Backbench MPs should be barred from having government jobs, a global standards watchdog has recommended.

In a 200-page report, the OECD gave Malta a raft of recommendations on how to improve standards in public life.

The OECD said the current legislative framework “is silent” on the issues caused by elected officials holding secondary employment within the government.

“This is particularly problematic, given the practice in Malta to appoint backbencher MPs to positions in government departments, boards and commissions”, the report says.

Elected officials play a critical accountability role over the actions of the government, and it is their duty to hold the executive accountable for how public money is spent and public policies determined, the OECD said.

It said the Justice Ministry should consider amending the constitution to prohibit this practice.

Malta's parliament is a part-time one, and backbench MPs legislate while holding full-time jobs. It is common practice for MPs on either side of the House to be employed within a government post - a 2019 Times of Malta analysis found that more than two out of three MPs received some form of income from the government.  

Former Standards Commissioner George Hyzler, who was present at the launch of the report on Friday, has long insisted that the practice should be banned.

As early as 2019, Hyzler said backbench MPs holding a secondary government job is a blatant conflict of interest.

Person of trust loopholes

The report recommends closing loopholes when it comes to defining which persons of trust fall under the remit of the Standards Commissioner, and which do not. 

Carissa Munro, an OECD policy analyst, said the Commissioner's scope should be expanded to cover local authorities as well as directors of government organisations and enterprises.

In May, standards commissioner Joseph Azzopardi said he was unable to investigate claims Malta Enterprise CEO Kurt Farrugia had not cooperated with a National Audit Office probe into the Vitals/Stewards hospitals’ scandal, as Farrugia was not considered a person of trust under the law governing standards in public life.

Speaking during the event, Azzopardi spoke positively about the proposal, saying his office should be able to investigate public officials in key roles, as “some chairmen have as much power as a minister”.

Code of ethics shortcomings

The OECD also flagged several shortcomings in the code of ethics for MPs, which was first adopted in the 1990s and has not been updated since.

It said the updated code of ethics should include clear provisions on how to engage with lobbyists and third parties, on how to manage and prevent conflicts of interests, as well as restrictions on certain employment after leaving public life.

Malta could also adopt cooling-off periods for elected officials and appointed officials in at-risk positions, as well as a code of conduct for lobbyists.

The recommendation echoes calls for lobbying regulations previously made by ex-commissioner Hyzler as well as the public inquiry into Daphne Caruana Galizia's October 2017 assassination. 

Improvements should similarly be made to the system of asset and interest declarations.

It recommended expanding these declarations to include persons of trust.

In a speech during Friday's event, Justice Minister Jonathan Attard said the government has already introduced far-reaching reforms, including certain powers like the appointment of judiciary members.

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