MPs’ assets largely to remain secret

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Windhoek

The National Assembly has adopted the much-awaited declaration of asset form, which boasts a confidential section to which only the registrar and his/her designated staff and the Committee of Privileges, who are sworn to secrecy, will have access.

This provision is seen as defeating the original purpose of asset declaration, which is to promote transparency in the dealings of decision-makers and to help mitigate incidences of conflict of interest among the officials and their cronies. Concerns have now been raised about the declarations of assets and interests by lawmakers because most declarations will be kept in the confidential section of the register.

The Institute of Public Policy Research (IPPR) researcher Maximilian Weylandt said there is need for an independent entity to check the accuracy of submitted declarations of lawmakers in parliament because the capacity of MPs to provide effective self-control is often questioned.

All 104 members of the National Assembly are required to declare their business and financial interests on or before November 30 2015.

Lawmakers last week adopted the declaration of members’ interests form, but when they declare their assets and interests next month, the public will not have the opportunity to closely scrutinise property owned by MPs because some details will be kept in the confidential section of the register.

The main concern with the register is that it is riddled with the ‘nothing to disclose’ phrase – indicating that many MPs have few assets, bank accounts and properties, but the public have often argued that the phrase is mainly used by those who hide their riches.

Stressing the need for an independent body, Weylandt further stated: “As our system currently works, there can be investigations when complaints are lodged, but because so much is in the confidential register, and even the public part is difficult to access, many issues could be overlooked.”

“In countries where public officials’ declarations and conflict of interest policies are relatively new, specialised bodies have an advantage,” said the IPPR researcher yesterday.

“Accountability measures should be preventative, not just after the fact. In fact, if declarations are not checked, MPs could just claim they have nothing to declare and thus circumvent the process as a whole,” he said. Despite lawmakers being compelled to declare trusts of which they are beneficiaries, they are not required to declare the net worth of the trusts. They may only declare the name of the trust and how they benefit from it.

“Net worth of trusts do not have to be declared at all, and the fact that members only have to declare what they benefit could mean that a large amount of money remains off the books,” said Weylandt.

Other things that MPs must declare, according to the form, include shares, remunerative employment outside parliament, directorships and partnerships, consultancies/retainerships, sponsorships, gifts, benefits and pensions.
Only sponsorships and gifts exceeding N$10 000 must be declared.

There is also no need to declare personal gifts within the family and hospitality of a cultural or traditional nature. Weylandt fears many MPs will make use of some of these loopholes to hide their riches.

“The details of residential property in the form refer to both location and value of the properties, if the draft code of conduct is to be believed. Residential properties are likely a substantial investment for many MPs, and this would mean a large share of their wealth will not be visible to the public,” he said.

For the declaration system to work, Weylandt said, it is vital that as much information as possible is made easily accessible to the public, and that there is an independent check of the veracity of claims

“It is important that we have a strong disclosure system for a variety of reasons such as to detect suspicious deals and also to protect public servants from allegations that they are corrupt when they have done nothing wrong. In this way, a disclosure system will encourage a greater public trust in our elected representatives, which is vital for a young democracy,” he said.

Lawmakers in the National Assembly last declared their assets and interests in 2009.

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