Ministry axes office phone charging ban

Ministry axes office phone charging ban

Spooked staff urged not to overreact to bill

Legal experts are urging people not to overreact to a bill being drafted on how to punish those guilty of conflict of interest, saying individual agencies will decide how this crucial graft-busting piece of legislation is implemented.

The words of warning were issued at a seminar on the bill yesterday after the Public Health Ministry reversed its decision to ban staff from using office supplies and assets, including charging their personal mobile phones.

The ban, slammed by netizens as out of touch with reality, was announced by the ministry and then quickly retracted.

Deputy Prime Minister Wissanu Krea-ngam said the initial ban was designed to conform to the bill, which is now being scrutinised by the National Legislative Assembly (NLA).

However, some NLA members feel the issue has been blown out of proportion.

Lawmaker Chatchawal Suksomjit, who chairs the committee scrutinising the bill, said people should not be overly concerned by its content.

The cabinet and various ministries will decide how it should be enforced and flesh out details of what constitutes acts or actions that warrant punishment, he said.

These details will be incorporated into the regulations issued by various agencies, he added.

Pol Gen Chatchawal said it was important to strike a balance between ideals and the practical reality of running a country.

ACM Weerawit Kongsak, chairman of the NLA's committee on graft reform, said too many state officials fall prey to corruption, including abusing state assets.

This has caused the state budget to "leak", he said.

One of the suggested fixes is increasing good governance and limiting state officials' authority to exercise their discretion in making decisions that could lead to abuse of power, he added.

ACM Weerawit said conflicts of interest crop up when state officials make a decision that unfairly disadvantages another party or violates their rights.

Another example would be if such a decision were motivated by the benefits the official stood to gain from moving in that particular direction.

The bill was first drafted in 2007 during the Surayud Chulanont administration. It passed the lawmaking body's scrutiny but was suspended after the Constitutional Court determined the vote failed to meet the lawmakers' quorum.

The present government lifted the suspension in 2015 and the NLA is now fine-tuning the contents of the bill.

ACM Weerawit said it was intended to make the administration more transparent and plug loopholes in other graft-fighting laws.

According to the 2007 draft, state officials and collaborators including their spouses, children, children's spouses, officials' parents as well as their relatives could all be subject to punishment in conflict-of-interest cases.

The new version removes "relatives" as the term can be defined in different ways, which could lead to confusion, according to Pol Gen Chatchawal.

ACM Weerawit said that in future corruption probes, if officials cannot explain themselves they risk being dismissed.

The bill will work in conjunction with existing laws such as the Corruption Court Act.

Warakorn Opasnant, a member of the Council of State, the government's legal arm, said it could "create the false impression that state officials are being singled out for punishment".

He said the bill cites where the use of state assets by officials is permissible, such as when the assets are of small value, but that this only represents a fraction of its content. Research has shown, for example, that if a government worker charges their smartphone in their office it costs less than 1 baht a month.

Mr Warakorn said the Public Health Ministry was too hasty in releasing its announcement on the use of state assets.

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