MPs keep draft rules for lobbying and gifts in limbo

Game-changing code of ethics still awaiting ‘recommendation’ from Parliament’s standing committee for standards in public life before getting parliamentary approval

Commissioner for Standards in Public Life George Hyzler
Commissioner for Standards in Public Life George Hyzler

A draft code of ethics proposed by standards czar George Hyzler in July 2020 is still awaiting the verdict of Parliament’s Standing Committee for Standards in Public Life, which is chaired by the Speaker and composed of two MPs from both sides.

The code – which will ban secret gifts, changes the way MPs and ministers conduct their affairs even when lunching with businessmen and talking projects, as well as what is said in emails and WhatsApp texts – will be enacted by legal notice but only after the standards committee MPs gets the affirmative from the House of Representatives.

This means that the first stage for revising the code of ethics is for the standards committee to agree to the proposed changes.

But the committee has so far only briefly discussed the draft code, in a 17 August 2020 meeting where MPs agreed they will consult their respective parliamentary groups before discussing in further detail.

Standards Commissioner George Hyzler has so far told MaltaToday that he is not privy to further developments “if any” on his code of ethics. “It is up to the committee to make a recommendation to the Minister for Justice for the adoption of the revised draft codes of ethics and to seek a resolution from the House in support of its recommendation, as required by the Act.”

But the law does not specify any timeframe for this process. “On my part I addressed my recommendation to the Committee with a view to starting this process,” Hyzler said.

Non-political enforcement system needed

A compliance report issued earlier this week by the Council of Europe’s anti-corruption watchdog GRECO states that the process possibly leading to the adoption of the Code of Ethics, still requires appropriate supervision and enforcement of rules on declarations of assets, interests and outside activities through “effective, proportionate and dissuasive sanctions”. It will also need a confidential counselling for MPs over ethical questions, conflicts of interest and financial declarations.

Asked whether the code of ethics should be enforced by dissuasive sanctions as recommended by GRECO, Hyzler replied that this would require the introduction of an independent system of enforcement.

Currently Hyzler’s final reports get to be first read and discussed by the Standards Committee, which is made up of two government MPs and two opposition MPs and is chaired by the Speaker. He describes the committee as a “system of self-regulation by MPs”.

But the introduction of more effective sanctions would require this system to be replaced with “an impartial and non-political mechanism of enforcement, on the lines of the judiciary” which would “amount to a major departure from current practice”. Moreover, if any new system of sanctions were to include the possibility of unseating an MP, for serious and repeated ethical transgressions, it would also require constitutional change. Hyzler had presented proposals to this end, among others, in a report on constitutional reform, which was published in October 2019.

But even in the absence of a sanctioning system, Hyzler considers the current set-up as a “force for the raising of standards in our country”.

“In our highly charged political environment, it is very rare for people in public life to admit they were wrong or to apologise for their actions. In this context, a simple finding that a person has acted unethically sends a powerful message. I believe this has been borne out by experience.”

Given that the parliamentary committee has not yet considered the revised draft codes, Hyzler has proposed that experts should review the draft as part of an EU-funded project already approved by the European Commission.

The aim of the project, which is expected to start this summer, is to review the integrity and transparency framework in Malta. “Any changes that are proposed by the experts can be incorporated in the codes along with any other changes that are proposed by the Standards Committee or by MPs in each party’s parliamentary group,” Hyzler said.

How code of ethics will change political life

The new rules, presented in separate code of ethics for MPs and ministers, make it obligatory for politicians to record any meeting with lobbyists in which public policies and changes to the law are discussed.

This also applies to communication with regards to financial support and any agreement involving public funds or concessions of public land or other resources.

The transparency register, which will be freely accessible to the public, will include the names of all those attending these meetings and the date and location of such meeting and also any decisions taken, or commitments made through the communication. Minutes will also be kept of these meetings.

The obligation to register is not limited to formal meetings but also covers communication by email and WhatsApp.

The draft code of ethics for Ministers also precludes unofficial meetings like informal lunch meetings: “Meetings with persons who have an interest in obtaining permits, authorizations, concessions or other benefits from the state should be held in an official setting in the presence of officials”.

One major radical change envisaged in the new code of ethics is that for the first three years following their resignation or termination, ministers will be precluded from “having a relationship of profit with any private enterprise or non-government body with which they would have dealt while serving as ministers.”

The draft code of ethics not only precludes any gifts, which place ministers and MPs “under an obligation”, but also proposing a transparent system through which other legitimate gifts are registered.

According to the proposed code, MPs will have to register gifts with a value of over €250, which they receive from donors in Malta and abroad. They must also register multiple benefits from the same source if taken together these have a value of more than €250 in a period of twelve months. They also have to register any gifts of the same value, which they bestow to others.