The Malta Independent 4 December 2021, Saturday

Decentralization or devolution

Alfred Sant MEP Monday, 25 October 2021, 07:02 Last update: about 2 months ago

Decentralization happens when in a given political system, public administration is run not from an overall central point but from several, so that citizens will perceive the operations of the state as close to their concerns. However effectively, from these regional or local “centres”, exactly the same procedures are followed as when affairs are run from one central location.            


By contrast, devolution covers arrangements by which those running such regional or local “centres” are accorded the power to introduce, change, revoke public management procedures according to what they consider to be the needs of the people, at least in certain areas, for which they have responsibility. Obviously in a democracy such decision makers would have to be elected by citizens.              

As of now, though the political rhetoric tries to play it differently, Malta’s local councils have developed on the basis of decentralization. Even when timid steps are taken towards some form of devolution – for instance when a council approves some bye-law that is specific to the zone under its purview – before decisions can be implemented, they need to have the relevant minister’s approval. All governments have considered the country too small to allow for any real move towards devolution.


Confession privilege?

A delicate issue which was raised in France recently, but which concerns all countries having Catholic traditions, questions whether confession should be “privileged” under the law – in the sense that what is said during confession to a priest must remain an absolute secret. And this even when crucial information of a criminal nature is divulged.             

The right to this privilege was reasserted by a French archbishop soon after the vast paedophilia scandal about the Catholic church in his country hit the headlines. He could hardly have chosen a worse moment to make his statement. From all corners, including the most esteemed ones of the secular state, arose huge dissent.     

Under republican laws, there is no way that the secret of confession should be considered as having more rights than appertains to professional people in the exercise of their professional duties. This is even more crucial since, should the right to which they pretend be accorded to Catholic priests, then representatives of other major religions... the Jewish faith, Islam...  would reasonably lay claim to a similar right.


How best to compensate?

Where the rise in energy prices has had a big impact, there was quick agreement that those who will be worst hit by the increases should be given some support. The question is – how should compensation be organised?                

If subsidies are set to keep prices lower than what the markets are dictating, everybody will benefit, not just lower income earners. And governments could have to carry enormous financial burdens. The same would happen if say, taxes on fuels are reduced.             

An alternative could be to give direct subsidies to lower income groups in order to help them keep up with the extra expense they will have to bear. Not everybody is in agreement with such an approach for evidently it would cause political problems. How would the line be drawn between those who can absorb the new costs and those who cannot?           

The easiest solution would be a VAT cut. How effective would it be to really achieve the desired objectives?

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