MPs filing false assets details wih impunity

LAHORE - Why are elected representatives required to file details of their assets? Does it aim to see increase in their assets every year or to take action if they are amassed through unfair means? These questions strike the mind about Election Commission of Pakistan’s call to the legislators for furnishing statements of their assets and their dependents in compliance with Section 42 of the Representation of the People Act, 1976.
Those dealing with the matter say that this exercise is nothing more than a record keeping. The legislators in our bicameral parliamentary system were required to provide details of the source of income, property, bank accounts, loans etc after the act was amended in 2002, to enforce strict implementation of articles 62 and 63 of the Constitution, which prescribed qualification and disqualification of legislators. The law envisages disqualification of a member if his lifestyle does not match his declared means of income. And the amended law purported to keep yearly check on the growth of the members’ assets and resources to see how much tax they paid on the same. This is quite in line with the spirit to enforce democracy on the members. However, the purpose is still far from being achieved.
Sub-section 4 of the act provides for taking action over filing false and incorrect statement of the assets and liabilities, but no evidence is available that any legislator was ever punished, de-seated, or held accountable.
The commission accepts details of the assets furnished by the law makers without verifying veracity of the same to take action if wrong information has been provided or the facts have been concealed and value of the assets underrated against the existing market value. It is for the reason that the commission does not have any powers under the law to look into the details and take action on its own if it detects discrepancies. Moreover, it has no mechanism to compare volume of the current assets with the previous years or take help of agencies and tax department to assess value of the property or put the statement in juxtapose with the facts mentioned in the nomination papers.
What the commission is empowered to do is just to suspend membership of the legislators who fail to provide details of the assets by September 30 every year. However, this scant punishment also evaporates once the details are provided. The Commission incorporates details in the official gazette for the public’s perusal on payment.
Given a complex procedure and lack of awareness about the significance of this step at public level, it is mainly the media that publishes details which, as commonly observed, excite the curiosity of the people only to know how rich their chosen people have become and no one questions how the wealth was amassed.
A false statement of the assets in terms of Section 82 of the act is tantamount to corruption, but no clear-cut authority has been delegated to the commission to act upon it. ECP former secretary Kanwar Dilshad told this scribe that when in the office in 2009 he had written to the federal government to authorise the commission through legislation to investigate the statements through its own sources and with the help of agencies and tax department, but to no avail. Kanwar said the commission at that time wanted the assets’ statements probed through the NAB, but it was not possible without legislation. He added a vague sort of mechanism exists to enable a citizen to file a complaint in the court of district and sessions judge if he finds the details are false. During the last 12 years, no citizen moved the court against any legislator, he added.
Kanwar said Political Parties Order of 2002 requires the ECP to act against a political party if it submits a wrong statement of its accounts or if they are not duly audited by a chartered accountant and certified. But no power to act against the member has been delegated to it.
The penalty for corrupt practice under the existing law is maximum three-year jail with fine up to Rs 5,000 or both.
Former senior Judge of the Lahore High Court and ex-attorney general Malik Muhammad Qayyum stressed the need give the ECP powers for taking action over false statements, for which legislation is needful. He said a law can also be framed to undo indemnity against action available to prime ministers and ministers if they file false statements of assets.