‘Low and below specification’

Exactly why the FMS would be so keen to exonerate the suppliers and developers of any serious structural issues that may later arise, is a question that has not been satisfactorily answered

Cartoon by Mark Scicluna
Cartoon by Mark Scicluna

Recent events have demonstrated that it is not just the structure of Mater Dei Hospital’s Accident and Emergency department that was built using weak and substandard cement. Serious structural deficiencies also exist in Malta’s entire political system: a system that is geared to minimise transparency and accountability in all such issues, with the result that serious scandals such as this invariably go without retribution. 

Even the fact that it took 20 years for this problem to surface speaks volumes about the shocking lack of transparency that characterises practically all aspects of government activity. The building in question was commissioned in the early 1990s, and the plans were revisited following a change in government in 1996. 

Yet it is only now that we discover that the concrete used for the A&E building falls far short of the basic standards required for safety.

Commissioned to conduct an independent structural assessment and audit of the concrete strength in September 2014, analysts Arup determined that the A&E and Block D buildings at the Mater Dei Hospital were found to be “low and below specification”. Separately, it was reported that the use of faulty concrete may have saved the suppliers some €40 million.

The irony in all this is little short of overwhelming. That any part of a hospital would be built using weak and substandard concrete – to save money at the expense of putting people’s lives at risk – is already shocking enough. But that it had to be the A&E department, of all wards, to be deemed ‘unsafe’ from a structural point of view, as a result of gross negligence and political irresponsibility… this almost literally adds insult to injury.

Even if one stops here, the revelation speaks volumes about the lack of seriousness with which even the most serious decisions are traditionally taken at government level. 

But there is more. Health Minister Konrad Mizzi estimated that remedial works to strengthen the structure of the A&E ward would cost €30 million. But it now transpires that the government will find it difficult to recoup this cost through legal action, on account of obligations incurred contractually by the preceding administration. 

On 19 February, 2009, the Foundation for Medical Services signed away on a contract any claims or disputes that could be raised against Swedish construction giant Skanska – which built Mater Dei – as well as local and foreign architects and engineers, cement suppliers, and logistical service companies, for faulty or defective works at the hospital.

Exactly why the FMS would be so keen to exonerate the suppliers and developers of any serious structural issues that may later arise, is a question that has not been satisfactorily answered. But this is not the first time that government agencies and supposedly autonomous authorities have entered contractual agreements which clearly favour all parties except Malta.

In 2010, the National Audit office concluded that the contract with BWSC to develop a power station in Delimara was likewise riddled with clauses to BWSC’s benefit: including a waiver of the construction firm’s obligations to complete the project on time. A separate confidentiality clause also meant that the government had to ask BWSC’s permission to publish the contract. In the end only select parts of this document were made public: those chosen by BWSC.

Closer to today, the present government has entered into several contractual obligations – for the partial privatisation of Enemalta, for instance, or the construction of a new power station – and details remain firmly under wraps. Neither side, it seems, has any monopoly on transparency in this country.

In the case of the 2009 FMS contract, not only did the health authorities unaccountably exonerate all parties for any flaws in the finished hospital; but the contract itself was kept under lock and key.

Meanwhile it is not just on the transparency and good governance level that the authorities have abjectly failed in this case. Accountability, too, has taken a battering in the process. 

Contacted by this newspaper, former minister John Dalli claimed it was a ‘Cabinet decision’ to approve the contract. Shadow health minister Claudette Buttigieg said that responsibility must be “shouldered across the board”… but in the same breath she attempted to turn the tables onto the present government for its failure to complete the power station in two years.

Ironically, she added that “Transparency is crucial and if we are not careful, then people will start losing heart in the political class.”

Yet it is precisely this type of responsibility-shirking, coupled with the increasingly childish political blame game, that is causing people to mistrust politicians.

As a result, it is highly unlikely that anyone will ever shoulder responsibility for this fiasco. It seems there is an escape clause even in the social contract signed between the people of Malta and their political representatives: the latter are always exempt for any mess they make, while the former is invariably left to foot the bill.

This cannot continue. ‘Transparency’ and ‘accountability’ are not merely buzz-words to be raised during election campaigns. They are the concrete that keeps the structure of public faith in politics from crumbling.

In Malta’s case, the standards of this ‘concrete’ are very clearly ‘low and below specification’.

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