during their parliamentary service, at the end of five-year terms.

But through this amendment the MPs can therefore protect 25 percent of their gratuity from the impact of inflation and value erosion the maloti would have been subjected to had the pension been given to them after five years.

Because of inflation M100 000 in 2012 cannot buy the same things it can buy today.

Put simply, M100 cannot buy the same things it could buy three years ago.

A house that costs M300 000 today will probably be selling for over M350 000 in the next three years.

Also, by giving the MPs a quarter of their gratuities early, the government is spending money earlier than it was supposed to.

This is happening at a time the government has said it is in a financial squeeze that might force it to put some important projects on hold.

In his budget speech in February, Finance Minister Timothy Thahane called on Basotho to “tighten belts” because government revenues had plummeted.

Civil servants were given a 3.5 percent salary increase for this year.

Thahane said “it would not be business as usual” because Lesotho’s share of revenue from the Southern African Customs Union — Lesotho’s biggest source of funds — had slumped.

Unlike during the Land Bill debate when opposition MPs walked out in protest, this time round legislators stayed on and passed the amendment unanimously.

Not a single opposition MP raised a finger in protest against the early windfall.

An MP’s gross salary is M21 000 a month.

That means, at that rate, after five years in parliament an MP would have earned M1.26 million.

The gratuity will be equivalent to that amount.

And if they get 25 percent of that after two years they will be able to pocket a whooping M315 000 before tax.

The lowest paid civil servant earns M1 200 a month.

An average factory worker earns M887 a month.

It will take a civil servant who earns M1 200 a month 21 years and some months to make the amount an MP gets as gratuity after two years in parliament.

A factory worker who earns M887 a month would have to toil for 30 years to earn what an MP gets after two years.

The amendment means MPs who came into parliament after the February 2007 election can now cash in on their gratuities having served two years in parliament by February 2009.

Presenting the Bill in parliament, Home Affairs, Public Safety and Parliamentary Affairs Minister Lesao Lehohla, who is also the Deputy Prime Minister, said the gratuities were necessary because MPs’ salaries had been “overstretched” because of the “financial and economic crisis”.

“The government therefore seeks to give the Members of Parliament an opportunity to draw their gratuity earlier, so that they may be paid gratuity after two years, with the balance being paid later,” Lehohla said.

“The Bill seeks to address this standpoint, so that a member of parliament shall be entitled to gratuity after two years of continuous service . . . and paid the balance when parliament is dissolved or when a member ceases to be a Member of Parliament.”

He said there was nothing “complex about the Bill”.

“For that reason, I am confident that there is nothing suspicious about the Bill to cause people within and outside parliament to develop any grievances about it being passed,” Lehohla said.

“We are exercising transparency with regard to this Bill with the understanding that the matter is short and to the point and can be passed without leaving anybody in here with a bloodied nose.”

He however said the payout would be optional.

“However, what I do not know is whether I, as the Mafeteng constituency legislator, will be left to decide if my 25 percent can be retained until such a time I have use for it,” Lehohla said.

“I will keep on asking myself whether it would be wise to propose a law that allows me to have my gratuity retained beyond the two years and for me to get the money when I need it, with interest for that matter!”

Lehohla was seconded by Thaba-Phats’oa constituency MP Hlonepho Nts’ekhe.

“It has already been stated clearly that there is no hidden agenda behind this Bill,” Nts’ekhe said.

“I therefore urge that we should not use our political differences in this house to create confusion or the impression that members’ rights are violated in this house.”

When contacted for comment on the issue, Lesotho Workers Party deputy leader Sello Maphalla told this paper: “It is not everything that we have to oppose.”

“Besides, we did not propose this thing (amendment. Government did,” he added.

“They did it because they wanted to straighten the disparity where general MPs get their gratuities when parliament dissolves while ministers get a portion of theirs after two years.”

Maphalla however admitted that the decision actually “leaves a bitter taste in one’s mouth”.

“Taking into consideration the economic crisis our country is facing and the meagre salaries civil servants get, this is not amusing,” he said.

“But as the workers’ voice my responsibility is to fight for them and ensure that the government bridges the gap between our salaries and theirs.”

Mokhotlong MP Lehlohonolo Ts’ehlana said although the decision was bad “it helps us MPs to deal better with the financial challenges we encounter”.

“After all, at the end of the day it is our money,” Ts’ehlana said.

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