Updated 6pm

Chris Fearne will remain as deputy prime minister unless an inquiry into the Vitals hospitals deal clearly links him to a crime, Robert Abela told parliament on Wednesday.

“If Dr Fearne is mentioned in the inquiry conclusions but not in the body of the text, then I will continue to defend him to the end and he will stay on as deputy prime minister,” Abela said.

The prime minister was speaking after Opposition leader Bernard Grech demanded an urgent parliamentary debate about the need for Fearne to resign.

"This is something of vital importance," Grech said. "The public has the right not to be represented by people facing serious criminal charges." 

Fearne, who serves as deputy prime minister and EU Funds minister, is to be charged with fraud and misappropriation in connection with the €400m deal to privatise three state hospitals.

As health minister, he oversaw the deal between 2019 and its end last year, taking over that role from Konrad Mizzi. He is among dozens of people to be prosecuted, though he said earlier on Wednesday that he has not yet been formally notified of the charges against him.

Those prosecutions come as a result of a years-long magisterial probe into the deal which was concluded 10 days ago. The Nationalist Party has said everyone cited in the inquiry and who holds a public post should resign, singling out Fearne and Central Bank Governor Edward Scicluna, who will also be charged.

Abela told parliament that it was too premature to discuss resignations, as it remained to be seen what the inquiry had actually found in relation to Fearne and others.

He said he wanted to reiterate his calls for the Attorney General to publish the inquiry’s findings, saying he was keen to read it.

Opposition leader Bernard Grech was not having it.

Abela was again taking the country for a ride by implying he has not read the inquiry, he said, as he urged Speaker Anglu Farrugia to reprimand him for having lied to parliament.

Grech also took aim at Abela’s defence of his deputy.

“Godfrey Farrugia was sacked as health minister over a tent,” Opposition leader Bernard Grech told parliament on Wednesday. ““Now we have a former health minister charged over a €400m theft.”

He was referring to Farrugia’s resignation as minister in March 2014, two months after he was publicly reprimanded by then-prime minister Joseph Muscat for having set up tents for influenza patients outside Mater Dei Hospital.

Speaker: I share concerns but cannot approve motion

Following deliberation, the Speaker refused the Opposition's motion. 

“While the House shares Bernard Grech’s concerns, it is bound by the rules of the House,” Farrugia said. 

According to parliament’s standing orders, a request for a minister to resign must end with a parliamentary vote, he said citing various rulings provided by parliament over the past 30 years concerning similar motions. 

He said the Opposition should file an appropriate motion if it wanted to push for a resignation. 

The ruling prompted an angry response from Grech, who said parliament was enabling the government through its rulings. 

As the Speaker sought to shut him down and declared him out of order, the Opposition leader upped his objections.

"The deputy prime minister is out of order. The government is out of order. This parliament is out of order," he charged, in lines reminiscent of an iconic scene from 1979 drama And Justice For All.

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