Updated | Prime Minister questioned about chief of staff in parliament again

The Nationalist Party’s newly-appointed good governance spokesperson asked Joseph Muscat and Konrad Mizzi a series of questions about the Malta Film Studios

OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri
OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat was again forced to reply to parliamentary questions about his chief of staff Keith Schembri, as part of a series of questions put to him and Tourism Minister Konrad Mizzi by Nationalist MP Simon Busuttil about the Malta Film Studios (MFS).

Busuttil asked Mizzi whether any work had been carried out on the MFS tanks since he was appointed minister last June, and if works were carried out, who had paid for them.

Mizzi replied that infrastructural work had started in coordination with a number of ministries and entities, and that the government planned to continue investing in MFS to raise the studios’ standards in the industry.

Busuttil then asked whether a new price list for the services offered by the studios had been published since Mizzi’s appointment, to which the minister replied that the MFS’s prices were “based on market rates and commercial considerations”.

As the PN’s newly-appointed good governance spokesperson, Busuttil then asked Muscat whether his chief of staff Keith Schembri had any direct or indirect commercial interests in the film or studios industry, which the Prime Minister said was not the case.

Back in 2007, Schembri had set up Cinebiss Limited together with Oliver Mallia, a former film commissioner, and Spira Trading, the latter a company partly owned by Pierre Sladden.

In comments to MaltaToday, Schembri said that the company had operated for a period of time after it was incorporated but was now closed, leaving him with no involvement to the film industry.

In a second question put to the Prime Minister, Busuttil asked whether Schembri had any direct or indirect connection to a specific unnamed company. Muscat replied: “As could be determined from publicly available information,” while Schembri had no direct involvement, his spouse did. The company in question is Temple Concierge, a concierge and events services company owned by Josette Vella Schembri.

The OPM chief of staff said that it was true that his wife had her own concierge company, which she advertised with the Film Commission, but pointed out that this could hardly be taken to mean that the company operated within the film industry.

"If a lawyer does work for a film production company, that doesn't mean they work in the film industry," said Schembri.

Mizzi was finally asked to state the number of film productions by “foreign investors or interests” since 2013, and how many of these had used the tanks at MFS. In his reply, the minister said that 48 productions had benefitted from assistance granted by the Film Commission, 16 of which had used the MFS. A further four productions had used the MFS but had not applied for fiscal incentives from the commission.

On Monday, responding to another series of questions by Busuttil, Mizzi said that there had been one bid submitted for the MFS, following an expression of interest issued by the Film Commission in 2015.

In 2016, five companies – Golden Zephyr of the United States, Italian companies Island Productions and Sefat Spa, and UK companies Pinewood and Mediante had all expressed interest in taking over the MFS.

While no companies were believed to have submitted a formal bid, according to Mizzi’s reply yesterday, Golden Zephyr had submitted a bid, but was deemed to have been technically non-compliant.

On whether the government still intended to privatise the facility, Mizzi stressed on the tanks’ “strategic importance” and that options were being evaluated to determine their best use.

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