The head of the civil service defended the high number of persons of trust on the public payroll, insisting it was a cultural matter.

The number of persons of trust, now amounting to about 700, was highlighted as an issue of concern in an evaluation by the Venice Commission of Malta’s democratic infrastructure late last year.

In its report after a visit to the island, the Council of Europe’s advisory body on constitutional law, noted that even people working as gardeners or drivers had been recruited under the persons-of-trust procedure.

Read: The number of people in positions of trust is not excessive – Mario Cutajar

“The Venice Commission cannot investigate such cases. It is, however, evident that any exception to procedures that provide for appointments on merits are a danger to the quality of the civil service, which is the backbone of a democratic state under the rule of law,” the law experts sitting on the commission commented.

They concluded that, without a constitutional and real legal basis, the practice of indiscriminate trust-basis employment was illegal, even if it had a legitimate purpose.

A mere tradition cannot be the basis for such expenses on a large scale

To remedy this, the Venice Commission recommended adopting a constitutional amendment together with clear legal basis, which strictly limited the appointments of persons of trust.

Watch: 'Persons of trust don't worry me, and I'll tell you why'

Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar said when approached about the matter that employment on a person-of-trust basis was resorted to in cases where personal trust was “a significant element of the employment relationship”.

“Persons employed as drivers or gardeners have been among the persons of trust for a long time and this is not a development that happened during these last years,” he noted.

Over the years, foreign delegations had tended to deride the fact that, for instance, a minister’s driver should be a person of trust or that a gardener in the Prime Minister’s official residence would be an employee in this category, he said.

This, however, was “not compatible with the established thinking in Malta”, Mr Cutajar remarked. Such positions, he added, had always required a strong element of personal trust.

The Venice Commission pointed out that, while it recognised the need for such exceptions in specific cases, limits should be clearly defined. “As the persons of trust are funded from the state budget, a mere tradition cannot be the basis for such expenses on a large scale,” it said.

Mr Cutajar also played down the 700 figure. The number of persons employed in such positions was “very small” in relation to those in ordinary employment with the government, he said.

It was also comparable to numbers for pre-2013, Mr Cutajar added.

The Venice Commission commented in its report on Malta that “a sound constitutional and legal basis” should be required for people to be employed on a trust basis.

To this end, it recommended introducing a constitutional amendment and legislation that permitted, but at the same time limited, the possibility to appoint persons to positions of trust. It said the type of activities that should require absolute trust should also be defined.

“Only activities directly related to the exercise of power should be considered as a valid exception from the general system of appointments in the public service,” the Venice Commission argued.

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