The Finance Ministry today rejected implications that yesterday’s release and recall of the controversial Rf20,000-a-month committee allowances against a court injunction was a mistake which had caused confusion in the government.
“I don’t think it’s a mix-up,” said State Minister of Finance Ahmed Assad today. Assad was unclear about the court injunction.
“Releasing that sort of money is not a big procedure, I think this is just people trying to follow the general rules and experiencing an administrative error,” he said.
Assad didn’t believe anyone deserved blame, and said that “if anything, it is the ministry at large that was at fault.”
Local daily Haveeru yesterday reported that the allowances had been issued “by mistake.”
Finance Minister Ahmed Inaz had not responded to Minivan inquiries at time of press.
The court injunction, which was issued on September 26, ordered the Finance Ministry not to release funds for the committee allowance until the court rules on a case filed on behalf of a civil servant, contending that the allowance could not be given before deducted amounts from civil servants salaries were paid back.
The injunction has since been appealed by the Attorney General’s Office at the High Court, which is due to hold a first hearing on Sunday.
Meanwhile parliament yesterday debated a motion without notice proposed by Vilufushi MP Riyaz Rasheed claiming that a civic action campaign launched by concerned citizens in late August violated MPs’ special privileges.
MDP MP Ahmed Easa told Minivan News yesterday that colleagues had said the allowance was being released to the parliament secretariat, but he was told that it had been held back by the Minister of Finance.
“I don’t think there was any wording, anything in what the court said indicating that they couldn’t release the money,” said Easa. “But no money has been going in to my account today, I can tell you that.”
Easa elaborated on the allowance, saying that the amount of staffing support and allowances other government branches received justified MPs accepting the proposed allowance.
“The MP point of view is that some of the independent wages and allowances are greater than MPs. The MPs are expected to do research and other duties, but we don’t have an office, a supporting staff, a phone allowance, a travel stipend to visit constituents or other things to support our work. Seven percent of our salary is taken out for a pension fund, and Male’ is an expensive place to live,” said Easa.
Easa said he will accept the allowance, but pointed out that he had always objected to it in parliament on the grounds that all payrolls should be streamlined.
“But if these other government groups are taking an allowance, why not the MPs? This is a democracy, so I always respect the majority decision.”
Lawyer Mohamed Shafaz Wajeeh, one of two lawyers involved in the civil case, argued that the number of people benefiting from the allowance does not justify the sum released, which amounts to Rf18 million (US$1.1 million).
“It’s greed. Just greed,” Shafaz said. “MPs and higher-ups in the government are probably more aware of their own power than they should be. The thinking behind this goes against everything we know.”
Shafaz suggested the government consider other options, such as releasing the allowance in installments to lighten the burden on the state budget and other subsidiaries.
“But I’m not sure how much political will there is to do this. Everyone says the allowance is a good idea.”
Although members of the civil sector earlier issued a statement objecting to the allowance, which they called “a gross injustice to the Maldivian people,” they have not articulated an official position on the issue of late.
Maldives Democracy Network (MDN) Director Fathimath Ibrahim Didi said that individuals in the organization were involved at the beginning, but that they did not represent MDN.
“Now, I think there may be a group working against the allowance, but it is loosely formed involving people from NGOs, lawyers and individuals,” she said.
Transparency Director Ilham Mohamed told Minivan News that a volunteer team was addressing the matter, but that large protests had not been organized among local non-government organizations (NGOs).
“I believe there may be sporadic gatherings in different places,” said Mohamed. “I do know that the NGOs that were involved in the original statement opposing the MP allowance are unified on this issue.”
The decision to approve the Rf20,000 (US$1200) monthly allowances in December 2010 was met with protests and widespread public indignation. However in June this year, parliament rejected a resolution proposed by opposition Dhivehi Rayyithunge Party (DRP) MP Ahmed Mahlouf to scrap the allowance.
Meanwhile the current civic action campaign was prompted by parliament’s Public Accounts Committee (PAC) deciding in late August to to issue a lump sum of Rf140,000 (US$9,000) as committee allowance back pay for January through July this year.
Article 102 of the constitution states that parliament shall determine the salaries and allowances of the President, Vice President, cabinet ministers, members of parliament, members of the Judiciary, and members of the independent institutions.
During yesterday’s debate on a privileges motion regarding the anti-committee allowance campaign, MP ‘Colonel’ Mohamed Nasheed, a member of the PAC, explained that the committee felt that MPs should earn a higher salary than High Court judges.
“But even then the honourable members of the Public Accounts Committee believed that MPs were receiving a sufficiently large salary in relation to the country’s economic situation,” he said, adding that a decision was made to institute a “symbolic” committee allowance.
“The thinking at the time was to give it to MPs who attend committee meetings as a very symbolic thing, for example one laari or 15 laari. But to ensure that take-home pay for MPs would be Rf82,500,” he said.
However, he continued, this “noble effort” became politicised and the subject of “an anti-campaign programme.”
Colonel called for legal action against the activists “when they go beyond the boundaries of free expression” and the right to protest, claiming that MPs’ families and children had been targeted.
Echoing a claim made by a number of MPs yesterday, Colonel said none of his constituents had asked him to decline the allowance.