The Malta Independent 20 October 2019, Sunday

PN, PD MPs concerned Environment Committee could be turned into rubber stamp for government

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 22 September 2019, 08:00 Last update: about 27 days ago

Opposition MPs are concerned that the Parliamentary Environment and Development Planning Committee could become just a rubber stamp for the government due to the chairman's interpretation of the law.

The issue revolves around the interpretation of the laws governing the committee regarding who is able to bring up issues for the committee to discuss.

At the last committee meeting, PN MP Jason Azzopardi had wanted an item to be put on the agenda for discussion regarding the Planning Authority no longer uploading incomplete applications onto their website, as this was leading to concerns about lack of transparency and less time for objectors to research the issue.

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Committee Chairman Alex Muscat, however, said that the Speaker of the House had already twice pulled the Committee's ear when it did not move according to the law that regulates it and the direction given was that when the Committee wanted to do something that went beyond its competences, then a resolution in Parliament was required.

Azzopardi had said that he was not proposing something that went against the law, and that all he was doing was asking the Committee to discuss the issue - not take a decision or give an order on it, but just to discuss whether the reports in the media on this issue are true and, if so, why that had happened.

Muscat had responded by saying that the Speaker's rulings are very clear and leave little room for interpretation. "He made clear that this is a special committee as it is established by a law. That law ties our hands as to how we are to operate, and regulates how we operate."

This debate went on for a few more minutes and Jason Azzopardi then requested a ruling on the issue from the Speaker, asking him to state whether such a discussion on the aforementioned topic - and not a decision - could take place. This was seconded by PD Leader Godfrey Farrugia.

The Malta Independent on Sunday spoke to chairman Alex Muscat - as well as PN MP Jason Azzopardi and interim PD Leader Godfrey Farrugia - about the issue at hand. While Muscat highlighted that the rulings were clear in terms of procedure, Farrugia and Azzopardi argued that the chairman's interpretations would end up choking the Committee, and were not in line with the spirit of the law.

Speaking with this newsroom, Alex Muscat explained that the material proposed for discussion by Azzopardi was not the problem. He said that the Environment and Development Planning Committee is different from other committees. "This committee's function comes from the law and not from Parliament's standing orders.

"The Environment and Development Planning Act created this committee and regulates its operations very clearly, while the Speaker has given a number of rulings on this.

"The committee has a clear function: to scrutinise Planning Authority (PA) policies, ERA policies and any other reports referred to the committee - for example changes to the local plans, the fuel station policy and others, which were all referred to me by one Minister or another: Transport Minister Ian Borg or Environment Minister Jose Herrera, for example. They can refer these policies to me for consideration.

"I, as the chairman, do not have the right at law to wake up one day and discuss, for example, hunting. If the committee wishes to discuss items that go over and above the committee's remit, there is a way it can be done and the Speaker has said how:  by filing a motion for the plenary session, then Parliament - through a simple majority - can authorise the committee to give it additional power to discuss any other matter."

There is, however, a particular clause in the law that brings to question the Chairman's interpretation. The Development Planning Act states that the Standing Committee shall, aside from discussing any strategy, plan or policy referred to it in terms of certain articles at law, also discuss any other matter referred to it in terms of the Environment Protection Act. A clause in the Environment Protection Act reads: "It shall be the duty of every person and entity, whether public or private, to protect the environment and to assist in the taking of preventive and remedial measures to protect the environment and manage natural resources in a sustainable manner". This clause is one both Farrugia and Azzopardi brought up as an example to demonstrate the spirit of the law, and both questioned why the Chairman did not allow the discussion based on this.

Muscat was asked whether this clause means that the committee should be able to discuss such matters if it is the duty of every person and entity to protect the environment and to assist in the taking of preventive and remedial measures to protect it. 

"Of course the committee can, Muscat responded. "The committee can discuss every subject brought before it. So if Minister Herrera tells me that he is not happy with, for example, hunting as it is now and he wants the committee to discuss it, he would refer the subject to us."

This newsroom indicated that it understood that the Minister can, but cannot understand why an NGO or the Opposition is not allowed to broach the Chair with a topic for discussion for it to then be discussed."

In response, the committee chairman highlighted a number of laws, including the Environment Protection Act, which states that the committee shall discuss plans and policies put forward to it by the Minister. He also highlighted the fact that it can also be the Planning Authority or the ERA directly who propose items for discussion.

He said that there were examples where an MP would ask for a topic to be discussed, as was the case with construction waste, and then the Minister would take it up and bring that subject before the committee.

"In principle, I have no problem with discussing any subject in the committee that has to do with the environment or planning - no problem at all. In fact, I have moved forward on every subject referred to me according to the law. My only concern is that I need to be in order with the Regulations as a chairman, and cannot invent the regulations myself. What I had asked Jason Azzopardi to do was to go to Parliament and file a motion, for Parliament to then decide whether - over and above the current law - the committee can discuss this particular subject for example, and would then authorise us.

"Given that I am regulated by a law, I am duty bound to follow it."

Faced with arguments that, through this interpretation, Opposition MPs are prevented from bringing something important forward for discussion without getting the Minister to propose it, given that a motion from the Opposition takes around three months before coming up for discussion, he said: "Every MP can put forward a Private Member's Bill at any time. If Parliament agrees, then that subject can be debated at any given time. So it does not have to take three months. The three months are in the case of a lack of agreement."

In addition, he said that if an MP wants to make an adjournment speech, it alternated per session, and an MP can take such a speech whenever they want, strictly speaking.

Speaking to this newsroom, PD interim Leader Godfrey Farrugia said that over the past months he had noted that when putting forward some topic that is outside the Chairman's agenda, but is still about environment and planning, the chairman would not want to bring it forward.

"One case in point is the rural policy. In a meeting he told us it will be placed on the agenda, and it never materialised, as he says that the Speaker's rulings do not permit him to discuss anything that has to do with environment and development planning that is outside what the ERA, the PA or the government put on the agenda for public consultation at the Parliamentary Committee," Farrugia said.

"In this legislature, under the same chairperson, the committee had discussed the tuna fish farms, a subject that I and Marlene Farrugia had brought forward, among others. Suddenly, earlier this year, the strategy changed.

"We also know that Alex Muscat, who is the chairman - and I have nothing against him personally, is the Deputy Chief of Staff at the Office of the Prime Minister. It is a conflict of interest. We have already brought this up with the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life.

"Azzopardi wanted to discuss why the change in the PA occurred. The PA is saying that it is within the law for it to do so, and that transparency is not being reduced, but obviously it has indeed lessened, and the PA found a loophole by which they can delay putting an application on the website to make it public."

Farrugia argued that the Speaker's previous rulings focused solely on what is stated by the law that governs the Environment and Development Planning Committee, but is not taking into account what the Environment Protection Act states. "The spirit of the law and the Constitution is one whereby citizens should be given every means to be heard on environmental issues."

The implications of the Chairman's interpretation of the regulations, if again backed up by the Speaker, would essentially muzzle the Opposition and the public in this committee, said Farrugia. "We have already seen the institutions being undermined, and this is happening not only to this committee but other Parliamentary Committees too. One case in point is the Petitions Committee.

This committee is in danger of being another toothless committee, a rubberstamp."

PN MP Jason Azzopardi asked whether this is a black and white situation or whether it is all about the interpretation of the regulations, said: "It all depends on whether we want to give an honest, authentic interpretation to the word of the law.

"The law setting up the committee states that it shall discuss any strategy, plan or policy... referred to it in terms of articles 46 and 53 and any other matter referred to it in terms of the Environment Protection Act..."

The Environment Protection Act, he said, reads: "It shall be the duty of every person and entity, whether public or private, to protect the environment and to assist in the taking of preventive and remedial measures to protect the environment and manage natural resources in a sustainable manner.

"So a private person and entity has the duty to assist in the taking of remedial measures to protect the environment," he said, "so are we saying then that the committee set up to protect the environment does not have that duty?"

He also quoted further from the same law, saying that it is the government's duty to disseminate information on the environment and facilitate the participation of the public in decisions that affect the environment.

"Reading these words, how is it not obvious that the scope and spirit of the law is for the Environment Committee to be allowed the opportunity to discuss the dissemination of information on the environment and whether we are facilitating the participation of the public on decisions? If, last May, the PA had started to restrict access to certain information for John citizen, is it disseminating information on the environment and facilitating the participation of the public? No. Is it helping the duty of every person or entity to protect the environment and assist? How can you help assist the taking of preventive measures when you are not allowed to access information which is quintessentially impacting the environment?

"These are the arguments I had made, and in my mind it all depends on whether we want to give life to the spirit of the law. Once we all know that when there is agreement between both sides then anything under the sun can be discussed, it should not be a problem to have this item discussed in the Committee set up by law to discuss the environment and planning. Otherwise it will lead to the committee being choked to death, suffocated - and that is definitely not the scope of the law."

Azzopardi said that the Chairman's interpretation is that only the government, the PA and the ERA can forward items to the Committee for discussions and that no-one else has that right. "This is nonsense. Former President Guido de Marco also taught us that logic, and the interpretation of the law, need to go hand-in-hand. If they do not, then something is wrong, but the issue would be with the interpretation of the law and not the logic.

"The interpretation given by the government will lead to the natural death or irrelevance of the Committee. The moment the Committee becomes a de-facto extension of the government, it no longer remains a Parliamentary Committee."

Told that the Opposition can still table a motion in Parliament for the Committee to debate an issue, Azzopardi said that he can, but he pointed out the length of time it takes before motions are discussed, with the Opposition taking the ability to discuss such a motion once every three months, alternating with the government, unless agreed upon beforehand 
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