Unilateral salary hike by Uganda's MPs ‘unconstitutional' - highest court

Uganda’s highest court says MPs act unconstitutionally when they give themselves salary hikes. Instead, the government is supposed to introduce proposals for increases, as the costs of the increases are charges on the country's Consolidated Fund. The court’s seven judges said a section of the law that appears to let MPs decide these issues without government involvement, is unconstitutional. It had to be removed because, if left on the statute book, ‘it is bound to be used by Parliament to violate the constitution.’

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Members of Parliament in Uganda have not made a particularly good impression on the general public by repeatedly increasing their salaries and other benefits. For one citizen in particular, it all became too much and he asked the Constitutional Court for its opinion.

Wilson Mwesigye describes himself simply as a ‘concerned citizen’ but his name has been associated with several important legal disputes over the last few years. This time he asked the court whether it was constitutional for MPs to decide, on their own, to put up their salaries.  

In November 2015, the Constitutional Court gave judgment in his favour, finding that a key section of the law on parliamentary remuneration was unconstitutional. The court held that, from the date of its judgment, MPs could only consider increases for themselves where a formal Bill or motion to that effect had been introduced by the executive.

The parliamentary commission appealed against the finding to the Supreme Court, Uganda’s apex judicial forum, and seven judges of that court have now given their decision.

According to Mwesigye, MPs had many times increased their pay and other benefits by resolution using a section of the Parliamentary (Remuneration of Members of Parliament) Act. He argued that this infringed the constitution which required any action like increases for MPs to originate via a Bill or motion ‘on behalf of government’.

He said there were checks and balances at play and that the constitution had to be followed to make sure the consolidated fund ‘was not raided without applying the appropriate mechanism’.

The Supreme Court began by noting that both sides agreed that parliament had, in the past, acted ‘independently’ in increasing pay and other benefits for MPs. The only question was whether this was constitutional.

The Constitutional Court had found that the separate arms of state each had its own role to ensure accountability and transparency.

When salary and benefit increases were considered, Article 93 of the constitution came into play. A Bill or motion on increases had to be brought, not by the parliamentary commission, but ‘on behalf of Government’. That is because this section specifically stops parliament from considering any proposal that resulted in a charge on the Consolidated Fund other than via a Bill introduced by government. This meant that where parliament ignored Article 93 and the executive approved such steps ‘both have done so in breach of the Constitution’.

The only ‘constitutionally permissible route’ for parliament to consider increases for MPs, would be for that proposal to originate from government.

Even when the 2001 resolution on increases was presented to parliament by a Minister, he was not acting in that capacity and on behalf of government, but was, rather, acting as a member of the parliamentary commission.

The Supreme Court judges said it was important to bear in mind that there is ‘one Consolidated Fund into which all monies of Uganda are deposited’. The president had responsibility for causing preparations of estimates of revenue and expenditure of government to be laid before parliament. The parliamentary commission was part of this system and had to follow this procedure. There was only one financial authority in charge of revenue and expenditure, even though any expenditure must be ‘authorised’ by parliament.

The wording of the section quoted by the parliamentary commission allowed parliament to act on MPs salaries, without considering the constitutional stipulation that such bills must be introduced by government because they created a charge on the consolidated fund.

Clearly, said the judges, if the section were left on the statute books, ‘it is bound to be used by Parliament to violate the Constitution’. The parliamentary commission should not increase MPs salaries by disregarding the procedure laid down in the constitution.

Finding that the Constitutional Court's decision ‘cannot be faulted’, the Supreme Court judges dismissed the appeal, with costs against the parliamentary commission.

The Supreme Court’s decision has been widely welcomed in Uganda, as it followed public criticism of MPs and their increases. The most recent increase was in April this year, when Uganda’s 459 MPs put up their allowances by 39 %, saying they did so because the cost of living had greatly increased.

The Anti-Corruption Coalition Uganda (ACCU) said it was important that MPs could no longer increase their pay without tabling a Bill or motion introduced by the executive. And the local Daily Monitor quoted the executive director of the ACCU as saying that she doubted MPs would respect the judgment because they were ‘greedy and self-centred’.