Licensing the construction industry

Watching the collapse of the structure which killed Jean-Paul Sofia sends shock waves through every bit of my body each time I catch a split-second glimpse of the relative video.

The magisterial inquiry is under way but for some inexplicable reason there is a resistance to a much wider public inquiry. Faced with the resulting death and multiple injuries, the public inquiry is an essential tool which could make it possible to understand what actually happened, beyond the accident itself. The public inquiry could definitely unravel important information on a number of specifics which had a bearing on the accident even if at first glance these are possibly unconnected.

So far no one has been charged. It is not known whether anybody has been interrogated on the incident, except, probably, as part of the magisterial inquiry itself, which is unfortunately taking too long to conclude. It is possible that there are valid reasons for this delay, but we are not aware of these as the magistrate in charge of the inquiry does not normally go around explaining such matters. I believe that it is in the public interest for the Court Registrar to explain matters as we have a right to know, just as much as the Law Courts have a duty to explain.

It has been stated that the licensing of the construction industry will lead to its improvement. This, we are told, would ensure the development of an industry that respects rules and ensures their uniform enforcement, as a result being more protective of life and limb.

I do not think that anyone desires otherwise. However, the proposals in the draft licence regulations do not necessarily lead in that direction. They need much more than fine-tuning.

The proposed regulations list the qualifications and documentation which an applicant for one of the three types of construction licence (demolition, excavation/piling, construction) should comply with. One of these documents is the conduct certificate. The proposed regulations, however, do not clearly spell out whether, and the extent to which, the contents of such a conduct certificate should have a bearing on the adjudication process leading to a decision on the issuing or the withholding of a licence.

Specifically, being bankrupt is a licence disqualification which is clearly spelt out in the proposed regulations. Which conduct or behaviour will be considered as disqualifying an applicant for a licence or its renewal?  Zero tolerance of unacceptable behaviour should be clearly spelt out as grounds for disqualification. We do not need to wait for the ultimate consequences to disqualify an applicant or a licence holder. Acting in a timely manner, before it is too late, should be the objective of the licencing and regulatory process. This should be as clearly spelt out as bankruptcy in the proposed regulations! Being assumed, implied or discretionary is not sufficient.

How about those who have a history of enforcement issues with the Building Construction Authority (BCA)? Should such a history have a bearing on the issuing of a licence or its renewal?  Where do we draw the line? Considering the recorded behaviour of all applicants should definitely be the starting point of the licencing process. Applicants should not be considered as having a clean slate: all their existing baggage should have a direct bearing in the consideration of whether they should be licenced or not. Past behaviour is definitely a guarantee of future patterns of behaviour. If the past is ignored it is bound to be repeated. All this is unfortunately ignored by the draft regulations.

Specifically, the impacts of the whole process of construction on third parties needs to be given considerable importance even as a licencing requirement. Too many building contractors run roughshod over the concerns of neighbouring residents. This is not always satisfactorily addressed by the operators, at times leading to lengthy litigation. This is an area which, with proper enforcement, the licensing process should eventually improve substantially.

Case-law indicates that both the imposition of substantial administrative fines as well as the suspension or withdrawal of licences can be challenged on constitutional grounds. The long-drawn-out legal battles which will inevitably develop will render the regulatory process ineffective and as a result undermining the whole reform.

Likewise, there is serious potential for abuse. Administrative action may be used to intentionally eliminate the possibility for criminal action. The matter has already arisen in an environmental case where criminal action already initiated could not proceed due to the matter having been addressed through the payment of an administrative fine.

Furthermore, the Building and Construction Tribunal which would eventually consider appeals concerning licences, although described as independent and impartial, is nothing of the sort.  It is made up of part-timers who are in full-time private practice which includes advising operators in the building construction industry. This creates legal grounds for the contestation of all its decisions.

The effectiveness of the licencing process will, at the end of the day be dependent on the resources made available to the Building and Construction Authority in order that it can fulfil its regulatory responsibilities. The Authority must be proactive. It can only do this if its inspectors do not await the lodging of a report in order to take action.

Government’s declared willingness to act, regulate and enforce is positive. Only time will however show if this willingness is translated into concrete results. Signs so far are however not promising.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 19 March 2023

Corruption: the institutions are not working

Reading through the media court reports on the Qormi murder earlier this week confirms that the Police in Malta can carry out crime investigations assiduously and bring them to their logical conclusions when they are left to carry out their work free from any pressures whatsoever.

The same, unfortunately, cannot be said on Police investigations relative to corruption.

Last week, in my article (Phone call from the Ministry: TMIS 4 September 2022) I referred to the cryptic language used in the evidence delivered in Court by the Police Inspector in the car licence corruption case. This, I argued, is conveying the unmistakable message that holders of political office and their hangers-on are dealt with kids gloves by the police investigators, thereby facilitating the development of clientelism into corruption.

During the public protest held last Tuesday against corruption organised by the NGO Repubblika it was once more explained as to how the authorities (that is the Commissioner of Police and the Attorney General’s office) have failed to act on the conclusions of the report of the magisterial inquiry into the operations of Pilatus Bank.

Repubblika President, Robert Aquilina, quoting chapter and verse from the magisterial inquiry report, explained how the Courts have instructed the said authorities to take criminal action against various former officials of Pilatus Bank. However only one former official was arraigned. All the others whom the inquiring magistrate pointed out have not been arraigned to account for their actions.

This has led to the unprecedented step of NGO Repubblika challenging the police authorities and the Attorney General in Court for failing to carrying out their duties. The authorities, are not functioning, Robert Aquilina rightfully claimed!

To substantiate his claim, he presented the relevant extracts from the report of the magisterial inquiry on the operations of Pilatus Bank.

To add insult to injury, the magistrate examining the challenge in Court, instead of requesting the police and the Attorney General to explain their “ifs” and “whys” turned on the NGO leadership in order to identify how the magisterial inquiry report came into their possession. Instead of shielding citizens seeking justice, unfortunately, the magistrate is shielding those who are sending out the clear message that, after all, crime pays, if you have friends located in the right places.

Instead of acting against the corrupt the courts are acting against those who are vigilant enough to note that the institutions are failing to carry out their basic duties.

This is the basic message being conveyed. The institutions are not working as they are not taking the necessary action to ensure that justice is done and that our society is defended against corruption. In addition to this blatant breach of trust, the institutions are also obstructing those who, notwithstanding the odds stacked against them are seeking to remedy the situation.

If this was not enough, we have just learnt of a secret agreement between the Azeri company SOCAR and the Maltese government, then represented by Konrad Mizzi. Irrespective of whether this agreement was implemented or not, it is another case of abusive use of Ministerial powers and should be properly investigated.

Faced with all this, nobody can remain passive. This is the tip of the corruption iceberg that has stifled our country and has been doing so for quite some time.

It is no wonder that Malta’s reputation has gone to the dogs!

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 11 September 2022

Il-Korruzzjoni m’għandhiex kulur

Id-dibattitu dwar il-korruzzjoni fil-gżejjer Maltin ma jispiċċa qatt. Il-korruzzjoni m’għandhiex kulur u tiddependi ħafna fuq kultura ta’ klijenteliżmu u fuq istituzzjonijiet dgħajfa jew imdgħajfa. Sfortunatament, ma teżisti l-ebda rieda politika biex dan ikun indirizzat.

Ma tidher l-ebda azzjoni ċara u konkreta li tikkorrispondi mad-diskors pubbliku u ma jaqta’ xejn dwar tolleranza żero għall-korruzzjoni.

Ir-resistenza tal-Ministri Edward Scicluna, Konrad Mizzi u Chris Cardona biex tinfetaħ inkjesta kriminali minn maġistrat dwar l-allegazzjonijiet tal-kompliċità kriminali tagħhom in konnessjoni mal-ftehim tal-Vitals Global Healthcare dwar l-isptarijiet ma tinftiehemx. Prim Ministru b’tolleranza żero għall-korruzzjoni kien jitlob l-inkjesta hu stess. Inkella kien ikun minn ta’ quddiem biex jappoġġja t-talba li saret.

Kieku l-Partit Laburista kellu tolleranza żero għall-korruzzjoni ilu li bagħat lil Konrad Mizzi u lil Keith Schembri jixxejru. Il-fatt li l-mexxej Laburista Joseph Muscat ma aġixxiex b’dan il-mod ifisser li hu dispost li jagħlaq għajnejh għall-irregolaritajiet li jagħmlu ta’ madwaru. F’dawn iċ-ċirkustanzi, Partit Laburista b’tolleranza żero għall-korruzzjoni kien jiġbed widnejn il-mexxej tiegħu u jwissieh li jiemu magħduda jekk ma jibdilx triqtu. Il-fatt li l-Partit Laburista ma għamel xejn minn dan ifisser ħaġa waħda: li korruzzjoni hi tollerata.

Ikun għaqli jekk niftakru illi fl-istadji inizzjali tal-iskandlu magħruf bħala Panama Papers diversi membri tal-Grupp Parlamentari tal-Partit Laburista irreaġixxew għal dan kollu bil-bibien magħluqa.

F’April u Mejju tal-2016 kienet ħarġet l-istorja li mhux il-Partit Laburista kollu hu illuppjata dwar allegazzjonijiet ta’ korruzzjoni. Id-dibattitu intern, kif irrappurtat fil-medja, kien imqanqal, imma ma wassal għall-ebda azzjoni konkreta.

Il-Partit Nazzjonalista, għalkemm fl-Opposizzjoni, ma jistax ikun alternattiva għal dan għax minkejja li l-kritika tiegħu hi korretta mhuwiex kredibbli.

Il-Partit Nazzjonalista eleġġa mexxej li ftit li xejn jispira fiduċja fost il-pubbliku. Primarjament dan hu minħabba l-informazzjoni li toħroġ minn rapporti investigattivi dwaru ppubblikati minn Daphne Caruana Galizia, informazzjoni li turi kif diversi drabi ma aġixxiex b’mod korrett. Il-politku ma’ għandux il-possibilità li jagħżel meta jixgħel is-switch tal-imġieba etika. L-imġieba tal-politiku meta ma jkunx taħt il-lenti tal-opinjoni pubblika hi l-iktar indikattiva dwar x’isarraf. Il-kaz ta’ klijenti tal-uffiċju legali ta’ Adrian Delia li bbenefikaw minn dħul minn briedel f’Londra huwa eżempju prattiku ta’ dan. Meta l-informazzjoni kienet ippubblikata Delia fetaħ libell imma wara mhux biss irtirah imma ma ħa l-ebda passi alternattivi biex jisganċa ruħu minn dak li ntqal bl-iswed fuq l-abjad dwaru.

L-istess għandu jingħad dwar ix-xhieda ġuramentata tad-Deputat Nazzjonalista Claudio Grech dwar l-iskandlu taż-żejt liema xhieda ngħatat quddiem il-Kumitat Parlamentari għall-Kontijiet Pubbliċi. Dakinnhar Grech qal li ma kienx jiftakar jekk qatt iltaqa’ ma’ George Farrugia, il-moħħ wara l-iskandlu u li wara ngħata l-maħfra biex jikxef kollox. Il-Kap tal-PN ta’ dakinnhar, Simon Busuttil, bl-ebda mod ma rreaġixxa għal din l-imġieba. Ma ttieħdu l-ebda passi kontra Claudio Grech mill-PN f’dan il-kaz li bosta jqisuh bħala li pprova jevita li jikxef informazzjoni ta’ relevanza għal għarfien aħjar ta’ fatti tal-iskandlu.

Fid-dawl ta’ nuqqas ta’ kredibilità, meta l-Opposizzjoni Parlamentari (kif kostitwita illum) titkellem, l-impatt ta’ dak li tgħid bi kritika tal-Gvern ftit hu effetttiv.

Dan nistgħu narawh ukoll fid-dawl ta’ każi ta’ governanza ħażina li jikkomunikaw messaġġ wieħed: il-PL u l-PN huma pezza waħda. Eżempju ċar ta’ dan hu l-kaz tal-involviment ta’ Mario Demarco fin-negozjati kuntrattwali tad-dB fil-kwalità tiegħu ta’ konsulent legali tal-Grupp dB, meta fl-istess ħin kien Viċi Kap tal-Opposizzjoni u kelliemi għall-Finanzi. Għalkemm Mario Demarco għamel apoloġija pubblika dwar dan meta l-qiegħa kienet saħnet, il-ħsara li seħħet kienet sostanzjali. Il-messaġġ ċar li ġie kkomunikat dakinnhar kien li l-aħjar elementi tal-Opposizzjoni Parlamentari ma kinux kapaċi jiddistingwu bejn l-obbligi pubbliċi u l-interessi privati tagħhom.

Ikun opportun ukoll li niftakru fid-diversi rapporti tal-Awditur Ġenerali dwar abbuż minn propjetà pubblika meta din kienet responsabbiltà politika tad-deputat Jason Azzopardi. Il-PN fl-ebda ħin ma esiġa li Azzopardi jerfa’ r-responsabbiltà politika għall-frejjeġ li ħalla warajh.

Il-governanza ħażina u l-korruzzjoni huma kuġini. Waħda twassal għall-oħra. Xi minn daqqiet hemm min jitfixkel waħda mal-oħra.

Alternattiva Demokratika dejjem kienet ċara. Dejjem kellna tolleranza żero kemm għall-korruzzjoni kif ukoll għall-governanza ħażina. Sfortunatament, la l-PN u l-anqas il-PL ma jistgħu jgħidu l-istess.

ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 17 ta’ Novembru 2019




Corruption is colour-blind

The debate on local corruption is never-ending. Corruption is colour-blind and is heavily dependent upon a clientelist culture, as well as on the existence of weak or weakened institutions. In addition, unfortunately, there is currently no political will to address either.

The never-ending public utterances on zero-tolerance to corruption are not matched with clear-cut action.

The resistance by Cabinet Ministers Edward Scicluna, Konrad Mizzi and Chris Cardona to the initiation of a magisterial criminal inquiry into the allegation concerning their criminal complicity in the Vitals Global Healthcare Hospitals deal is mind-boggling. A Prime Minister with a zero-tolerance to corruption would have requested the inquiry himself. Alternatively, he should have been the first to support the NGO-requested investigation.

A Labour Party which has a zero-tolerance to corruption would have sent Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri packing ages ago. The fact that Labour leader Joseph Muscat did not so act signifies that he is willing to turn a Nelson eye to his colleagues’ misdemeanours. In these circumstances a corruption zero-tolerant Labour Party would have given notice to its leader that his days are numbered if he does not change his ways. The fact that the Labour Party did not so act gives one clear message: it is corruption-tolerant.

It would be pertinent to point out that, in the initial stages of the Panama Papers debate, various members of the Labour Party Parliamentary group reacted behind closed doors. Way back in April and May of 2016, leaks in the media had indicated that not all of the Labour Party is anesthetised in its reactions to allegations of corruption. The internal debate, as then reported, was fierce, but it did not lead to concrete action.

The Nationalist Party, although in opposition, is no alternative to all this, as its criticism, though correct, is not credible.

The Nationalist Party has elected a leader who does not inspire much confidence in the public, primarily as a result of the investigative reports published by Daphne Caruana Galizia which unearthed information that illustrated the various instances in which he acted unethically. Holders of political office have no choice as to when to switch on to an ethical behaviour mode. Their behaviour when they were not under the glaring spotlight of public opinion is most indicative of their ethical worth. A case in point is Adrian Delia’s legal representation of clients benefitting from earnings from London-based brothels in respect of which published information he instituted legal action that he later withdrew. Subsequently he took no action which disproves anything that was published about this brothel business.

Likewise, no action was taken in respect of the sworn testimony of senior PN Member of Parliament Claudio Grech when giving witness in front of the Public Accounts Committee in its inquiry on the oil scandal. Grech had then stated that he did not recollect if he had ever met George Farrugia, the prime mover in the oil scandal, who was eventually pardoned to reveal all. The then PN leader, Simon Busuttil, had not reacted to this behaviour and no action whatsoever was initiated against Claudio Grech by the PN in what most consider a case of avoiding spilling information of relevance.

In view of its lack of credibility, whenever the Parliamentary Opposition – as presently constituted- speaks up, the impact of what has been revealed about Government’s dubious practices is severely diluted.

This could be viewed also with reference to serious issues of bad governance which communicate one clear message: they are cut from the same cloth. A case in point is Mario Demarco’s involvement in the dB contract negotiations as legal advisor to the dB Group, at a time when he was Deputy Leader of the Opposition and its spokesperson on Finance. Though Mario Demarco issued a public apology when the matter made headlines, the damage done was substantial. The clear message conveyed was that the better elements of the Parliamentary Opposition are incapable of drawing a line between their public duties and their private interests.

We may also deem it fit to remember the various reports issued by the Auditor-General on the mis-management of government property. At the time, this was the political responsibility of the Hon Jason Azzopardi but at no time was he asked by his party to shoulder political responsibility for the mess that he left behind.

Bad governance and corruption are cousins; one leads to the other and at times one is easily mistaken for the other.

At Alternattiva Demokratika we have always been clear: we are zero-tolerant in respect of both corruption and bad governance. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the PN and the PL.

published on The Malta Independent on Sunday: 17 November 2019

L-inkwiet ta’ Konrad Mizzi

Konrad Mizzi qed jgħidilna li qed jirfsulu d-drittijiet tiegħu. Miskin, inkwetat li qed jippruvaw iċappsulu l-integrità tiegħu.

Hi verament ħasra li Konrad, u oħrajn, huma konxji ħafna ta’ dak li jaħsbu li huma d-drittijiet tagħhom, imma m’għandhom l-ebda idea tad-drittijiet tagħna lkoll.

Jiena dejjem kont (u għadni) xettiku dwar akkużi ta’ korruzzjoni għax dawn hu dejjem diffiċli ħafna biex tippruvahom. Jiġifieri minkejja s-suspetti kollha li hawn, avolja huma suspetti fondati u nkwetanti ħafna, dawn jibqgħu suspetti.

Ir-rapporti tal-inkjesti tal-maġistrati, kemm dawk konklużi kif ukoll dawk li għad iridu jkunu konklużi, meta dawn jgħidu li ma sabu xejn, ikunu preċiżi. Ma jkunux qed jgħidu li ma hemmx korruzzjoni jew li t-tali mhux korrott, imma biss li quddiemhom ma nġiebet l-ebda prova. Mhux li provi ma hemmx, imma li dawn ma ġewx ippresentati quddiemhom.

L-ispin politika iżda twassal messaġġ differenti kontinwament. Għax id-dellijiet jibqgħu hemm, minkejja kollox, u n-nies dan tafu. Għalhekk Konrad u ta’ madwaru inkwetati għax l-ispin tqawwi (biss) qalb dawk konvinti: imma l-bqija jibqgħu inkwetati li l-pajjiż qiegħed f’idejn ċorma ħallelin: inħossuha lkoll kemm aħna, avolja l-provi għad m’humiex ċari. Xi darba imma jkunu, nittama li f’data mhux fil-bogħod.

Sadanittant għandna l-obbligu li ma nesagerawx f’dak li ngħidu. Għax il-kummenti żejda jistgħu jkunu kontro-produċenti.