Parliamentary officials were this week instructed by the Right to Information Commission (RTIC) to divulge the educational qualifications of Members of Parliament (MPs) whenever those details are received from them. None of the MPs requested to submit their qualifications had done so yet, the Commission was told.
This followed an inquiry by the RTIC into an RTI application filed where senior officials had said Parliament does not possess this information as the law and the Constitution do not compel them to collect such data, nor have they received the information even after taking a pro-active stance by asking MPs to send in their educational qualifications.
The RTIC was told that the Secretary-General of Parliament had taken steps on May 10 to write to all MPs, stating that “if you are willing to provide this information, you are kindly requested to furnish me your educational and professional qualifications on the attached specimen as early as possible enabling to disseminate such information to the requests of the citizens”.
Issuing an Order on the appeal filed, the RTIC noted that even though the Parliament staff has taken the first step of writing to all MPs to obtain information on the relevant educational qualifications, citing requests for information made by citizens under the RTI Act, “not a single MP had responded to the said request to date.”
“The absence of any response even after the lapse of more than two months since the letter was issued is undeniably a matter of concern in the context of the overriding public interest as referred to in this Order,” the five-member RTIC observed and also directed the Secretary-General to forward the responses received from the MPs to the appellant,. S. Rubatheesan with a copy to the Commission. Parliament has decided to update their website with the educational qualifications of MPs albeit, without a specified timeline, the RTIC noted.
Parliament had taken the position that in terms of Articles 90 and 91 of the Constitution, educational qualifications of MPs have not been ‘recognized’ as preconditions for entering Parliament. The only qualification to be elected as an MP, according to the Constitution, is that he or she should be an elector.
Earlier, Parliament’s Assistant Secretary-General and Information Officer Tikiri Jayatilleke also said that, in terms of Section 5 (1) of the RTI Act,“Educational qualifications relate to personal information, the disclosure of which has no relationship to any public activity or interest or which would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual unless the larger public interest justifies the disclosure of such information or the person concerned has consented in writing to such disclosure.”
But the RTIC ruled that the requested “information does not come within the ambit of the prohibition in Section 5 (1)(a) of the RTI Act in that firstly, it has a direct relationship to ‘public activity or interest’ within the meaning of that Section and secondly, as a consequence thereof that, there is no ‘unwarranted’ invasion of privacy,”
Appearing through a virtual call when the appeal hearing was conducted the appellant argued that failure by Parliament to keep custody of information related to educational qualifications and details of MPs facing criminal charges is not acceptable as there is a duty incumbent on Parliament to collect these details of elected MPs as part of their portfolios.
There is a high public interest in collecting and maintaining this information given that the people have a right to know about the educational qualifications and details of criminal charges against their representatives in Parliament, notwithstanding the absence of any mandatory legal stipulation which makes it compulsory for Parliamentarians to submit these details to Parliament, he argued.
Emphasizing the importance of information related to criminal charges elected MPs are facing being available to the citizenry, the RTIC referred to a 2002 judgment by the Indian Supreme Court which held that “a successful democracy posits an ‘aware’ citizenry”, for which purpose, the said information is of high public interest. Obtaining information about the educational qualifications and criminal charges pertaining to MPs is not the same as getting information about the ‘personal affairs of MPs’, the Court said.
“It is our view that it is incumbent on Parliament to take requisite steps to obtain the information related to criminal charges from elected representatives of the Sri Lanka Parliament and to make the same available of public record,” the RTIC ruled.
The RTIC consists of Chairman Mahinda Gammampila, Commissioners Ms. Kishali Pinto-Jayawardena, S. G. Punchchihewa, Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran, and Justice Rohini Walgama. The Order was issued on Tuesday.