A crucial revision to the code of ethics of Malta’s Cabinet and MPs is yet to be debated in the parliamentary committee for standards, even though it was presented with the document a year ago.
Malta’s Standards Commissioner presented the revision on 29th July 2020. Malta’s Speaker Anglu Farrugia who chairs the parliamentary committee and helps dictate its agenda failed to answer questions as to the reasons behind the delay sent by Lovin Malta.
Sources have raised concerns about the delay with the revision crucial ahead of an election campaign – which will likely see sitting and prospective MPs use all the tools in their arsenal to secure their place in the next legislature, even if it comes at the expense of ethical concerns.
A code of ethics has been in place since 1995 but was only really enforced upon the creation of the Standards Commissioner in Malta. However, it is in urgent need of an update, and the revision aims to strengthen the ethical standards of MPs and Cabinet members in the hope of reinforcing the framework of accountability within Malta’s institutions.
The revised code, which is based upon GRECO recommendations and similar structures in the UK, Australia, and Canada, looks to create a new set of values for Ministers, Parliamentary Secretaries and MPs.
Among many things, the new principles would require all MPs and Cabinet members to not use any “improper influence, threats or undue pressure in the course of their duties” and not “abuse the power and privileges enjoyed by them”.
Key among the proposal is creating several key registers tackling transparency, lobbyists’ interests, and others.
A register for gifts, benefits, and hospitalities of MPs and Cabinet members will be drawn up – with their spouses, partners, and family members also subject to the list. Financial and non-financial interests will also have to be listed.
They would also be requested to record their assets, financial interests, and other non-financial interests in an annual register – while Cabinet members will need to record all relevant communication with lobbyists – which will form part of its own register.
The revision also calls for new principles when it came to association – insisting that Ministers must avoid associating with individuals who could place them under obligation or inappropriate influence; while also avoiding putting themselves in situations in their private lives that may expose them to any undue pressure or influence.
Ministers, under the revision, would also be subject to employment restrictions for a period of three years after leaving office. The restrictions are not general but limited to lobbying and jobs with private entities with which ministers dealt in the five years before they left office.
Cabinet members will also be required to avoid using unofficial email accounts to conduct official business. The issue was highly prevalent under Joseph Muscat’s administration, with the Office of the Prime Minister regularly using private email addresses on a @josephmuscat.com server.
The code is crucial for Malta’s parliamentary system to progress. While corruption and ethical behaviour are distinct, it should not mean that they are unrelated. Effective safeguards against ethical misconduct will also help to check more serious offences such as corruption, whereas lax ethical standards will likely encourage such offences.
It raises serious questions why the parliamentary committee for standards has ignored such a crucial piece of legislation for a little under a year. Speaker Anglu Farrugia did not reply to questions as to why it has not been placed on the committee’s agenda – particularly in the lead-up of an election year where conflicts of interests and unethical behaviour will be rife among MPs and prospective candidates jostling for a seat.
Therese Comodini Cachia, the PN MP who sits on the committee, said that the PN would always back an improvement of the code of ethics.
However, she insisted that the focus should be on the continued attacks from the Labour Party and government against the commissioner. Bedingfield, who sits on the committee, has been the most vocal of the critics.
Questions sent to government whip Glenn Bedginfield were unanswered at the time of writing. Lovin Malta asked for the reasons behind the delay and whether they would back the proposed revision.
Sources have raised concerns that the committee is dragging their feet over the issue because they are apprehensive of being subject to a set of stricter guidelines – which may prevent what are standard practices during the election season and parliamentary legislature.
Bedingfield has been open about his criticism of the current Standards Commissioner George Hyzler – who has authored several damning but effective reports into the conduct of current Cabinet members and MPs. He is also currently working on other reports on some major allegations concerning key political figures.
What do you think is behind the delay?