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Saturday, April 24, 2004

Cabinet trio sorry for not paying compulsory pension premiums


Staff writer

Three of the 17 ministers in Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's Cabinet said Friday they have not paid their premiums for the compulsory National Pension System.

Ongoing Diet deliberations of contentious government-sponsored pension reform bills ground to a temporary halt following the revelations, and the Democratic Party of Japan demanded that the three -- trade minister Shoichi Nakagawa, home affairs minister Taro Aso and Defense Agency chief Shigeru Ishiba -- be summoned to the session for questioning.

Nakagawa has not paid the premium since it became mandatory to do so in April 1986. Aso said he did not pay his premiums between November 1996 and September 2000, and Ishiba said he has not made a payment since October 2002.

The trio claimed they did not pay due to clerical errors made when Nakagawa and Aso left salary-paying jobs and when Ishiba became a minister.

Speaking at the House of Representatives committee on welfare late Friday afternoon, the trio said they were sorry they did not pay the premiums, adding that they would have paid if only they had known. "It all comes down to my ignorance," Nakagawa said.

Health and welfare minister Chikara Sakaguchi told the same session he would re-examine the payment records all Cabinet ministers and vice ministers and disclose the results Monday.

Politicians are categorized as self-employed, obliging them to join the National Pension System.

Their admissions threaten to further damage the credibility of the system by undermining the government's effort to convince people, especially the younger generation, to pay into it.

Up to 40 percent of self-employed workers who are obliged by law to pay the premium have not done so, endangering the future of the scheme, which covers residents nationwide.

Actress Makiko Esumi, who appeared in last year's government campaign urging people to pay their premiums, and admonishing those who don't, said last month that despite her position as a role model, she had not paid any premiums.

"If you ask other people (to make the payments), you yourself must fulfill your responsibilities," DPJ policy affairs chief Yukio Edano said during Friday's session of the House of Representatives welfare committee.

"They are not qualified to propose" the pension reform bills, he said.

The whole Cabinet, not just the welfare minister, is the legal entity that submitted the bills to the Diet, he said.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda said he paid the mandatory premiums "when he was 60" and became qualified to receive benefits, but refused to comment on the period before that. He said it was private information.

"I'd like to refrain from (commenting) because it's information concerning an individual," Fukuda said.

He said the current pension system, which has separate pension schemes for corporate workers, self-employed people and public servants, is too complex to understand and in need of reform.

Koizumi tried to play down the latest findings.

He said of the three ministers, "They were just careless, weren't they?"

But for the Social Insurance Agency, the act of not paying premiums is a violation of the National Pension Law.

To restore public trust in the pension system, the agency in January sent warning letters to some 500 people in relatively wealthy households who had refused to pay their premiums. The following month, it began seizing assets of nine of those people, the first time it had taken such action in 14 years.

The government has discussed introducing stiffer measures to forcibly collect premiums from holdouts, including refusing to issue passports to people who have not paid up.



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The Japan Times

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