5 – 11 Feb 2015
Following the 3 February parliamentary approval of the 2015-2018 Government Action Plan, this has been a busy week for deputies as they work to catch up on other priority issues. However, the weekly parliamentary session was disrupted by a minority of MPs who staged a walk-out based on media allegations of corruption in the Parliament’s General Secretariat.
Government discusses strategies for reducing spending
In early March, the 2015-2016 Budget is due to be submitted to Parliament. However, this is likely to be a difficult process in the context of decreasing oil revenues which constitute a high proportion of public sector finances. This is combined with the need to reduce high levels of Government debt.
Consequently, the Government has been discussing ways of reducing spending and redirecting financial support. The Prime Minister on 9 February assigned the “Financial Affairs and Rationalizing Expenditures Ministerial Committee” with the task of finalizing the State Budget. The Government is looking to boost economic development – particularly through encouraging tourism and investment – in order to reduce pressure on the Budget.
Head of the Parliamentary Financial Committee Isa Al-Kooheji has been discussing the parliamentary strategy for addressing the 2015-2016 Budget. Al-Kooheji stressed the need to balance the needs of citizens with financial constraints, as well as the importance of Parliament’s role in monitoring the effective spending of the Budget on priority projects.
Disruption of weekly Parliament session
During the Tuesday 10 February parliamentary session, a handful of MPs tried to force the Head of Parliament, Ahmed al-Mulla to discuss accusations in the press accusing the Parliament’s General Secretariat of corruption. Al-Mulla refused to allow the issue to be discussed, saying that the matter would be addressed in due course and that it was unfair for Parliament to be diverted away from issues which benefitted the public.
These MPs continued to shout their objections, with the aim of disrupting the session and eventually staged a walkout. These MPs included Mohammed al-Ahmed, Ahmed Qarratah, Abdulhalim Murad, Dhiyab al-Noaimi and Nabil al-Balooshi – a mix of Islamists and those with a reputation for taking oppositionist stances.
In response, Head of Parliament Al-Mulla said that Parliament could not be subject to a particular political agenda, while stressing the importance of investigating the allegations and noting the right of the media to freely criticize the authorities. The Parliament’s General Secretariat office has meanwhile denied the media allegations.
Protection of families from violence & women’s right to work
Jamila al-Sammak, the head of the Parliamentary Committee for Women and Children, has confirmed that her committee will recommend the approval of the Shura Council’s draft law for the protection of the family from violence.
Separately, a proposal put forward by a small number of Islamist MPs like Ali al-Muqlah, Jamal Dawoud and Nabil al-Balooshi has been criticized by various Government ministries, as well as the Parliamentary Committee for Women and Children. The proposal was to give non-working Bahraini women a monthly allowance.
However, critics noted that as well as being expensive in the current budgetary environment, the proposal was prejudicial against men (who wouldn’t be eligible) and against women, noting that the proposal stated that women “should be encouraged to remain at home and avoid work” while being “free for domestic matters and bringing up children”.
The Supreme Council for Women said that as well as being prejudiced against women, the proposal violated the Constitution which guaranteed equal working rights for all.
MPs oppose health fees for non-Bahraini workers
For several weeks now, a number of MPs have been vocally opposing a decision from the Minister of Health to impose 72 dinar fees on non-Bahraini workers. Opponents to the measure, the most vocal of whom is MP Adel al-Asoumi, claim that this puts undue pressure on small Bahraini businesses – the party that usually ends up paying these additional costs. MPs also criticized the “unilateral” manner in which the measure was introduced and claimed that these prejudicial charges were unconstitutional.
However, ministers have cited the substantial costs incurred to Bahraini public hospitals from foreign workers receiving treatment for free, while noting increasing pressures on the State Budget.
In the Tuesday Parliament session, MPs agreed on a proposal for cancelling these fees. However, in the face of ministerial opposition it is unclear whether parliamentarians can force a rethink on this issue.
Other parliamentary business
Reducing benefits for ministers: Parliamentarians have passed a law reducing the retirement privileges of government ministers and setting limits on what benefits they are entitled to.
Delayed housing projects: In the Tuesday session, parliamentarians held exchanges with the Minister of Housing concerning ongoing housing projects. Adel Abdulhamid criticized the slow pace of projects in his Manama constituency and the impact of poor infrastructure in delaying the handover of newly constructed properties. Osamah al-Khajah also criticized the impact of poor coordination between Government departments in slowing construction in his locality of Tubli. The minister asserted that in both localities, properties would be ready to hand over during the course of this year.
Rotten meat: Over recent weeks, many MPs have been outspoken over the scandal of meat imported into Bahrain that has been found to be rotten or unfit for consumption. During the Tuesday session MPs agreed to put together a parliamentary committee to investigate the issue that has generated a wide-scale public outcry and for a period resulted in the suspension of importing of frozen meat into Bahrain.
Draft media law withdrawn: Abbas al-Madhi, head of the Parliamentary Services Committee said the Government had requested the withdrawal of the proposed new media law being debated by Parliament. Al-Madhi said the new Information Minister wanted a “new and contemporary law in harmony with His Majesty the King’s reform project that had brought Bahrain to a climate of freedom of expression and transparency”. Al-Madhi noted that MPs, the Journalists’ Association and others had raised reservations about the existing draft law.
MPs propose removing obstacles to questioning ministers: Five MPs have submitted a proposal for making it simpler for Parliament to summon ministers over issues of concern. MP Ali al-Atish pointed out that monitoring Government performance was one of Parliament’s most significant roles. The 2012 Constitutional Amendments give a minimum of five MPs the right to summon a minister for questioning. However, Al-Atish noted that the parliamentary code of practice complicated this process and went against the spirit of these Amendments.
Punishments approved for abuse against women & inciting minors to crime
The Shura Council (Bahrain’s appointed house of Parliament) has approved a number of Penal Code amendments.
∑ Minimum fine of 100 dinars for spying on other peoples’ mobile phone calls; or for reading someone’s private mail without permission. In addition to a maximum sentence of six months or minimum 500 dinars fine for revealing the contents of private mail to others. It was agreed to remove a clause whereby the complainant would have to prove that they had been harmed by this violation.
∑ Jail term of between 3 months and 2 years for inciting minors under 18 years to commit crimes. The jail term should be a minimum of 6 months if the defendant had used force or compulsion to make the minor commit the crime. These punishments would be double if more than one minor had been compelled to engage in criminality.
Education Minister Majid al-Noaimi: “Such children are forced into abuses that will harm their future. Children are targeted both for political purposes and incited to antisocial behaviour. With such a substantial tendency for the abuse of children, this aspect of the criminal code should be made stricter”.
∑ Maximum jail term of six months or a minimum fine of 300 dinars for someone who engaged in abuse against a woman in a manner that “violated her modesty in words or actions”. The amendments also allowed for this happening via the phone or social media.
A number of other modifications to the Penal Code were approved, while other proposed amendments were sent back to ministers with further suggestions or queries.
Interviews with deputy head of Parliament
Ali al-Aradi, the deputy head of the Parliament and the head of the committee charged with debating the Government Action Plan, held interviews with Al-Wasat and Al-Ayam newspaper. Here are some of the interesting quotes:
Government Action Plan
“The Plan entered the Chamber of Deputies as the Government Action Plan and exited as an Action Plan for Bahrain. We must thank the Government for the modifications that were made to the Plan, because it behaved with complete transparency and cooperation. Ministers were very open in what they were willing to discuss. We likewise noted a lot of cooperation from the Prime Minister in debating the Plan”.
“The modifications and agreements weren’t just limited to the 13 agreements that were announced. There were a large number of details agreed on, since the Government was putting forward an Action Plan for the next four years, that can’t be reduced to just 13 points.”
Can we expect an “austerity” Budget?
“There will be no austerity. What we agreed with the Government and the Prime Minister confirmed is that citizens and their requirements will not be affected. I can’t claim that traders won’t be affected by the coming Budget. However, considerations will need to be more closely connected to reality when it comes to the Budget.”
Do you feel that the previous Parliament reduced its own powers?
“The previous Parliament witnessed many activities that were in need of modification. However, the nature of the previous Parliament, the circumstances and the nature of its members meant that its productivity was reduced. I believe that this Parliament can increase its powers and put itself back on the right path.”
“Parliament is no longer a closed house for simply monitoring, legislation and political matters. It has to directly feel the pulse of the street. The new identity of the Parliament is a result of achievement and reform.”
Might political blocs appear in the current Parliament?
“I think it would be difficult to establish political blocs in the current Parliament, although I don’t rule out the possibility of blocs appearing. I personally feel that the emergence of such blocs in the current phase would weaken the Parliament’s performance, particularly as most of the current deputies are professionals in their work… the effort expended on such blocs should instead be directed towards parliamentary work.”