Updated 11.20am with Repubblika reaction
A three-person board led by retired judge Antonio Mizzi is to look into the way severe disability benefits are dished out, after Times of Malta exposed a racket running into millions of euro.
The board of inquiry, announced on Saturday in a statement by the Social Policy Ministry, concerns a suspected fraud that Prime Minister Robert Abela said earlier this week he has known about since late 2021.
The ministry said the board would be evaluating current benefit assessment processes to determine how they were bypassed and what can be done to improve them.
It has been given five months to conclude its work, though it can request an extension if necessary, and its conclusions and recommendations will be made public.
Mizzi, who will chair the board, will be aided by board members Anthony Scicluna and Raymond Muscat.
Times of Malta revealed last week that police are investigating almost 800 people who received monthly cheques of €450 for severe disability after obtaining the benefits using falsified documents.
Those documents were allegedly given to them by GP Silvio Grixti, who served as a Labour MP until he resigned in December 2021. Grixti would allegedly give people an envelope containing falsified documents that they could use to apply for monthly benefits cheques.
Grixti, who has declined to comment about the allegations, has not yet been charged with any crime.
A number of the recipients have told investigators that they were referred to Grixti by Labour MPs, ministers’ aides and customer care officials from the Prime Minister’s office.
Prime Minister Robert Abela has claimed that Grixti was asked to resign as an MP back in 2021 when his office became aware of the allegations.
But the Social Policy Ministry, which is responsible for overseeing disability benefits, told Times of Malta that it only became aware of the allegations “last year”, when it detected suspected forgeries in documentation.
The police have so far confirmed that 141 recipients were fraudulently receiving benefits and ordered them to return €2.1 million. They have yet to process hundreds of other suspected cases.
Times of Malta also reported on Saturday that former president Marie-Louise Coleiro Preca has been pushing for benefits assessment systems to be reformed, to rebuild trust undermined by the widespread racket.
The board of inquiry led by Mizzi will operate independently of the police investigation. Its terms of reference are:
- Determine what led to ineligible people being granted benefits for severe disability
- Establish any administrative shortcomings or failings in the verification process for medical evaluations
- Examine whether submission, evaluation and verification processes for such benefits are robust enough to prevent abuse
- Recommend measures to strengthen systems by which benefits applications are assessed and determined
PN: Why the delay?
In a reaction, the Nationalist Party welcomed the board and its remit, but questioned why it was being established now, when the prime minister had acknowledged that he knew of the allegations two years ago.
"The government is doing this because the case emerged in public, not because it genuinely believes in it," PN MP David Agius said.
Agius said that the board should be answerable to parliament, not the minister, and should also be tasked with recommending changes to the law to ensure benefits are reserved for those who genuinely need them.
Former PN leader and prime minister Lawrence Gonzi also weighed in, writing on social media that the government had "hit a new low", with a fraud that was "organised directly from Castille".
Repubblika: Another attempt to misguide
For rule of law NGO Repubblika, the board of inquiry is another attempt to misguide the public.
The NGO said that the minister had appointed “three of his friends” to the board and said the announcement should have come at a press conference, not in a Department of Information statement.
Repubblika predicted that the inquiry would conclude that Grixti, alone, was to blame for the racket and that the minister [Michael Falzon] had done nothing wrong.
It also asked why the ministry had only appointed a board of inquiry now, when it has admitted that it knew of the case in September 2022 and Robert Abela said he was aware back in December 2021.
“Why did they hide everything for almost two years, until journalists exposed them?” the NGO asked. “The government is worried about the reaction of the public, which is realising that its money was used for the government to buy votes.”