The Report by the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, George Hyzler, on MPs holding public office and positions has made for an interesting read. So did the report in The Sunday Times of Malta (July 14).

The issue, in my view, is not about whether MPs are allowed to be employed in the public sector or not, but whether direct political appointment of serving MPs should be tolerated. Hyzler criticizes most harshly the appointment of “persons of trust”, even implying that such appointments could be in breach of the Constitution.

The fact that MPs are employees of the civil service and public corporations, and have been employed following a correct constitutional procedure, namely after a public call for applications followed by an examination and assessment of their qualities, should not raise any concern.

A university lecturer or a nurse at the State hospital, or a teacher at a government school, should not lose his position just because he has been elected to Parliament, even more so when one considers that the position of an MP is still a part-time job.

Indeed, their expertise and their practice as serving public officers or employees of public agencies can add to their knowledge and would help them in the management of public affairs. The Constitution and ordinary law themselves expressly allow persons under grade 6 in the civil service to keep their public office and serve as MPs.

The real issue is with political appointments. These are made without needing to issue any call for applications for positions of trust, thus bypassing the constitutional process, more so when such appointments are made after one is elected to Parliament.

This raises a real constitutional, political and legal problem

That is the real crux of the matter. The danger of this is obvious, not only as Hyzler rightly said about the possibility of real cases of conflict of interest, but also because party parliamentary discipline is exercised in a subtle and not-so-subtle way through appointments to positions of trust, which can be revoked as easily as they are established. The government giveth, the government taketh away, to paraphrase a Biblical saying.

How can one expect the chairman or director of a public corporation who is politically appointed to vote against the financial estimates of the same corporation? Is that not an evident conflict of interest? This impinges upon the independence of an MP in exercising his functions.

Of course, no serving Opposition MP has ever been appointed in this way. Only government backbenchers – indeed all of them – have benefited from such government largesse. Who knows why?

Naturally, there are and have always been Opposition MPs in the public sector. Surgeons at the State hospitals should not be deprived from offering their services to patients just because they are backbencher MPs. The moment they are appointed to the Executive as ministers or parliamentary secretaries, they should resign or take unpaid leave.

Indeed, this government, on being elected, changed the Code of Ethics for ministers and parliamentary secretaries to allow, in exceptional cases, members of Cabinet to indulge in public service against payment! (Rule 7.2 of the Revised Code of Ethics). This is a horrendous development that does not exist in any democracy.

That is the issue that should be exposed and criticised by everyone, for it is a denial of the very idea of public service by a member of government. Perhaps the Public Standards Commissioner, who is entitled to make spontaneous investigations and reports, could examine this issue in the near future.

On the contrary, it does not make sense, and would be absolutely unfair, for an MP to renounce his public position or parliamentary role because he is a qualified nurse employed with the State hospital. Should an employee of a public corporation, regularly employed prior to his election to Parliament, resign from his position to assume his parliamentary role? Of course not!

But when it comes to positions of trust, whereby full-time employment is granted on an ad hominem basis – that is to say, by bypassing the procedure of the call for applications – then this raises a real constitutional, political and legal problem as underlined by the Standards Commissioner in his excellent report.

Positions of trust have abounded under this government. The jobs offered on a silver plate to party stalwarts and backbench MPs have ranged from those of dog-trainers, charwomen and messengers to legal consultancies and leading positions in public corporations. Some of the consultancies given to government MPs, as rightly pointed out in The Sunday Times of Malta report, create revenue for their holders more lucrative than the Prime Minister’s salary. Who knows why?

It does not even cross my mind that these appointments were made on considerations other than meritocracy. This position-of-trust system, better known as jobs for the boys and girls, has also been harshly criticised by the Venice Commission, which recommended that the practice be revised or at least there should be a capping on the number.

This was the case under the previous administration where a minister could only employ four out of 21 members of his secretariat from outside the civil service. Of those four, two had to be appointed clerical positions and the other two messenger-driver ones, while the rest had to be engaged from serving members in the public sector.

The solution is clear. We should retain the public offices of those MPs from both sides of the House who have been employed in a regular manner and abolish the positions of trust insofar as MPs are given public employment “by direct order”.

That would go a long way in implementing, in a fair and just manner, the Standards Commissioner’s recommendation.

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