Rules on the licensing of contractors were blocked ahead of the last general election because they would "cause trouble with contractors", a government minister told Jason Azzopardi, he has claimed under oath.

The former PN MP was testifying on Monday in the public inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the death of 21-year-old Jean Paul Sofia in a building collapse at Corradino in December 2022.

Azzopardi said that a senior government official had spoken to him after Sofia's death, to tell him that regulations to licence contractors were drafted as early as 2021 but had been blocked by cabinet.

He presented to the inquiry a leaked cabinet memo from December 2021 seeking ministers' approval to hold a public consultation of the proposed Licensing of Building Contractors Regulations 2021 and the establishment of the Skill Level Requirements for Construction Workers Regulations 2021.

Azzopardi also supplied two draft legal notices signed by then-planning minister Aaron Farrugia and parliamentary secretary Chris Agius. These were tabled in cabinet on January 10, 2022 but a decision was made to “consult with stakeholders” before the next step, Azzopardi said.

He claimed that the drafts were ready two months before the last general election, held in March 2022, and that a government minister informed him that the only reason they were not published for consultation at that time was because “you’ll cause me trouble with contractors”. 

The public official, who Azzopardi testified was his original source, told him that if those regulations had been issued “Jean Paul Sofia would not have died”. 

These rules were eventually published in July of this year.

Azzopardi did not disclose the name of the minister he says provided him with the information.

The lawyer and former PN MP, who had requested to testify, claimed it was the first time in history that a cabinet memo had been leaked.

He was the last witness to appear in the fifth sitting of the inquiry, chaired by Joseph Zammit McKeon, which is tasked with investigating whether the state had adequate rules in place before, during and after the death of Sofia.

Sofia was buried alive when a site at the Corradino Industrial Estate came crashing down in December 2022.

A magisterial inquiry into the death flagged multiple failings at the site ranging from incorrect structural plans to architectural oversight via WhatsApp. No licenced builder was onsite to oversee works. 

Five people, including the project's developers, architect and contractor, have been charged with his involuntary murder.

The death sparked a nationwide outcry and forced the government to reluctantly order a public inquiry. 

Inquiry chair highlights 'Wild West' reality

Earlier McKeon described as the “Wild West” the circumstances surrounding the building of the factory on government-leased land in the Corradino industrial estate.

Because the building did not impact any third-party properties, it had minimal oversight from the authorities. 

He also said there was a “flaw in the system” because it appeared to rely on self-regulation.

"Someone must take responsibility. Someone must act. Because someone falls through the system and that’s where an accident might happen," Zammit McKeon said. 

He was reacting to testimony from the current planning minister, Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, who explained how different authorities had different responsibilities.

The Occupational Health and Safety Authority inspectors were responsible for safety issues such as dangerous railings; the Building and Construction Authority inspectors were responsible for checking the works were carried out in line with the method statement and architects were responsible for checking if the work was done according to their directions. 

Zrinzo Azzopardi said that he had tasked the University of Malta’s Faculty of Laws to compile all relative laws to identify any gaps.

"The question is this: where does the responsibility of the warrant holder stop? If we place the responsibility of design on the architect, should that architect be subject to scrutiny by another architect," he asked. 

He said the licencing of contractors means there will now be a warranted architect and a licensed contractor on site. 

Earlier, Col Mark Mallia, head of Identità, formerly Identity Malta, said the government agency does not vet prospective third-country national employees. That is left to Jobsplus and the police.

Once they receive a go ahead from both, Identità processes the application for a single work permit. 

Work experience was formerly requested but since 2019, that requirement was replaced by a declaration of suitability signed by the employer. 

Asked about the foreign workers who were working on the Corradino site, some of whom were injured in the collapse, Mallia said he had no information. 

Lawyers Therese Comodini Cachia, Eve Borg Costanzi and Matthew Cutajar are assisting the Sofia family. State Advocate lawyer Anthony Borg represented the state. 

The inquiry will continue on September 22 at 11.30am.


Hearing ends

10.49am That's it for today. Thank you for joining us this morning. In a short while, we'll have a brief summary of today's hearing above.

State Advocate objects

10.47am A lawyer for the State Advocate points out that those documents, if cabinet papers, should not be made public. But the chair says that the inquiry panel will accept the documents.

"Point taken but the papers are here to stay, for all they’re worth. We’re here in search of the truth."

'Trouble with contractors'

10.42am Azzopardi claims that cabinet directed that there were to be discussions with stakeholders before amendments. 

“If those regulations had been issued, Jean Paul Sofia would not have died,” Azzopardi claims a public official told him. 

He says these regulations were the same as those issued this summer.

"Those drafts were two months before the last general elections. The only reason they were not published for consultations was 'you’ll cause me trouble with contractors'". He claims he was told this by a minister who was in cabinet.

Leaked cabinet memo

10.35am Azzopardi says that he was approached "confidentially under professional secrecy" by a public official and told about a document presented to cabinet.

He got a memo that had been presented by Aaron Farrugia to cabinet. These were two drafts of legal notices signed by Farrugia, Chris Agius, not the prime minister, about licencing of contractors. 

He points out that this is the first time a cabinet minute was ever leaked. 

Azzopardi is referring to cabinet memos he has previously shared on social media that he says show that cabinet was presented with regulations governing the licensing of contractors as far back as a year before Jean Paul Sofia was killed. 

Jason Azzopardi is up next

10.33am The next, and last, witness today is former PN MP Jason Azzopardi. He asked to testify in the inquiry, saying that he had some documents he wanted to present. 

"The board is not interested in the source of those documents but only that they are authentic," the judge tells him. 

Workers at Sofia site

10.31am The third inquiry panel member, Mario Cassar asks about workers at the Sofia site. The witness says he does not have the information.

Application process

10.26am Mallia says that prior to 2019, a degree of experience was sought from prospective workers. That was then changed to a "declaration of suitability", signed by the employer.

That declaration is handed to Jobsplus and Identità issues a single work permit once it gets the go-ahead from Jobsplus and the police, Mallia explains.

"We only process applications for third-country nationals. EU workers do not even go through Identità's doors except if they overstay their permit."

He says Identità also has the power to verify that a worker is truly at the workplace and has carried out lots of inspections together with Jobsplus.

What if they change work?

"If they change work or residence they must inform Identità. Unless they do so, they will be staying in Malta illegally and subject to deportation. This concerns TCNs."

It's not us, it's Jobsplus

10.22am Mallia is asked to run through what happens if a registered employer wants a foreign worker for his construction project. What does Identità ask of him? Do you ask for some skills certificate?

"We ask for a work contract," Mallia replies. "It’s Jobsplus that does labour market testing. We send all documents to Jobsplus and they handle all scrutiny on the employment."

Foreign workers

10.16am Col Mark Mallia, CEO of Identità, formerly Identity Malta, is up. He is asked about non-EU workers. He says his authority is responsible for residence permits. He runs through the process for a non-EU worker to work in Malta. 

Remember that there were several foreign workers injured in the construction collapse that killed Jean Paul Sofia.

New rules for contractors

10.12am The minister now runs through the details of new rules requiring construction contractors to be licensed.

Contractors need to apply for their licence by the end of next month and be licenced by the end of January. 

"If a contractor does not apply and wants to continue to work, on November 1 he would be in breach of law. So he would not be able to work. That’s the bottom line," he says.

You can read more on those rules here.

The minister's testimony ends here. 

Fund requests v funds granted

10.07am There are more questions about the discrepancy between funds requested by various entities and those actually granted to them. But the chair points out that that pattern has already emerged through previous testimonies. Now whether that is right or not is a different matter, he notes.

The minister talks about work to improve cooperation between the police and the OHSA.

'Open to proposals'

9.54am The minister says he is open to listening to proposals and acknowledges the need to examine the responsibility of each player.

He says he has asked the law faculty to compile all relative laws in the area to identify any gaps.

"The question is this: where does the responsibility of the warrant holder stop? If we place the responsibility of design on the architect, should that architect be subject to scrutiny by another architect?"

He says the planned licensing of contractors will mean that there is someone qualified on-site. That would mean there would be a warranted architect and a licensed contractor. 

'A flaw in the system'

9.49am The inquiry chair isn't impressed with this explanation regarding various responsibilities. "So we have a flaw in the system, minister," Zammit McKeon replies. "We’re relying on self-regulation."

Zammit McKeon suggests that if an OHSA officer senses that something is amiss, even if it is within the remit of an architect, he should call the architect and tell him to go on site immediately or else works will be stopped.

"Someone must take responsibility. Someone must act. Because someone falls through the system and that’s where an accident might happen," he says. 

Who checks what?

9.47am Auditor general and panel member Charles Deguara asks a question about training of inspectors. 

The minister clarifies that the Occupational Health and Safety Authority inspectors are trained on safety issues such as railings, containing dust from construction etc.

They do not have responsibility for monitoring whether works are in line with construction drawings - that is for the BCA, whose inspectors see if works are carried out according to the directions of the method statement.

It is then up to the architect to check if work is done according to the directions of an architect. 

'Are you happy with the chair of the BCA?'

9.38am The minister is posed a straight question: 'Are you happy with the chair of the BCA'.

His answer: "The BCA’s work is ongoing and improving. There's a process of streamlining. The authority is making its presence felt. Yes, there’s more to be done. Let’s not forget that the BCA is relatively young. There are advances under the direction of the CEO and board."

Stand-alone buildings

9.34am The minister focuses on stand-alone buildings, like the Corradino factory, which was allowed to be constructed with minimal oversight.

"There’s an ongoing revision process especially the obligation to have an insurance cover, notwithstanding there’s no third party," he says.

On building codes, he says there have been drafts and discussions and that the last draft is to be discussed but its focus will be on building codes regarding demolition and excavation.  

'The Wild West'

9.26am Judge Zammit McKeon says that the panel needs to put what the minister is saying within the framework of the Sofia case. 

"Today entities will be able to communicate better and certain shortcomings can be flagged," the minister said.

He says that the reason for the BCA is to regulate construction. 

"But only where third parties are involved", interrupts Joseph Zammit McKeon. “The rest is Wild West!"

In previous hearings, we learned how the Corradino project fell through regulatory cracks because it did not impact on any third party buildings. 

"You have a difficult ministry", adds the chair.

How entities communicate

9.20am The minister is asked about the various authorities responsible for the construction agency and how they communicate. Are information systems compatible between authorities?

He says that when the BCA was set up, its information system was to follow that of the Planning Authority. For instance, a particular project must be followed by a "clearance request" to BCA. The same Planning Authority number is also used in the filing system. A Commencement Notice to the PA is now backed by a reminder to file other notices to other entities, Zrinzo Azzopardi.

An opportunity to respond

9.18am The inquiry chairman is giving Zrinzo Azzopardi the opportunity to respond to some statements.

Zammit McKeon asks: "I believe in the right to a fair hearing up to the point of death. Certain witnesses made some statements in here. Do you have any comments to make so we hear your view too?"

The minister assumes he is referring to comments made by the former chair of the Building and Construction Agency, Karl Azzopardi. He had told a previous sitting that he had resigned his post after a disagreement with the minister over the plan for the way forward for the authority. 

Zrinzo Azzopardi is coy.

"There are proceedings before the Industrial Tribunal," he says. "I can say that there were discussions with Azzopardi who deemed fit to tender his resignation. The exact words used were 'that he was ready to move on'.

Another minister appears

9.08am The next witness is the minister responsible for the industry that is under the spotlight, Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi. Again it’s his second time at the stand. He comes bearing a pink file of documents to produce.

One is the submissions by the BCA and OHSA and how much they were allocated in the last budget. The other document concerned statistics in a University study. 

An 'exhaustive list' of documents

9.04am Caruana issues what he describes as an "exhaustive list" of figures and documents. Those are business plans, figures, BCA and OHSA documents, financial plans and recurrent expenditure. 

But Zammit McKeon wants to know if he has any information regarding staffing of these entities.  That information needs to be obtained from the Office of the Prime Minister, Caruana says. That's all from him. 

Finance Minister called

9.02am Finance Minister Clyde Caruana is called first. It’s his second visit to the inquiry. He comes bearing some documents in a grey file.

Hearing begins

9am Welcome to the live blog. The fifth sitting of the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry has begun. The three panel members Chairman Joseph Zammit McKeon, auditor-general Charles Deguara and architect Mario Cassar have entered the courtroom. 

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