Our lawmakers are currently debating the new government's policies and proposed budget in parliament. Yet the latest scandal about parliament's whopping food budget and shameful waste of its canteen food serve as a mirror for lawmakers to look at their own behaviour.
The issue made headlines after a clip went viral showing Move Forward Party (MFP) MP Sirilapas "Mew" Kongtrakarn taking food from the canteen with her back home.
While the clip was perceived as a political ploy to discredit MFP lawmakers, the issue sparked questions about parliament's catering budget and drew calls for better management to reduce waste and save public money spent subsidising meals and drinks for lawmakers, on top of their salary and transport costs.
About 72 million baht was set aside for catering services in the 2023 fiscal year, which is about 1,000 baht per head per day for two meals -- lunch and dinner -- as well as morning break snacks provided on meeting days, while extra meals are also provided if the session goes on after 8pm.
In addition to this, another 34.8 million baht was set aside for catering services for House committee meetings while another 1.26 million baht was allocated to provide catering services for opposition whips.
The total budget for catering services for the 2023 fiscal year is just over 108 million baht.
Worse than the cost of the catering is the excessive food waste. In the evenings, parliament staff and housekeepers prepare takeaway boxes for lawmakers and officials to take home. Despite this, a gigantic pile of food is left to rot as it has become an ingrained habit for our lawmakers to skip House meetings.
Indeed, there is more to the parliament food issue than meets the eye. A formal complaint has been lodged by lawmakers claiming irregularities in the bidding to select the food catering service.
In January, 176 lawmakers petitioned then House speaker, Chuan Leekpai, to examine the bidding process and suspend the catering service following a problem in the canteen's kitchen. Muslim lawmakers also complained about the lack of halal food. In 2021, then-Democrat MP, Rangsima Rodrassamee, asked Mr Chuan to look into food invoices issued by various sub-committee meetings of the Lower House.
There have been calls for change. One recommends that the food allowance be transferred to MPs' ID cards for them to buy food in the parliament canteen, and for the unspent money to be returned at the end of the day. It is about time that House Speaker Wan Muhamad Noor Matha looked at other options.
Apart from transparency, what's happening in the parliament canteen mirrors the wider food waste problem in the country. The population of 66 million generates about 145kg of food waste per person per year. Because the country lacks a good recycling system and policies to deal with food waste, 64% of collected waste is leftover food that ends up decaying and producing methane gas which contributes to global warming.
Lawmakers and the government need to tackle this by issuing laws and policies to reduce waste and improve recycling. But the first thing that our lawmakers can do right now is try not to skip House meetings.