The Malta Independent 13 June 2024, Thursday
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Muscat’s severance package had three new elements when compared to past Prime Ministers

Wednesday, 13 March 2024, 18:20 Last update: about 4 months ago

Three new elements were present in former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's severance package when compared to those given to past Prime Ministers, information in a report by the Standards Commissioner reveals.

The information came from the conclusion of a Standards Commissioner investigation regarding former Prime Minister Joseph Muscat's severance package. Independent politician Arnold Cassola as well as Repubblika had filed a total of three requests for investigation regarding the subject.

The Commissioner said that the allegations in the investigation requests can be organised into three categories: That the PM and Cabinet gave an "excessively generous" severance package to Muscat, that the concession of the government property at Sa Maison to Muscat was not done according to law, and that the PM refused to give information about Muscat's benefits.

The Commissioner said he had written to the Lands Authority Chairman about the Sa Maison property in September 2022. The response, the Commissioner said, shows that the property in question was allocated to the Office of the Prime Minister in 2012 through a €6,000 a year lease. "The Authority was not involved in any other agreement regarding this property and no agreement or arrangement for the ex Prime Minister to be given use of it."

The Commissioner examined the complaint that the benefits given were too generous. The Commissioner noted that the package given to Muscat had three new elements not given to previous Prime Ministers. The first was the possibility to choose double terminal benefits instead of a transitional allowance. The second was the second car, and the third was the Sa Maison office.

The Standards Commissioner said that in a response he received from the Cabinet Secretary, it resulted that the terminal benefits given to Joseph Muscat amounted to €120,128, "since Muscat chose to take a double terminal benefit instead of a transitional allowance." It was explained that the terminal benefit was based on the salary of the Prime Minister in 2020, that was €57,797 over and above other payments including allowances, and that is why altogether the income was €64,068. "The terminal benefit is calculated by giving a month's wage for every year serving as Opposition Leader or Prime Minister, in this case €5,339 for 11.25 years, so amounting to €60,064. Since Muscat chose to take the double terminal benefit instead of a transitory allowance, this resulted in the amount of €120,128." The Commissioner described the benefit as 'substantial'

The Commissioner noted that Muscat's severance package was established through a Cabinet decision on 10 December 2019, when Muscat was still Prime Minister, and that according to Abela Cabinet discussed it without Muscat present. "In any case, Prime Minister Robert Abela cannot be held responsible for this decision as it was taken before he became Prime Minister in January 2020."

Regarding the responsibility of Cabinet, the Commissioner quoted a decision on another case by his predecessor, and said that his office could not probe decisions made by the cabinet. He also said that Cabinet took the decision more than two years before the first two complaints, and so it is also time-barred.

He said that since the benefits given to Muscat were through a Cabinet decision, one cannot expect them to be unilaterally withdrawn by the Prime Minister, as the Prime Minister would be going against Cabinet. That is why Abela cannot be held responsible for not withdrawing the non-monetary benefits from Muscat, he said. He said that the Prime Minister can bring up the issue in Cabinet, but the "Prime Minister's power to determine the Cabinet's agenda is covered by article 13(4) of the Act. Therefore the undersigned cannot review a decision of the Prime Minister to bring forward or not bring forward a matter for the consideration of the Cabinet."

Regarding the legality of the office concession, the Office quoted from Chapter 573 of the laws of Malta. "No land which either belongs to the Government or which is either possessed, kept or administered by the Government shall be disposed of unless such disposal is made in accordance with one of the following provisions" and said that the same article identifies a number of mechanisms with conditions tied to them.

He said that he does not know of any legal advice that could have been given regarding it. However, if there was any impression that since the concession is dependent on the will of the owner (ie the government) then the aforementioned Act doesn't apply, "this office is of the understanding that at the least there are serious doubts about this as the article in question applies for any transfer, and that is why the law had to be observed." But, he said that his Office is not the one to determine if the law was followed as that is the remit of the Civil Court.

He recommended that the situation be clarified and, if needed, regularised, "also because it is not easy to reconcile the concession of the office in Sa Maison with tolerance (which does not imply any connection on the part of the government) with the inclusion of the office in the package of benefits to which Dr. Muscat is entitled (implying a link)."

Regarding the lack of transparency, the Commissioner took note of Parliamentary Questions that had been answered since the complaint was filed, saying that there is no longer a need to investigate this allegation.

In his conclusions, the Commissioner said that since the decisions and proceedings of Cabinet are not reviewable under the Standards in Public Life act, and that in every case the Prime Minister was not in his position when the decision was taken by Cabinet, he did not find the PM guilty.

He recommended that benefits given to members of the Executive when they finish their term in office should be regularised by law or through regulations to be transparent and available to whoever is interested in verifying. "These benefits should not be established through a decision by Cabinet to which nobody has access."

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