The Malta Independent 20 April 2024, Saturday
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TMIS Editorial: The right to redress

Sunday, 18 June 2023, 10:30 Last update: about 11 months ago

In seven of his latest speeches for the Sette Giugno commemoration, the Speaker of the House of Representatives has made the same point – a recommendation to establish a mechanism which grants citizens the right of redress when they feel aggrieved by statements made about them in Parliament.

Anglu Farrugia spoke about it for the first time in 2015, and then more or less repeated the same idea in speeches he delivered in 2017, 2018, 2019, 2021, 2022 and 2023. Each time, he has been ignored. Each time, nothing was done and, from one year to another, the Speaker feels he should bring up the subject again, in the hope that something will change. So far, it has not.

The Sette Giugno event is held each year to recall the riots that took place in Malta in 1919, which eventually led to the establishment of Malta’s Parliament in 1921. During the activity, the Speaker uses his address to speak about parliamentary work and share his thoughts on how procedures could improve. His suggestion on providing redress to private citizens, which is intended to curb abuse of parliamentary privilege, has not been accepted. A letter that the Opposition sent to the government in 2022 to discuss this and other matters has not even been acknowledged.

Parliamentary privilege is afforded to all MPs to allow them to speak their mind in the House without fear of retribution. It provides legal immunity to MPs, giving them protection against civil and criminal liability for statements made in Parliament. The idea was intended for matters of national interest.

Its downside is that there is potential for abuse. MPs have used it to make damaging allegations that, had they been made outside the confines of the House, would be covered by defamation laws. “Repeat what you have said outside this chamber and I will sue you,” is something that has been heard many times in our history.

Sometimes, allegations are made against people who are not MPs. But, as things stand now, no action can be taken by private citizens against MPs making any allegations that are damaging to them. The Speaker is suggesting – and he has been doing so for eight long years – that a mechanism is established to give people who are aggrieved by statements made about them in Parliament to seek redress.

We support the Speaker in his endeavour. This media house has written about this several times in the past years. We believe that MPs should be responsible for what they say in Parliament. We believe that they should not abuse parliamentary privilege. We also believe that this privilege should be restricted to matters of national importance. MPs, who use their time in Parliament to bring up damaging allegations about others, particular non-MPs, simply because they are protected should no longer be afforded such a licence.

Where we do not agree with the Speaker is who should be responsible to oversee matters if private citizens feel wronged by what is said about them. In his address in 2022, Farrugia made reference to the New Zealand model, where it is the Speaker who considers and decides whether what has been said in Parliament “is sufficiently serious” to warrant action. In other nations, the complaints are referred to a parliamentary committee for consideration and decisions.

We beg to differ on this. If such a mechanism is established, any grievance should not be brought before the Speaker or a parliamentary committee. Instead, a body, which is independent of Parliament, but with enough powers to intervene and take action, should be responsible to deliberate on grievances brought forward. We’re thinking of retired judges and magistrates, for example.

It would be wrong to have the Speaker or a parliamentary committee oversee such complaints. We have the Standards in Public Life Committee that is the perfect example as to why, if such a body is established to see to complaints by private citizens, should not involve people who are already part of the parliamentary structure.

We have seen it happen too often that reports that were submitted by the previous Standards Commissioner – after breaches were found – led to nowhere because politicians tend to defend their own. In many cases, action was not taken at all and, in the few cases that it was, it was too soft to be called a punishment.

We hope that, by the time the next Sette Giugno commemoration comes up, some progress would have been made in this regard. In his 2024 speech, the Speaker should be put in a position to say that the two sides have reached some form of agreement on this.

We also hope that this eventual mechanism, if set up, will not include anyone who is already associated with Parliament.

But we’re not holding our breath.

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