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Friday, June 1, 2007

Parties duel in Diet over pension bills

Opposition attempts to block vote outgunned


Staff writer

The ruling and opposition parties collided head-on Thursday in the House of Representatives as the Liberal Democratic Party and coalition partner New Komeito tried to ram three pension bills through the chamber in an effort to hastily sweep the country's pension data snafu under the rug.

The opposition parties fought back by jointly submitting a motion of dismissal against Lower House Steering Committee Chairman Ichiro Aisawa and Yoshitaka Sakurada, head of the chamber's welfare committee, as well as a no-confidence motion against health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa.

But the ruling bloc was set to pass the pension bills sometime around midnight Thursday, after voting down all three motions.

The bills, rammed through Lower House committees over strong protest from the opposition camp, will be handed over to the Upper House for deliberation and are expected to be approved during the current Diet session.

"What the ruling bloc is doing is completely unreasonable," said Yoshiaki Takaki, Diet affairs chief of the Democratic Party of Japan. The LDP and New Komeito "are doing nothing but damaging the Diet."

The Social Insurance Agency revealed last month that there were about 50 million cases of unidentified premium payments due to errors made when computerizing the information in 1997. Without accurate records, some pensioners are receiving less than they are entitled to.

Amid public outrage and hit with a sudden drastic drop in the support rate for Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Cabinet, the ruling bloc scurried to draft a bill to resolve the pension fiasco.

"The ruling bloc had to take immediate measures against the pension issue to eradicate the public's anxiety," said Toshihiro Nikai, Diet affairs chief of the LDP. "And (we) found it extremely important to regain public trust in the administration of the pension system."

A bill submitted Tuesday to the Diet stipulates that the five-year limit, which prevents people from receiving pension money that was due more than five years ago, is abolished. According to Yanagisawa, this bill will help get 95 billion yen to the 250,000 people who are owed. The amount is expected to swell as more records are identified.

But the opposition parties argued that much remains unknown about the records of the 50 million premium payments and the bill does not resolve the problem. Despite strong demands for further deliberations, the ruling coalition rammed the bill through the Lower House welfare committee Wednesday.

"So much (of the pension issue) is still left in the dark and I am doubtful about how effective this bill will actually be" for the victims, the DPJ's Takaki said. Pension issues always rank near the top of voter interest in pre-election surveys and with the July Upper House election approaching, the passage of the bills is seen as crucial for the LDP.

The unilateral action by the LDP and New Komeito has triggered public outrage at a time when the ruling bloc is reeling from the suicide of agriculture minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka, who had been heavily criticized for reporting enormous sums in "office expenses" despite using a rent-free state office.

The other two bills are related to reforming the Social Insurance Agency.

The ruling-opposition tension is expected to continue until the July 22 poll.



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