It is suspicious and worrying when, in evident orchestrated fashion, the prime minister and cabinet colleagues avoid giving details on the persons of trust they have engaged.

Two Nationalist MPs tabled a string of parliamentary questions asking about the number of such people, what they earn every year and when their contract expires and they got the same reply.

People in positions of trust, they were told, are engaged in accordance with a manual issued by the head of the civil service in 2015.

Though it is understandable that it is people who can be trusted blindly that occupy certain positions, the practice has been abused. It is cronyism, rather than trust, that prevails.

The ombudsman, the commissioner for standards in public life, the Council of Europe’s Venice Commission and, earlier this week, the Malta Employers’ Association were among those expressing serious doubts about the matter, even on grounds of constitutionality. The employers rightly insisted that details of persons of trust should be made public. They deem it “incongruous” that the same government which is so secretive about people in its own employment then pushes for pay transparency and equal pay for work of equal value in the private sector.

Indeed, the government should lead by example rather than behave surreptitiously. Still, when asked for information, even in parliament, ministers usually tend not to give too much away unless it suits them. Invoking the Freedom of Information Act can be a long and frustrating process, an exercise that, ultimately, may also prove futile.

The standing orders of parliament lay down that questions can be put to any minister relating to public affairs, the object being to obtain information. Knowing how many persons of trust have been hired and their conditions is, no doubt, a public affair and amounts to information that is not only of public interest but also falls well within the scope of parliamentary questions.

This tool allows MPs to hold the government to account, whether by demanding information or insisting that action be taken. When answering parliamentary questions, ministers can explain and defend the work, policy decisions and actions of departments and entities falling under their political umbrella.

Still, it is not unusual for ministers to dodge giving adequate replies.

In a ruling, the speaker said parliamentary questions should be answered properly but noted he is powerless to do anything else. He insists he cannot force a minister to reply, though there have been occasions where he called for prompt replies, pointing out that parliamentary questions were a means whereby parliament can keep government in check.

As it becomes increasingly evident that, on certain issues, ministers sing from the same hymn sheet or, rather, they don’t sing at all, the speaker ought to go beyond, as he had done in a ruling dealing with how journalists should report parliamentary questions.

In November 2014, he had ordered the media to name the MPs who table parliamentary questions when reporting the answer given by the minister. Not doing so would not be ethically correct, the speaker had decided.

How he had arrived at that interpretation is unclear. But if he honestly feels journalists have such a duty, he must surely also acknowledge that when the standing orders describe the aim of a question in parliament as being to obtain information, the clear implication is that a minister is expected to reply. Otherwise, what is the point of empowering MPs to put such questions, which are also an effective way of fulfilling their representative roles?

A ruling with detailed guidelines on the subject would be in order and has now become an urgent matter.

Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.

Support Us