[WATCH] Abela vows unbiased treatment for 'big fish' in benefits fraud investigations

Robert Abela snaps back at comments made by European Parliament President Roberta Metsola over benefits scandal, stating she should take a closer look at what she did when taking only 'cosmetic steps' in the corruption case involving Greek MEP Eva Kaili

Prime Minister Robert Abela interviewed in Marsaxlokk
Prime Minister Robert Abela interviewed in Marsaxlokk

'“Big fish” Silvio Grixti won't be receiving any preferential treatment from the authorities, over his involvement in the benefits fraud scandal, Prime Minister Robert Abela said on Sunday.

"The big fish in this case shouldn't expect to be treated with preferential treatment," Abela told MaltaDaily Editor Keane Cutajar on Sunday.

In an interview in Marsaxlokk, Abela defended the government’s actions, saying it always acted in line with the law, and informed the authorities when it got wind of any wrong doing.

The PM hit back at comments made by former Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi, PN leader Bernard Grech, and European Parliament President Roberta Metsola after the three recently commented on the benefit scheme fraud.

He said they are in no position to criticise government, mentioning what he believed are scandals which happened under their watch.

"She should take a closer look at what she did when she had a corruption case right under her nose," Abela said, replying to Metsola’s remarks.

He was referring to the scandal involving former European parliament vice president Eva Kaili who was arrested and charged with corruption and money laundering, linked to Qatar’s lobbying operation in Brussels.

The widening police probe had also seen the arrest and imprisonment of former Italian socialist MEP Pier Antonio Panzeri and Kaili’s partner Francesco Giorgi, who worked as an assistant to Andrea Cozzolino, an Italian Socialist MEP.

Visibly irritated, Abela explained that the government took immediate action, being the first to report the irregularities, unlike Metsola, who, when facing a corruption case, only took "cosmetic steps."

Pressed by Cutajar on why the government took two years to set up an independent board to assess the alleged abuse, Abela said the police were already conducting their own investigations. “We didn't want the independent inquiry to hinder the police investigation.”

READ MORE: Parliament to discuss board's investigation into disability benefits scheme upon conclusion

He also spoke of the Opposition's allegations that this scheme was used to "buy votes."

"If that were the case," Abela asked, "why would the office of the Prime Minister be the first to report the irregularities?" The Prime Minister explained that several people have already been charged, but more people will be investigated and charged in the near future.

"Anyone who thinks this is some breaking news, it’s not. What was reported by the Times of Malta, came from the police depot," Abela added.

READ MORE: OPM urges illicit recipients to assist Police in benefits fraud investigation

The Prime Minister’s last remark on the issue was that no abuse will be tolerated, and no one will be allowed to capitalise on individuals’ vulnerability.

He explained that several illicit recipients of this fraudulent scheme are vulnerable people who still do not qualify for the benefits they took.

 ‘Foreign workers essential for humble jobs Maltese no longer want to do’

Foreign workers are essential for sectors such as health, certain expertise, and “humble” jobs Maltese no longer want to do, Abela said.

Speaking of the issue of foreign workers, Abela mentioned a strategic exercise between Identity Malta and Jobs Plus which stops work permits from being automatically accepted. Instead, each application will be considered only if it fulfils the country’s requirements.

“Yes to workers in sectors which need foreign workers but no to individuals who submit 1,000 applications,” Abela said.

He also reiterated previous statements on the government’s work on legislation that regularises temping agencies. “Government will not tolerate those who see foreign workers as a number to quickly profit from them.”

Abela also acknowledged that importing too many foreign workers may lead to the stagnation of salaries.

"Foreign workers should help improve the quality of life of the Maltese and not contribute to worsening conditions," he said.