The Malta Independent 16 October 2019, Wednesday

Giving ERA veto powers in certain applications and sick leave carry-overs among key PN proposals

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 6 October 2019, 08:00 Last update: about 10 days ago

The Nationalist Party recently released its pre-budget document which contains proposals for a number of important sectors. Key amongst these are found in the environment section, which includes giving the Environment and Resources Authority (ERA) the power to veto in respect of major development applications in environmentally sensitive localities.

In the past there have been cases where the ERA was against a major project, only for it to be accepted regardless. Such a proposal would not allow such cases to go through, but it is questionable as to whether widespread political agreement for such a measure to be implemented could be found. Such a proposal could have a major effect on large-scale development around the island.

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Another key point contained in the document is calling on the government to introduce clearly, by legislation, the right to institute actio popolaris in all environment matters (a universal action by which any person can bring forward a lawsuit to protect against environmental violations, even if not directly affected). As can be seen by the aforementioned proposals, the environment section held some strong recommendations.

In terms of tackling poverty, the PN came up with a number of suggestions, calling on the government to ensure a more affordable housing market.

Employment and work

The PN made a number of proposals in terms of work and employment. One such proposal is that private sector workers employed with companies who tender for government work should have, as a minimum, the same working conditions as their equivalent government employees. The Party also argues that there is a lack in the enforcement of labour laws, which needs to be addressed, and that all work contracts are to include the basic rights of employees as a default.

The PN also made a couple of interesting proposals regarding sick leave: it proposed that sick leave not taken by an employee during the previous six years can be carried forward and used by the same employee in the event of serious illnesses. It also proposed that sick leave not taken by parents during the previous six years can be used to stay at home to care for their children and/or elderly parents in situations where there is no-one to care for them. These particular proposals are ones that would undoubtedly be popular among the workforce.

Poverty

The PN dedicated part of its document to the push to reduce poverty, an issue which has become a cornerstone for the Party in recent years. It reads that there was an increase in the number of people at risk of poverty in 2018 compared to 2017. “In 2018, there were 88,777 people living in poverty or at-risk-of-poverty and social exclusion, up from 82,652 in 2017.”

The PN argued that most of the foreigners coming to Malta to work fall within the 18-64 age bracket. “A number of these workers, particularly those coming from non-EU countries, are receiving wages that are low – or even very low – compared to the national average, meaning that these workers fall below the poverty threshold and are living in sub-standard conditions.”

The Party highlighted other issues connected with poverty, including “inflation, rising housing costs, gender-gap discrimination, high rate of early school-leavers and poverty traps.”

It made a number of suggestions to the government regarding how poverty should be tackled, all of which could help the situation. It called on the government to ensure adequate pensions that allow pensioners to live decently. It also argues that the government should ensure that all school-leavers have the necessary skills and qualifications to benefit from better-paid job opportunities; that gender pay discrimination be eliminated and that cheap and slave labour conditions be eradicated through better labour-law enforcement.

The PN is also proposing that the income tax paid by part-time workers should be reduced from 15 per cent to 10 per cent and that income from work carried out beyond the 40 hours stipulated by law be considered as part-time work and therefore subject to a flat rate of 10 per cent income tax.

 

Education

The PN highlighted a European Commission study that had found that while Malta was spending well above the EU average on education, the performance of Maltese students in international assessments remained poor. It also took note of a shortage of teachers.

Among other things, the PN said that the government should dedicate more resources to education research. “Long-term planning is required in designing and developing education systems which meet the varying needs of our evolving society.”

The PN also proposes that more efforts are made to develop students’ abilities and skills, that teachers are given more assistance to overcome the stress brought about by the relentless pace and scale of change in every aspect of their profession and that the government introduces a balanced legal framework that includes the necessary guarantees so that teachers can exercise their duties without fear, intimidation and/or coercion. At least some of these proposals will undoubtedly be welcomed by the teachers’ unions.

The Party also called on the government to dedicate more resources to improving education facilities. “There should be more focus and ‘attention’ on the kindergarten and primary levels, as many of the inherent problems that become more evident at later stages – and manifest themselves in the adverse statistics – are a side-product of these fundamental years of development.”

 

Healthcare

The pre-budget document indicates that the present staffing situation at Mater Dei hospital is insufficient for the provision of adequate care for patients. “The understaffing situation is causing stress to healthcare professionals, many of whom are suffering from burn-out and fatigue. Whilst recognising the work being done to increase the number of healthcare professionals working at Mater Dei Hospital and other facilities, the Opposition is proposing a continued national campaign aimed at promoting the healthcare professions among young people

The PN took the government to task over the mental healthcare situation on the islands, arguing that there is currently a shortage of psychiatrists, psychologists, social workers and nurses in the public mental health care services. It said that the Government had failed to provide essential community mental health services, and highlighted a shortage in this sector as well, urging the government to increase its investment in community psychiatric care.

The PN also proposed that more be invested in programmes aimed at detecting and combating diabetes at an early age, particularly by targeting obesity. One such proposal is that physical education and sport should become a primary subject in all schools and that all students should spend 30 minutes every day on supervised sporting activity in their school during school hours.

Indeed obesity is a problem in Malta, and the government has been trying to resolve the situation for many years. The Opposition and the government should join forces to find solutions to this issue.

 

Environment proposals

The government’s environmental policy was targeted by the Opposition in this section of the document, with the government accused of making it play second fiddle to the economy, and the Environment and Resources Authority being called toothless. Indeed this is a criticism many of the NGOs in the environment sector would make.

A key proposal regarding the environment is that when granting a development permit, the Planning Authority should establish reasonable timeframes for the work to be concluded in order to reduce the inconvenience to the community and neighbourhood. Another proposal is that the government should also, after proper consultation, establish a skyline policy for the whole country. This last proposal is particularly interesting, as perhaps setting stricter building heights could be included, given the current hotchpotch look of the island.

The PN called on the government to launch a consultation process for addressing situations where new building heights overshadow adjacent existing neighbouring solar energy installations, and to propose measures for discussion such as the idea that the state should compensate the affected party.

Noise pollution is another issue that the PN wants tackled. It highlighted the fragmentation of noise regulations and made a number of recommendations, including a proposal to establish a Noise Control Board to co-ordinate the regulation of noise between the various regulatory bodies already tasked with this role.

It also proposes that the Finance Ministry should ensure that government tenders are adjudicated on green public procurement criteria, and that quality criteria are given more importance, “thus moving away from the practice of adjudicating solely on the basis of the cheapest price, which does not always achieve the desired quality.”

 

Social matters

The PN issued a number of proposals in this field, ranging from social rights to the rights of the unborn.

It called on the government to establish a set of basic social rights aimed at improving the quality of life of the most vulnerable members of society. The Party highlights the fact that an adequate old-age income and pension should be included as a basic social right. In addition, it argues that the state should devise a system of social transfers based on the individual needs of the beneficiary, moving away from the ‘one size fits all’ system.

On the subject of wages, the document calls for the creation of a framework for fair wages and conditions “that respect for human dignity is mapped out to allow for a decent quality of life.”

As for the unborn, the document wants to establish the rights of the unborn child to afford it the maximum protection possible.

 

Home Affairs proposals

A number of proposals were made with regard to the Police Force and the Armed Forces. Among other things, the PN said that it is open to discussion on how the police pension can be improved and on how certain police work can be rewarded through special allowances. “All police allowances and overtime should be taxed at the part-time rate, which the PN is proposing be capped at 10 per cent.”

Another issue concerns the training of police officers regarding cases of domestic violence, with the PN recommending that better training needs to be provided. This is a particular issue on which the Police Force has long been criticised.

The PN also highlighted the fact that the Force failed to act on high profile cases, especially ones in which Government Ministers are implicated.

Turning to the AFM, the PN criticised the government’s handling of it, pointing out discrimination in the area of promotions, and the fact that hundreds of promotions were given on the eve of the 2017 elections. “These promotions created injustices, as deserving officers have now found themselves at a lower or equal rank as less-deserving officers,” the PN said while committing itself to addressing these injustices.

 

Improving localities

In recent years, Local Councils have been given greater importance by the PN, which believes that there should be an increase in Local Council budgets, “to enable them to increase environmental awareness and education in respect of their residents.”

A particularly interesting proposal is for the government to allocate an appropriate budget for a proper study into a carrying capacity exercise, which would then be followed by master plans, and the introduction of a landscape policy, an architecture policy and a skyline policy. If carried out correctly, this could indeed bring about interesting changes to planning policy.

The Party also recommends reducing property tax on the purchase of property in areas earmarked for regeneration and further reducing income tax on rent for the leasing of commercial outlets in such areas.

 

Gozo

Given that Gozo is a key political battleground, it comes as no surprise that the PN has come up with a bunch of proposals for Malta’s sister island.

It did not hold back when pointing to past PL promises for the island which have not yet been completed, citing the Marsalforn breakwater, the Gozo Aquatic Centre and the Ghajnsielem retirement home.

On the subject of a tunnel between the two islands – an idea originally floated by the PN – the Party said it would take a position on the project once all the relative studies had been published.

“The addition of a fourth ferry has brought about a substantial improvement by reducing queues and journey times,” it said. It is calling on the government to carry out a cost benefit analysis that will consider all the possible options for improving all year round connectivity between Malta and Gozo.

In terms of concrete proposals for the island, the PN proposes that the government provides fiscal incentives for Gozo business operators to help them expand their operations in Gozo; that it develops a long-term plan to help stop the brain-drain that is plaguing Gozo; that it provides increased investment for the ITS in Gozo and delivers on the pledges it made – particularly in respect of the building of a new hospital – and invests in upgrading education facilities in Gozo, amongst others.

The pre-budget document also goes into key areas of government, such as road and public transport. In this aspect, the PN highlights that the push to increase population growth through inward migration is contributing to the increase in traffic and therefore to the further deterioration of air quality. It argues that “the government’s belated solution of widening the existing road network will worsen the air quality problem since it will encourage – or allow – more vehicles on the road.”

A key suggestion to help alleviate this situation is the introduction of a mass transportation system that will reduce travelling time between main areas in Malta. This is not the first time that the PN has made such a proposal and it would go hand-in-hand with other proposals they have made, including the addition of more bus routes, that the government should consider introducing a carbon-neutral transport system for its employees and that private sector companies should be given fiscal incentives to organise communal transport services.

 

Financial services and iGaming

The PN document highlights the fact that the challenges faced by the financial services sector are not minor. It highlights the fact that the education system needs to adapt to better prepare our students and future employees for the opportunities offered by the Maltese economy.

Other issues the PN identifies include the recent Moneyval report, the difficulties businesses find when trying to open a bank account in Malta and regulatory deficiencies.

“The past six years have been characterised by a series of high-profile regulatory failures. While the country’s reputation has suffered mostly from the Pilatus saga, the regulators also oversaw the failure of two other banks, Nemea Bank and Satabank.”

Among other things, the PN proposes that the government appoints an a-political think tank of experts with years of experience in the financial services sector to ensure that all findings of the Moneyval 5th round report are addressed and that all de-risking measures are applied with immediate effect.

In terms of iGaming, the PN took aim at the lack of enforcement in this sector, adding that it is having a negative effect on jobs.

 

Other issues

The document covers a number of other topics on which the PN has made proposals.

In terms of tourism, the Party is calling for increased investment in large-scale projects such as the beach replenishment project and the aquarium and heritage projects that have been carried out in the past and that will improve Malta’s year-round tourism offering. Among other things, the PN also calls for the re-introduction of tourism police and a concerted effort to improve the level of cleanliness in developed areas.

Of particular interest was the PN taking a stance on a particular project site. 

“The Opposition will support investment in the Jerma site as long as the investment is in line with existing development policies, is primarily tourism related (including a superior class hotel) and is restricted to the current footprint of the existing dilapidated structure. A major tourism project in this part of the island can help re-establish Marsascala and the surrounding areas as a prime tourism zone.”

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