The Malta Independent 18 April 2024, Thursday
View E-Paper

Benefits fraud scandal: Heads would roll, Sant says if he were in charge

Kevin Schembri Orland Sunday, 17 September 2023, 08:00 Last update: about 8 months ago

Kevin Schembri Orland is reporting from Strasbourg

Heads would roll” was former Prime Minister and current PL MEP Alfred Sant’s response when asked how he would tackle the benefits fraud scandal if he were in charge.

As for whether he believes enough is being done to tackle the issue, he said that he is "not in the system, so I can't say. All I know is what I get from the media".

ADVERTISEMENT

The Times of Malta reported that up to a possible 800 people could have received severe disability benefits which they weren’t entitled to. The Prime Minister, Robert Abela, has said that investigations so far have confirmed 160 may have done so and the government has appointed a board to evaluate the process of the disability benefits scheme. A former PL MP, Silvio Grixti, has also been implicated in the racket for allegedly providing false documents enabling people to receive benefits they were not entitled to.

The scandal has also been tied to allegations of vote buying.

In an interview with The Malta Independent on Sunday, Alfred Sant was asked for his thoughts about the benefits fraud scandal and about what he believes the government and authorities should be doing to tackle it. "Its totally disquieting that an abuse that was rampant under the Gonzi PN administration that I thought would be over, is still running, and it’s got to be stopped,” he said.

As for what he makes of the allegations that a former PL politician and current government officials were involved, Sant said "its part of the problem. If you want to stop it, you stop it across the board".

Asked whether he believes the authorities are strong enough to arraign all those involved, he said "well, they are doing it at a micro level if I understand correctly, now they have to move up the chain".

The PL MEP, responding to further questions, alleged that the scandal is smaller than it was in the past. "If you analyse what data is coming out, if you compare with what was happening under Gonzi PN, its a much smaller phenomenon, believe it or not. If you look at the thousands that got it under Gonzi PN."

“They're saying now its vote buying, frankly for the past (Labour-won) elections it couldn't have affected the result, but it might have affected the 2008 result; just a 1,500 vote difference (in favour of the PN)."

He said that it is unjustifiable by whoever does it.

As for whether the police should throw the book at those who took the benefits without being eligible, he said: "On that level I think its being done on the right basis. You can't criminalise so many people can you," he said referring to imprisonment. Told that they were stealing taxpayer funds, he said: "I know that they were stealing but they are being forced to refund."

The Times had reported that over the past months, police have been charging claimants who benefitted from the benefits scandal, the majority of whom have admitted to the charges in court and agreed to return the funds, netting them a suspended sentence.

 

Irregular migration

Turning to the topic of irregular migration, Sant was asked whether Malta’s abstaining from the vote on the EU’s New Pact on Migration was the right move. "What would you do? Approve something that is insufficient? On the one hand we carry the burden, on the other hand others can say 'we don't share the burden if we don't want to'. Where is the solidarity they speak so much about?” Sant asked.

As for Malta cooperating with Libya, he said there is no other option. “If on the European side there is no real solidarity, you have to deal with the guys on the other side of the fence. Obviously they are not in the best position vis-a-vis human rights, clearly."

One has to be a realist, he said, because "they are the ones you have to deal with".

There are so many economic migrants due to the trouble in sub-Saharan Africa caused by jihadists but also by Europeans, Sant argued. "It is said that we no longer practise colonial practices and that we just work on cooperation and human rights. Yes, but what do their  companies do?” he asked.

"France is no longer the major economic collaborator with these countries, but Europe is still interested in the raw materials that are needed for electric cars, atomic energy, etc. That's where the cookie crumbles."

Asked about rescue NGOs operating in the Mediterranean, and the rhetoric by some that they act as a pull factor, he said that there are smugglers bringing people over by plane through Syria from Pakistan and Bangladesh, then taking them to Libya and Tunisia, and arranging to crowd them on boats. "And they'll say: 'you will get rescued because there are rescue NGOs'. Does that make sense? In my view it doesn't."

“NGOs that just say they were waiting for people smugglers to send those people over and they'll pick them up… That's crazy as a model."

Asked for the alternative, he said: "The alternative really is to get those people smugglers."

However human smugglers are still operating.

He commented that when they wanted to locate Ghaddafi, they did. He asked why it was apparently so difficult to get people smugglers. “So when its a question of NATO wanting to do something in Libya, namely destroy Ghaddafi, they know everything that is going on. When its a question of people smugglers having boats, organising planes coming from Pakistan, transporting people, managing prisons, they don't know anything about it. Does that make sense? To me it doesn't.”

Earlier this week EU Parliament President Roberta Metsola said that the only solution to ensure that people no longer face death crossing the Mediterranean to reach Europe is for asylum applications to be processed outside of EU territory.

"Most of them are not asylum seekers,” Sant said. Many of them are economic migrants, he added. Pressed on whether he thinks Metsola’s idea would help solve the issue, he said that this was something which has long been suggested. "At one stage, in Turkey, there was a processing system being organised. But even if it works out, one of the problems with the EU is that it doesn't have an official migration policy, which it needs. There's a problem with labour, a problem with age disparities. Places like Germany need labour, so migrants could fit this and therefore the EU could have an official migration policy, with people who would seek a permit to come in on a certain basis etc."

 

Energy

Malta and a number of Mediterranean countries are pushing for the Mediterranean to become a renewable energy centre. Asked for his opinion on this, he said he’d like it to happen. “I hope it will, but on what basis would it be the Mediterranean more than the North Sea for instance."

He also questioned how far floating wind technology has come.

"Beyond that, there is also the question of importing solar energy from Africa through the Mediterranean." The plans for solar energy started in Algeria. There was a Maltese trying to set one up in Tunisia but it never worked out."

He was asked about the Malta-Libya renewable energy interconnector MoU. He said its going to be difficult to implement. Asked further about this, he said: "It's a problem having big investments in Libya under the current conditions on a long-term basis."

 

Listing Act

Sant has been a rapporteur on the Listing Act in the European Parliament. The aim of the listing act, he said, is to make it easier for SMEs to get onto the Stock Exchange and to introduce multiple share voting structures, "which would mean that a company can issue new shares on a five-to-one basis. So new shares would have one vote and the original shares five votes. It divides it up into classes, one with multiple votes and the other with just one".

Asked whether he thinks there are many local SMEs interested in getting listed on the Stock Exchange or if this is more for other EU country SMEs, he said that most firms in Malta are SMEs by European measurements. Up to now “there hasn't been so much interest in Malta on equity shares. Most companies would go for debt issues. Some have started to experiment with that. The problem in general with the Country Markets Union (CMU) in Europe is that it has not really succeeded in taking off and the actual capitalisation of SMEs and all other units within the European system, has actually gone down relative to other continental markets".

"One of the reasons, it is said by experts, is that not enough SMEs have been attracted to take it up. There is a system by which they would have a prospectus coming up for instance, that is harmonised as much as it can be at EU level on the basis of regulation, but it is not really taken up. During the pandemic, we made a small change regarding prospectuses to be able to mobilise capital for SMEs that needed it in order for them to be able to survive. We did it, but it didn't really take off either. So this now is an exercise by which deregulation at a certain level would make it sound less difficult and less tough and complicated for SMEs to contemplate this option.” The problem at the moment, he said, is getting share issuers to launch their issues.

 

  • don't miss