Updated | Mandatory hearings for public officials following consensus between government and Opposition

The government has accepted several of the Opposition’s amendments to a new law governing the appointment of high-ranking public officials

Individuals nominated to high-ranking public offiicals will be obliged to sit before a parliamentary committee before they are recommended to the minister
Individuals nominated to high-ranking public offiicals will be obliged to sit before a parliamentary committee before they are recommended to the minister

The government has accepted a number of amendments put forward by the Opposition to a new law that will govern the appointments of high-ranking public officials, the Nationalist Party said this afternoon.

Among the amendments is the requirement for individuals nominated to high-ranking public positions to sit for a mandatory public hearing.

The bill is making its way through parliament and is currently a committee stage.

Back in November, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici had stated that he was confident that a compromise could be found between the government and the Opposition on the proposed law.

During the bill’s second reading, the Opposition had raised a number of concerns, including about the lack of public scrutiny, as well as the fact that not all positions had been included in the list that would have to undergo parliamentary scrutiny.

In a statement issued this evening, the PN declared that the voice of reason had prevailed.

“With the Opposition’s amendment, that the government is now agreeing with, every nominated person will be obliged to appear in front of a parliamentary committee appointed to scrutinise such appointments,” the PN said.

The PN said that it had also put forward a number of amendments including for the composition of parliamentary committee to increase from five to seven individuals, as well on the method in which it decided which roles require scrutiny - which will now require a parliamentary majority. The Opposition had also presented amendments on the way in which the committee makes its recommendation to the minister on whether or not to accept the nominee.

It said the government had accepted the recommendations.

While the government had accepted some of the Opposition’s amendments, it had not agreed to include a number of roles - including that of the Commander of the Armed Force, the Attorney General and the Police Commissioner - to the list of roles requiring parliamentary scrutiny, the PN said.

Opposition votes in favour

During Monday’s parliamentary sitting the Opposition voted in favour of the bill.
Opposition MP Karol Aquilina stressed that had the amendment to include the requirement for a public hearing not been accepted by the government, the Opposition would not have voted in favour of the new law.

In a rare display of bipartisan agreement, Justice Minister Owen Bonnici said he had met with Aquilina to discuss a way forward, describing the development and a “mature” and positive one.

He added that consensus had been reached on “90%” of the changes proposed by the Opposition. This was echoed by Aquilina, who said the government had been open to discussing the law, “including the details”.

“The most positive step was the most important part of this law,” he said. “ This is a law about public scrutiny but in the original draft this was not possible since there was no obligation”

Bonnici clarified that with the amendments made, ambassadors would only be exempt from parliamentary scrutiny in cases where they had already held a role of ambassador, or if they occupied a position at the Foreign Affairs ministry.

Aquilina said that following the bill’s second reading, this had been a “major concern” for the Opposition, given that it appeared that the original bill would allow anyone to be nominated to the diplomatic corps, without the need for public scrutiny.

The two sides of the house also agreed that the committee would include a minutes of any discussion leading to a recommendation, rather than simply saying yes or no.

In the case of an acting appointment, such as in the case of the death of an appointed individual, the minister would be able to appoint to the role for a maximum of six months, before a new nominee needed to be put forward and scrutinised by parliament.

Important roles excluded

The major remaining point of disagreement between the two sides of the House remained the list of roles that would require parliamentary scrutiny.

The Opposition insisted that in the interest of having the best possible law the government should accept the addition of key roles.

The roles include: the Commissioner of Police; the Commander of the Armed Forces of Malta; the Attorney General; the Chairman of the Public Service Commission; the Chairman of the Employment Commission; the Chairman of the Broadcasting Authority; the Principal Permanent Secretary; the Head of the Security Service; the Commissioner appointed under the Security Service Act; the Director of Correctional Services; the Chairman of the National Coordinating Committee on Combating Money Laundering and Funding of Terrorism; the Chairperson of the Malta Statistics Authority; the Executive Chairperson of the Executive Council of the Planning Authority and the Chairperson of the Occupational Health and Safety Authority

“We believe that once we are going to have a law we should start with the most important roles,” said Aquilina.

This was echoed by MP Simon Busuttil, who urged the government to reconsider it’s position.  He said that it did not make sense for the government to “arbitrarily” decide which roles should be scrutinised by parliament and which ones did not require this.

By including the roles the Opposition was suggesting it did, he said that what was ultimately a good law could be made better.

He said that given the controversy surrounding the police commissioner, it was only fair for the next police commissioner to be elected following scrutiny by people’s representatives.

He said that while the Opposition was asking for two-thirds majority, this could act as a first step towards a consensus appointment of such an important role. This also applied to the Attorney General’s role, he said.

“The government has included the chairman of the FIAU but not the Attorney General,” said Busuttil, pointing out that the Attorney General was also the chairman of the FIAU. “What would happen if the parliamentary committee refuses the nominee for chairman of the FIAU.”

Turning to the amendment that would see the make-up of the committee increase from five to seven, Aquilina said that the members would not be fixed, and would allow for experts in various fields to be brought in, depending on the role in question.

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