Public transport and public sector employment

This ministerial behaviour is completely unorthodox and utterly unacceptable. Negotiations should only start after the preferred bidder is chosen by the evaluating committee and publicly announced

Rules are made to be broken – especially in public transport matters.
Rules are made to be broken – especially in public transport matters.

The government was justifiably pleased with the recent statement by the National Statistics Office (NSO) revealing that registered full-time employment increased by 3.3% in February compared with the same month last year, while the increase for part-time primary jobs was 5.8%.

At the same time, the number of persons registered as full-time self-employed rose by 353 when compared with February last year, while the number of persons registered as employees increased by 4,770. Moreover, male and female full-time employment went up by 2.1 per cent and 5.4 per cent, respectively, over 2013 levels.

Reacting to the news, PN spokesman Tonio Fenech said that in the past 12 months some 1,800 people were taken on in the civil service, which is more than a third of full time jobs created in the same period. Fenech accused the government of hiding ‘the growing unemployment problem’ by employing more people with the state or its entities.

The increase in state dependent employees is still a serious blot on this government’s copybook

Reacting to this reaction, a government spokesman was reported to have told ‘Times of Malta’ that the new employees on the public sector payroll include 725 former Arriva employees “who would return to the private sector once a new bus service operator is engaged”.

All this shows, I suppose, that the Arriva debacle and its mishandling by the present administration has upset more than one applecart.

If the 1,800 increase in public sector employees include the ‘temporary employment’ of the 725 former Arriva employees, then the increase in private sector employment is impressive, because this increase was made after making good for natural wastage plus the 725 employees transferred from the private sector to the public sector. Perhaps Tonio Fenech’s 1,800 figure is not as alarming as seen at first glance.

Yet, the increase in state dependent employees is still a serious blot on this government’s copybook – public sector employment should shrink not bloat, if Malta is to tackle the deficit problem seriously.

There is, of course, the immense pressure from Labour supporters to get a job with the state. Unfortunately this government is not coming across as one that can resist this pressure. It has already started to give in, albeit initially in small doses… that then became ‘overdoses’ in the run-up to the European Parliament election.

Suffice it to say that it was in that period that 70 employees were employed by the Cleansing and Service Directorate to be deployed with cleaning duties in various tourist zones. The impact on the public payroll is palpable and permanent. The result in cleanliness is nowhere to be seen.

Under the previous administration government departments and state entities started farming out the provision of some services to private contractors rather than directly employing personnel – a system that is more cost effective for various reasons. Now we have state entities opting to employ directly cleaners, handymen and security personnel. I need not expound on how these employees are recruited and whether their recruitment was economically wise.

Notwithstanding the hoped-for future transfer of former Arriva employees back to the private sector, the public sector is being unnecessarily bloated in an unacceptable manner.

The mess gets messier

The way Minister Joe Mizzi is handling the award of the new public transport contract has raised many eyebrows. The contract will be given to a bidder for the service that will eventually replace Arriva for a fixed period of time. Meanwhile there is no end in sight for the present temporary arrangement.

Mizzi has mishandled the Arriva problem that he, admittedly, found on his lap on assuming his current Ministerial responsibilities. His insistence on Arriva withdrawing their infamous bendy buses was in breach of Transport Malta’s contract with Arriva and pushed the company to threaten to declare bankruptcy and shut down overnight after it had accumulated debts of up to €70 million in just two-and-a-half years – a situation that left the government with no option but to take over the service temporarily until a new contractor is found.

Minister Mizzi himself went to Spain apparently to ‘talk’ with the Spanish company before the evaluation committee had made a decision on who is the ‘preferred bidder!

The temporary service is proving to be a big strain on public finances with the service becoming even more mediocre than Arriva’s ever was, mostly as regards punctuality and discipline. Many millions of euros later, with the Finance Ministry trying to fill up the proverbial bottomless pit, the government has still not decided on the chosen contractor – not that there were many bidders to choose from.

There was quite a good measure of public perplexity when the General Workers’ Union’s daily, ‘l-orizzont’, recently quoted Mr Mizzi saying negotiations were in their final stages and that the wait for the name of the new bus operator was nearly over. Mizzi immediately denied that a government announcement was imminent, saying that negotiations with the preferred public transport bidder had not even started.

Though no formal announcement was ever made by the government, the Spanish company ‘Autobuses de Leon’ is being tipped to be in pole position, following a call for expressions of interest, which closed on April 7. Two Maltese companies – Gozo First and Island Buses Malta – had also bid to operate the service.

Mizzi said a lot of groundwork had been done since the bids were made; adding that they were thoroughly evaluated and the necessary “verifications” were carried out. This included meetings with the foreign bidder in Spain.

Minister Mizzi himself went to Spain apparently to ‘talk’ with the Spanish company before the evaluation committee had made a decision on who is the ‘preferred bidder! Perhaps he just went to ‘verify’ things that he could not verify from his office in Malta!

This Ministerial behaviour is completely unorthodox and utterly unacceptable. Negotiations should only start after the preferred bidder is chosen by the evaluating committee and publicly announced – giving the chance to other bidders to challenge the decision. Moreover such negotiations should never be carried out by the politician responsible for the sector, but with the evaluating committee that should, presumably, include more experts than party hacks.

Yet the Opposition’s reaction to this mess was, to say the least, weak: just an article in the PN’s Sunday newspaper, ‘il-mument’, that pointed out that a clause in the expression of interest document expressly prohibited any bidder to contact Transport Malta or the responsible Ministry. Theoretically the Spanish bidder should now be excluded from the bid for accepting to meet the Minister and the Transport Malta CEO before any decision was taken by the evaluating committee.

In practice, this will not happen. Rules are made to be broken – especially in public transport matters.

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