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     Volume 8 Issue 70 | May 22, 2009 |

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Notes on a

Nader Rahman

What good is a parliamentary democracy without a scandal every now and then to keep

Zamiruddin Sircar

us on our toes? It seems like whatever form of government ones lives with, be it an autocracy, a democracy or a theocracy one is never short of a scandal regarding the government. In the United States, torture has become the topic of interest, in Iran freedom of speech is the focus of the day, while in England and Bangladesh everyone's eyes are on MP's expenses. While the issue has blown up in the UK, here in Bangladesh it remains a topic that makes the front pages yet consciously does not ruffle many feathers. Seemingly the public views the issue as just another case of governmental corruption, one in a long line of embarrassing mistakes previous governments and MPs have continued to make. While the government distances itself from the corruption by singling out two or three members of the opposition that allegedly defrauded the taxpayers of this nation. They walk a fine line between righteousness and guilt when they point the finger wholly and solely at a few opposition MPs, if like in the UK the media can use our newly created Right to Information Act properly, then many in the current government may risk being named and shamed. In a strong democracy that is the price one must pay...

Delwar Hossain

The problems started in England well over three years ago when the journalist Heather Brooke made a request via the Freedom of Information Act 2000, to view the expenses of all 646 MPs. It was turned down right away as it apparently would have cost too much money. Over the next few years she made more and more requests each time trimming down the number of people and what records she was asking for and yet was repeatedly turned down. Finally in May 2008 the High Court ruled in favour of releasing a few MPs expenses when it said, “The House of Commons expense system has a shortfall - both in terms of transparency and accountability. We have no doubt that the public interest is at stake. We are not here dealing with idle gossip, or public curiosity about what in truth are trivialities. The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs' salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers.”

With one bold statement the issue came to the forefront of national thought and what was for the longest time considered off limits to the public would now be open to the world. The ruling would allow the average man a look into what his local MP did with his taxes, and for the first time in a very long time, the people were ones wielding the power. With unprecedented public support in 2009 the Commons authorities decided to release the full expenses of every MP on the 1st of July, a decision which caused widespread panic in parliament. There were even rumours that three MPs were put on 'suicide watch' as the scale and nature of their excessive expenses made them viable suicide risks. The pot was well and truly stirred when the Daily Telegraph obtained an advanced copy of the list and the expenses and started printing them in a serialised form just over a week ago. Their logic to printing the expenses earlier than July 1 was that they feared the documents could be tampered with. With the level of mistrust so high between the government and the media, the whole affair was seen as a victory of governmental accountability over secrecy, of quality journalism over petty corruption.

Michael Martin

If one thought the MPs in our country were bad then one only needs to take a cursory look at the list of expenses that British MPs charged to their government to fully understand the depth of their fraudulent behaviour. Everything from toilet seat repair, to ice cube trays to horse manure was charged to government. The list of expenses also includes personal gardening and plumbing costs, home theatre systems and everything from toilet paper holders to feather dusters. While all the items mentioned here seem funny and innocuous they are all part of the larger problem. For every MP that charged Pay-Per-View Porn for her Husband to the government there are at least a dozen that charged hundreds and thousands of pounds in second home payments as well. One even audaciously tried to purchase a second home by using his second home allowance to pay the mortgage! The list offers in shocking detail how MPs misused and abused their parliamentary privileges to defraud the nation out of tens of millions of pounds. The Justice Minister Shahid Mailk, the public face of the British Muslim post the July 7 bombings has already shamefully resigned and the Speaker of the House, Michael Martin, who did his best to keep the expenses from the public eye (while at the same time plundering the public purse for his own personal gain), is sure to be the first Speaker in 300 years to be forced out his job (Coincidently the last Speaker to be forced to quit in 1695, Sir John Trevor, had to unsurprisingly do so because of a corruption scandal. Seemingly it runs in the House) The axe has fallen hard and it is only a matter of time till more heads roll, but interestingly this whole situation has resonated in Bangladesh, where a former Speaker and Deputy of the House along with a former Chief Whip have been accused of similar offenses.

A parliamentary sub-committee has recommended recovering Tk 27.86 lakh from Zamiruddin Sircar, Tk 6 lakh from Delwar Hossian and Tk 1.21 lakh from Akhtar Hamid Siddiqui since they 'illegally' took the money as medical bills, sources close to the Daily Star said. The sub-committee was quoted as saying, “They cleared their medical bills in foreign currencies unlawfully. After medical treatment, they took the money from the Parliament Secretariat. They committed offences, which are punishable under the money laundering act," in the Daily Star. Amazingly Sircar, who failed to win a seat in the parliament through the December 29, 2008 general elections and who only later managed to win a seat through the by-elections on April 2, had spent Tk 27 lakh to buy stationery for the parliament in FY 2007-'08, although the parliament did not even exist during that period! When one speaks of “massive financial graft involving moral turpitude,” one can look no further than these allegations. While not getting into the specifics of the current cases, when looking at them in context of what has happened in the UK the whole issue of parliamentary expenses raises some challenging questions.

Shahid Malik

The Freedom of Information Act 2000 proved to be a success in the UK because MPs believed that their expenses would never be made public. Therefore they did not feel embarrassed to defraud the government of millions of pounds and signed every single requisition that they made. From 70p for horse manure to 60,000 Pounds a year for second home expenses. Their expenses were meticulously detailed right down to every last ice cube tray. Therefore in England their version of our Right to Information Act worked because there were actually records to be requisitioned and because at the end of the day the House of Commons realised that MP expenses was a topic of national importance and that, "The expenditure of public money through the payment of MPs' salaries and allowances is a matter of direct and reasonable interest to taxpayers.” If such records were to asked of this and previous governments using the Right to Information Act one would seriously have to question how and when those documents were made. The larger issue would be if anyone would accept guilt if such inaccuracies were brought up? The answer is no, this is country of confrontational politics, where the government is always right and the opposition is always wrong. Interestingly only three members of the last government were accused of such crimes, not a single member of the current government or that of the one formed in 1996 has been accused and it raises the question of who watches the watchmen? The gatekeepers of democracy become the writers of history and in the process it would seem their own guilt is swept under the rug.

The Right to Information Act is a law that allows us to keep an eye on the government, the only real problem is with the information they supply. The Telegraph brought England to knees with its series of reports and kept its government in check and that is exactly what we need in Bangladesh, a strong vibrant media. Let this be a warning to every sitting and previously elected MP, keep your noses clean and your expenses in check or you could risk becoming a footnote to a scandal.

Copyright (R) thedailystar.net 2009