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Friday, June 29, 2007

Pension bills rammed past panel

Staff writer

The ruling bloc forced three controversial bills through a House of Councilors panel Thursday night in a hasty attempt to put a lid on the nation's pension data woes.

The opposition parties were trying to stop the bills — one to remove a five-year limit on pension claims and the other two to dissolve the Social Insurance Agency and form a new body to oversee national pensions. They were arguing that the bills are too weak to deal with the problem of 50 million unmatched pension payments and that there had not been enough discussion in the Diet.

Earlier in the day in a separate Upper House committee, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and its coalition partner, New Komeito, pushed through another bill — this one the opposition charges has loopholes — that requires politicians' fund management bodies to report expenditures exceeding 50,000 yen to extenuate the blow over the suicide of farm minister Toshikatsu Matsuoka in May. Matsuoka had been under fire for reporting enormous office expenses for a rent- and utilities-free office in a government building.

All of the bills are expected to be enacted Friday with voting in the Upper House plenary session.

After the vote, Yataro Tsuda, an Upper House lawmaker of the Democratic Party of Japan, expressed anger, saying: "It is unforgivable. There are still too many problems left (regarding the pension issue) and (the ruling bloc) shouldn't have rammed the bill" through the Upper House committee.

The Diet has been heated up over the government's mismanagement of the public pension system since May, when it was discovered that the Social Insurance Agency had 50 million unidentified pension premium payments.

The problem began in 1997 when the government began a new recording system and issued a new, universal identification number to each pension contribution. Prior to that, contributors might have several numbers as the SIA issued new numbers when a person changed jobs or got married and changed their names.

The change led to 250 million files with unmatched numbers. Since 1997, the SIA has matched 150 million payments, but there are still 50 million payments remaining and people are claiming they are getting smaller pensions than they are entitled to.

To deal with the problem, one of the ruling bloc's bills before the committee is to get rid of the five-year limit on filing a pension claim. That bill was quickly moved through the Lower House despite the opposition's attempt to stop the vote after only a single day of deliberations.

Health minister Hakuo Yanagisawa said the bill will help about 250,000 people get a combined 95 billion yen in pension money. That amount is expected to increase when more numbers are matched to contributors.

Opposition parties say the bill does nothing to resolve the unidentified payments.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his LDP have promised that the SIA will speed up their matching of the remaining records and be finished in a year.

Abe's Cabinet also has created a third-party panel under the Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry to verify claims from people whose payment records have been lost by the SIA and say they paid pension premiums but have no receipts as evidence.

One 62-year old woman, whose pension payment records for 10 years have disappeared, told a hearing held by the Democratic Party of Japan this week that she doubts the problem will be resolved.

"I have nothing to prove I made the payments," she said on condition of anonymity. "How is (the government) going to decide? . . . I don't believe (I'll get what I'm owed)."

For related stories:
Pension fiasco bodes ill for ruling bloc in Upper House poll
Poll-wary ruling bloc gropes to fix pension fiasco
Parties duel in Diet over pension bills

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