7 – 13 May
This week marks the beginning of the period for Parliament studying the newly-submitted annual Budget.
After extensive discussion two important issues have been delayed for future Parliament sessions: Proposals for simplifying the procedure for the interrogation of ministers; and controversial proposals for increasing retirement benefits for MPs
Budget submitted to Parliament
At the beginning of this week the annual 2015-16 State Budget was submitted to Parliament. MPs had been critical of the delay in submitting the Budget, which according to the Constitution should have been put to Parliament two months before the end of the financial year.
However, a number of procedural matters had delayed this, including the need for MPs to first approve the 2015-18 Government Action Plan; and disagreements at how to balance the Budget given the decreased oil revenues and the reluctance of Parliament to see an increase in borrowing.
The expectation is that the Financial Committee headed by Isa al-Kooheji will spend two to three weeks studying the document. It has already asked various governments for further details showing how individual projects will be funded.
In the current financial climate the passing of the Budget by Parliament is unlikely to be a straightforward process – with MPs wanting to ensure that specific projects and benefit programmes are protected.
Debate over MPs’ benefits
Over the course of this week there had been a furious debate in the media and social media about Shura Council proposals for revising the system of retirement benefits for parliamentarians and municipal councilors.
There was particular public anger about the prospect that MPs may vote to increase the ceiling for their own benefits to above 4,000 BD per month. The Services Committee had initially recommended to approve the package in full, with Committee Chairman Abbas al-Madhi arguing that this would not affect the Budget, because only a relatively small number of people would be benefitting from the measures.
During the 12 May parliamentary session there was apparent unity among MPs in rejecting the possibility of increasing benefits above the 4,000 BD ceiling. However, most MPs strongly defended changes to the regulations which would allow MPs who had served for a two year period following the traumatic 2011 by-election to receive benefits.
Abdullah Bin-Huwail said that “those who have done well in their work and served their country deserve to be acknowledged… Bahrain went through a crisis and the terrorism of the criminal Al-Wefaq society shouldn’t be forgotten. The previous (2011 by-election) MPs were cruelly targeted and now some of them are sitting at home living on nothing. We should not abandon them.” Parliament’s Chairman Ahmed al-Mulla ordered the “criminal” reference to be struck from the record.
Khalid al-Shaer noted that “ministers receive their retirement payments after a year, and previously after one day. The (2011) by-election MPs made sacrifices for the sake of the nation. Some of them now are living on nothing. However, we reject raising the benefit ceiling above 4,000 BD. Regrettably, there are entities agitating against deputies, who are themselves employees of the Parliament.”
Jamal Buhassan said that the ceiling for benefits should not be raised above 4,000 BD, but that measures should be taken to assist the 2011 by-election MPs who weren’t entitled to benefits “they deserve this for what they have done for their country, but God knows that we must not benefit from this law”.
MPs agreed to delay a vote on the issue for a week, to give more time for the relevant committees to review the proposals.
Following the failed attempt during last week’s session to achieve the two-thirds majority of MPs necessary for an interrogation of the Health Minister, discussions have continued about simplifying the interrogation procedure.
2012 constitutional amendments further empowered MPs when it came to powers for interrogating ministers. However, the previous Parliament was widely criticized for complicating the procedure. Parliament’s Legal Committee, headed by Shaikh Majid al-Majid is currently debating two similar proposals for simplifying the interrogation procedure (eliminating the requirement for the Parliamentary Administrative Office and then a separate committee to review and then approve the proposal) and reducing the number of MPs required for an interrogation vote.
During the 12 May session MPs agreed to give the Legal Committee two more weeks to study and prepare the proposals.
Upcoming Generations’ Fund
Parliament on 12 May approved the closing budget for the Upcoming Generations’ Fund, as directed by the Finance Committee. However several MPs, including Isa al-Kooheji and Jamal Buhassan said that the fund was “improperly managed”.
They criticized the competence of those managing the fund and the low levels of revenues generated, stressing the need for a dedicated and skilled staff to manage the fund.
Bahrain’s economy “run like a cold store”
MP Ahmed Qaratah during the 12 May Parliament session accused the Government of “blackmailing” MPs by arguing that any failure to increase borrowing would directly impact social benefits. He claimed Bahrain’s economy was being run like a “cold store”.
The Finance Minister responded to Qaratah’s points, saying that the Government had kept borrowing to a minimum, considering the difficult period Bahrain had recently been through.
However Qaratah responded that the government’s policy was a “failure” and warned that current borrowing plans could have serious implications for Bahrain’s credit rating.
Qaratah thanked the Government for submitting the budget, but complained that it was “7 months late”.
Deputies’ proposals approved
During the 12 May parliamentary session around 15 proposals previously submitted by MPs were approved in a series of votes. These included:
- Educational TV programmes providing family guidance.
- A centre for social services in the 8th Muharraq district.
- A secondary girls’ school serving villages along the Budaya road.
- Centres for government services in each governorate.
- An extension to the Sehla road linking it to the Khalifa Bin-Salman highway.
- Setting aside land for an events hall in the 5th Southern district.
- Renovating the highway leading to the Saudi causeway.
- Establishing a fishing port in the 3rd Capital district.
- Constructing a petrol station in Qalali.
- Setting up youth centres in Arad, and in the 2nd Muharraq and 10th Capital districts.
- Establishing a soccer pitch linked to the Bani Jamra club.
- Setting up a sports and cultural centre in Hamad Town.
- Setting up a youth centre and sports area in the 4th Northern district.