Il-kontabilità ……….. taħt l-effett tal-loppju

Il-Kummisarju tal-Ambjent u l-Ippjanar fl-uffiċċju ta’ l-Ombudsman, iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa ikkonkluda li mhu affari ta’ ħadd jekk membri tal-Bord tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar jattendux jew le l-laqgħat tal-Bord. Dik biċċa tagħhom: hi responsabbiltà tagħhom dwar kif jaġixxu biex iwettqu r-responsabbiltajiet tagħhom. Meta għaldaqstant, Jacqueline Gili kienet pprovduta bis-servizz ta’ ajruplan privat biex ikun iffaċilitat li hi tattendi għal-laqgħa tal-Bord tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar li fiha kienet diskussa u approvata l-monstrosità tal-dB Group f’Pembroke kien hemm indħil mhux permissibli fil-proċeduri tal-istess awtorità.

Is-Sur Johann Buttigieg, Chairman Eżekuttiv tal-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar, ikkonferma pubblikament li d-deċiżjoni li jġib lil Jacqueline Gili bil-ajruplan privat minn Catania, u jeħodha lura Catania biex tkompli tgawdi l-btala mal-familja tagħha, kienet deċiżjoni tiegħu. F’pajjiż fejn il-governanza tajba hi pprattikata, mhux ipprietkata biss, is-Sur Buttigieg kien jirreżenja immedjatament, inkella kien jitkeċċa bla dewmien hekk kif l-aħbar kienet magħrufa pubblikament. Dan apparti mid-dell kbir li nxteħet fuq il-validità tad-deċżjoni li ttieħdet bħala riżultat ta’ dan l-indħil fil-ħidma tal-Bord.
Imma, huwa fatt magħruf li l-Awtorità tal-Ippjanar mhiex kapaċi tiddeċiedi fuq kaz daqshekk ċar ta’ tmexxija ħażina. M’għandiex il-kuraġġ li taġixxi.

Ma nistgħux nistennew imġieba mod ieħor. Dawk maħtura fl-awtoritajiet pubbliċi huma kkundizzjonati dwar kif iġibu ruħhom mill-mod kif jaraw lill-politiċi li jkunu ħatruhom iġibu ruħhom. U ngħiduha kif inhi: ma tantx għandhom eżempji tajba fuq xiex jimxu.
L-istorja tal-Panama Papers hi waħda relattivament riċenti. Il-Prim Ministru Joseph Muscat, malli sar jaf li l-Ministru Konrad Mizzi u ċ-Chief of Staff tiegħu Keith Schembri, waqqfu kumpaniji fl-Amerika Ċentrali, fil-Panama, li hi rinomata bħala post fejn taħbi l-flus u tevita t-taxxi, flok ma keċċihom minnufih, qiesu qagħad jiggusthom daqslikieku ma ġara xejn. Dwar x’seta ġara iktar mill-kumpaniji ta’ Mizzi u Schembri u t-tielet kumpanija misterjuża (Egrant), s’issa għad ma nġiebu l-ebda provi. Dan intqal mill-Qrati repetutament, avolja d-deċiżjonijiet tal-Qrati ġew interpretati b’mod li qieshom naddfu lil uħud assoċjati mal-politika minn kull ħtija possibli. Il-fatti huma mod ieħor, kompletament differenti.

S’issa, bla dubju, hemm assenza ta’ provi kredibbli li jindikaw xi ħtija kriminali. Imma ma nistgħux ngħidu l-istess dwar l-imġieba ta’ dawk involuti. Il-provi magħrufa juru bl-iktar mod ċar li tal-inqas hemm imġieba żbaljata u mhix etika u dan minnu nnifsu jiġġustifika sanzjonijiet politiċi.

Dan ma japplikax biss għal dawk il-persuni li huma esposti għall-politika u li issemmew fil-Panama Papers. Japplika ukoll għal xenarji differenti f’kull kamp politiku.

Fuq livell kompletament differenti, jiena diversi drabi għamilt referenza għal tliet rapporti tal-Awditur Ġenerali dwar ir-responsabbiltajiet politiċi ta’ Jason Azzopardi, ilkoll konnessi mal-amministrazzjoni ta’ art pubblika. F’kull wieħed minn dawn it-tliet rapporti l-ex-Ministru Jason Azzopardi kien iċċensurat b’qawwa kbira. Ilkoll niftakru meta f’Ottubru 2017 waqt laqgħa pubblika tal-Kumitat Parlamentari għall-Kontijiet Pubbliċi uffiċjal pubbliku kien xehed li l-ex Ministru Azzopardi kien jaf b’dak kollu li kien għaddej. Imma Jason Azzopardi jibqa’ jilgħabha tal-iblah u jagħmel ta’ birruħu li ma kellux idea dwar dak li kien għaddej madwaru.

L-Opposizzjoni s’issa għadha ma ġegħlitux jerfa’ r-responsabbiltà ta’ għemilu. La ġiegħlet lilu u l-anqas lil oħrajn. Bilfors, f’dan il-kuntest, allura wieħed jistaqsi dwar kif l-Opposizzjoni tippretendi li neħduha bis-serjetà meta tkun kritika ta’ ħaddieħor. Għax l-ewwel u qabel kollox, l-Opposizzjoni għandha tkun kapaċi tapplika għaliha dak li ġustament tippretendi b’insistenza mingħand ħaddieħor.

Sfortunatament il-klassi politika presentment fil-ħatra mhiex kapaċi tipprattika dak li tipprietka. Meta l-partiti politiċi fil-parlament huma b’kuxjenza mraqqda, qiesha taħt l-effett tal-loppju, m’għandniex għalfejn niskantaw b’dak li naraw madwarna.

Ippubblikat fuq Illum :13 ta’ Jannar 2019

 

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Anesthetised accountability

Earlier this week, the Planning and Environment Commissioner at the Ombudsman’s office held that it is nobody’s business as to whether or not the Planning Authority’s Board members attend Board meetings: this is a matter for their exclusive concern. The provision of a jet plane to encourage and facilitate the attendance of Ms Jacqueline Gili at the PA Board meeting which considered and approved the dB monstrosity at Pembroke is thus considered as an undue interference and influence in the Planning Authority’s operations.

The Planning Authority Executive Chairman Johann Buttigieg is on record as having taken the responsibility for the decision to bring Ms Gili over to Malta from Catania by air and facilitating her return to continue her interrupted family holiday.

In a country where good governance is upheld, Mr Buttigieg would have resigned forthwith and, in the absence of such a resignation, he would have been fired on the spot as soon as information on the matter became public knowledge.

In addition one would also have had to deal with the fallout on the validity of the decision so taken as a result of such an undue interference.

It is, however, well known that the Planning Authority is incapable of reacting to such blatant bad governance. It is common knowledge that that it lacks the proverbial balls, making it incapable of acting properly.

But we cannot realistically expect otherwise, because the appointees to public authorities mirror the behaviour of their political masters. We cannot expect accountability from the appointees if those that appoint them continuously try to wriggle out of shouldering their responsibilities. There are, of course, some exceptions.

The Panama Papers saga is recent enough. Instead of firing Minister Konrad Mizzi and his Chief of Staff Keith Schembri on the spot for setting up companies in the Central American tax-haven, Prime Minister Joseph Muscat acted as if nothing of significance ever happened. What could have happened – in addition to the setting up Mizzi’s and Schembri’s companies and the third mysterious one (Egrant) is not so far provable. This has been stated repeatedly by our Courts, although the relative decisions have been repeated misinterpreted as absolving various politically exposed people (PEP) from any wrong doing. Nothing could be further from the truth.

There is no doubt that, so far, there is an absence of proof indicating potential criminal liability. However, as a minimum, there is sufficient proof in the public domain pointing towards both errors of judgement and unethical behaviour which, on its own, is sufficient to justify immediate political sanctions.

This is not only applicable to all the PEP featuring in the Panama Papers saga. It is also applicable to other different scenarios across the political divide.

On a completely different level, I refer to the three reports by Auditor-General concerning the political responsibilities of Jason Azzopardi, all three of which deal with the management of government-owned land. In all three cases, former Minister Jason Azzopardi was heavily censored. I remember when a senior civil servant testified during a sitting of Parliament’s Public Accounts Committee in October 2017, in public session, that then Minister Azzopardi was aware of all the goings-on. Yet Jason Azzopardi sanctimoniously plays the idiot and feigns ignorance of the goings-on around his desk.

As yet, the Opposition has not yet held him (and others) to account. The Opposition cannot expect to be taken seriously when it rightly censors others before it musters sufficient courage to put its own house in order.

Unfortunately, the political class currently in office is not capable of practising what its preaches. With such anesthetised political parties, it is no wonder that this country has long gone to the dogs.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 13 January 2019

Il-mina t’Għawdex: ħmar il-lejl

Il-Ministru Ian Borg, iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa, infurmana li kien qed jaħdem biex iwettaq il-ħolma ta’ diversi Għawdxin billi jmexxi l-quddiem il-proċess tal-mina taħt qiegħ il-baħar bejn Malta u Għawdex. Wara dibattitu li ilu għaddej is-snin hu ċar li iktar milli jwettaq il-ħolm ikun aħjar jekk Ian Borg jipprepara ruħu għal ħmar il-lejl.

Saru studji ġejoloġiċi imma lanqas il-konklużjonijiet ġenerali dwarhom ma nafu. Għadhom mistura qieshom xi sigriet tal-istat. Tliet snin ilu l-ġejoloġista Peter Gatt kien ġibed l-attenzjoni għall-fatt li l-mina tal-Enemalta bejn il-power station tal-Marsa u Delimara kienet swiet id-doppju ta’ dak ippjanat u dan minħabba kollass tal-blat f’diversi punti matul il-mina nnifisha. Dan kien seħħ bħala riżultat tan-nuqqas ta’ informazzjoni ġejoloġika meta ġiet imfassla l-mina. Kieku dan kellu jseħħ waqt li jkun għaddej ix-xogħol fuq il-mina bejn Malta u Għawdex hu inevitabbli li jkollna problemi kbar, inkluż possibilment numru ta’ mwiet.

Hu fatt magħruf li fil-Fliegu hemm diversi kisriet ġejoloġiċi (geological faults). Tajjeb li nirrealizzaw li tnejn mill-proposti għall-mina, li saru minn Mott MacDonald, il-konsulenti ta’ Transport Malta, jgħaddu minn dawn il-kisriet.

Li jkunu eżaminati l-kampjuni tal-blat f’laboratorju, anke jekk għal ftit ġimgħat, bla dubju jżid l-għarfien tal-ġejoloġija taż-żona imma dan mhux biżżejjed biex fuqu jittieħdu deċiżjonijiet dwar id-diżinn tal-proġett. Biżżejjed nifhmu li minkejja l-istudji ġejoloġiċi dettaljati fuq numru kbir ta’ snin, ix-xogħol fuq il-mina bejn l-Ingilterra u Franza, iċ-Channel Tunnel, kellu jieqaf u jkun devjat diversi drabi minħabba li t-tħaffir iltaqa’ ma problemi ġejoloġici li ma kien hemm l-ebda indikazzjoni tagħhom fl-istudji dettaljati!

L-istudji serji jieħdu ż-żmien biex isiru: ma jistgħux ikunu mgħaġġla minħabba data determinata minn agenda politika.

Tliet snin ilu, Transport Malta, flimkien mal-Kamra tal-Kummerċ Għawdxija kkummissjonaw studju ekonomiku, ferm qabel ma biss bdew l-istudji ġejoloġiċi. L-istudju kien intitolat Establishing a Permanent Link between the Island of Gozo and Mainland Malta: An Economic Cost Benefit Analysis of Available Strategic Options, li kien sar minn E-Cubed Consultants. Dan l-istudju kien argumenta li t-traffiku bejn il-gżejjer kien ipproġettat li fuq perjodu ta’ 15il sena jiżdied minn medja ta’ 3000 moviment kuljum għal 9000 moviment kuljum. Argument li jmur kontra l-Pjan Nazzjonali għat-Trasport approvat fl-2015 ukoll.

Il-mina proposta teħtieġ ammont kritiku ta’ movimenti ta’ karozzi li jħallsu biex jgħaddu mill-mina u per konsegwenza minn fuqhom jinġabru l-ispejjes tal-mina kif ukoll il-profitti tal-operaturi. Fi ftit kliem il-mina, biex tirnexxi tiddependi minn moviment kbir ta’ karozzi kuljum. Dan imur kontra l-politika dwar it-trasport tal-lum, li ta’ l-inqas fuq il-karta, timmira għal tnaqqis ta’ karozzi mit-toroq tagħna. Din hi materja li bla dubju għandha tkun eżaminat mill-istudju fuq l-impatti ambjentali (EIA) dwar il-mina proposta. Dan l-istudju għadu fl-istadji inizzjali tiegħu u dan wara li l-Awtorità dwar l-Ambjent u r-Riżorsi ftit ġimgħat ilu approvat dak li għandu jkun indirizzat (terms of reference) minn dan l-istudju. L-EIA hu stadju essenzjali li minnu jeħtieġ li jgħaddi l-proġett.

Għaldaqstant, kien irresponsabbli l-Ministru tat-Trasport, meta, iktar kmieni din il-ġimgħa, ħabbar li fi żmien sitt xhur kienet ħierġa sejħa internazzjonali għall-offerti għall-mina bejn Malta u Għawdex. Dan ifisser li dawn l-istudji huma irrelevanti? Fl-opinjoni tiegħi il-Ministru  qiegħed jagħti  dan il-messaġġ ċar u tond.

Din hi l-agħar forma ta’ governanza ħażina għax jimmina l-isforzi tal-awtoritajiet fil-qadi ta’ dmirijiethom. B’dan il-ħsieb jiena ktibt lill-Ombudsman u tlabtu jinvestiga dan in-nuqqas ta’ governanza tajba. Il-Gvern għandu jkollu l-paċenzja li jistenna sakemm ikunu konklużi l-istudji ambjentali qabel ma jieħu d-deċiżjonijiet.

 

Ippubblikat fuq Illum : Il-Ħadd 16 ta’ Diċembru 2018

Gozo tunnel nightmares

Minister Ian Borg informed us, earlier this week, that he seeks to turn into reality a Gozitan “long-held dream” by starting the process for a Malta-Gozo tunnel below the seabed. After debating the matter for years, it is clear that rather more than dreams, Ian Borg should prepare himself for a nightmare.

Geological studies have now been carried out and the results therof are being treated as some state secret. Three years ago, geologist Peter Gatt had drawn attention to the fact that the Enemalta tunnel between the Marsa power station and Delimara had a cost overrun of 100 per cent as a result of rock collapse along several points of the tunnel. This had occurred due to inadequate geological information fed into the design process. If the same were to happen during the Malta-Gozo tunnel works, a series of disasters, including possibly loss of life, would be inevitable.

It is a known fact that the Gozo channel is full of geological faults. It is pertinent to note that two of the tunnel options put forward by Transport Malta advisors Mott MacDonald pass through an active fault in the Gozo channel.

Taking borehole samples and examining them in a laboratory over a few weeks certainly increases our knowledge of the geology of the area but it is nowhere near the sufficient knowledge on the basis of which one can conclude the design parameters of the project. Suffice it to point out that notwithstanding the detailed geological studies spanning over many years and underpinning planning for the Channel Tunnel linking Folkestone in Kent and Coquelles near Calais, the drilling of the tunnel had to be deviated at certain points because of unpredicted geological formations.

Serious studies take years to conclude: they cannot be rushed to meet a deadline set by a political agenda.

Feasibility studies have been carried out some time ago, long before the geological studies were even taken in hand. Three years ago, the Gozo Business Chamber in conjunction with Transport Malta commissioned a study entitled Establishing a Permanent Link between the Island of Gozo and Mainland Malta: An Economic Cost Benefit Analysis of Available Strategic Options. In the study, which was carried out by E-Cubed Consultants, it was argued that the average annual daily traffic (AADT) between the islands is projected to increase from 3000 to 9000 vehicle movements over a 15-year period.

This feasibility study makes assumptions which run counter to the National Transport Master Plan objective of reducing cars from our roads.

Basically, the proposed tunnel requires a critical mass of vehicular movements which would be subject to the payment of a toll and hence contribute to the recovery of the capital outlay, maintenance costs and profits. This runs counter to current Maltese Transport policy, which (at least on paper) aims to reduce the use of private cars from our roads.

This is an issue which would undoubtedly be examined by the Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA) on the proposed Tunnel which study is currently in its initial stages after the Environment and Resources Authority recently approved the terms of reference of such a study. The EIA is an essential stage of the assessment of the project.

It was therefore irresponsible for the Minister of Transport, earlier this week, to announce that within six months an international call for tenders would be issued relative to the Malta-Gozo undersea Tunnel. Does this mean that the government considers the EIA irrelevant? This, in my opinion is the clear message being conveyed.

It is the worst form of bad governance as it undermines the efforts of the established authorities in carrying out their responsibilities. With this in mind, I have written to the Ombudsman and asked him to investigate this breach of good governance. Government should have the patience of awaiting the outcome of the EIA before taking any further decisions.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 16 December 2018

Ktibt lill-Ombudsman dwar il-mina bejn Malta u Għawdex

 

Għadni kif, madwar siegħa ilu tajt ittra lill-Ombudsman biex jiftaħ investigazzjoni dwar il-mina bejn Malta u Għawdex.

Il-bieraħ il-Ministru Ian Borg ħabbar li fi żmien sitt xhur oħra ser joħroġ it-tender dwar il-mina taħt qiegħ il-baħar bejn Malta u Għawdex. Dan għamlu minkejja li l-istudju dwar l-impatti ambjentali (EIA) li dwaru s’issa ġiet konkluża biss il-konsultazzjoni pubblika dwar it-Terms of Reference għadu bil-kemm beda.

Apparti li dan hu l-ikbar diżrispett lejn l-Awtorità tal-Ambjent u r-Riżorsi da parti tal-amministrazzjoni pubblika tal-pajjiż, din id-dikjarazzjoni tal-Onorevoli Ministru hi ukoll indikazzjoni ċara ta’ nuqqas ta’ governanza tajba u twassal il-messaġġ ċar li l-proċess ta’ studju tal-impatti ambjentali hu meqjus bħala wieħed irrelevanti u li qed isir għalxejn għax id-deċiżjonijiet lesti irrispettivament minn dak li jista’ jirriżulta mill-istudji.

Fil-dawl ta’ dan għan-nom ta’ Alternattiva Demokratika jiena dal-għodu tlabt lill-Ombudsman biex jinvestiga u jieħu dawk il-passi li jidhirlu meħtieġa.

Ma nistgħux nibqgħu sejrin hekk. Kif nippretendu lin-nies jagħtu kaz u jsegwu il-liġi, jekk il-Ministru b’imġiebtu jiġi jaqa’ u jqum?

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

evarist-bartolo

 

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