On Monday Parliament discussed the decision delivered in Court by Judge Francesco Depasquale relative to the Government hospital concession awarded to Vitals Global Healthcare, eventually substituted by Steward Health Care. The decision delivered is against the Prime Minister as head of the Executive, as well as the Attorney General, various companies in the Steward Health Care Group and a number of quangos and their representatives.
This Court Case was presented by Adrian Delia when he was Leader of the Opposition. The major part of the Parliamentary discussion has focused on bad governance, fraud and corruption which were all associated with the hospital concession process since its inception.
All this emanates from the Court decision delivered last week. However, those who observe the political scene attentively would be undoubtedly aware that all this was already evident in two reports published by the Auditor General on this hospital concession: the first one published in July 2020 and the second one in December 2021. The Court’s decision, in fact, reinforces the Auditor General’s conclusions.
We do clearly remember that in July 2020 the Auditor General had published a first report running into over 200 pages focusing on the hospital concession tendering process. This was followed by an addendum and later, in December 2021 the Auditor General published a second report, 467 pages long, which reviewed the contractual framework of the hospital concession.
In his reports the Auditor General concluded that the preparatory work carried out by the public sector in relation to the hospital concession was very superficial. The Auditor General’s reports also identified that even before the request for proposals was published Government had already concluded on awarding Vitals Global Healthcare the hospitals concession! Cabinet and even the Finance Minister were generally kept in the dark.
The Auditor General, in his investigations, found a bank guarantee presented by Vitals Global Healthcare. It was issued by the Bank of India on the 13 March 2015, a fortnight before the request for proposals was even published. This clearly established that the agreement was already sealed even before the public request for proposals had been published. The Auditor General had clearly identified this as a definite proof of collusion. On this basis, the Auditor General had in fact expressed a strongly worded opinion that Vitals Global Healthcare should have been disqualified from participating in the request for proposals relative to the hospitals’ concession.
All this is of paramount importance. Way back in 2020/21 it had led to the Auditor General conclusions which have now been confirmed by Mr Justice Depasquale in the decision delivered last week. This means that government should and could have acted then: it had sufficient information to send Steward Health Care packing. However very clearly it could not act as it was part and parcel of the deceit at hand.
There are however further matters, just as important as the above, which the current debate unfortunately avoids. We should ask: does it make sense for a sector as sensitive as health to be controlled in this manner by the private sector? Does a public-private partnership in the health sector make sense?
These questions are being ignored in the public debate currently at hand. These questions are of a fundamental nature as the replies thereto could identify the manner as to how the private sector can be involved without having a controlling interest and how all those involved can be fairly remunerated without squandering public funds.
The local accumulated experience resulting from this kind of projects is very problematic: we are continuously faced with incorrect decisions, abusive decision-taking as well as substantial suspicions of fraud and corruption. This is being stated with reference not just to this hospital concession but also to the energy deal at the Delimara Power Station and the project at the Luqa elderly residence: St Vincent de Paul. In each case the Auditor General has produced voluminous reports detailing the mayhem generated by the post 2013 Labour government.
It is a failed economic model which discounts public goods. It has also been applied in other sectors: a case in point being the Pembroke land “sold” at throwaway prices in favour of the speculative project of the dB Group. Speculative profit is unfortunately being continuously prioritised over the common good by the present government.
It is crystal clear that if we want the private sector involved in public projects its involvement must be regulated, and the said regulatory regime must be adequately enforced in order to ensure good governance throughout, from inception right through to implementation. So far it is a free for all: the consequences are for all to see. A lack of clear rules and their enforcement inevitably leads to confusion, fraud and corruption. The whole country, as a result, has to pay the consequences.
published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 5 March 2023