Side by Said | Chris Said

From IVF to gay partnerships, from the minimum wage to the unemployed, from the appointment of judges to the powers of the attorney general, Chris Said wrestles with the mega portfolio given to him by Lawrence Gonzi in January

Justice Minister Chris Said
Justice Minister Chris Said

Chris Said's political star has been rising constantly since the last election. Elected for the first time in parliament in 2008, Said was appointed Parliamentary Secretary for Public Dialogue and Information within the Office of the Prime Minister.

Barely two years into the legislature, Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi entrusted Said with more responsibilities, including Consumer Affairs, Competition and Industrial Relations. The spell was only interrupted by a resignation after he was charged with perjury followed by his reappointment when the law courts cleared his name. In January, Said was appointed minister.  His portfolio now includes justice, social policy, the family and public dialogue. Isn't there too much on Said's plate?

"It is true that this is a big ministry but the issues involved are interrelated."

For example, new laws regulating fostering and adoption necessarily involve both the social and legal arms of the government. The drug issue involves both Sedqa and the new drugs court. In all these issues, according to Said, it makes sense to create a synergy between the legal and the social aspect. 

In a reply to a parliamentary question a few weeks ago, Said signalled a shift in government policy on drugs by referring to a "consensus" on the "decriminalisation" of drug possession.

"There is a consensus for a system which offers help to the victims while focusing our energies on the war against drug traffickers."

Through this new approach, persons who are apprehended for drug possession for the first time will not have to go through a trial.

Instead these people will be given the option of not facing trial in return for abiding to certain conditions, like accepting rehabilitation.

He points out that many of these cases involve young people, some of whom are experimenting with drugs due to peer pressure.

The worst aspect of the system according to Said is that these people come out of their ordeal with a tainted police conduct, something which affects their job prospects. 

"They end up having to face a number of obstacles just because of a single mistake."

Said believes that there is now a consensus on the need to do away with court procedures and to replace these with a system which helps rather than punishes these people.

These proposals are already partially included in the draft law presented to parliament but Said wants to improve it on the basis of proposals made by the National Commission on Drugs and Alcohol.

"We want a system which helps victims rather than destroys them."

One thorny issue inherited by Said is the recognition of cohabiting partners, an electoral promise made by the PN in 1998, which has still to be enacted 14 years later.

Said makes it clear that this issue cannot be postponed any longer.

"As soon as I was appointed minister I made it a point to assess the status of all pending legislation like that on cohabitation and IVF, and to make sure that we are in a position to move forward in the shortest time possible."

But why did the government sit on these issues for such a long time? Said attributes the delay to the complexity of the issues involved. "These are not straight forward issues, and they require a lot of thought."

But did this not perpetuate the perception that the government is tired lacks the energy to tackle difficult issues?

Said chooses to speak for himself. "My nature is that of finishing whatever I start."

Will these issues be resolved by the next election?  "Definitely."

In the past three months since his appointment the draft law has been finalised and is now awaiting approval by cabinet. "Following this the draft will be discussed by the parliamentary group and following that the draft will be published in a way that parliamentary discussion and public consultation can begin."

One of the innovative aspects of the new law is the introduction of civil partnerships for same sex couples. Said makes it clear that he does not intend to create a law which treats same sex couples in the same way it treats brothers or sisters who live together.

"My intention is clear; that of introducing civil partnerships which can be registered in a way that these couples will have both rights and obligations." 

While pointing out that this concept is found in many other countries, Said is evasive when asked whether he will opt for the British model of civil partnerships which gives same sex couples exactly the same rights as married couples insisting that the draft bill will be limited to establishing basic rights and obligations entailed in a civil partnership. But he does not exclude extending these rights.

"We want to embark on this discussion as soon as the final draft is published... we will continue listening to civil society to refine the law.  The end result will reflect the feedback we receive from stakeholders and the public."

Another contentious issue faced by the government is the proposed law to regulate IVF. I point out to Said that it has taken the present administration two legislatures and three reports by two separate parliamentary committees to come up with a law, which still has to be presented to parliament.

"I want to kill this issue. In fact the draft on this law has already been finalised over the past two months in a process which involved the Ministry of Health and experts,  and will be shortly discussed in the Cabinet before being submitted to parliament."

What was Said's reaction to (fellow Gozitan) Bishop Mario Grech's admonition to Catholic politicians on IVF?"Bishop Grech is looking at this issue from the point of view of the Catholic Church. As politicians we have to give due weight to this position. But finally, I have to see what is good for the country as a whole."

Said points out that IVF is not presently illegal in Malta and what the government is trying to do is to regulate this sector. Said also insists on the obligations of IVF providers to inform patients fully on the risks and chances of success of the procedure.

"We already have a number of babies born through IVF. Our aim is to ensure that there are no abuses."

What are Said's red lights on this issue? "We need to avoid the destruction of embryos."

He points out at different scientific processes through which the freezing of embryos can be avoided, except in exceptional circumstances.  One of the procedures is the freezing of ovas instead of embryos. But Said strongly feels that the State has a duty to help couples who find difficulties in having children.

"IVF can give couples who cannot have children otherwise the greatest gift in life: children."

As Minister for Social Policy, Said was immediately confronted by a Caritas report which exposed the failure of the welfare system to provide for the basic needs of vulnerable social categories; concluding that there are at least 6,000 persons in Malta whose basic needs are not being met. The report also identifies the basic needs which have to be satisfied to ensure a decent life.

The government's first reaction to the report was to invite Caritas to give a presentation to the Cabinet. Subsequently, the Cabinet decided to convoke a meeting of the Malta Council for Social and Economic Development to discuss the report.

As Social Policy Minister he asked experts from his ministry to come up with proposals to address the concerns raised in the report. "Our welfare net is very strong but this does not mean that it caters for relatively new social realities like single mothers."

He also points out that it is of paramount importance to ensure that the economy keeps on creating wealth and jobs in a way that people do not become dependent on the State. One of the key suggestions made in the Caritas report is an increase in the minimum wage, something which the government will consider. But Said is quick to point out that people currently earning the minimum wage are not living under the poverty thresholds identified by Caritas.

"We should not forget that someone with three children who earns the minimum wage is entitled to €2,866 a year for children's allowance. Someone with a single child receives €1,000 a year in children's  allowances."

He also points out that the sons and daughters of minimum wage earners are entitled to a higher stipend if they attend MCAST or University. Instead of a stipend of €83 a month, they receive a stipend of €251. One of the options being considered by the government is helping families in the vulnerable categories identified by Caritas by buying the basic needs identified in the report. One way of doing so is through a card similar to the smart card used by University students.

Said believes that subsidising basic needs is preferable to increasing benefits to ensure that these people do not end up spending their money on habits like alcohol, tobacco and gambling. "It is better to help these people by providing for their material needs rather than giving them cash in their hand, which they may well spend on other things and vices."

In the 2011 Budget, the government had launched a scheme through which minimum wage earners could receive an extra €25 weekly supplement which is even greater than the extra €22 a week proposed by Caritas.
Said describes the scheme as a "failure".

This is because "astonishingly", only eight persons applied to participate in this scheme. "It is incomprehensible how so few people applied for a scheme through which they would have earned more money while learning new skills.  Something clearly went wrong. We are not satisfied with this intake and have asked ETC for an explanation."

One of Said's first decisions was to extend the community work scheme to all the unemployed.  In the past people who have been registering for work for more than five years were offered 30 hours of work a week with local councils and NGOs. In return they received 75% of the minimum wage.  Now everyone who is registering for work will become eligible to participate in the scheme.

This does not mean that all the 6,000 unemployed persons will start working, as this depends on availability of jobs. But the ETC will now be in a position to identify people for particular vacancies in local councils and anyone who refuses will be struck off the register and will stop receiving benefits, if he or she do not provide a valid reason.

The system is designed to combat the 'black economy', as those who refuse to work without providing a valid reason are likely to be working illegally.

But the system also has a social dimension.

Said has talked to many of these people when visiting various local councils. "People who have been unemployed for a long time become lethargic and start losing faith in themselves. By giving them the chance of offering something back to the community these persons start believing in themselves. The sense of waking up to work gives these people a purpose and the opportunity of learning new skills, and thus they become more employable."

Said's agenda is not limited to addressing bread and butter issues. He also intends to embark on an overhaul of our legal system. One reform he wants to push through is that of the appointment of magistrates and judges who are currently appointed by the government of the day.

"In the past three months I had the experience of presenting two names for appointment as judges and I have to say that it was one of the toughest decisions in my life as I understood the great responsibility entailed in appointing someone who will remain in his position for life and whose decisions will have an impact on a large number of people."

Said wants to explore different models for the appointment of judges before committing himself to an alternative model. "I want to discuss this reform with the Opposition and I'm currently consulting with different stakeholders in this sector."

Said also thinks that Franco Debono's proposal to separate the Attorney General role as a prosecutor from that of the government's legal advisor is valid and should be discussed. "We have a system in which one person is occupying two different roles... this system has been inherited from colonial times... Yes. We have to consider whether the time has come to change it."

Debono replied that he was not Said's "little child" after Said made contact with him via SMS following his appointment as minister. But Said insists that he has a "very good relationship" with Debono. "We were and will remain friends and we discuss issues related to justice. I intend to preserve this kind of relationship with Franco."

But despite the long legislative agenda and so many pending reforms which Said wants enacted, parliament was adjourned for 22 days for the Easter recess. "There is nothing out of this world in this.  The same things happened in 1997 and 2010. One also has to consider that there are no pairing arrangements and the government has a number of international commitments."

Said disagrees with those saying that parliament is not functioning because no votes are being taken, pointing out that the first three months of this legislature have seen the passing of two laws falling under his ministry, amendments to the social security system and amendments to the disability act.

He also points out that he has presented a draft law on hate crimes following allegedly homophobic attacks and to widen the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality's remit to include discrimination based on race and gender identity as well as a new draft law on environmental crimes.

He acknowledges that no votes have been taken in parliament but he considers it inevitable that at some point in time parliament will have a vote on an issue where the two sides disagree.

The government will be facing an election in a few months' time.  Many are saying that the country needs a change after 25 years of a Nationalist government. Said immediately points out that one cannot talk of 25 years of a Nationalist government because between 1996 and 1998 Malta had a Labour government.

"Labour was tried and tested in those two years and everyone knows what this meant for the country."

He admits that being in power for a long time is a liability for any party in government. "But this was the same reasoning which led to the election of a Labour government in 1996.  The people had no doubt that the PN was governing well with regards to the economy and other major issues but still opted for a change.  After 22 months many realised what it means to elect someone without experience to govern the country."

Said also warns of the risk of electing an inexperienced government in the current international climate. "We are an electable party who will not only present its proposals for the next years but which has a track record of 25 years. People will decide whether to elect us or not on this basis."

can i ask a simple question? why did we had to vote on divorce law while that which is being proposed for gay partnership has only to be passed through parliament. as far as i recollect gonzi said that divorce wasnt in the last gonzipn electoral manifesto but so wasnt the gay partnership bill. lets see what will all those crusaders from the middle ages including the church,the mfsa chairman, dr galea salamone et al and whose not will take up arms again or is it election time now and they wouldnt want to stir muddy waters for gonzi pn.