Customs’ abolition just plain talk
The abolition of the Bureau of Customs is just a “suggestion” from Commissioner Rozzano Rufino Biazon and only a part of his “initial discussions” with President Benigno Aquino III, Malacañang said on Saturday.
Abolishing the bureau is just one of the possibilities being considered in the search for ways to improve customs service, Strategic Communications Secretary Ricky Carandang and deputy presidential spokesperson Abigail Valte said.
“It’s just one of many ideas being discussed to improve collections. The fact that it’s being discussed at all shows you how serious we are taking the need to improve collections, not necessarily the idea of abolition,” Carandang said in a text message to the Inquirer.
“From what I understand from Commissioner Biazon, that was one of his suggestions. But allow us to say that these discussions were initial, and [abolishing the bureau is] just one of the many possibilities that are being discussed to improve customs performance,” Valte said.
In a roundtable discussion with Inquirer editors and reporters on Thursday night, Biazon said he had discussed with President Aquino the abolition of the customs bureau and replacing it with a professional institution run by completely new officers and employees who would be paid high to shield them from temptations.
He said any less stringent measure may not suffice to stamp out corruption in the customs bureau, as corruption was so deeply entrenched in the culture and system at the agency.
In such an environment, a simple reorganization will not work. Only a top-down cleansing can end corruption in the agency once and for all, he said.
Biazon got the idea from his observation of good practices in other countries that have successfully cleaned up their customs services.
“One concept done by other countries is a complete overhaul [of their customs departments] through abolition. We might have to do that,” Biazon said.
He cited the example of Peru, which, to defeat corruption and smuggling, abolished its customs department, established a new one, adopted strict qualifications for hiring, and gave the new staff higher salaries so they would ignore overtures to break the rules in exchange for money.
Independent senatorial candidate Teodoro Casiño found Biazon’s idea a “foolish, knee-jerk response” to corruption and smuggling that reportedly continues despite the Aquino administration’s emphasis on transparency and good government.
“It’s like saying we should abolish and privatize Congress or Malacañang for failing to stop corruption. In the first place, the smugglers are all from the private sector so it is like asking vampires to run the blood bank,” Casiño said in a statement.
Casiño, a Bayan Muna party-list representative who has served three terms in the House, said the correct response was “to hold customs officials, including their protectors in Congress and in the executive, accountable for the crime of smuggling.”
“Most of the time, customs is put in a tight spot because the smugglers [have protectors] in [the House], the Senate and the Palace. If the protectors are not held accountable, any revamp in customs will be for naught,” Casiño said.
He said President Aquino should be the one to make the “political decision” to stop smuggling, and he must make it even if it meant tangling with his friends in politics and in business. The President should also appoint a “no-nonsense official” to do the job, Casiño, who earlier urged Mr. Aquino to fire Biazon for failing to stop smuggling, added.
“Customs Commissioner Biazon’s resignation or the abolition of the agency would not be enough to curb smuggling because the protectors of smuggling remain [untouched],” he said.
“The proposal is a nonsolution and merely diverts attention from the real problem, [which is] smuggling,” he added.
No pockets, drawers
Reelectionist Sen. Francis Escudero suggested that instead of immediately abolishing the customs bureau, the government should first try changes that may not only rehabilitate the agency but also change the culture of its officials and employees.
Escudero said in jest that customs officials should have uniforms without pockets to discourage on-site bribery, and clear-glass-topped desks without drawers to prevent heftier enveloped payouts from changing hands in the offices.
“And if they will not do it, I will file a bill [that would require security] cameras in all government offices and make it a crime to erase the recordings of these cameras,” Escudero said.
Escudero, head of the Senate committee on justice, said the Philippine National Police had an image makeover after it shed off its khakis and brown ties for the present blue-with-red-trim uniforms.
In another example, Escudero suggested the customs bureau adopt a strict queuing system for incoming goods so that those that came in first would be processed before those that came in last.
Such a system should include sanctions for customs officials who would not process shipments in order of arrival, Escudero said.
“I don’t have any problem with [abolishing the customs bureau], but that will be a long process. A law has to be passed before [the bureau] can be abolished,” he said, adding that impending abolition could trigger a bureaucratic upheaval in the customs bureau that would surely lead to collection problems.
Besides, abolishing the customs bureau would mean that everyone there is corrupt and should be prosecuted, he said.
“If the assumption is that everyone there is corrupt, then why not file cases against them whether or not we create a new agency?” he said.
Speaking on state-run radio, Valte said privatizing the customs service was just a proposal and that Biazon’s talking about it did not mean it would be implemented.
Valte disagreed with a reporter’s phoned-in question about Biazon’s proposal being an admission that the customs bureau was a “hopeless case.”
She reiterated that privatization is not the only proposal that the government is studying to improve revenue collection at the customs bureau.
“We are looking at a lot of other options,” Valte said.
Biazon said claims of rampant smuggling, especially of oil through special economic zones and agricultural products, and calls for his resignation or dismissal were part of a “demolition job” aimed at removing him from the customs bureau.
Asked if Biazon was on his way out, Valte said the customs chief still enjoyed the President’s confidence. With reports from DJ Yap and Norman Bordadora
First posted 12:31 am | Sunday, April 14th, 2013