23 April – 6 May
The big question on everybody’s minds this week was whether enough MPs would vote in favour of interrogating the Health Minister, possibly leading to a vote of no-confidence. In the event, the attempt was thwarted by a failure to reach a two-thirds majority.
The State Budget has finally been submitted to MPs. This is likely to mark the beginning of weeks of discussions with ministers about levels of funding for particular projects and services – particularly as dwindling oil revenues and calls to reduce borrowing are putting a squeeze on finances.
Health Minister interrogation
A number of MPs have been agitating for several weeks to interrogate Health Minister Sadiq al-Shehabi following allegations raised in the Financial Audit Bureau report of mishandling of finances at the Health Ministry.
Around 30 MPs previously signed a bill calling for the Minister’s interrogation and a specially-formed committee recommended the interrogation. However, during the 5 May parliamentary session, MPs failed to achieve a two-thirds majority (27 votes out of 40) in support of the interrogation. Only 23 MPs voted in favour, three voted against (Rua al-Haiki, Ali al-Muqla and Anas Buhindi), while nine abstained and five did not attend the session.
MPs like Khalid al-Shaer, Jalal al-Mahfoudh, Anas Buhindi, Ghazi Al Rahmah, Jamal Dawoud, Mohammed Milad and Abbas al-Madhi had initially been advocates of the interrogation, but either changed their position, abstained or failed to attend the session.
Adel al-Asoumi accused other MPs of having failed to use their “constitutional tools”, asking “If you won’t interrogate the Health Minister, who will you interrogate?” He later stormed out of the session after being refused further permission to speak by the Chairman.
One of the main grievances cited by MPs was alleged abuses in the use of foreign agencies for sending Bahrainis for treatment abroad. However, a substantial proportion of these issues related to the tenure of the previous Health Minister, who was not eligible to be summoned. So there were different views over the justifications and constitutionality of summoning the current Health Minister to discuss such issues.
After weeks of delays, the 2015-2016 State Budget has been formally transferred to Parliament. MPs expressed their relief that the Budget had not been given an “urgent” marking, giving them more time to study and debate the document.
MP Khaled al-Shaer said that Parliament’s Financial Committee had put a procedure in place for studying the annual Budget, in order to “approve the Budget rapidly while preserving public wellbeing”. He said that the Committee would address it as if it was an urgent bill within two to three weeks, ready to place their recommendations with the full Parliament. Head of the Financial Committee, Isa al-Kooheji stressed the need to “preserve the benefits of the public” in the Budget.
Some MPs like Adel Bin-Hamid have signaled a readiness to look again at the issue of the debt ceiling after MPs previously voted to reject an increase in levels of debt. There are understandable concerns about possibly unsustainable levels of borrowing, balanced against an unwillingness to see key public services and benefits being cut back.
“Urgent” bills dispute
During the 28 April parliamentary session there was an extensive debate about the legitimacy of the Government marking bills as “urgent”, thus requiring MPs to debate and vote on the bill within 15 days to avoid it passing automatically.
In previous days the Government had submitted four urgent bills, which MPs complained was unprecedented. The Legal Committee headed by Majid al-Majid recommended that MPs reject these bills on principle. Al-Majid said that the bills had arrived late, and given their importance it was right for Parliament to have more time to review them.
However, a number of MPs pointed out that while they rejected the principle of such bills being marked as urgent, it was counter to the public interest for important proposals to be rejected. Deputy Chairman Ali al-Aradi pointed out the vital nature of the Dispute Resolution bill for ensuring Bahrain’s business-friendly environment and urged MPs not to reject it.
The result was that after a lengthy debate a majority of MPs passed these “urgent” bills.