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

Some reflections on the Mafia State

Reading through the terms of reference for the Public Inquiry into the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, it is amply clear to all as to what the inquiry should be aiming at.

The inquiry’s objective is to determine whether the machinery of government functioned as it should. Did it function in the public interest, or did it function in another manner, in the interest of the few, thereby creating a culture of impunity for the said few?

Some may justifiably argue that the machinery of government, in Malta, never functioned properly. It is further argued that the post 2013 administration made use of a defective machinery of government more efficiently than previous administrations, fine tuning and intensifying political controls in the process, as a result of which the stultification of the functions of the democratic state was accelerated.

The terms of reference agreed to in December 2019 speak of the development of a “de facto state of impunity” and seek to determine whether this could have been avoided through effective criminal law provisions, if such provisions exist.

Do we have a Mafia State? We would definitely have a Mafia State if the machinery of government is tied with organised crime to the extent that state officials become part of a criminal partnership or organisation.

The testimony heard so far in open session during the proceedings of the public inquiry reveals the reluctance of the authorities to investigate thereby paving the way for the development of a culture of impunity. Money-laundering investigations moved at snail’s pace until there was a change in leadership at the Economic Crimes Unit of the Malta Police Force. However, as yet we do not know what was revealed in the testimony behind closed doors. Matters could be considerably worse than what is known so far.

The revelations at the public inquiry must not be seen in isolation. They must be viewed in context of the testimony in the Magistrates Court relative to the criminal proceedings against those accused of carrying out the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia, or of masterminding it.

We have learnt that the alleged master-mind has pleaded with the police that he was carrying out the instructions of the Chief of Staff at the Office of the Prime Minister, Keith Schembri, who categorically denied this. The definite truth is not known yet. So far, we are only sure that the assassination planners were too close to the political nerve centre: just like in a Mafia State. It is at the Office of the Prime Minister that the middleman was offered a government job, one which delivered pay for no work. Part payment for his endeavours as a middleman!

The Ministers testifying at the public inquiry were continuously seeking to pass the buck from the Cabinet to the kitchen cabinet. On the other hand, those forming part of this kitchen cabinet feigned ignorance of their role in circumventing the role of the real cabinet. This is the worrying state of play in which those having responsibility take a step backwards as a result of which their authority ends being wielded by those appointed in lieu of those elected. Collective responsibility has been thrown to the winds.

The latest revelations crown it all. Government’s thinly veiled threats in the past days to the members of the judiciary directing the public inquiry reveal a government in panic mode.

Robert Abela’s unease at this point in time is understandable. After all he was former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s legal advisor. How many skeletons in the cupboard is he aware of?

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday: 20 December 2020