Updated | NAO says councils’ minister ‘impinged’ on committee’s decisions for road surfacing funds

Chris Said told NAO he gave direction and oversight on disbursement of funds and never withheld any cash to specific councils; ministry insists this is not merely a case of administrative shortcomings, but a clear reprimand to a leading opposition MP

Nationalist MP Chris Said was the former parliamentary secretary responsible for local councils
Nationalist MP Chris Said was the former parliamentary secretary responsible for local councils

The Auditor General has flagged an “unwarranted” intervention by the former parliamentary secretary for local councils, Chris Said, in the way he might have encroached on the committee and department responsible to disburse funds to local councils for roadworks projects.

In a report on the grants made to local councils between 2008 and 2013 for the resurfacing of residential roads, the National Audit Office said in its executive summary that the junior minister had involved himself in the shortlisting of applications, evaluation of submissions and determination of funds allocated.

Nationalist MP Chris Said has maintained that his role was to provide general direction, oversight and support in case of difficulties encountered. He also insisted that his interventions never resulted in the withholding or redirection of funds to specific councils, but were “meant to facilitate the allocation of funds among local councils.”

The NAO however has said it had reservations over documentation showing Said had “occasionally impinged on the independence of the evaluation committees.”

The NAO said this was evident in revisions to grants, or in instances when funds were sourced because a direct recourse had been made to Said himself. “In line with the principles of good governance, the parliamentary secretary should have ensured that the proper decision-making structures, reporting arrangements and systems of record keeping were in place rather than intervene in a direct manner through the allocation of grants to specific local councils,” the NAO said.

Chris Said reaction

In a reaction, the Nationalist MP said he would take responsibility for all his actions as parliamentary secretary, saying he aided every possible local council to create projects for the benefit of their residents.

“I confirm my involvement as parliamentary secretary, which in each case was down to either ensuring disbursement and reducing bureaucracy, giving direction to the project’s goals, bringing to attention any errors or omissions, and ensuring that every council gets the aid it deserves since I was in constant contact with local councils and knew exactly their needs and problems,” Said said in a statement.

Said he never interfered to have funds withdrawn or to allocate more funds to one council to the detriment of others.

“The report clearly shows there was no discrimination between councils, nor were there any such complaints.

“I understand that certain administrative affairs could have been carried out better, but it was not intentional for the opposite to happen. Indeed it was a shortcoming borne out of enthusiasm to deliver more to councils,” Said said. 

The Nationalist Party stood by its man, arguing that Said’s decision to give direction proved beneficial to residents. It turned the tables on the Labour government, accusing it of reducing the number of schemes for local councils.

It also noted another recent NAO inquiry that identified poor management of a €1 million fund for local council capital projects. “The Auditor General did not find anything irregular about Said’s behaviour, which did not involve the mismanagement or misuse of public funds,” it said. “This is contrary to its inquiries into the Café Premier and Strada Zekka deals, and into minister Konrad Mizzi’s direct interference into Enemalta’s fuel hedging deals.”

NAO report evidence of political interference under previous government – ministry

Ministry for local councils insists this is not merely a case of administrative shortcomings, but a clear reprimand by the Auditor General to Chris Said, former parliamentary secretary for local councils, and now a leading opposition MP

 

A report by the Auditor General, highlighted unwarranted intervention by the former parliamentary secretary for local councils, Chris Said, was evidence of unacceptable political interference that was practised by the previous government, the ministry for local government said in a statement.

The National Audit Office said it had reservations over documentation showing Said had “occasionally impinged on the independence of the evaluation committees” responsible for the disbursement of funds to local councils for roadworks projects.

The ministry said that the NAO report had analysed the process for disbursement of around €18 million, most of which had not been budgeted for.

It noted that the report concluded that Said had interfered directly and got involved in the shortlisting process and in the evaluation and approval of requests for funding.

The auditor general stated that such interference nullified the autonomy and independence of the Evaluations Committee and all good governance principle, the ministry said.

It said that while this was going on, no proper minutes of meetings were taken, so much so that one would have trouble identifying the members on the evaluations board.

“This is not merely a report on possible administrative shortcomings,” the ministry said. “In this case, the auditor general is specifically reprimanding a major player in the opposition.”

In its report, the NAO said: “In line with the principles of good governance, the parliamentary secretary should have ensured that the proper decision-making structures, reporting arrangements and systems of record keeping were in place rather than intervene in a direct manner through the allocation of grants to specific local councils.”

Reacting to  the publication of the report, the Nationalist MP said he would take responsibility for all his actions as parliamentary secretary, saying he had helped all local councils to create projects for the benefit of their residents.

“I confirm my involvement as parliamentary secretary, which in each case was down to either ensuring disbursement and reducing bureaucracy, giving direction to the project’s goals, bringing to attention any errors or omissions, and ensuring that every council gets the aid it deserves since I was in constant contact with local councils and knew exactly their needs and problems,” Said said in a statement.

He said he never interfered to have funds withdrawn or to allocate more funds to one council to the detriment of others.

“The report clearly shows there was no discrimination between councils, nor were there any such complaints.

“I understand that certain administrative affairs could have been carried out better, but it was not intentional for the opposite to happen. Indeed it was a shortcoming borne out of enthusiasm to deliver more to councils,” Said said. 

Statement by ministry for local councils

The ministry for local government said in a statement that the Auditor General's report was evidence of unacceptable political interference that was practised by the previous government,

The NAO said it had reservations over documentation showing Said had “occasionally impinged on the independence of the evaluation committees” responsible for the disbursement of funds to local councils for roadworks projects.

The ministry said that the NAO report had analysed the process for disbursement of around €18 million, most of which had not been budgeted for.

It noted that the report concluded that Said had interfered directly and got involved in the shortlisting process and in the evaluation and approval of requests for funding.

The auditor general stated that such interference nullified the autonomy and independence of the Evaluations Committee and all good governance principle, the ministry said.

It said that while this was going on, no proper minutes of meetings were taken, so much so that one would have trouble identifying the members on the evaluations board.

“This is not merely a report on possible administrative shortcomings,” the ministry said. “In this case, the auditor general is specifically reprimanding a major player in the opposition.”

In its report, the NAO said: “In line with the principles of good governance, the parliamentary secretary should have ensured that the proper decision-making structures, reporting arrangements and systems of record keeping were in place rather than intervene in a direct manner through the allocation of grants to specific local councils.”

Reacting to  the publication of the report, the Nationalist MP said he would take responsibility for all his actions as parliamentary secretary, saying he had helped all local councils to create projects for the benefit of their residents.

“I confirm my involvement as parliamentary secretary, which in each case was down to either ensuring disbursement and reducing bureaucracy, giving direction to the project’s goals, bringing to attention any errors or omissions, and ensuring that every council gets the aid it deserves since I was in constant contact with local councils and knew exactly their needs and problems,” Said said in a statement.

He said he never interfered to have funds withdrawn or to allocate more funds to one council to the detriment of others.

“The report clearly shows there was no discrimination between councils, nor were there any such complaints.

“I understand that certain administrative affairs could have been carried out better, but it was not intentional for the opposite to happen. Indeed it was a shortcoming borne out of enthusiasm to deliver more to councils,” Said said. 

How the system worked

Under the road resurfacing scheme, local councils were to identify roads and submit cost estimates to the department of local government (DLG). Once approved, the council issued a call for tenders, while the DLG would match the council’s financial allocation for road maintenance for the first year of the public-private partnership – effectively doubling the budget for these works.

Apart from these €6 million in 54 PPP grants, the DLG also issued €11.5 million in council funding for cleaning, restoration, cultural activities, and energy saving operations.

The NAO said these were effective means of supporting local councils, but said that no budget was set for a number of schemes and a lack of documentation verifying “the most basic aspects relating to the schemes”.

Of serious concern was that no evaluation report was ever made on these schemes, and that no minutes outlined the evaluation committee’s decision-making processes.

More in National