MPs debate raising state disability benefits

Parliament began preliminary debate today on an amendment submitted by Adhaalath Party MP Anara Naeem to the Disabilities Act to raise the monthly allowance provided by the state to persons with special needs from MVR2,000 (US$150) to MVR5,000 (US$324).

Presenting the legislation to the Majlis floor, the MP for Makunudhoo said persons with special needs deserved the same “care and protection” provided by the state to the elderly, referring to the current administration raising old age pensions to MVR5,000 a month in March this year.

Anara suggested that MVR2,000 a month was not sufficient to cover the expenses of children with special needs, who require special care and attention.

“I believe it is very important in the Maldives to determine allowances to the neediest in an equal manner. That is because sometimes a person’s means are not considered when subsidies are given [and] we see subsidies given to rich or well-off people,” she said.

Anara also referred to Article 35(b) of the constitution, which states, “Elderly and disadvantaged persons are entitled to protection and special assistance from the family, the community and the state.”

In some cases, she continued, if medical treatment is provided to children with special needs at infancy, they could “grow up as normal children.”

However, specialised services for children with special needs – such as speech therapy and physiotherapy – were not available in the Maldives, she added, while parents sent children to the special needs school in the capital “only to fill time.”

Debate

While all MPs who spoke in the ensuing debate supported the amendment, Jumhooree Party MP Ilham Ahmed suggested that the government could dismiss a few deputy ministers and coordinators – who he claimed earn MVR35,000 (US$2,269) a month – and use the savings to send specialised teachers to islands.

Progressive Party of Maldives MP Ali Arif noted that there were 5,100 persons in the national registry on persons with special needs, concurring that the monthly allowance should be raised to help parents of children with special needs as they were often forced to stay home to care for the child.

Opposition Maldivian Democratic Party MP Abdul Ghafoor Moosa argued that persons with special needs as well as single parents should receive the same monthly allowance as the elderly.

Ghafoor also urged the government to consider introducing unemployment benefits and a minimum wage, which he suggested should not be lower than state benefits.

In May, hundreds of people gave testimony to the Human Rights Commission of the Maldives’ (HRCM) ‘National Inquiry on Access to Education for Children with Disabilities’.

Parents spoke of the state’s failure to provide medical services and education to children with special needs whilst private services were costly. A single diagnostic assessment costs MVR5,000 and an hour of therapy costs MVR500, neither of which are covered by the ‘Aasandha’ health care scheme.

According to the HRCM, statistics from 2009 indicate that, out of 2250 children with disabilities, only 230 were attending schools at the time.

Citing a 2010 report by the HRCM and the UNDP, the US State Department’s 2013 Human Rights Report on the Maldives noted that “most schools accepted only children with very limited to moderate disabilities and not those with more serious disabilities.”

“Children with disabilities had virtually no access or transition to secondary-level education. Only three psychiatrists, two of them foreign, worked in the country, and they primarily worked on drug rehabilitation. No mental health care was available in Malé. There also was a lack of quality residential care,” the report stated.

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Government withholding allowance, claims office of former President

The office of former President Mohamed Nasheed has accused the government of “negligence” in providing the legally-mandated monthly allowance to cover expenses of the former’s president’s office.

In a press release on Thursday, the former president’s office noted that article 8 of the Privileges and Protection for Former President’s Act (Dhivehi) states, “In the event that a former president wishes to conduct social work beneficial to the community, the state shall provide up to MVR175,000 (US$11,350) a month to arrange for an office, employees and other matters.”

The social work to be carried out by the former president’s office included “efforts to develop and strengthen democracy,” the press release explained.

Article 128 of the constitution states that a former president “serving his term of office lawfully without committing any offence, shall be entitled to the highest honour dignity, protection, financial privileges and other privileges entitled to a person who has served in the highest office of the land.”

The Privileges and Protection for former Presidents Act of 2009 was the first piece of legislation passed by the 17th parliament elected in May 2009.

The press release meanwhile revealed that the government first provided the state benefits due to the former president by law “four months after he left office” when a letter was sent to the Finance Ministry on April 30.

However, the financial benefits were discontinued four months later in August 2012.

Officials of various rank at the Finance Ministry as well as Finance Minister Abdulla Jihad were approached “repeatedly” regarding the benefits and all requested information was provided in a letter on August 27, 2012.

While Finance Minister Jihad had said that the ministry would send a letter seeking further information concerning the work of the former president’s office, the press release noted that the said letter had not been sent as of November.

On Jihad’s claim to local media that he was unaware of the location of the office and had sent a letter seeking clarification, the press release stated that “the minister should believe that a letter sent to an office whose address he did not know would not be delivered.”

“We note that this office has not been informed of the reasons for the sudden discontinuation of the benefits previously provided,” the former president’s office said, adding that a “verbal explanation” by ministry officials that the benefits were discontinued on orders from the Finance Committee of parliament was refuted by the committee.

While the amounts to be paid as benefits were specified in the law, the press release alleged that the Finance Ministry had not deposited the full amounts.

The law stipulates a monthly allowance of MVR 50,000 (US$3,243) for a president who has served one term.

The former president’s office expressed concern with the ministry’s failure to adhere to the law and called on the government to “respect the laws” and ensure “administrative fairness” by the state.

In October, local media gave conflicting statements regarding the reasons for the withholding of Nasheed’s office allowance.

Sun Online reported Jihad as saying that the issue was related to the unknown location of Nasheed’s office whereas Haveeru said that the suspension of privileges was related to a disagreement over whether former presidents were required to conduct charitable activities.

“In reality, the office should be involved in holding social activities. However, the concern of these members is that there is no social work to be seen by the (Nasheed’s) office,” Jihad was quoted by Haveeru.

“It has to be clarified. Hence the financial allowances have been halted for the time being. We still haven’t been provided with the information we sought in relation to the office,” Jihad told the paper.

Meanwhile, in March, the government had questioned Nasheed’s eligibility for state benefits on the grounds that he had not completed a full five-year term in office.

In June, Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) MP Ahmed Hamza revealed that the state had spent MVR 1.3 million (US$84,300) on healthcare costs for former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his wife from 2010 to April 2012.

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State spent Rf1.3 million on Gayooms’ health expenses 2010-2012

A total of Rf1.3 million (US$84,300) was spent on healthcare costs for former President Maumoon Abdul Gayoom and his wife from 2010 to April this year, MP Ahmed Hamza of the Maldivian Democratic Party (MDP) revealed at parliament’s Finance Committee meeting yesterday.

The MP for Bilehdhoo revealed the figures during committee deliberations on a request by the Ministry of Finance and Treasury to establish rules and guidelines for covering health expenses for former presidents and their spouses.

According to the Finance Ministry, Rf302,560 (US$19,621) was spent for the Gayooms’ healthcare in 2010, Rf713,803 (US$46,290) in 2011 and Rf298,572 (US$19,363) so far this year.

Article 7 of the Protection and Privileges for Former Presidents Act (Dhivehi) – the first piece of legislation passed by the then-opposition majority parliament after convening in May 2009 – stipulates that healthcare for ex-presidents and their spouses either in the Maldives or overseas shall be provided by the state.

The law however does not set any limits to the health expenses to be borne by the state.

In addition to healthcare costs, Rf3.86 million (US$250,324) was spent on the former president’s office in 2010, Rf2.1 million (US$136,187) in 2011 and Rf700,000 (US$45,396) as of April this year.

Finance Committee
Finance Committee meeting on 12 June

Local media reported that following discussions at the Finance Committee yesterday, MPs decided to recommend that the Finance Ministry purchase a health insurance package for former presidents.

MP Hamza suggested offering an insurance package similar to those provided to retired high-ranking officials at the United Nations.

MP Ahmed “Redwave” Saleem of Gayoom’s Progressive Party of Maldives (PPM) reportedly insisted that the package should cover all forms of treatment to be in compliance with article 7 of the Protection and Privileges Act.

However, most MPs concurred that there should be a ceiling limit for healthcare costs for former presidents.

The legislation on protection and privileges for ex-presidents was required under article 128 of the constitution, which states, “A person who has served in the office of president, serving his term of office lawfully without committing any offence, shall be entitled to the highest honour, dignity, protection, financial privileges and other privileges entitled to a person who has served in the highest office of the land. Such protection and privileges shall be specified in law.”

“Unreasonable”

Prior to the passage of the Act in October 2009, MPs of the then-ruling MDP denounced the monetary benefits in the draft legislation as excessive and “unreasonable.”

The bill stipulated a monthly allowance of Rf75,000 (US$6,000) in addition to Rf50,000 (US$4,000) for housing and Rf175,000 (US$14,000) for staff and office space.

The ruling party said at the time that the total figure would shoot up once the cost of health, transportation and security was taken into account, estimating that a total of Rf3 million (US$233,000) would be spent a month on former President Gayoom.

MDP MP for Hithadhoo North, Mohamed Aslam, observed that ex-presidents would be allowed to seek medical care anywhere in the world at the state’s expense.

“The benefits are too high as Rf300,000 (US$19,450) a month for someone who has retired is beyond reasonable expectations,” Aslam had argued. “Also, the government is in a financial crisis and it will be difficult to pay such a huge amount.”

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