The Malta Independent 3 March 2024, Sunday
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‘Fraudsters’, ‘hypocrite’: PN and PL MPs clash in heated hospitals debate

Monday, 27 February 2023, 20:25 Last update: about 2 years ago

Reporting by Marc Galdes and Sabrina Zammit

PN and PL members of parliament traded blows in a heated debate on the now cancelled hospitals concession in a Parliamentary debate on the topic on Monday.

It was a heated debate with four members of the government – Prime Minister Robert Abela, Health Minister Chris Fearne, Justice Minister Jonathan Attard, and Finance Minister Clyde Caruana – and eight members of the Opposition – PN leader Bernard Grech, former leader Adrian Delia and MPs Karol Aquilina, Claudette Buttigieg, Stephen Spiteri, Ian Vassallo, Paula Mifsud Bonnici, and Alex Borg – speaking during the sitting.

The debate was called by both the government and opposition after the courts on Friday annulled the controversial deal which sold off three public hospitals to the private sector, first in the form of Vitals Global Healthcare, and then to Steward Health Care.

In a scathing judgement, Judge Francesco Depasquale said that it was clear that there had been fraud in the contracts, and that the concessionaire had not stuck to their obligations.

“Now we know who the fraudsters are,” the PN’s spokesperson for justice Karol Aquilina told Parliament soon after the Prime Minister’s speech.  He accused every person sitting in the government bench of being a fraudster for continuing to defend the annulled contract.

The statement prompted Gozo Minister Clint Camilleri to seek a ruling from the Speaker on the matter, with Anglu Farrugia saying that he would rule on it later down the line.

Aquilina continued his speech by saying that the whole nation is the victim of “this fraud” and quoted former PN leader and Prime Minister Eddie Fenech Adami in saying that prison scares only those who commit fraud – whom, he again said, in this case are the PL MPs.

He said that it was also former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat who, under oath, had said that the contract was done in accordance with the law, but added that it is clear now that this “was not true.”

Referring to the current Prime Minister, Aquilina said that it is not true that Robert Abela did not know about the Vitals project as it started back in 2015 and continued for the following years up until today.

“So the majority of fraud happened under Robert Abela’s watch, even if the court case was filed in 2018 when Joseph Muscat was Prime Minister,” he said.

Referring to Police Commissioner Angelo Gafa, Aquilina asked how come there have been no press conferences on “one of the biggest cases of theft the country has ever seen.”

He also said that because her office had been found guilty in the court sentence, then Attorney General Victoria Buttigieg must take the first step and resign from her position herself.

Aquilina added that moreover such a position should be occupied by a person who is going to ascertain that “those €300 million are given back.”

Aquilina continued by urging anyone with information on who is responsible for the annulled contracts to come forward, saying that “now is the time to speak up.”

Justice Minister Jonathan Attard spoke after Aquilina, and the minister started his speech off by saying that if all the PL MPs are fraudsters, “you are the biggest hypocrite in the history of Parliament.”

“You called Adrian Delia your friend after you led meetings behind his back to oust him from his position [as PN leader],” Attard said, referring to an earlier remark where Aquilina said that Delia was his friend and that Delia himself could confirm this.

“With humility we understand there were shortcomings in the services,” Attard said in response to the contract annulment.

He said that this is a very important court sentence but added that he would not delve into the merits of the case as the period where Steward can appeal is still open.

Attard added that the effects of the sentence can be far reaching, as they can affect employees and health services offered in the country.

He said that that is the reason as to why the government decided to wait for the court’s sentence, as this way the government could assure the nation that those in the health sector would retain their job.

The PN’s suggestion to stop the payments altogether immediately would have put people’s jobs at risk, he said. Following the PN’s advice would have sent the wrong message to foreign investors, he added.

Referring to the €46 million in taxes that are still needed to be paid by Steward, he said that the Tax Commissioner is working on the matter and is doing so in the best interest of the country.

Meanwhile, addressing Bernard Grech over comments the PN leader made in his political address on Sunday, Finance Minister Clyde Caruana said that “I am not going to hide, because the government has only one interest in mind and that the interest of the nation”.

Referring to past projects he said that it was under a PN administration that Mater Dei Hospital cost five times what was originally budgeted, and said that the PL administration had always done its best in order to help the people.

Caruana said that as the country ages, there need to be more health services made available for the elderly, in order for them not to take up space in the country’s hospitals.

He spoke of how under a PN administration back in 2000 that the total spending on the health sector stood 4.7% of the country’s GDP, whereas now it stands at 6.5%.  In the next 30 years he said it is expected to increase to 9%.

“This means that this country is going to invest in more beds for the elderly and also in the meantime facilitate more services,” he said, adding that billions in euros are also dedicated to purchasing and adding more medicines to the government formulary.

PN MP Ian Vassallo meanwhile mentioned all the mothers and children who are receiving treatment for their ailments in the Mater Dei Hospital corridors, and spoke of the long waiting times for people to get an operation.

Vassallo said that the money that was supposed to be spent on a hospital catered towards mothers and babies, mental health hospitals, and medicines was wasted in this deal instead.

He pointed out how the government chose to waste €300 million instead of helping these people who need medical attention.

“Not everyone can afford private health care. Not everyone makes millions.”

He said that the government were not even capable of opening a health centre in Gozo, and it was not even capable of giving health workers new uniforms.

PN MP Paula Mifsud Bonnici meanwhile condemned Abela for trying to justify the government’s behaviour. She slammed the government for treating everything as if it were business as usual.

“Business as usual, whenever people are killed from the government’s failure, it is business as usual for the government,” she said, while also referring to the assassination of Daphne Caruana Galizia and the death of JeanPaul Sofia as examples.

PN MP Claudette Buttigieg meanwhile said that “after a decade of fraud we stand here before the government waiting for it to return the hospitals to the people, as there is now no doubt that this contract was fraudulent.”

She went on to say that in total the word “fraud” was mentioned a total of 12 times throughout the court judgement.  She said that the project as a whole was not unsuccessful, precisely because its aim was to defraud the people: “therefore it reached its aim.”

Buttigieg reminded how the nation failed the only person who was trying to warn the nation of the fraud involved in the contract back in 2015 and went on to salute the memory of late journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia as “they did not protect her.”

When PN MP Stephen Spiteri spoke, he mentioned how he could not understand how after seven years they were still talking about this contract.

“I’m still trying to understand why the government tried to privatise these hospitals,” he said.

He said this especially with reference to Gozo, as the Gozo General Hospital was – and still is – the only hospital serving Gozitans.

“Are the Maltese not capable of running their own hospital? We have the best professionals,” he said.

He said that he believes that both sides must agree that this was a failed agreement and they need to look forward now.

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