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Ruling LDP trying to distance itself from labor ministry over data scandal

TOKYO -- The ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) is stepping up its criticism of the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare over the ministry's labor data scandal in an apparent bid to minimize fallout from the problem, as the party faces an uphill battle in the House of Councillors election this summer.

Some LDP members are even talking about dividing up the ministry to avoid a recurrence of the scandal and implement comprehensive reforms. The ministry was formed some 18 years ago through a merger of the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of Labor during a sweeping reorganization of the central bureaucracy.

It was revealed publicly in January that the ministry had shortchanged tens of millions of people a total of tens of billions of yen in work-related benefits over a 15-year period from 2004, due to use of an improper data collection method for its Monthly Labor Survey of wages and working hours. The scandal and the ministry's handling of the matter have attracted fierce attacks from not only the opposition but also the ruling bloc.

"It is clear that the payment shortfalls occurred solely because of the health and labor ministry. The matter should be handled in a way that does not cause trouble to the people," said Seiko Hashimoto, head of the LDP's upper house caucus during a question-and-answer session on Jan. 31. She demanded the ministry do its best to pay the overdue unemployment and other benefits.

Acting LDP Executive Acting Secretary-General Koichi Hagiuda told an internet TV program that the operations of the ministry have to undergo a government-wide review.

Such remarks from senior ruling party officials come amid growing criticism over the statistics scandal from the opposition parties in question-and-answer sessions at both houses of the Diet, starting on Jan. 30. With no end in sight to the problem, LDP officials are looking to control the damage by shifting the party from being the target of attacks over the ministry scandal to attacking the ministry itself, according to observers.

Junior coalition partner Komeito faces a similar situation. Party Secretary-General Tetsuo Saito told a Jan. 31 lower house session that the ministry "should do extensive soul-searching."

Moreover, some people inside the LDP have resumed talking about breaking up the ministry and "restart it from scratch," as described by party Health, Labor and Welfare Division chief Shinjiro Koizumi -- an idea that also circulated shortly before the LDP presidential election in September last year. Koizumi told reporters on Jan. 31 that governance at the ministry "is not working and it's very worrisome," indicating concerns about the way the ministry is dealing with the scandal.

The breakup initiative was not incorporated in a September 2018 proposal for the reorganization of central government agencies by the party's Headquarters for Promoting Administrative Reform, because LDP members specializing in labor and welfare issues opposed the idea. It is not clear whether dividing up the ministry will solve the problem. Nippon Ishin (Japan Innovation Party) Secretary-General Nobuyuki Baba told the lower house on Jan. 31 that breaking up the ministry would be "a punitive and cheap act that will only deepen confusion."

(Japanese original by Tetsuya Kageyama, Political News Department)

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