Nothing is ever secured for free

The St Vincent de Paul Residence report published last week by the National Audit Office (NAO) is quite long. It can however be described by one sentence: this is what happens when political expediency overrides good governance.

The first reaction of the Minister politically responsible for this whole mess is quite indicative. Minister Michael Falzon was reported as stating that “the lives of the elderly not NAO’s concern”. He furthermore emphasised that there was no political interference from his end. The Honourable Minister is apparently not aware that holders of political office are there to give direction, including political direction leading to and entrenching good governance. Together with Minister Michael Falzon the political responsibility should be shouldered by Minister Justyne Caruana and former Parliamentary Secretary Anthony Agius Decelis, both of whom were at different points in time Parliamentary Secretaries responsible for the elderly and consequently co-creators of this mess.

Failure to act is an act of omission. This is the basic point at issue.

The Prime Minister, as usual, sought to minimise these gross governance failures by stating that in this specific case it was a mistake not to seek the approval of Cabinet. As if the approval of Cabinet would have ever transformed such a deal into an acceptable one. Minister Falzon went one better: there is nothing wrong in the deal, he said. He even had the cheek to suggest that the NAO should issue a correction on some of its findings!

Whenever the institutions do function, they are unfortunately stonewalled by holders of political office. These are the major obstructions encountered on the road to good governance. 

There is an attempt to downplay the significance of the NAO findings into a need “to improve procedures”. Such attempts have to be seen for what they really are: undermining the institutions which function.

When the NAO suggests that the deal is an infringement of procurement rules and does not represent value for money it was not speaking about some minor procedural infringement. The fact that the NAO even concludes that the deal should be deemed invalid is quite damning.

Government spokespersons speak of the deal with glee pointing out that substantial investment was obtained “for free”.  “In a transaction of such significant value with commercial interests, nothing is ever secured for free” is the blunt reply of the NAO.

The NAO also took the Director of Contracts to task for not taking the necessary precautions through legal safeguards and guidance. These were deemed essential in respect of the additional investment required “at no cost” to government and forming part of the deal examined. This, stated the NAO, gave rise to serious risks in the execution of the project.

The deal under the spotlight makes use of what is known as a “negotiated procedure”. This, emphasises the NAO, was applied in breach of the Public Procurement Regulations. The NAO underlined that the services sought could easily have been provided by other economic operators thereby necessitating the use of the competitive tendering procedures and not a negotiated procedure.

This is yet another case of a failure in good governance notwithstanding the attempts at its minimisation by the Prime Minister Robert Abela. There is one basic lesson to be learnt: there are no free lunches available! The bills are invariably paid through the taxes which a number of us pay!

It has been reported that a meeting was held between the NAO and the police. It is flabbergasting to note that a spokesperson for the police has stated that “at this stage a police investigation is not required.” 

I look forward to the stage when a police investigation is considered necessary!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 9 May 2021