The Malta Independent 24 September 2021, Friday

Further clarification needed on oversight responsibilities in Persons of Trust Bill - Hyzler

Jake Aquilina Monday, 22 March 2021, 20:09 Last update: about 6 months ago

Further clarification should be made on who will keep an eye out for any wrongdoings and investigate people in positions of trust in the newly proposed Persons of Trust Bill, Standards Commissioner George Hyzler said in a parliamentary committee.

The Committee for the Consideration of Bills is currently going over the aforementioned Bill, which was first presented to Parliament in July 2020. The Standards Commissioner had issued a report highlighting a number if concerns.

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Most of Monday’s debate revolved around the terms Persons of Trust and Positions of Trust. The government says people employed in Positions of Trust usually come from the public service, so they fall under the Public Service Commission. People of Trust, on the other hand, can be employed from the public sector. The Bill proposes that these would fall under the oversight of the Standards Commissioner. The PN is arguing that both should fall under the Commissioner.

But Hyzler argued during the meeting that, “a Minister is unlikely to report an employee to the Public Service Commissioner in practice.” In practice, they would likely be reprimanded privately, he said. “If people think that someone from a ministry is going to send them to the PSC, we are fooling ourselves.”

The Standards Commissioner also pointed out that the discrepancy of who keeps an eye on persons of trust and positions of trust should be further clarified, as it is rather vague.

He also pointed out the people who work in the public sector and are then employed in ministries automatically enter into the political sphere, and due to this, would perhaps merit added scrutiny.

“Whoever is in the public sector and is then employed in a ministry has a different role to play in society, as people employed in ministries, due to the nature of their job, have a somewhat political role.”

He suggested that “perhaps there needs to be a separate code of ethics for those who fall under this category.”

PN MP Karol Aquilina said the Persons of Trust Bill is a regression and leaves out people termed as ‘positions of trust’ from being investigated by the Standards Czar.

PN MP Comodini Cachia added that, “the Opposition’s objection is based on a concept on whether we want to strengthen ethics from persons who are chosen to serve the interest of the public.”

Comodini Cachia said that, in light of recent events, where Keith Schembri was charged with corruption and money laundering and was also refused bail, this is not the message the country should be giving out.

“The amendment that the minister is proposing disqualifies certain people from being scrutinised. This is exactly the message that Parliament should not send in light of recent events.”

 

Hyzler's report

Persons of trust is “generally understood as referring to political appointees … individuals who have been employed by the government of the day without a call for applications. However, the same term as defined in the Act is narrower in scope. Not all persons who hold appointments on trust necessarily fall within the jurisdiction of the Standards Commissioner,” The Commissioner for Standards in Public Life’s report stated.

“The government reserves this term for those who are engaged directly from outside the public administration.”

On the other hand, positions of trust are “those who were already employed in public administration before being engaged in secretariats or associated units.”

Some of the main issues that the report highlighted can be split into three. First, “there is no requirement that those appointed on trust should be qualified for the vacancies they fill.” 

“On the contrary, the logic of the bill dictates that the qualification requirements should be waived (although the bill does not spell this out) since the aim is to fill vacancies for which qualified people are not available.”

Secondly, the report also highlighted that the English and Maltese versions of the proposed Bill vary in their meaning, where although in the English text it says that “persons of trust in secretariats will be subject to the Act regardless of the nature of their duties,” it does not include secretariate staff to be considered as persons of trust unless they are acting as consultants. This has now been resolved.

Finally, the report noted that persons in positions of trust would be no longer subject to the Standards in Public Life Act. “This too represents a step backwards,” he said.

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