Standards fil-Ħajja Pubblika: għadna nistennew

Is-sit tal-Ministeru tal-Ġustizzja jindika b’mod ċar li l-Att XIII tal-2017 imsejjaħ Att dwar l-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika għadu ma daħalx fis-seħħ. Din il-liġi irċiviet il-kunsens tal-President tar-Repubblika nhar it-30 ta’ Marzu 2017 wara li damet perjodu twil pendenti fuq l-aġenda tal-Parlament. Jidher li għad baqgħalna x’nistennew, għax il-partiti politiċi fil-parlament ma tantx jdher li għandhom għaġla.

Il-liġi tipprovdi għall-ħatra ta’ Kummissarju dwar l-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika. Dan il-Kummissarju jista’ jkun approvat biss kemm-il darba jikseb il-kunsens ta’ żewġ terzi tal-membri parlamentari. Fi ftit kliem irid ikun hemm qbil dwar il-ħatra tiegħu jew tagħha bejn il-Gvern u l-Opposizzjoni li, sa fejn naf jien, għandhom ma qablux. S’issa ħadd ma jaf xejn, l-anqas jekk ġewx proposti ismijiet, minn min u x’kienet ir-reazzjoni dwarhom.

Il-liġi approvata tapplika għall-Membri kollha tal-Parliament, inkluż il-membri tal-Kabinett. Tapplika wkoll għal dawk il-persuni maħtura f’posizzjoni ta’ fiduċja (position of trust) fil-Ministeri u s-Segretarjati Parlamentari.

Meta iktar kmieni matul din il-ġimgħa iltqajt mal-Ispeaker tal-Kamra tar-Rappreżentanti, l-Onorevoli Anġlu Farrugia, jiena emfasizzajt li dan id-dewmien biex tkun implimentata din il-liġi dwar l-imġieba xierqa tal-Membri Parlamentari u dawk maħtura f’posizzjoni ta’ fiducja qiegħed jibgħat messaġġ ċar ħafna: li l-Membri Parlamentari m’għandhom l-ebda ħeġġa biex iwieġbu għal egħmilhom.

Jiena niftakar lill-Ispeaker, xi snin ilu, jemfasizza li hu ma kienx sodisfatt mill-kontenut tad-dikjarazzjonijiet tal-assi sottomessi minn uħud mill-Membri Parlamentari. Issa għandu l-għodda biex jinvestiga dwar il-veraċitá ta’ dawn id-dikjarazzjonijiet imma sfortunatament m’huwiex jitħalla jagħmel użu minnhom! Il-Membri Parlamentari għandhom jagħtu kont ta’ egħmilhom, iżda l-fatt li l-liġi dwar l-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika għadha ma daħlitx fis-seħħ qiegħed jostakola dan milli jseħħ.

Meta tħares lejn dan in-nuqqas ta’ implimentazzjoni tal-liġi waħdu tista’ tinterpretah bħala tkaxkir tas-saqajn mill-Membri Parlamentari u l-mexxejja tagħhom li jippreferu ma jitqegħdux taħt il-lenti tal-iskrutinjun pubbliku. Imma meta dan kollu tqisu fil-kuntest tar-rapport annwali tal-Ombudsman għas-sena 2017 huwa ċar li dan it-tkaxkir tas-saqajn m’huwiex limitat iżda hu mifrux ħafna. Id-dritt tal-aċċess għall-informazzjoni dwar il-ħidma tal-amministrazzjoni pubblika qiegħed taħt assedju.

Il-kontabiltá u it-trasparenza m’humiex slogans. L-anqas huma negozjabbli. Huma valuri fundamentali li jiffurmaw parti essenzjali mis-sisien tal-istat demokratiku.

Jiena tlabt lill-Ispeaker biex jiġbed l-attenzjoni tal-Kumitat tax-Xogħol tal-Kamra li dan it-tkaxkir tas-saqajn biex ikun implimentat l-Att dwar l-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika mhuwiex aċċettabbli. Huwa essenzjali li l-liġi tkun implimentata malajr kemm jista’ jkun jekk iriduna nemmnu li għall-partiti politiċi fil-parlament il-kontabilitá tfisser xi ħaga.

B’żieda mar-responsabbiltá li jinvestiga l-imġieba kemm tal-Membri Parlamentari kif ukoll dik tal-persuni ta’ fiduċja, il-Kummissarju għall-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika ser ikollu ukoll l-inkarigu li jfassal kemm il-linji gwida kif ukoll ir-regolamenti proposti dwar l-attivitá tal-lobbying. Dwar din l-attivitá b’implikazzjonijiet etiċi sostanzjali l-partiti politiċi fil-Parlament ma qablux meta din il-liġi kienet qed tiġi ikkunsidrata quddiem il-Kumitat Parlamentari għall-konsiderazzjoni tal-abbozzi ta’ liġijiet. Bħala riżultat ta’ dan Il-materja intefgħet f’ħoġor il-Kummissarju dwar l-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika li meta jinħatar ser ikun hu li jkollu jfassal kemm il-linji gwida kif ukoll r-regolamenti proposti.

Il-lobbying hi attivitá essenzjali fil-ħajja pubblika. Jeħtieġ iżda li issir b’mod li jkun assigurat illi d-deċiżjonijiet mittieħda mill-politiċi jkunu kemm trasparenti kif ukoll b’rispett sħiħ lejn r-regoli bażiċi tal-etika.

Il-lobbying huwa ta’ influwenza kontinwa fuq id-deċiżjoniiet li jittieħdu. Huwa essenzjali li dan issir b’mod mill-iktar trasparenti biex ikun ċar għal kulħadd dwar liema interessi jkunu qed jiġu mmexxija l-quddiem. Dan bla dubju jfisser li ikun meħtieġ il-pubblikazzjoni ta’ ammont mhux żgħir ta’ informazzjoni li presentement hi fil-pussess ta’ membri tal-Kabinett u li ġeneralment tibqa’ fil-files – meta tkun miktuba. Din hi informazzjoni li ġeneralment tkun il-bażi għall-azzjonijiet u d-deċiżjonijiet li jittieħdu.

Bla ebda dubju, il-linji gwida u r-regolamenti dwar il-lobbying iridu jindirizzaw u jirregolaw x’jista’jagħmel membru tal-Kabinett meta jispiċċa mill-ħatra, materja magħrufa bħala revolving door policy. Dan minħabba li s-settur regolat mill-Ministru jkollu għatx għal informazzjoni (kunfidenzjali) li dan ikun kiseb kemm ikun ilu fil-ħatra kif ukoll għall-kuntatti u influwenzi akkumulati fuq dawk li jieħdu d-deċiżjonijiet. Xi drabi għaldaqstant meta Ministru jew Segretarju Parlamentari, hekk kif itemm il-ħatra tiegħu ikun offrut impieg f’dak l-istess settur li ftit qabel ikun dipendenti minnu jeħtieġ li nieqfu ftit. Dan ovvjament għax miegħu iġorr aċċess akkumulat kemm għal informazzjoni miksuba kif ukoll għal kuntatti u influwenza fuq il-proċess deċiżjonali. Il-linji gwida u r-regolamenti jridu jistabilixxu kemm jeħtieġ li jgħaddi żmien qabel ma dan ikun jista’ jseħħ. .

Huwa dan kollu li qed nistennew. Hemm ħafna li jeħtieġ li jsir imma ma jidher li hemm l-ebda impenn biex dan isir.

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : 1 ta’ Lulju 2018 

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Standards in Public Life: still waiting for Godot

The website of the Ministry of Justice clearly indicates that Act XIII of 2017 entitled Standards in Public Life Act is not yet in force. This statute received Presidential assent on  30 March 2017 after an elephantine gestation period. It seems that we are in for a long wait as the parliamentary political parties do not seem to be in any hurry.

The Act provides for the appointment of a Commissioner for Standards in Public Life. The Commissioner can only be appointed if two-thirds of Members of Parliament agree with the nomination, and as far as I am aware there has been no agreement so far between Government and Opposition on the matter. The name or names proposed to date are not in the public domain.

The Act applies to all Members of Parliament, including the members of Cabinet. Moreover, it also applies to those appointed to a position of trust in Ministries and Parliamentary Secretariats.

When I met the Speaker of the House of Representatives, the Hon Anġlu Farrugia, earlier this week, I emphasised the fact that the delay in implementing this legislation on the ethical behaviour of Members of Parliament and those appointed in positions of trust is sending one clear message: that Members of Parliament are not that eager to be accountable for their actions.

I do remember the Speaker – some years back – emphasising the fact that he was not satisfied with the contents of the asset declarations submitted annually by some MPs. He now has the tools to investigate the veracity (or otherwise) of such declarations but is, unfortunately, being prevented from doing so. MPs should be accountable for their actions, but the non-implementation of the Standards in Public Life Act is preventing such accountability.

On its own, this lack of implementation could be interpreted as a reluctance of MPs and their leaders to be personally placed under the spotlight of public opinion. However, when viewed in the context of the 2017 Ombudsman’s annual report, it is very clear that this reluctance is widespread. The right of access to information on the workings of the public administration is under siege.

Accountability and transparency are not slogans and, moreover, they are non-negotiable. They are fundamental values which underpin the democratic state.

I have asked Mr Speaker to draw the attention of the House Business Committee to the fact that this procrastination in implementing the Standards in Public Life Act is not acceptable. Its implementation is a must if we are to believe that the commitment of parliamentary political parties goes beyond slogans.

In addition to investigating the behaviour of Members of Parliament and that of people appointed to positions of trust, the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life will have the task of drawing up guidelines and a proposal for regulations on lobbying activities. This is another ethical minefield in respect of which there was no agreement between the parliamentary political parties when the draft legislation was under consideration in the Parliamentary Committee for the Consideration of Bills. As a result, instead of spelling out the required regulatory regime, the matter was postponed and added to the responsibilities of the future Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, whoever he or she may be.

Lobbying is an essential and unavoidable element of public life. However, it has to be placed under the spotlight to ensure a fuller transparency of the decisions taken by the holders of political office. In addition to subjecting lobbying to clear transparency rules, it is essential that the ethical issues linked to lobbying are addressed forthwith.

Lobbying continually influences decision-making. It is imperative that transparency rules are applied to lobbying so that it be clear to one and all as to whose interests are being advanced and defended. This would undoubtedly include the publication of a substantial amount of information to which Cabinet Ministers are currently privy, which information (generally) forms the basis for their actions and decisions.

Undoubtedly, lobbying guidelines and regulations have to address the issue of revolving doors recruitment, as a result of which politicians may be available for sale at the taxpayers expense. A policy addressing the issue of revolving doors recruitment would also regulate the cooling-off period required for a Minster or Parliamentary Secretary to take up employment (after termination of office) in the sector which was subject to his regulation authority.

This is what we are waiting for. Like Samuel Beckett’s characters in his “Waiting for Godot”. Godot never arrives.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 1 July 2018

Bżonn ta’ impenn ikbar favur il-kontabilitá

 

Dal-għodu għan-nom ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika għamilt żjara ta’ kortesija lill-Ispeaker fl-uffiċini tiegħu fil-Parlament.

Tkellimna dwar il-ħidma tal-Parlament. Jiena għażilt li niffoka fuq żewġ punti. L-ewwel dwar in-nuqqas tad-dħul fis-seħħ tal-liġi dwar l-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika u wara dwar ir-apport annwali tal-Ombudsman għall-2017. Żewġ argumenti li huma relatati ħafna.

Bid-dewmien tad-dħul fis-seħħ tal-Att dwar l-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika il-Parlament qed jagħti messaġġ wieħed ċar: li m’għandux għaġġla biex il-Membri Parlamentari jagħtu kont ta’ egħmilhom kull meta dan ikun meħtieġ. Jidher li għad ma hemmx qbil bejn Gvern u Oppożizzjoni dwar il-ħatra tal-Kummissarju għall-Istandards fil-Ħajja Pubblika, liema Kummissarju jeħtieġlu li jinħatar bi qbil ta’ żewġ terzi tal-Kamra.

Jidher li l-partiti rappreżentati fil-Parlament m’għandhomx għaġġla biex din il-liġi tkun implimentata. L-ewwel damet tlett snin għaddejja mill-Parlament (Mejju 2014 sa Marzu 2017). Issa ilha ħmistax-il xahar li rċieviet l-approvazzjoni tal-President tar-Repubblika, iżda għada fuq l-ixkaffa.

Dan kollu jassumi sinifikat ikbar jekk wieħed jarrah fil-kuntest tar-rapport tal-Ombudsman għall-2017 fejn hu ċar li d-dritt għall-informazzjoni dwar l-amministrazzjoni pubblika qiegħed taħt assedju.

Hu ċar li l-kontabilitá u l-aċċess għall-informazzjoni jimxu id f’id fi stat demokratiku. Huma l-pedamenti tad-demokrazija li l-Parlament għandu l-obbligu li jindokra.

Tlabt lill-Ispeaker biex jiġbed l-attenzjoni tal-Parlament li mhux aċċettabbli li nibqgħu bit-tkaxkir tas-saqajn. Hu neċessarju li l-Parlament jassigura l-ħarsien tad-dritt tal-aċċess għall-informazzjoni kif ukoll li l-kontabilitá ma tibqax slogan.

 

L-ostaklu tal-aċċess għall-informazzjoni hu delitt kontra d-demokrazija

Ir-rapport Annwali tal-Ombudsman għall-2017 li kien ippubblikat iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa hu inkwetanti. F’partijiet minnu, nazzarda ngħid li hu ukoll tal-biża’. L-Ombudsman jikkummenta fit-tul dwar “in-nuqqas tal-amministrazzjoni li tipprovdi informazzjoni”.

Josserva żewġ tendenzi ġenerali.

L-ewwel tendenza hi li diversi Dipartimenti tal-Gvern u Ministeri qed isibuha bi tqil biex jiżvelaw informazzjoni importanti. Il-kliem li l-Ombudsman juża’: “Sfortunatament l-amministrazzjoni pubblika – u dan jinkludi ukoll awtoritajiet pubbliċi – jidher li addottaw attitudni ġeneralment negattiva dwar l-obbligu li tkun żvelata informazzjoni u d-dritt taċ-ċittadin li jinżamm infurmat. Uħud marru fl-estrem li anke qed jirrifjutaw li jipprovdu kemm informazzjoni importanti kif ukoll imformazzjoni vitali li l-pubbliku hu ntitolat għaliha minħabba li din tikkonċerna setturi importanti tal-ħajja ekonomika u soċjali tal-pajjiż.”

It-tieni tendenza hi agħar: diversi ftehimiet li daħal għalihom il-Gvern fihom klawsola li tobbliga li jinżamm is-skiet dwar il-kontenut tal-ftehim. Dak li hu magħruf bħala “non-disclosure clause”. L-Ombudsman jgħidilna li issa hawn “żvilupp riċenti u Inkwetanti permezz ta’ attentat biex jiġi assigurat skiet totali hi l-prattika li torbot lil dawk li magħhom l-amministrazzjoni pubblika jkollha rabta kuntrattwali biex ma tiżvelax informazzjoni fil-kuntratti infushom mingħajr l-approvazzjoni tal-awtoritá pubblika.”

Issa fir-realtá, din il-prattika ma ġietx addottata f’daqqa waħda fl-2017. Kien hemm okkazjonijiet fil-passat meta l-Gvern rabat lil oħrajn inkella aċċetta li jintrabat hu stess li ma tkunx żvelata informazzjoni. Jidher imma li din il-prattika qed iżżid fil-frekwenza. Mhux biss il-kuntratt ta’ Henley and Partners dwar il-bejgħ taċ-ċittadinanza li fih dawn il-provedimenti imma ukoll il-kuntratt dwar il-privatizzazzjoni tal-lotteriji pubbliċi mal-Maltco kif ukoll il-ftehim dwar il-privatizzazzjoni parzjali tas-sistema tas-saħħa mal-Vitals Healthcare inkella l-ftehim mal-Electrogas dwar il-qalba għall-gass tal-impjant tal-ġenerazzjoni tal-elettriku f’Delimara.

Kif jista’ jkun li gvern jippretendi li jkun trasparenti u kontabbli meta juża’ jew jippermetti l-użu ta’ strateġiji bħal dawn li jostakolaw li tkun żvelata l-informazzjoni?

L-Ombudsman hu korrett li jipponta subgħajh lejn dan in-nuqqas bażiku ta’ servizz pubbliku li jridha ta’ wieħed ġust, effiċjenti, trasparenti u kontabbli. Jiena naħseb li dan hu daqstant importanti li jimmerita diskussjoni fil-Konvenzjoni Kostituzzjonali – jekk din xi darba issir. Forsi wasal iż-żmien li tkun il-Kostituzzjoni innifisha li tillimita b’mod strett lill-amministrazzjoni pubblika milli tibqa’ tillimita l-aċċess għall-informazzjoni b’dan il-mod.

Hu meħtieġ li jkollna s-salvagwardji kontra dan l-abbuż sfaċċat li qiegħed jostakola l-aċċess għall-informazzjoni li għandha f’idejha l-amministrazzjoni pubblika. Is-salvagwardji jistgħu jinkludu l-possibilitá ta’ reviżjoni amministrattiva immedjata li tikkanċella l-ostaklu għall-aċċess kif ukoll passi biex dawk responsabbli biex jostakolaw dan l-aċċess għall-informazzjoni mingħajr raġuni valida ma jitħallewx iktar jeżerċitaw il-funzjonijiet ta’ uffiċċju pubbliku.

L-Ombudsman jispjega fir-rapport tiegħu li l-liġi tagħti lill-uffiċċju tiegħu l-għodda meħtieġa biex ikollu aċċess għall-informazzjoni li jeħtieġ ħalli “jmexxi l-investigazzjonijiet dwar l-ilmenti li jkunu waslu” avolja din l-informazzjoni xi drabi tingħata b’mod imqanżaħ. Iżda l-Ombudsman iqis li għandu jiġbed l-attenzjoni għal tlett ċirkustanzi partikolari “li juru kif ir-rispons negattiv tal-awtoritajiet pubbliċi meta dawn jintalbu informazzjoni qed ixekkel l-Ombudsman u lill-Kummissarji fl-uffiċċju tiegħu fil-qadi ta’ dmirijiethom”.

L-ewwel kaz jirrigwarda l-Armata. Ir-rifjut tal-Ministeru għall-Intern u s-Sigurtá Nazzjonali li jgħaddi l-files kollha dwar l-eżerċizzji ta’ promozzjonijiet għall-għola gradi fl-Armata issolva biss wara d-deċiżjoni finali tal-Qorti tal-Appell f’Ottubru 2016 liema deċiżjoni ikkonfermat li Ombudsman kellu l-obbligu li jinvestiga l-ilmenti li rċieva.

It-tieni kaz jirrigwarda ir-rifjut tal-Ministeru tas-Saħħa li jipprovdi l-informazzjoni mitluba mill-Kummissarju għas-Saħħa biex dan jipprovdi il-ftehim sħiħ ma’ Vitals Healthcare dwar il-privatizzazzjoni ta’ sptarijiet f’Malta u Għawdex li kien meħtieġ fl-investigazzjoni dwar jekk l-interessi tal-pazjenti u l-istaff (mediku) kienux adegwatament imħarsa.

It-tielet kaz hu dwar l-ilmenti kontinwa tal-Kummissarji fl-uffiċċju tal-Ombudsman (Saħħa, Ippjanar/Ambjent u Edukazzjoni) dwar id-dewmien li qed jirriżulta f’investigazzjonijiet li jkunu jeħtieġu konklużjoni immedjata. Dan minħabba n-nuqqas tas-settur pubbliku li jagħti tweġiba għat-talbiet diversi għal informazzjoni.

L-obbligu tal-amministrazzjoni pubblika li tiffaċilita l-aċċess għall-informazzjoni u d-dritt taċ-ċittadin li jkun infurmat huma bażiċi f’soċjetá demokratika. Attentati biex dan l-aċċess taċ-ċittadin għall-informazzjoni jkun imblukkat b’dan il-mod jimmina l-proċess demokratiku u dan billi ċ-ċittadin qed ikun ostakolat milli jifforma opinjoni fuq kif qed ikun amministrat l-istat. Dan qiegħed ukoll jostakola lil dawk l-istituzzjonijiet fid-dmir li jiddefendu ċ-ċittadin komuni milli jagħmlu xogħolhom.

F’isem Alternattiva Demokratika jiena nirringrazzja lill- Ombudsman talli qed ikun daqstant ċar fid-difiża tiegħu ta’ dak li hu bażiku f’soċjetá demokratika kif ukoll talli qed isemma’ leħnu b’vuċi ċara kontra dan l-abbuż ta’ poter.

Ippubblikat f’Illum Il-Ħadd : 10 ta’ Ġunju 2018

Obstructing access to information is a crime against democracy

The Ombudsman’s 2017 Annual Report, published earlier this week, is very worrying. At times it makes scary reading. The Ombudsman comments at length on “the failure by the administration to provide information” and points at two general trends.

The first of these is the reluctance of various Government Departments and Ministries to disclose important information. The exact words  from the Ombudsman’s report,  which I quote verbatim, are: “Regrettably the public administration – and this includes public authorities – appears to have adopted a generally negative approach towards its duty to disclose information and the citizen’s right to be informed. Some have gone to extremes by even refusing to provide important and even vital information to which the public was obviously entitled since it concerned important segments of the economic and social life of the country.”

The second trend is even worse: various agreements entered into by government are containing a non-disclosure clause. The Ombudsman states “An even more worrying, recent development that has come to light in an attempt to ensure a total blackout of silence is the practice of binding parties with whom the public administration enters into contractual agreements not to disclose information on the contracts themselves without prior approval from the public authority.”

Now, in fairness, this practice has not been adopted suddenly in 2017. There have been a number of instances in the past where the government bound others, or else accepted to be bound, not to disclose information. Apparently this is now increasing in frequency. It is not just the contract with Henley and Partners on the sale of Maltese citizenship which contains such provisions but also the contract concerning the privatisation of the public lottery system with Maltco, as well as the agreements on the partial privatisation of the Health service with Vitals Healthcare as well as the Electrogas agreements in relation to the Delimara power station changeover to gas.

How can a government claim to be transparent and accountable when it uses or permits the use of the non-disclosure weapon?

The Ombudsman is right to point out this basic deficiency of a public service which pretends that it is fair, efficient, transparent and accountable. I consider that it is also of such importance that it merits discussion in the Constitutional Convention, if this is ever convened. Maybe it is about time that the Constitution should limit very strictly the use by the public administration of non-disclosure as a tool to obstruct the public’s access to information.

Safeguards are required against the abusive use of the non-disclosure of information held by the public administration. Such safeguards could include access to fast track administrative review as well as both publication of the suppressed information and the prohibition from holding public office of those found guilty of blocking the public’s access to information without valid reason.

The Ombudsman explains in his report that the law provides his office with the tools to ensure that it has access to the information it requires “to conduct its investigations into complaints received”, even though this information is at times made available very reluctantly. However, the Ombudsman considers it appropriate to underline three specific instances “that show how the negative response of public authorities to provide information hindered the Ombudsman and his Commissioners in the exercise of their functions”.

The first instance is that concerning the Armed Forces of Malta. The refusal by the Ministry for Home Affairs and National Security to provide all files relating to promotion exercises in the top echelons of the AFM was only resolved after a definite decision of the Court of Appeal in October 2016, which confirmed that the Ombudsman had a duty to investigate the complaints received.

The second instance is that concerning the refusal of the Ministry of Health to comply with the request of the Commissioner of Health to supply “clean copies” of the agreements with Vitals Healthcare on the privatisation of hospitals in Malta and Gozo which were required in the investigation into whether the interests of patients and staff were being adequately protected.

The third instance is that of repeated complaints in all the reports of the Commissioners attached to the Ombudsman’s office [Health, Planning/Environment and Education] on the resulting delay in investigations which, by their very nature, require an immediate response. These delays are the direct result of the failure of various sectors in the public administration to submitting an expedient reply to requests for information.

The duty of the public administration to disclose information, and the right of the citizen  to be informed, is basic in a democratic society. Attempts to block the essential flow of information to the citizen through non-disclosure tools undermines the democratic process, as it blocks the essential elements required by the citizen in order to form a clear and unbiased opinion on the way in which the state is being administered. Moreover, it obstructs those institutions entrusted with defending the common citizen from carrying out their duty.

On behalf of Alternattiva Demokratika-The Green Party, I thank the Ombudsman for taking such a clear and unequivocal stand in favour of the basic tenets of democratic rule and against such blatant abuse of authority.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 10 June 2018

Wrong messages from the National Audit Office

 

The National Audit Office (NAO) has recently published its report for 2017. In a democracy, the role of the NAO is of paramount importance. Its role of ascertaining the presence (or absence) of good governance at all levels is crucial in determining the health of the public sector.

The report lists the investigations carried out during 2017 in respect of which separate reports have been published and discussed publicly. These include the annual report on the public accounts, the consolidated annual report on local government, special audits and investigations and performance audits. Last year also saw the publication of a stand-alone report on the results achieved by the three main revenue-generating departments of the government, namely the Inland Revenue Department, the Value Added Tax Department and the Department of Customs.

In his overview, Auditor General Charles Deguara welcomes the positive developments, highlighting the administration’s commitment to implementing the NAO’s recommendations as far as possible. This has been done for two consecutive years and it is to be hoped that it becomes an annual occurrence.

The report explains the efforts made to continuously train the staff, thereby ensuring that, as far as possible, an internal team of experts is available to monitor and investigate as required. This is essential in order that the NAO keeps the administration on its toes.

The NAO, in its present format, was set up 20 years ago. Since 1997, it has been part of Parliament, accountable directly to Parliament. Previously, although technically independent it formed part of the Ministry of Finance.

During the past 20 years, it has had much to do. Its specific investigations are the ones about which we hear the most but the workings of the NAO go much deeper. Its continuous examination of the country’s public accounts, and the recommendations made to fine tune or correct methods of operation are always work in progress.

In order for the NAO to be as effective as possible, it should ensure that it keeps at arm’s length from the administration’s day to day operations. For this reason I was worried when reading in the 2017 report a short list of a number of domestic working groups in which the NAO participated. These range from the International Public Sector Accounting Standards (IPSAS) Implementation Project Board, the Financial Legislation Working Group, the Local Government Good Governance Working Group and others. The NAO should have oversight and not sit around the same table forming part of working groups to implement or draft a proposal for implementation.

Some years back the Auditor-General, together with the Ombudsman and the Chairman of the Electoral Commission, had decided to go beyond their terms of remit and accepted the Prime Minister’s invitation to examine the issue of the salaries of MPs and holders of political office. I had taken the Ombudsman Said Pullicino to task about his stand when, together with Arnold Cassola I had met the trio. They then justified their stand by referring to legal advice from the Attorney General’s office and others! The three wise men did not realise that they had compromised their office because they cannot – and should not – switch from being regulators to being advisors, even if temporarily.

The NAO would do well to take a step back, thereby ensuring that it is at arm’s length from the administration. Otherwise it risks sending the wrong messages.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 29 April 2018

Evarist trusts you

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The probe into the corruption allegations at the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools is a very serious matter. Reports in the press indicate that the invoices, issued for the construction work carried out by the Foundation at various schools, are being meticulously examined in order that information which might be of relevance to the investigation is gathered.

Of particular interest is the news item that the financing of a newly constructed block of flats at Rabat is under the spotlight. The block of flats, still in shell form, belongs to the person under investigation. It is being emphasised that the fruits of the alleged corruption may have financed the Rabat development. The said site is covered by development permit PA1215/15 as amended by subsequent application PA0260/16. The Planning Authority  permitted the demolition of the previous dwelling on the site and the construction of a five-floor residential block, inclusive of a penthouse and a semi-basement garage in its stead. According to the Planning Authority website, the applicant was Edward Caruana and work on the site commenced on the 19 July 2015.

So far, the press, in part echoing the PN spokespersons, have concentrated firepower on whether the Education Minister Evarist Bartolo acted swiftly enough to ensure that the matter beplaced under investigation.

While the obvious course of immediate action is for the police to investigate in order to identify whether the alleged corruption took place or not, in my view the problems run much deeper than that. Essentially, the issue is one of bad governance through the use of the “person of trust” –  a 21st century version adaptation of a system of political clientelism.

A “person of trust” in Maltese political jargon generally signifies that the person has a political allegiance to the politician who trusts him. Actually, however, it should have a completely different meaning: that the person so appointed is beyond reproach, rather than his being in the Minister’s good books. In fact the person under investigation (Edward Caruana) who was entrusted with procurement duties in the Foundation for Tomorrow’s Schools was a political canvasser of the Education Minister Evarist Bartolo. Incidentally, Mr Caruana’s brother too is a trusted person: he was appointed Permanent Secretary of the Education Ministry.  We do remember the manner in which all Permanent Secretaries in office were swept aside way back in March 2013 to be replaced by a team of “persons of trust”.

The engagement of “politically” trusted persons is not a matter peculiar to Evarist Bartolo’s Ministry, or to the government of which he forms part. While it has been going on for a number of years, it has been done on a much larger scale since the 2013 General Election. In most cases, unfortunately, the political trustworthiness of an individual makes short shrift of meritocracy which should be the foundation stone of a serious public administration.

The trusted person mechanism is circumventing the recruitment procedures of the public service, thereby excluding competent and qualified persons for the simple reason that they are not of the required political colour.

Through the recruitment of persons of trust, clientelism is devaluing years of preparation to obtain qualifications. The end result is not just demotivation : corruption and arrogance are the two other most obvious symptoms.

The Ombudsman in Malta has commented various times on the negative impact which excessive direct appointments in the public sector have due to lack of transparency.  Yet he is consistently ignored.

Under the spotlight Minister Evarist Bartolo has exclaimed that he feels betrayed.

We all have the same feeling that those who preached meritocracy are using political trustworthiness in order to ensure that practising clientelism is done in an efficient a manner as possible.

 

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 11 December 2016

Il-ħatriet fil-pajjiż

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Il-PN qed jgħid li l-ħatriet importanti fil-pajjiż għandhom ikollhom l-approvazzjoni ta’ zewġ terzi tal-Parlament.

Issa din, meta tingħad, tinstema tajba. M’għandix dubju li l-iskop wara l-proposta hu wieħed tajjeb. Bħalissa kemm l-Ombudsman kif ukoll l-Awditur Ġenerali jinħatru b’dan il-mod u s’issa dejjem instabet soluzzjoni raġjonevoli għal dawn il-ħatriet. L-argument allura hu jekk dan il-metodu (taż-żewġ terzi) jagħmilx sens għal ħatriet oħra ukoll.

Issemmew żewġ karigi partikolari: dawk ta’ President tar-Repubblika u ta’ Kummissarju tal-Pulizija.

Ikun tajjeb, kif anke qalet diversi drabi Alternattiva Demokratika, li l-President tar-Repubblika ma jibqax jinħatar mill-Parlament waħdu. Minflok għandu jinħatar minn kulleġġ elettorali li jkun jinkludi ukoll (flimkien mal-Parlament)rappresentanza minn kull Kunsill Lokali.

Dwar il-Kummissarju tal-Pulizija l-problema rejali hi li jkun evitat li l-ħatra tiegħu (jew għaliex le, tagħha) tkun tali li titneħħa l-konsiderazzjoni ta’ politika partiġjana bħala kriterju fl-għażla. Tul is-snin, kellna persuni ta’ eċċellenza li okkupaw il-kariga u kellna oħrajn ta’ inkompetenza grassa. Naħseb li l-għażla issir minn żewġ terzi tal-Parlament ma issolvi xejn. Proposta ta’ din ix-xorta tissogra paraliżi amministrattiva. Forsi jkun iktar għaqli li għal karigi ta’ importanza nazzjonali jkun meħtieġ l-approvazzjoni tal-Parlament, b’maġġoranza sempliċi. Imma approvazzjoni bħal din tkun teħtieg public hearing. Jiġifieri li l-persuna nominat tkun mgħarbla fil-pubbliku minn kumitat parlamentari.

Proposta ta’ din ix-xorta ma għandiex tapplika biss għall-Kummissarju tal-Pulizija imma għandha tapplika ukoll għall-ħatriet kollha ta’ ambaxxaturi u għat-tmexxija ta’ awtoritajiet u Dipartimenti tal-Gvern.

L-emfasi tiegħi mhux daqstant fuq il-ħtieġa tal-approvazzjoni mill-Parlament imma fuq li l-persuna proposta tkun mgħarbla fil-pubbliku. B’hekk tonqos il-possibilità tal-ħatra ta’ persuni inkompetenti kif ukoll ta’ persuni li l-unika kwalifika tagħhom tkun it-tessera tal-partit.

Naħseb li sistema bħal din, għalkemm bla dubju kontroversjali, hi iktar prattika mill-proposta tal-approvazzjoni mill-parlament b’maġġoranza ta’ żewġ terzi.

L-operetti fl-Armata ma’ Michelle Muscat

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Il-Perit Mintoff kien ġieli ddeskriva l-armata bħala waħda tal-operetti. Jiġifieri li tajba għaċ-ċerimonji u għal xejn iktar.

L-aħbar riċenti tal-interventi tas-Sinjura Michelle Muscat biex timmedja bejn Gunner Catania u t-tmexxija tal-armata tindika li l-affarijiet fl-armata reġgħu qabdu n-niżla.

It-Times tal-lum tikkummenta li ċ-Chain of command tal-armata hi dysfunctional. It-tmexxija tal-armata mhux qed tiffunzjona.

Il-Gunner Catania ħass li kellu jmur il-Qorti minħabba li ma sabx ħajt ta’kenn fil-Kmandant.

Dan jagħti sinifikat ikbar lil ħidma tal-Ombudsman biex jinvestiga l-ilmenti ta’ numru ta’ fizzjali dwar il-mod kif ingħataw il-promozzjonijiet. Bil-Kmandant innifsu jagħmel il-high jump u jieħu numru ta’ promozzjonijiet f’4 ġimgħat.

l-Ombudsman u l-Armata : ħadd ma hu il-fuq mil-liġi

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Minħabba l-budget intilfet ftit l-attenzjoni minn fuq id-deċiżjoni dwar il-kawża li fetaħ l-Ombudsman biex ikun dikjarat jekk għandux il-jedd (jew forsi aħjar l-obbligu) li jinvestiga l-ilmenti li rċieva mingħand l-uffiċjali tal-armata.

Fi stqarrija li ħriġt nhar it-Tnejn fil-għodu f’isem Alternattiva Demokratika, hekk kif ħarġet id-deċiżjoni, apparti li lqajt b’sodisfazzjon d-deċiżjoni tal-Imħallef Wenzu Mintoff esprimejt it-tama li wara din id-decizjoni l-Gvern ma jibqax jostakola lill-Ombudsman fil-qadi ta’ dmirijietu.

Din id-deċiżjoni timmarka punt importanti ħafna fil-ħidma tal-Ombudsman fid-difiża tiegħu taċ-ċittadin Malti. B’din id-deċiżjoni ġie assigurat li anke fl-armata allegazzjonijiet ta’ abbuż ta’ poter għandhom ikunu investigati.

Naħseb li ilkoll nippreferu li ma jkunx hemm abbuż. Imma jekk l-abbuż iseħħ, din id-deċiżjoni tal-Qorti isserħilna rasna li ħadd ma hu il-fuq mil-liġi.

Dan kien pass kbir il-quddiem fit-tisħiħ tal-istituzzjonijiet demokratiċi tal-pajjiż.