A spate of money scandals involving members of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet has again highlighted the problems with the way lawmakers spend political funds, including funds derived from taxpayer money.
Transparency in the use of such funds will be the minimum requirement in determining whether the money is spent for appropriate purposes. Attention also must be paid to the fact that there are some public allowances provided to Diet members whose use is beyond oversight.
On Wednesday, the Supreme Court ordered members of the Okayama prefectural assembly to disclose receipts on small expenses — less than ¥10,000 each — that they have paid using the allowances they receive from the prefecture to cover political expenses such as policy research.
Okayama is the only prefecture in Japan where the prefectural assembly members are not obliged to submit receipts for expenses that do not exceed ¥10,000. The assembly members earlier rejected the request from a local ombudsman group that they disclose the receipts as evidence to be used in the group’s lawsuit demanding that they return allowance funds that it charges were inappropriately spent.
The allowances provided to local assembly members came under public spotlight in the recent case of a Hyogo prefectural assemblyman who drew nationwide attention for bawling like a child during a news conference defending his alleged misuse of such funds. Ryutaro Nonomura eventually resigned from the assembly and returned all the allowance funds he had received, and reportedly admitted to prosecutors that the travel expenses he claimed to have spent were bogus. But he is not alone in being accused of misusing allowance funds, and civic groups like the ombudsman group have been filing a series of lawsuits seeking reimbursements.
Members of most prefectural assemblies throughout the country who receive such allowances are required to submit reports on how they spend the money with receipts attached. Following the top court’s decision, Okayama is expected to do the same, obliging its assembly members to disclose receipts for all allowance expenses irrespective of the amount.
In contrast, members of the Diet, who receive monthly allowances of ¥1 million to cover their communication, travel and lodging expenses, have no obligation under the law to disclose how they use the funds.
The law does not specify how the allowance should be used and there are no means to check if the allowance is properly spent. There has been criticism that the allowance is no different from an additional salary for the Diet members.
The opposition Ishin no To (Japan Renovation Party) has submitted to the Diet a bill to revise the law on the allowances to require Diet members to disclose how the money has been spent. However, the prospect for such a revision appears dim as neither the ruling Liberal Democratic Party nor the largest opposition Democratic Party of Japan endorses it. Nonetheless, Ishin no To says it will soon start disclosing how the allowances are being spent by its members. Lawmakers of other parties would do well to reflect on the need for more transparency in how they use the taxpayer-funded allowance.
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