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Internal affairs ministry to probe labor ministry 'wage structure' stats scandal

A sign for the Ministry of Internal Affairs and Communications is seen in Tokyo's Chiyoda ward in this file photo taken on Nov. 14, 2017. (Mainichi)

TOKYO -- The government on Feb. 6 announced that an Internal Affairs and Communications Ministry team will investigate a problem involving a statistics collection method by the Ministry of Health, Labor and Welfare in its Basic Survey on Wage Structure.

The move is an apparent bid to deflect criticism that the labor ministry has failed to maintain neutrality and objectivity in its own probe into another statistics problem.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told a House of Councillors Budget Committee meeting on Feb. 6 that the labor statistics scandal is "more about the problematic way the administrative branch conducts itself than about the data problem." The premier added that he will instruct relevant officials to get to the bottom of the scandal and prevent a recurrence.

According to the government announcement, a project team at the internal affairs ministry's Administrative Evaluation Bureau will carry out the investigation into illicit data collection practices in the Basic Survey in Wage Structure. The internal affairs ministry supervises the nation's statistics, and its minister has the authority to approve methods for important government surveys.

The announcement came as attacks mount against the labor ministry's handling of a separate scandal centering on its Monthly Labor Survey of wages and working hours. The ministry had its own in-house inspection team begin to probe the case without the involvement of outside experts and had senior ministry officials question people involved in the irregularities. This handling had cast doubt on the objectivity of the investigation.

The Basic Survey on Wage Structure is one of the nation's fundamental statistics that study employment and wage situations. Labor officials violated the rule of sending staff to employers to distribute and collect questionnaires and instead mailed the documents. The problematic practice is said to have begun more than 20 years ago.

The internal affairs ministry team consists of 10 or more investigators and will question current and former labor ministry officials involved in the basic survey. They will try to find out why the violation happened and identify problems including issues of governance at the labor ministry.

The labor ministry already has an investigation team looking into the basic survey problem inside its Personnel Division and interviewed 15 current and retired officials. The ministry announced the probe's results on Feb. 1, with a senior official explaining that the head of the office in charge of the poll "did not report the problem on purpose and their intention to cover-up the matter cannot be denied."

The interviews were conducted on condition that their contents would be kept inside the labor ministry, and their records therefore cannot be shared with the internal affairs ministry team. This means that the new investigators will have to redo the probe from scratch.

This shift in leading the investigation from the labor ministry to the internal affairs ministry is the result of orders from top officials at the prime minister's office, who are in crisis mode over the continuing labor data scandal. The decision was made in a meeting of Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, internal affairs minister Masatoshi Ishida and labor minister Takumi Nemoto on Feb. 5.

Suga told reporters on Feb. 6 that the labor ministry "has a big problem in its basic attitude as an administrative organization," explaining that the reason to remove the ministry from the investigative role is "to have an outside look at the issue from a different perspective."

Meanwhile, the investigation into the Monthly Labor Survey will continue to be conducted by a special inspection commission set up by the labor ministry. An individual linked with the government said Nemoto "wanted to have the inspection panel investigate the basic wage structure survey issue as well but the panel members are preoccupied with the monthly survey reinvestigation." It appears that the internal affairs ministry was called in to divide up the workload in hopes of settling the labor data scandal quickly.

--- About 40% of 377 statistics found with problems in 2017 review

As early as 2017, the internal affairs ministry had found problems in 138 of 377 government statistics in a comprehensive review, including failures to abide by survey plans approved by the internal affairs minister or delays in publishing results.

Based on these findings, the ministry had urged government departments to abide by Statistics Act provisions and other regulations, but the call apparently failed to prevent the labor stats scandal.

The 2017 review was triggered by the revelation in late 2016 of problems with the Textile Goods Distribution Statistics Survey conducted by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, such as the use of past data without updating it for a long period of time. The checkup covered 56 fundamental and 233 regular government surveys as well as 88 completed polls.

Relevant ministries and departments reported improper handling in 16 fundamental surveys and 122 regular surveys, including delays in publication and failure to disclose some of the data or changes in survey methods without permission. These results were reported to the internal affairs ministry's Statistics Commission in April 2017. The reports, however, did not include the problems about the Monthly Labor Survey and the Basic Survey on Wage Structure conducted by the labor ministry, polls at the center of the current labor data scandal.

(Japanese original by Jun Aoki and Naoki Oita, Political News Department; Akira Okubo and Shunsuke Kamiashi, City News Department)

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