The authority of the prime minister and the functions of the Cabinet should be strengthened, the 13 members of the Administrative Reform Council, headed by Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, agreed Aug. 18.

The consensus was reached as the members of council began intensive discussions to work out reform measures to downsize the administrative system.

The members, who are considered intellectuals and key figures from the private sector, agreed that Article 4 of the Cabinet Law should be revised to give the prime minister greater authority to actively guide Cabinet meetings and to allow the prime minister to propose policy-related matters during those meetings.

Currently, Cabinet meetings are mere formalities, in which ministers simply agree to decisions already made by a prior meeting of administrative vice ministers, or top bureaucrats of government ministries and agencies.

The panel members also agreed that Cabinet decisions, currently reached only by consensus, should be made by a majority of members.

To greatly enhance the functions of the Cabinet, several panel members urged that a new organization, which would be called the Cabinet’s Office, be created to work across the boundaries of ministries.

They said that the new office should deal with such matters as macroeconomic policies, disaster relief measures, personnel affairs and sexual equality in social participation.

Concerning how to streamline the state ministries and agencies, the panel members generally agreed that policy-related matters regarding science and technology should be dealt with by a conference directly under the prime minister, and the Science and Technology Agency should be abolished.

During the meeting, Hashimoto expressed strong opposition to simply scaling up the agency, saying that although promoting research related to science and technology is an important policy goal for Japan, the agency, which has been linked to a series of recent blunders related to nuclear power facilities, would not be able to deal with more matters.

Koji Sato, professor on the Constitution at Kyoto University, and head of a subcommittee on Cabinet reform, suggested that several ministers without portfolio be appointed to deal with important issues that go beyond ministerial boundaries.

On the same day, Tokiyasu Fujita, professor of administrative law at Tohoku University, proposed that postal, postal savings and insurance services of the Posts and Telecommunications Ministry be privatized in the future.

Fujita said in a written proposal, “There seems no logical necessity to maintain the three services as they are.”

Fujita heads one of two subcommittees of the Administrative Reform Council.

His proposal is expected to spark debate by the 13 members of the panel, who are still divided on the issue. Privatization of the three services has been at the top of the administrative reform agenda.

Fujita’s report also proposes that the three services be handled by a quasigovernmental organization as a tentative measure before they are eventually privatized.

Even in this situation, timing for the future privatization must be set, and the private sector should be allowed access to the postal service during the transition period.

The panel is considering the creation of new semigovernmental bodies to deal with nonpolicy-related public services, such as issuing licenses and providing social welfare services.

Opponents to the postal service privatization have pointed out that such reforms could work to the disadvantage of people who live in underpopulated areas. They argue that privatized postal business might close unprofitable operations in remote places.

Fujita says government subsidies can be used to maintain service in such cases, adding that postal services in those areas can be kept as governmental.

At the same time, Fujita says the privatization of postal services should not lead to a layoff of workers.

He also suggested a new status be created for postal workers — currently government employees — to maintain morale over the period of change.

Fujita also suggested privatizing the functions of the Finance Ministry’s Mint Bureau.

His proposals are to be discussed during the panel’s four-day intensive debate that started Aug. 18.

Fujita and Sato are expected to compile a draft framework outlining the reforms by Sept. 3, based on four-day discussions to be held through Aug. 21.

The framework is expected to be detailed and finalized by November, early enough for the government to submit a set of bills to the next regular Diet session, which convenes in January. Hashimoto has promised the new administrative system will be introduced in January 2001.

The 13 members plus Hashimoto and Kabun Muto, director general of the Management and Coordination Agency and the minister in charge of administrative reform, will be packed into a hotel in Tokyo through Aug. 21 to hammer out a blueprint on reorganization of what is regarded as an outdated administrative system for the century ahead.

The discussions mark the climax of debate by the council, which was set up last November to discuss boosting the functions of the Cabinet and streamlining the government.

Hashimoto has pledged to halve the current 22 government ministries and agencies to make a slimmer and more efficient government.

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