By Elias Hazou
THE HOUSE plenum managed to legislate on key items yesterday despite a number of hiccups, including a bomb scare in the afternoon that turned out to be a hoax.
Police evacuated the premises after a call was made around 4pm to Politis newspaper warning that a bomb or explosive device had been planted inside the parliament building. A similar call had been placed to the office of the House Speaker at around the same time.
The police bomb squad, assisted by sniffer dogs, combed the building but found nothing. Authorities gave the all-clear about an hour later.
Police attributed the threat to a hoax aimed at disrupting the plenary session.
Parliament was due to enact laws linked to the country’s obligations stemming from the international bailout.
The bills had to be passed urgently before the upcoming visit of a ‘troika’ team to review the country’s compliance so far with the loan agreement; yesterday’s was the last scheduled meeting of the plenum before its summer recess.
All but one of the bailout bills were passed unanimously.
The batch of the so-called ‘memorandum bills’ included giving the Central Bank of Cyprus (CBC) power to issue binding instructions when the capital adequacy of a co-operative bank is negatively affected – a temporary fix until such time as co-ops officially come under the CBC’s supervision.
Another was extending the deadline for payment of the immovable property tax to November 15 from September 30 to give people time to be informed of their new tax obligations.
Also passed was a bill cutting the fine for late payment of VAT from 10 per cent to five per cent in a bid to prop small and medium businesses
A new law does away with restrictions in the seconding of civil servants, as part of efforts to make the public sector more flexible. Under the terms of the bailout deal, by 2016 Cyprus must slash the number of civil servants by 4500.
Parliament also gave the nod to two bills aiming to enhance Cyprus’ compliance with information-sharing within the EU with regard to money laundering.
During a meeting in the morning, party leaders had decided to delay by a week voting on bailout-related legislation, only to change their minds again and proceed as initially planned.
In other business, the House decided to restrict the up-until-now absolute decision-making authority vested in the Central Bank governor, by increasing the size of the CBC board to include two executive board members with veto power.
All parties bar AKEL were in favour. Though co-authored by the DISY-DIKO government partners, the bill was understood not to enjoy the support of the administration, after Cyprus was warned by the European Central Bank against tampering with the powers of the local central banker.
Reports suggested that DISY leader Averof Neofytou had lulled opponents of the bill into a false sense of complacency by agreeing, earlier in the day, to have the vote postponed.
Neophytou later changed tack on realising he had the numbers to push the bill through. It helped that the Central Bank governor Panicos Demetriades was abroad.
The plenum meanwhile approved the slashing of benefits for asylum seekers for persons with refugee status or subsidiary protection status.
Beneficiaries will receive just €40 monthly (plus €10 per dependent) and the rest of the aid in food stamps and coupons. For non-EU nationals not staying in reception centers, the state will pay the rent for other accommodation.
The government decided a change in policy was overdue after it had emerged that, in certain cases, cheques of up to €3,000 were being made out to asylum seekers here.
And by unanimous vote, the House passed an amendment to the Constitution, lifting a restriction imposed in 2006 that banned the extradition of Cypriot nationals for offences committed before the island’s accession to the EU in May 2004. That time constraint essentially violated EU rules.
It has now been lifted so that extradition of Cypriot nationals for offences predating EU accession now covers extradition to all EU countries as well as to non-EU nations that have an inter-state extradition agreement in place with Cyprus.
The matter resurfaced in the past few days after Greek authorities issued a European arrest warrant against former interior minister Dinos Michaelides and his son Michalis.
They are wanted in connection with a money laundering case involving former Greek defence minister Akis Tsohatzopoulos. The alleged offences took place between 1997 and 2001.
Their cases will be heard on July 24.
It is now up to the court to take into account the change of the constitution in deciding whether they should be tried in Cyprus or handed over to Greek authorities as requested.
MPs had also wanted to scrap a provision in the Constitution banning cuts on judges’ pay, but decided to revisit the matter in September.