Opposition leader Bernard Grech on Monday proposed a change in the composition of the parliamentary standards committee to give it a majority of  members who are not MPs and are appointed in agreement between the government and the opposition, excluding the Speaker from its chairmanship.

His proposal was made during an urgent debate held at the request of the opposition,  to discuss the behaviour of the Speaker of the House in the wake of the breach by Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar of the code of ethics, and a subsequent exchange of letters with Matthew Caruana Galizia.

In requesting the debate, the Nationalist leader said the Speaker, Anġlu Farrugia, had a constitutional role to head parliament in an impartial way and had taken an oath of office to serve the constitution and the people.

And yet he had declared in writing that he had a role to defend the interests of the government, which meant he was not impartial.

Grech said this partiality was also evidenced in the way the Speaker had used his casting vote in various decisions of the parliamentary committee on standards in public life, rendering that exercise ineffective.  

Reacting, the Speaker said that since this motion concerned his behaviour, he was abstaining and handing over to the Deputy Speaker, Claudette Buttigieg, who is a Nationalist MP.

Intervening, Labour MP Glenn Bedingfield said there was nothing urgent in the motion and it could have been presented earlier had that been the case. 

The sitting was suspended for an hour before Buttigieg upheld the request for urgent debate, while also pointing out that the Speaker's reference to the interest of the democratic government meant governance as a whole, not the government.

Farrugia criticised

The role of the Speaker has been under the spotlight after the parliamentary standards committee decided that Labour MP Rosianne Cutajar should be severely reprimanded for breaching House ethics when she failed to declare cash following her role in brokering a property deal with 17 Black owner Yorgen Fenech. Fenech, who is now awaiting trial for the murder of Daphne Caruana Galizia.

But the Speaker's "stern" reprimand had consisted solely of a letter he sent Cutajar informing her of the committee's decision. 

The situation became more serious with an exchange of strongly worded letters between Matthew Caruana Galizia, the slain journalist's son, and the Speaker. 

Caruana Galizia accused Farrugia of protecting Cutajar and called for his resignation.

“Most of all, your pathetic, simpering letter to Rosianne Cutajar signals to society that corruption, in this case, the corruption of the country’s highest institution, is permissible,” he wrote.   

The Speaker replied through his lawyer, rejecting the call ‘in the best interests of democracy’ and telling Caruana Galizia that he did not seem to understand parliamentary procedure and law.  

Grech hits out at the Speaker

During the short debate, Grech said parliament was failing in its important role of monitoring the government and holding MPs to account and the few tools which existed to make this possible were being rendered a farce. 

The letter by the Speaker to an ordinary citizen (Caruana Galizia) was unacceptable and showed that the Speaker did not understand his constitutional role. But this was not an isolated case as in various other occasions, notably meetings of the standards committee, the Speaker had used his casting vote in favour of the government and against parliament's role of holding MPs to account.  By so doing he was also undermining the role of the Standards Commissioner and the Standards Committee.

Rosianne Cutajar had broken the code of ethics by not declaring a 9,000 euro  gift, but she had only been given a slap on the wrist. Many people had been taken to court for much less.  When a citizen expressed his frustration the Speaker replied through a lawyer.

People were right to ask who the House of Representatives truly represented if it protected an MP who broke the code of ethics to this extent, but then fired off a letter through a lawyer against a citizen who criticised the Speaker. 

Near the end of his speech Grech suggested that the composition of the Parliamentary Standards Committee should be changed. While it would continue to be composed of five members, it would no longer be chaired by the Speaker, and no side would have a majority. Instead, one member each would be nominated by the government and the opposition and the remaining three would be appointed by a two-thirds majority of the House, with one serving in the chair. 

Prime Minister Abela replies

Replying, Prime Minister Robert Abela said the government respected the institutions all the time, not when decisions suited it, as the opposition did. 

The Opposition had applauded Anglu Farrugia when he decided in its favour - and there were 35 such rulings - but attacked him when he did not.

The Speaker in the latest case had been acting in terms of the law, which had been backed by the opposition, and which included a reprimand as one of the actions which could be taken against an MP who breached the code of ethics.

Indeed, it was the present government which set up the Office of the Standards Commissioner and appointed the first commissioner, certainly not a choice that favoured the government, It was also under this governemnt that the House standards committee was formed.

This was the first time that the committee had, unanimously, found a government MP to have breached ethics, and the Speaker had also voted to endorse the report by the standards commissioner.

And prior to the reprimand, it was also worth recalling that Cutajar had resigned her post as parliamentary secretary, and the commissioner of inland revenue had collected tax due from her. 

And yet the PN was attacking the Chair because they wanted Cutajar suspended from the House. 

The Opposition was being destructive, the same methods used under Simon Busuttil. It was playing political games to distract people from its poor ratings and the successes being achieved by the government, including the news of the day that GDP growth so far this year had exceeded the pre-pandemic levels of the same months in 2019.  

Abela said parliament was strong and effective, as evidenced by the 140 bills presented, and mostly approved since January 2020, which was more than the last five years of the PN government. 

The people did not want the sort of political games the PN was engaged in, he  said.

Winding up, Grech said the prime minister had avoided the substance of the motion and not said a word about his proposal to change the composition of the standards committee.

No agreement in nine months on new Ombudsman

The bottom line was that he wanted to control everything, as also shown by the fact that in nine months government and opposition had not been able to agree on a person to become the Ombudsman.   

The prime minister spoke of respecting the institutions but forgot the attacks on the standards commissioner in the past few months. 

Concluded he reiterated the need for parliament to be able to carry out its key role of holding the government in check.

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