malta chamber

The Malta Chamber is calling on Government to “eradicate the culture of abuse” that is “reflecting badly on the country’s governance,” proposing a number of measures meant to curb “abuse of power and clientelism”.

Among the suggestions put forward by the business lobby are the full digitisation of government services to ensure transparency, broader powers to the National Audit Office to investigate public contacts on its own steam, and a cap on the number of persons engaged in positions of trust, as well as the full disclosure of their compensation and benefits.

The strongly worded statement comes a day after The Times reported that as many as 800 people are fraudulently receiving disability benefits despite not qualifying for such assistance. It described a systemic and organised scheme through which a former Government MP provided forged documentation that allowed these persons, largely hailing from Labour strongholds, to claim around €450 per month for a disability they did not have.

In recent months, police have been arraigning dozens of people engaged in benefits fraud, with courts ordering them to return the illegitimately obtained funds and handing down suspended prison sentences. However, no charges have seemingly yet been brought against any public officials involved in its organisation.

“Systematic abuses are costing millions in public funds that could easily be invested in systems that would eradicate the possibility of rackets,” said The Malta Chamber. “The monies being squandered through such rackets could be better used to support those who really need help and to address issues which are leading to the country’s deterioration such as the traffic situation, the lack of investment in utility infrastructure, the shabbiness and proper waste management.

“The longer we allow things to slip, the worse the repercussions and the cost of repairing them will be.”

The Malta Chamber also underscored the impact of such practices, including the provision of public sector jobs to persons who then continue working privately while drawing two salaries, on business.

“Practices that encourage people to opt out of productive employment, either by taking up public sector jobs requiring minimal effort, or by applying for benefits under false pretences, have a destabilising effect on our labour market,” it said.

It added that at a time when inflation continues to make regular headlines amidst worries of the rising cost living, “such abusive practices ultimately have an inflationary effect on the whole economy, because they exert even more pressure on a very tight labour market. They also increase public spending, which increases government debt, which is in turn financed by the issue of government bonds, which in turn put pressure on interest rates to increase, thereby increasing the cost of funding for everyone.”

It called on those involved in politics and public officials to cut down on clientelism and think about the repercussions of their actions and about the critical role they play in setting expectations and determining the choices people make in terms of their own employment and recruitment of others, consumption, savings and investments, and planning for their future.

It said that the pervasiveness of practices that “propagate a culture of abuse of power and clientelism puts a heavy onus on Government to urgently implement digital systems that increase efficiency, provide full transparency and ensure fairness.”

In this vein, The Malta Chamber put forward the following recommendations, forming part of its Pre-Budget 2024 proposals.

  1. Fully digitalise Government services with real-time tracking, whereby applications requiring approvals from various professionals/entities would be submitted directly into the system using their digital identity to eliminate the possibility of submission of forged documents.
  2. Regularly rotate staff involved in the processing of sensitive applications to reduce the possibility of tempering with systems and improve the likelihood of detecting attempts to temper with systems very quickly.
  3. Automate various customer care and verification processes to improve efficiency, transparency and consistency.
  4. Maintain accurate records on the provision of public services and reform the public procurement processes to ensure a level playing field.
  5. Draw a clear demarcation between political responsibility at the ministerial level and the administrative and executive responsibility of the civil service. For example, deciding whether to privatise the provision of a public service or not is a political decision, but selecting the contractor is a matter of executive competence.
  6. Allow the National Audit Office to scrutinise all public contracts above a certain value without requiring a formal request and outrightly prohibit the use of side letters which significantly modify key provisions of an agreement, like offsetting financial risks.
  7. Cap the number of people holding a position of trust and limit positions of trust to those of high political sensitivity or carrying specific security risks. Compensation and benefits received by people in positions of trust need to be fully disclosed and independent audits carried out regularly against stipulated compensation criteria.

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