Responding to a Right to Information (RTI) application filed by our sister paper, The Sunday Times, Parliament interestingly has refused to disclose the educational qualifications of ministers and Parliamentarians (MPs), on the basis it would be an ‘invasion of privacy’. The paper had quoted Parliament’s Assistant Secretary-General and Information Officer Tikiri Jayatilleke as saying “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.”
The Assistant Secretary-General in his answer lists several reasons to justify the non-disclosure of the educational qualifications of the lawmakers. 1. The disclosure has no relationship to any public activity or interest. 2. It would cause an unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual. 3. There is no larger public interest that justifies the disclosure of such information. 4. The persons concerned should consent in writing to such disclosure.
The officer also had rightly said that according to the Sri Lanka Constitution’s Article 90, no references had been made to the educational qualifications of an MP. The only qualification to be elected as an MP, according to the Constitution is that he or she should be an elector.
It is true that in a democracy the paper qualification of a person cannot stand in his way to be elected to the Parliament, a Provincial Council or a Local Government body. Nevertheless, can we argue that educational qualifications or the paper qualifications of an MP or a minister have no relationship to any public activity or interest? Relying totally on rare cases of point one can conclude that educational qualifications of Parliamentarians have nothing to do with public interest. There is a possibility of a person getting his knowledge and skills sharpened by experience or with his links to any academic or intellectual field even without such paper qualifications. We have in fact witnessed in the past MPs with an average or very low educational qualifications having served the public interest while some who had seen the heights of education being slaves of political parties. But it is common knowledge that learned people possess a higher capacity to discharge their duty as MPs than those who are dropouts from schools.
Former Chairman of the Committee On Public Enterprises (COPE) and veteran leader of the Communist Party of Sri Lanka (CPSL) D.E.W.Gunasekara said a few weeks prior to the last Parliamentary election that only a handful of members in the last Parliament were qualified to be called lawmakers. He listed four qualifications that a Parliamentarian should possess. They were the capability in contributing to law-making, policymaking, monitoring of public financing and representation of people who elect them to the legislature.
Despite the law permitting even an illiterate person to be an MP as Mr. Jayatilleke has pointed out, it is very clear that uneducated people cannot properly contribute to these four responsibilities. Hence, the people who elected the MPs have the right to know if their representatives are competent. (In fact, they should have known it before they elect their MPs)
The official’s conclusion that the disclosure of educational qualifications of MPs would cause unwarranted invasion of the privacy of the individual is puzzling. Is it something that others should not know? How can the disclosure harm the MPs? However, the very reply implies that there are MPs who do not like to disclose their educational level, which must be so low.
When asked through the RTI application how many sitting MPs have criminal charges against them, the officer had said that the information was not in Parliament’s possession, custody or control. That implies that he would reveal the information if Parliament possessed it. Yet, no references have been made to this matter also in the Constitution. It is difficult to understand that disclosure of information on criminal charges would not be an invasion of privacy, whereas the information on the education qualification would be.
However, one cannot hold any official or the Parliament for the educational or other qualifications of the MPs and ministers. It is the political parties that field them as candidates and the people who vote for them. People must realise their responsibility to elect only learned, cultured and competent men and women as their representatives.