Cyprus Mail

MPs’ rushed social insurance bill was ‘unenforceable’

Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou accused deputies of messing up a well-planned bill

The president did not sign off on a bill changing payment schemes for those owing money to the Social Insurance Fund because it was unenforceable by the time MPs were done tinkering with it, the government said on Wednesday.
The bill introducing an instalments scheme for paying social insurance arrears was passed by the legislature during the plenary of April 14, the last before parliament disbanded ahead of the elections.
Opposition MPs amended the government item, raising the number of instalments from 36 initially to 60.
President Nicos Anastasiades subsequently refused to sign off and sent the bill back to parliament. But because parliament has not acted within the time limit afforded by law, the bill is considered to be null and void by default.
The parties had decided to leave it to the new legislature to re-review the bill, although the attorney-general says the legislature could have convened in the interim to discuss the matter even after it disbanded.
That parliament had disbanded in the meantime was irrelevant, the AG said, noting that a legislature’s term is in effect until a new parliament is sworn in.
Going on the offensive, opposition parties, particularly DIKO, accused the government of ‘social insensitivity’, in that hundreds of individuals would continue to be prosecuted and jailed for petty sums owed to social insurance.
Hitting back, Labour Minister Zeta Emilianidou wondered why the government would ‘kill’ legislation which it itself tabled.
She said also that her ministry is prepared to submit another bill from scratch once the new parliament is sworn in.
Speaking to the state broadcaster, Emilianidou said the initial bill provided for 36 instalments, but that she had been willing to consider up to 48 instalments, as proposed by opposition parties.
Ultimately, the parties amended the legislation, increasing the number of instalments to 60.
The problem, she explained, was not the number of instalments, but the fact that other clauses in the bill were not correspondingly amended, thus making the final legislation as passed unworkable.
Opposition MPs inserted a clause stating that it is left to the discretion of the director of the Department of Social Insurance Services to decide whether a person is eligible for up to 60 instalments, ‘depending on the circumstances.’
However it did not spell out these circumstances, which was problematic, the minister said.
Technocrats- such as the director of the Department of Social Insurance Services – are not bestowed with discretionary powers – which in this case are the domain of the attorney-general.
In short, because the bill also covered past arrears as well as arrears for which a person has been found liable in court, only the attorney-general has the power to decide how to handle these cases.
Another sticking point, prompting the president to send the item back to parliament, was that whereas the final bill increased the number of instalments, it did not amend the article relating to the minimum instalment.
Emilianidou explained that the initial article stated that for arrears up to €500, the minimum instalment must be €50. For arrears from €500 to €1000, the minimum instalment was €75, and for arrears over €1000 the minimum instalment was €100.
This was left unchanged in the final, amended bill.
“So what is the point of [MPs] increasing the number of instalments but without changing the minimum instalment? Someone who owes €6000 must pay a minimum instalment of €100. But someone who owes €5000 cannot benefit from the 60 instalments, since the minimum instalment is again €100.”
The minister said the government had designed the legislation so that the application process for the instalments scheme would be automated. New application template forms were prepared, and changes made to the software system.
The government had planned for the instalments scheme to go live by May 2, and was expecting hundreds if not thousands of applications to pour in.
But due to the parties’ amendments, which complicated the evaluation process, each application would have to be assessed separately, taking much longer, meaning it could take up to a year before a person’s application were approved.
“It would render the scheme impracticable, unenforceable,” Emilianidou said.
In the meantime, the attorney-general has agreed – after a government proposal – not to prosecute people with arrears to social insurance relating to 2015.
That did not stop DIKO leader Nicholas Papadopoulos from panning the government.
“This is no time to be throwing people in jail for debts. Rather, we should be letting them out of prison so they can work and pay off their debts,” Papadopoulos said.
The DIKO leader claimed it was because of public pressure from his party that the government moved quickly this week to suspend prosecutions relating to 2015 arrears.
But in a statement, deputy government spokesman Viktoras Papadopoulos countered that the decision not to prosecute dates back to January this year.
That decision was precisely designed to complement the instalment schemes bill which was in the works at the time, he added.

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