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Thursday, May 31, 2007

Ruling bloc steamrolls pension bill


Staff writer

The ruling bloc rammed a hastily compiled bill through the Lower House welfare committee on Wednesday, steamrolling testy opposition lawmakers as it raced to put a lid on the explosive pension data fiasco.

News photo
Welfare Committee Chairman Yoshitaka Sakurai is mobbed by opposition lawmakers Wednesday in Tokyo. KYODO PHOTO

The unilateral action by the Liberal Democratic Party and junior partner New Komeito kick-starts the passage of legislation seen as critical to the coalition's efforts to control damage from scandals in the runup to the Upper House election in July.

The opposition camp, led by the Democratic Party of Japan, attacked the two parties for scheduling only a day of deliberations on what has been termed a weak bill to remove the five-year statute of limitations on pension claims.

The Social Insurance Agency revealed two weeks ago that it has about 50 million premium payments that cannot be identified because errors were made computerizing the data in 1997. This means some pensioners are receiving less than they are entitled to.

"The pension system is controlled and managed by the government and (the government officials) irresponsibly lost the records," DPJ leader Ichiro Ozawa said in a face-to-face debate with Prime Minister Abe in the Diet's regular session.

"It goes against legal ethics to execute the statute of limitations in the first place and I find it hard to believe that this bill will help many victims."

Abe argued that the bill will help speed the process of getting money to those people entitled to it.

The Cabinet and the ruling bloc "will do whatever is possible in order to remove the general public's insecurity" about pension management, Abe said.

The coalition, struggling with a drastic drop in support for Abe's Cabinet and Monday's suicide of agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, took unusually quick action on the pension debacle and submitted the bill to the Diet on Tuesday.

The opposition camp blasted the ruling bloc for not allowing enough time for thorough debate.

"This bill is clearly just a makeshift effort by the ruling coalition" to mitigate the fallout it may face in the July 22 House of Councilors election, said Yoshiaki Takaki, the DPJ's Diet affairs chief.

"It is unthinkable to consider voting on the bill" so soon.

The coalition also pushed a bill through the same committee last week aimed at reforming the SIA with an eye to ultimately abolishing the agency.

"There are 50 million cases of unidentified pension payments and many victims are suffering because of it," DPJ lawmaker Kazunori Yamanoi said during the panel session. "Do (the LDP and New Komeito) really think they can help these victims with a bill created in one or two days?"

The fact that the ruling coalition had to submit another bill Tuesday "shows the ruling bloc and the government are admitting that the Social Insurance Agency reform bill, which they rammed through (the committee), is defective," Yamanoi said.

The ruling bloc was set to get the bill passed in the House of Representatives plenary session Thursday and then send it immediately to the to the House of Councilors, aiming to have it enacted by the end of the Diet session June 23.

Management of the national pension system is sure to be a big issue in the July election.

Pension issues are always one of the top issues in pre-election surveys. In the last Upper House election, in 2004, the LDP, then led by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and Abe as secretary general, suffered a major setback with voters angry about a hike in pension premiums and revelations that members of the LDP Cabinet had not paid all of their premiums.

To protest the ruling bloc's handling of the pension problems, the four opposition parties — the DPJ, Japanese Communist Party, the Social Democratic Party and Kokumin Shinto (People's New Party) — submitted a vote of no-confidence Wednesday against committee chairman, LDP lawmaker Yoshitaka Sakurada. The bid was voted down by the majority ruling bloc.



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