So have your say on the Panayiotides-Syrimis-Pissarides White Paper to fight corruption
The events which led to the resignation of the previous House of Representatives’ president and of another MP last October, and forced the government to terminate the ‘golden passports’ scheme, have produced an uproar on the part of the general public.
Cypriots have always been very proud of their honesty and moral standards and understandably are finding the inevitable denting of this reputation a particularly annoying and painful experience. As a consequence, people – from all walks of life – are demanding sufficient swift action on the part of the government and legislators to stop these malpractices. Any suggestion that the politicians may be using delaying tactics aimed at avoiding the necessary reform is giving rise to a reaction that transcends traditional party politics. It has become a universal demand that the political parties cannot afford to ignore.
These are the circumstances under which the Panayiotides-Syrimis-Pissarides report, setting out the reasons for which the existing system of compiling and filing statements of wealth by politically exposed persons has abysmally failed to attain its objectives, has been compiled and has been recently published. The report – often referred to as a White Paper – makes comprehensive proposals for reforming the existing system in a way that would enable it to serve its purpose.
The report (found at www.pothen-esches-cyprus.com in English and Greek) has been compiled by two retired certified public accountants – one of them myself – who have an intimate understanding of statements of wealth, and the Nobel prize winner professor of economics, Sir Christopher Pissarides.
The reception given to the Panayiotides-Syrimis-Pissarides proposals has been unexpectedly encouraging. The paper has been welcomed and endorsed by the government (the president and the justice minister), the ruling Disy party and main opposition Akel. The House president and the chairman of the House committee responsible for passing the necessary legislation through parliament have also signified their acceptance and support of the White Paper.
The consultation process is already in full swing. Any member of the public may submit their comments and suggestions by completing and submitting a simple form, provided that the person wishing to make their views known is willing to disclose their identity and take responsibility for their suggestions and comments. The form can be found on the website referred to above and must be submitted electronically to the address mentioned on the form.
What is the essence of the ‘pothen esches’ scheme? The idea is simple. A statement of the family wealth of the politically exposed person (PEP), ie a statement of their combined wealth (with their spouse and underage children) is compiled at the beginning and at the end of each calendar year. The aggregate increase (or decrease) between these two consecutive statements of wealth (ie the net increase/decrease in a given year) is measured (quantified) and is then ‘bridged’ (reconciled) with the declared (for tax purposes) income in that year, plus any other wealth (such as gifts received) generated in that year, less the family living costs and any other outlays. This equation is the gist of the pothen esches system, which literally translated, means “where has it (the new wealth) come from?”
However, the concept is deceptively simple, and it is not too hard to set up a system that is full of loopholes. This is, indeed, what happened when the system was first introduced many years ago. It is these loopholes that the authors of the Panayiotides-Syrimis-Pissarides report seek to close. One of the many problems of the existing system is that it is full of ambiguities and contradictions that render it impossible to comply with the law; even in those cases where the person filing the statement of wealth is determined to act honestly and diligently.
Another problem is the unsatisfied need to render this information available in a readily comprehensible form to the public at large. This is necessary, not only because the citizens of the country have the right to know and be able to confirm that those who manage their lives are honest and decent people (who do not misuse the position they hold for private gain), but because they also have the right to see that those charged with the responsibility of running the country manage their personal affairs in a competent manner that does not give rise to conflicts of interest.
The authors of the White Paper believe that all politically exposed persons should be directly accountable to society, by being required to disclose their family wealth and explain and justify any increases in wealth while they hold public positions. High court judges should be included in the group, along with the legislators, the ministers and the senior civil servants. The White Paper proposal on this issue is to start with a group of about 300 ‘top-brass’ PEPs and, once the system is up and running successfully, to expand it to a group of about 1,000-2,000 persons. Including too many persons, as is currently the case, renders the task of monitoring the behaviour of top PEPs an impossible task, thus defeating the object of the exercise.
In conclusion, please look at the proposals at www.pothen-esches-cyprus.com. Demand from the candidates participating in the forthcoming parliamentary elections to support the efforts of cleaning up the mess; encourage them to compile and publish (if necessary on a voluntary basis) the statements of their family wealth as at December 31, 2019 and 2020 and to explain and justify the increases (or decreases) identified.
Last but not least, you are encouraged to read the proposals carefully and submit your own comments and suggestions. An informed citizen is a good citizen!
Christos Panayiotides is a regular columnist for the Cyprus Mail, Sunday Mail and Alithia