The Malta Independent 4 August 2020, Tuesday

Stop taking us for fools and annul the hospitals deal!

Peter Agius Wednesday, 15 July 2020, 06:19 Last update: about 20 days ago

During my working life, I have had the responsibility for purchasing services with public funds. Beyond the imperative details of national and European legislation setting the rules for that, the main test any manager should ask in spending public money is whether the taxpayer is getting a good deal from the transaction.

Is the taxpayer money well spent? And then obviously, is this done in a transparent and competitive fashion so that the use of public funds is justified and subject to public scrutiny?

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The purchase of a children’s playground by any of our local councils would have to submit to this test. In fact, any expense in excess of €10,000 would require, by law, not only a full track of documentation to attest due process of all relations with contractors but also a competitive process including a variety of offers to choose from, for the best deal for the taxpayers.

In this context, one cannot but remain bewildered at the idea that the assignment of a €2 billion grant (over fifty times the yearly budget for all local council combined) from Government to Vitals Global Healthcare slips through the net of all the checks and balances.

When we joined the EU in 2004 we introduced a series of laws to open our market to fair competition. One main legislation is the Public Procurement Directive, voted with conviction by labour as well in its last revision in 2015. That Directive establishes, amongst other things, a rule that any public tender above 144,000 is published in the Official Journal of the European Union. The Government however bypasses all of that by conveniently transforming a request for services into a ‘concession’, doing away with all the scrutiny of EU Directives and also, and crucially important, avoiding any role for the National Contracts Department, thus keeping the whole deal in the Minister’s hands.

Not only was the law on public procurement trampled upon, but the whole matter remained under wraps with the memorandum of understanding originally not made available to the auditor himself.

Unsurprisingly the national audit office declares black on white what all Joe citizens from Zejtun to Qala have been whispering from day one of the rotten deal. The audit office tells us that the transformation of the deal from a contract to a concession was not correct. The whole process should have been subject to the normal rules. Moreover, the audit explicitly indicates its serious concern for the lack of documentation kept by government in this regard. Amateurs? That is an understatement.

The matter cannot be shrugged off by simply saying that the vitals concession is now a Steward healthcare responsibility. You can call me Ronaldo, but my football (lack of) skills won’t change. The Vitals deal was simply assigned onto Steward. What was rotten with Vitals remains rotten with Steward, and the rot affects the public purse.

Equally, Government cannot expect to hide behind legal technicalities to scare us off from requesting an immediate annulment of the deal. If it took its advice from take-it-easy Dr Grech, then it is advised to seek other legal advice on the matter.

Any third year law student will tell you how a contract with an illegal objective is null and void from its inception. Now it is clear as day that the Vitals deal which bypassed public procurement rules is by definition illegal. The Auditor’s report itself indicates this when hinting that on the basis of the risk element, the concession should have been a normal public contract subject to the standard contract notice. It should have been published in the Official Journal, and undergone scrutiny by the Contracts department. The Vitals-Steward deal is thus illegal, and Prime Minister Abela and Health Minister Fearne are only rendering themselves accomplices to its illegality by continuing to endorse it.

By analogy, the 100 million penalty add-up for Steward is also illegal as it is founded on an illegal basic contract. The whole circus can then be stopped without a dime in expense for the public purse. Government please wake up. We can see through your schemes. Stop taking us for fools and proceed to the annulment of the hospitals deal returning them to their rightful owners, the Maltese taxpayer!

Peter Agius is an EU expert & PN MEP candidate.

 

 

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