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‘FCID officers used up Rs.14 mn for travel fares, allowances during previous regime’

About 20 Officers of the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) have participated in overseas tours for investigations, spending Rs.14 million as travel fare and allowances between 2015 and 2019, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa revealed to the House.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa made this revelation in reply to a question raised by MP Wasantha Yapa during the question round for the Prime Minister in Parliament, yesterday.

Answering MP Wasantha Yapa’s question, the Prime Minister pointed out that the Anti-Corruption Committee was established as per two Cabinet memoranda: one by then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe, titled ‘Establishing a Unit to Investigate Fraud and Corruption’; and the other by former Minister Patali Champika Ranawaka, titled ‘Investigation on Large-Scale Corruption During Previous Years’; which were presented to the then Cabinet on January 21, 2015.

The members of this Anti-Corruption Unit included former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe; former Ministers Mangala Samaraweera, Patali Champika Ranawaka, Wijedasa Rajapaksa, Rauff Hakeem, and Sarath Fonseka; TNA Leader R. Sampanthan, MP M.A. Sumanthiran, JVP leader Anura Kumara Dissanayake, lawyer K.C. Weliamuna, Dr. Jayampathi Wickremenayake, Malik Samarawickreme, and a secretary to the Committee.

The Prime Minister's Office has not paid any salary or allowance to the members of the Anti-Corruption Committee established by the decision of the Cabinet of Ministers dated January 21, 2015, within the relevant period.

PM Rajapaksa said, “At the same time, the then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe proposed to proceed as per the decision of the Cabinet of Ministers dated January 21, 2015, to establish a committee secretariat for the Anti-Corruption Committee and recruit a suitable staff. Accordingly, the secretariat had a staff of 44 and their salaries and allowances were paid by the Prime Minister's Office.”

“For example, the Secretariat Director, Ananda Wijepala, was paid Rs.1,285,167.33 for three years’ service and advisor A.P.A. Gunasekara was paid Rs.93,750 for two months’ service. Advisor T.K. Warnasooriya has been paid Rs.660,000 for the year 2015; advisor M.A. Sathar, Rs.243,750 for four months; advisor S. Medawewa, Rs.2,068,125 for three years; advisor M.B.H.M. Dayaratne, Rs.1,970,000 for three years; and advisor Thusitha Mudalige, Rs.626,080 for three years. Similarly, from February, 2015, to June, 2017, the Prime Minister's Office has paid Rs.33.71 million for staff salaries, allowances, and other expenses,” he added.

The Prime Minister said, “During the time period from 2015 to 2019, officers from the Financial Crimes Investigation Division (FCID) have gone for foreign tours for investigation purposes from 2015 to 2019.

“About 20 officers of the FCID have participated in 19 foreign tours from time to time, for which they have spent around Rs.14 million as travel fare and travelling allowances.”

Prime Minister Rajapaksa also submitted documents that included information on the names and designations of the officers who have participated in the said foreign tours, the purposes for which they intend to pursue them, the countries they traveled to and the travel dates, the airlines and accommodation during this revelation.

Meanwhile, MP Wasantha Yapa pointed out that one advisor attached to the Committee Secretariat has provided service while having a conflict of interest and requested the Prime Minister to look into that as well.


NHDA spent over Rs.472 mn for advertising purposes during 2015/2019: PM

The National Housing Development Authority (NHDA) has spent over Rs.472 million for advertising and publicity purposes between 2015 and 2019, Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa revealed to the House, yesterday. The Finance Ministry has already commenced an audit regarding these expenses, he added.

The Premier made these revelations during the question round for the Prime Minister, when MP Sampath Athukorale directed the question in relation to the matter.

The National Housing Development Authority was under the purview of then Housing Minister, Opposition Leader Sajith Premadasa, during the said time period. A media and publicity unit was established in January, 2015, for the National Housing Development Authority, which continued until November, 2019.

The media unit, which was under the direct purview of the Authority’s Chairman, was tasked with raising awareness on the housing projects carried out by the authority. The media unit had a staff of more than 40 persons by the end of 2019. MP Athukorale pointed out that public money was spent to build up personal images through this media unit.

The Prime Minister answering MP Athukorale’s questions said that Rs.85 million has been spent for printing posters, invitation cards, and commemorative magazines. According to the Premier’s revelations, Rs.42 million has been spent to create stone plaques, house number plates, and other similar displays. For newspaper advertisements, the Authority has spent Rs.345 million, it was also revealed.

Prime Minister Rajapaksa also stated that there is no specific profit made by the Authority by carrying out these publicity campaigns; however, the public has gained considerable awareness on the housing projects carried out by the Authority.


Jayasumana rebuffs ‘insufficient PCR test’ allegations

There were a number of fake documents circulating on social media that included different content on the steps taken to curtail the spread of the recent outbreak of COVID-19, MP Professor Channa Jayasumana pointed out yesterday.

Jayasumana also denied the Opposition’s allegations that the number of PCR tests carried out by the government has decreased. Jayasumana made this observation in reply to Gampaha District SJB MP Harshana Rajakaruna on imposing curfew in the Gamapaha District.

“Curfew was imposed only partially in the Gamapaha District; curfew was imposed and then lifted in several police divisions in Gamapaha, yesterday. More than 1,000 persons have tested positive for COVID-19 positive.

“Why cannot the government impose curfew to the whole of Gamapaha and try to control the situation? We are in a perilous situation,” MP Rajakaruna questioned.

In reply, Jayasumana observed that the government is imposing curfew as per the recommendations given by health and defence authorities on managing the situation. “We cannot suddenly impose curfew to a whole district; such a step would create unnecessary chaos. As you know, there is a great number of people employed in the Gampaha District.

“Therefore, we are monitoring all areas and imposing curfew accordingly,” he said.

“There were many fake documents circulating on social media in the last couple of days concerning the curfew; even the letterhead of the Presidential Secretariat was used to prepare these fake documents. The public was misled by these documents,” he added.

Jayasumana said, “There is an allegation that the number of PCR tests being conducted is not sufficient, but that is not true.

“We are carrying out sufficient tests. At the moment, there is a meeting between the President and the health and defence authorities.

“If necessary, the government shall impose curfew. We cannot go around imposing curfew in accordance to the whims of social media.”

Following Jayasumana’s reply, SJB MP S.M. Marikkar questioned Jayasumana as to why he is not appropriately dressed as per the traditional dress code of the House.


Speaker urges MPs to focus only on important matters during question rounds

Speaker of the Parliament Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena yesterday requested the members of Parliament to ask only policy-related questions during the question round for the Prime Minister. The Speaker said that all other matters could be taken up in the oral questions round.

Speaker Abeywardena said, “Please do not ask less important questions during the session where the Prime Minister answers your questions. Please focus on policy-related or matters of highest concern when forwarding questions to the Prime Minister. Asking other questions is against the decision we have taken concerning this question round.”


‘Marginalised communities most affected by COVID-19’

The communities that are directly affected by the COVID-19 virus and its consequences are the most marginalised and vulnerable communities in our society, JJB MP Dr. Harini Amarasuriya said.

She said 64 migrant workers have died outside the country due to COVID-19, and that this number is larger than the number of deaths reported within the country. “The country as a whole successfully dealt with the first wave of the virus. And yes, we acknowledge the role played by the government in successfully responding to this virus, but it was not just the government that was effective here. We also have to acknowledge the role of the health sector, and also the role of the people of this country who followed the health regulations and followed the orders given by the health authorities in managing this situation,” she added.

Dr. Amarasuriya said, “While discussing financial amendments and changes to our revenue system, the lessons that are being taught by this pandemic cannot be ignored. Clearly, the virus does not affect us all equally. The steps taken to respond to the virus also does not affect us all equally. Not all of us have the luxury of working from home; not all of us have the ability to use private transport to move around and do our grocery shopping online.

“Most of the people of this country had to deal with the consequences of this virus and of the measures taken in ways very different to the few of us.”

The issue here, she said, is that when we talk about the financial regulations and policies, often it is about the importance of economic growth. “Although we argue across this island, we often fail to consider who actually benefits from these measures and whose lives have improved by these measures we have been debating and discussing here. If we really look at some of these measures or consequences of some of these economic decisions that have been reached in this chamber, we can clearly see that not everyone has benefitted equally and, in fact, the lives of some communities have deteriorated.”

“If we look at these conventional indicators that we use to measure economic success or economic prosperity, and if we replace some of these indicators while looking at the well-being and happiness of the people of this country, we will have to acknowledge that over the last several decades, the lives of the majority of the people of this country have, in fact, become more insecure, more uncertain and precarious,” she said.

In that sense, Dr. Amarasuriya noted that said while much is debated and credit is taken by some MPs and some are blamed, legislators have failed to recognise how these specific amendments and policies have made lives of people more insecure and more anxiety-ridden.

She noted that it was unfortunate that the most affected in the second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic in our country was women employed in the most exploited sector in this country; whose jobs are extremely precarious, whose lives during the first wave of this pandemic was also extremely difficult. “One employer, one factory or one person cannot be held responsible for this. What these figures reveal to us is that our systems and our structures have failed and, unless we address the systemic failures, we will be continuing to reinforce the vulnerabilities of one of the most marginalised groups in our society,” she noted, adding that instead of always focusing on the larger macro-economic picture, perhaps it is necessary to change the way we talk about the economy to a much more caring well-being focussed perspective.


House moves Adjournment Motion on long waiting periods for post-O/L, A/L studies

The House yesterday moved an Adjournment Motion to debate on the amount of time that students waste while waiting to either enter Advanced Level classes or university.

Government MP M. Muzammil, moving the Adjournment Motion, said, “A student who has completed their Ordinary Level Examination waits for eight months to enter A/L classes. A student who has completed the A/L Examination has to wait about 12 months for university entrance. This means a student has to waste for about 22 months of their student life.

“This time wasted is a great loss for the nation. I propose that the government should take measures to prevent this issue.”

The government should take steps to minimise the period of time students have to wait to enter the university after sitting for the Ordinary Level and Advanced Level examinations, Minister of Power Dallus Alahapperuma said.

“Even if the Examination Department and the University Grants Commission cannot fulfill this task immediately, they should be able to in the coming couple of years.” Minister Alahapperuma said, joining the debate on the Adjournment Motion moved by government MP M. Muzammil.

Alahapperuma also said that A/L examiners should be provided with computer facilities to update the data directly without sending the results manually to the Examination Department. “Usually, examiners write down the results of the exam papers they have corrected and send them to the Examination Department. If the examiners are provided with tablets, they can directly update the data. It will save time, money and labour,” he said.

“Thus, we have taken steps to allocate 2,000 tablets for the examiners. We also spend about three months for the students who have applied for re-correction.

“We can easily leave space for these children and take other students in. In other countries, students enter university about two months from completing high school,” the MP said.

Samagi Jana Balawegaya MP Nirosan Perera, joining the debate, said steps should be taken to introduce programs on career guidance and education counseling during the period of time that students spent home after completing their A/L examination.

State Minister of Education Reforms, Open University, and Distance Learning Promotion Susil Premajayanta, delivering the reply speech, said, “The task force which was appointed by the President has prepared a report on the necessary policy changes that should be made to regularise the education system in the country.

“Different divisions of the task force are separately focusing on the pre-education system, school education, and higher education.”

“Even during the lockdown period, these divisions were committed to research on the issues in the education sector and prepare a policy framework to enhance the quality of education our students receive.

“Many resource persons contributed to this task voluntarily. Now, we are in the stage where we want to create a dialogue between all the stakeholders in the education sector to discuss this newly created education policy framework.

“Presently, it is halted due to the COVID-19 outbreak. We are going to quickly come up with a plan to avoid these technical limitations and continue with it online. The government will move for major educational reforms in the coming years which are a crucial need for the development of the country,” he said.


Harin calls for all MPs to get PCR-tested

UNP MP Harin Fernando yesterday called for conducting PCR tests on all 223 MPs, so that they could be assured that MPs would be safe from the illness.

He said so in his response to SLPP MP Premanath C. Dolawatte’s accusation that MP Fernando deliberately puts others’ lives in danger.

MP Dolawatte notified Parliament yesterday that SJB MP Harin Fernando had tweeted that he underwent a PCR test yesterday. “To undergo the PCR test, the MP should have experienced some symptoms. If he has experienced some COVID-19 symptoms, he should let us know what the outcome of his PCR test was,” he said.

He noted that MP Harin Fernando has a moral obligation to stay away from others until his PCR test results are released. “Instead, he came to Parliament and mingled with others. He should inform us of the results of the test; his actions has jeopardised our safety.”

Gampaha District SJB MP Harshana Rajakaruna joined the debate by adding that some areas in the Gampaha District has not yet been placed under police curfew. “As such, people still move around for their various needs. If the government declares curfew in the remaining areas, then it would be helpful in containing the spread of the virus.”

Anuradhapura District MP Prof Channa Jayasumana pitched in, saying “There had been several discussions on how curfew should be declared. Curfew is imposed on the basis of presentations and recommendations of health and security experts. We cannot impose curfew at will. On the other hand, there is so much of fake news with regard to curfew and closure of some institutions, some even on government letterheads.”

“There are some posts on social media but they are not true. Some fake news is printed on president’s office letterheads. If curfew had been imposed suddenly, people would have faced severe difficulty leading to panic buying which could have resulted in more infections. There was another allegation by the opposition that the number of PCR tests being conducted was not sufficient. That is not true,” he added.

SJB MP Harin Fernando responded, “The number of PCR tests being conducted has reduced. There have been only some 900 tests done yesterday. I got a PCR test done, and I am cleared. I can send in my report.”

“What about other MPs? The government has recommended that people get PCR-tested. A government MP criticized me for following the government recommendation as they are of facing the test. They too should be PCR tested for COVID-19. Private hospitals conduct PCR tests and charge Rs.6,000 per test. They also have the facility of having private hospital testing done at their own homes at a cost of Rs.12,000 if they so preferred,” he added.