The Malta Independent 26 September 2021, Sunday

Lobbying transparency, asset declaration among key focus areas in 2-year political standards project

Neil Camilleri Wednesday, 15 September 2021, 11:14 Last update: about 11 days ago

A 24-month project launched on Wednesday morning seeks to greatly improve standards in public life in Malta, including through a better Code of Ethics for MPs and Cabinet members, and introducing better practices for lobbying transparency and asset declarations.

The project, undertaken by the Office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, is supported by the European Commission and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). 

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Aims of the project

The government of Malta has committed to improving standards of integrity in public life and is focusing efforts on strengthening the rule of law, transparency and accountability. To advance on these commitments, the Office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life has requested technical support from the European Commission’s Directorate General for Structural Reform Support (DG REFORM) in the area of public integrity. To support implementation, the DG REFORM has engaged through its Technical Support Instrument the expertise of the OECD.

The resulting project – ‘Improving the integrity and transparency framework in Malta’ – aims to strengthen the Commissioner’s oversight role and capacity, as well as improve awareness of integrity to inform a strengthened public integrity system in Malta.

To achieve these objectives, the OECD will support the Office across six key areas:  

1)      Increasing the effectiveness of the Office

2)      improving integrity standards to strengthen the Commissioner’s oversight role

3)      improving the process for collecting and verifying asset and conflict of interest declarations

4)      strengthening the Code of Ethics for members of Parliament, Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries, and supporting implementation through tailored guidance

5)      Improving the policy framework for responsible lobbying

6)      Improving communication on integrity 

With a duration of 24 months, the project will be supported by a Steering Committee comprised of representatives from the Office of the Standards Commissioner, a representative from each parliamentary group, a representative from the Ministry for Justice and Governance, representatives from civil society, as well as DG Reform and the OECD.

A more effective Standard Commissioner

The exercise will assess the strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats in relation to the Office of the Standards Commissioner. It will also analyse its legal, procedural and institutional set-up, the human and budgetary resources and the policy framework in Malta.

A report will be drawn up with recommendations on how to increase the effectiveness of the office and, if needed, increase its resources.

The role of the office is often hampered by the fact that the Standards Commissioner is precluded by law to investigate anything that took place before the role was created in October 2018. The Standards Commissioner has also been calling for a change in the law to give him discretion on whether his reports should be made public. Currently, that decision rests with Parliament’s ethics committee, which is composed of two PL and two PN MPs, and is chaired by Speaker Anglu Farrugia.

There will also be a report with recommendations on how to amend the law itself – the Standards in Public Life Act. This will be done with a view to strengthen the Commissioner’s oversight role, and address omissions, inconsistencies or overlaps in the current legislation.

While following GRECO, Venice Commission and EU recommendations, the exercise will include consultation with local stakeholders from government, official bodies and civil society. The report will include a roadmap with proposals for adopting and implementing the proposed amendments. 

Asset declaration

The current methods of collecting and verifying asset and conflict of interest declarations will be reviewed with a view to improve them. Recommendations in this sense will be drawn up in line with good practices from OECD countries.

There will be recommendations on which officials should submit declarations, and how often. The assessment will also focus on mechanisms for verification of these declarations, as well as sanctions.

A technical working group on asset and conflict of interest declarations will be established. This will include representatives from each parliamentary group, the justice ministry, the OPM, the Economic Crimes Unit of the Police, the Commissioner for Revenue, the State Advocate, the Chamber of Advocates, the Chamber of Commerce, and civil society, as well as international stakeholders such as the EU, GRECO and the OECD.

The Code of Ethics for MPs, Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries will also be reviewed with the aim of improving ethical standards for political functions in Malta.

Training courses will also be prepared, and a handbook on the Code of Ethics and Guidelines for Ministers and Parliamentary Secretaries will be produced. 

Lobbying

The project also seeks to address undue influence from lobbying in Malta.

The report will include relevant good practices from OECD countries and provide recommendations to improve the policy framework for responsible lobbying.

It will also include draft technical specifications as well as the capacity requirements in terms of human and budgetary resources, and sustainability prospects for the proposed instrument for curbing undue influence in lobbying and ensuring transparency.

A technical working group will be consulting various stakeholders in the field.

Efforts will also be made to raise public awareness on standards in public life, including through the use of social media.

 

Event launch

Addressing the event, Standards Commissioner George Hyzler said the projects seeks to turn words into tangible action. He said he was happy to see the government on board, along with the Opposition. This exercise, he said, should enhance his office’s investigative role in investigating breaches of conduct and conflict of interest. A long-term goal is to reach a change of culture on public integrity, he continued. Another aim is to set the conditions to attract the right people to public life, he said, adding that trust and transparency are essential for this.

Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis said integrity and transparency are two root pillars in any rule of law reform. On must appreciate the efforts done over the past 18 months in favour of transparency and integrity in decision-making processes, he said, noting that these should have been put in place decades ago. These include the method of appointing the President of Malta, how to appoint and discipline the judiciary, the checks and balances for institutions, and the appointment of a Standards Commissioner. More needs to be done and more laws will be introduced come October, when Parliament resumes, but, at the end of the day, a mentality shift towards a culture of accountability and scrutiny is needed, Zammit Lewis said. The minister said the code of ethics needs to be improved, adding that better standards are “the way forward.”

Parliamentary Secretary Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi also spoke about the importance of integrity by those serving in public roles and the expectations of such by the public. He said the government eagerly awaits more transparent methods of asset declarations and lobbying regulation.

Daniele Dotto, Deputy Director DG Reform, European Commission, noted that the Maltese government has expressed its commitment on anti-corruption reforms. Progress was indicated in the rule of law report, but some issues remain, such as conflict of interest of politically exposed persons and lengthiness of anti-corruption investigations. These issues require a strong commitment at government level to pursue reforms.

Jeffrey Schlagenhauf, Deputy Secretary General of the OECD,  said corruption is a serious issue for the Maltese, but they are not alone as this is a global problem. “Public integrity is doing the right thing, even when no one is watching,” he said, adding that achieving this level of public integrity requires strong political will.

Photos: Giuseppe Attard

 

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