Just a week into her new role as Planning Parliamentary Secretary Deborah Schembri speaks to Kurt Sansone about the planning authority, pressures politicians face, the Gaffarena scandal and embryo freezing.

The Malta Environment and Planning Authority has often been considered a poisoned chalice by past ministers. If you are pro-environment the likeliness is you will face flak from constituents because of Mepa’s rigidity; if you relax on development, you will have to contend with criticism from environmentalists. How can you achieve this balance?

The secret is finding the right balance. The Mepa demerger will see the environment aspect being strengthened. The environment, as part of the structures of Mepa, was shackled because it could not even appeal a board decision. By hiving off the environmental aspect and creating a separate authority, any planning decision could be challenged. This is good but it does not mean that the planning side – my side – should drop all environmental considerations. But environmentalists have to understand that progress cannot be stalled.

Environmentalists are not so convinced of the demerger, which even led to Marlene Farrugia resigning from the Labour Party.

I still cannot understand why environmentalists are not happy with a move that will give environmental authorities more power. The demerger is a step forward… it has strengthened the hands of environmentalists.

Your predecessor Michael Falzon had said development boundaries would be tweaked to “rectify injustices” caused by the 2006 rationalisation exercise. Do you still plan to go ahead with this?

It would be premature to comment because in this week I have had to deal with a myriad of things. Michael Falzon has been giving me a handover.

We had two good sessions and we have a third one planned. The issue you are raising has not been covered yet.

Will you have pressure from constituents on planning applications?

As a politician you will always have pressure. I would be naïve to believe otherwise. People go to politicians and it is in our culture to try and go to the highest person. If possible people would stop the Prime Minister and tell him all their problems. What matters is whether you give in or not to that pressure. If the individual has a right to something it is a legitimate expectation to seek help and be given his due. But if what is being asked from the politician is not a right but the infamous favour, then this has to stop.

Aren’t politicians also to blame for this culture by giving the impression they can dish out favours?

I have always resisted this culture from day one. Very few people come to me asking for help with things they have no right to. As a parliamentarian people approach you but I have never promised anyone anything.

Will you be asking Mepa to reconsider the building permit issued to parliamentary secretary Ian Borg for his Dingli house in light of the Ombudsman’s conclusions on the case?

Why should I?

The Ombudsman’s report contained some strong language over the way the permit was issued.

Things did happen under Michael Falzon’s watch but he paid for them and that in itself is a sign of gentlemanly behaviour

I take the Ombudsman’s report on board because there are no structures to appeal any conclusions he may reach. But from what I know nothing was done that breached existing Mepa policies... There is nothing on which I should ask Mepa to investigate but I am not here to force anyone to do anything. I am here to do policy and political interference is not part of my remit. Mepa is an authority.

Doesn’t it worry you that the Ombudsman used the words “devious methods” to describe how Ian Borg filed the application?

I respect the Ombudsman’s conclusions but it does not mean I agree with him. I did not see any devious methods. As a lawyer I have seen a lot of situations where individuals give somebody else the mandate to act on their behalf. This is legal. It does not make sense to me that Ian Borg is being accused of being devious by going down this route, implying he wanted to hide his name for some reason or another, and at the same time accusing him of obtaining the permit because of who he is. I believe the case was overblown.

The Auditor General’s report on the Gaffarena case reached very damning conclusions. What do you think was the root cause of the problem?

Along the years, and unfortunately even during these two years, at the Land Department, the structure was such that allowed the possibility for anyone with bad intentions to abuse the system without restraint. We now have to transform the department into an authority and this means overhauling the law. It has to be written from scratch and this is what I am working on. We have to have a structure that does not allow space for abuse.

Could it be that the familiarity between politicians and business people like Mark Gaffarena is the problem?

A politician will always have pressure. If the individual has a lot to lose or gain, like business people, the pressure may be more incessant. But this must not condition us from creating a structure that tries to eliminate abuse.

Mark Gaffarena initiated the expropriation deal, chose the lands he wanted, and we are only speaking of half a building that the government bought. What power did this person have?

It is not power but the system that allowed this to happen. For example, there is no legal structure to determine how valuations are carried out. Is it right to have a law dealing with public land that does not include a proper standard to be adopted for valuations? This creates space for abuse.

But is it just a question of not having the right law in place?

Having the right law in place is fundamental. The current law does not give a proper definition of public purpose either, giving those with an intention to abuse the chance to do so with impunity.

Mr Gaffarena chose the lands he wanted. Is this also a legal issue?

I do not see wrongdoing on this aspect. What is wrong is the fact that such an option is not made available to everyone. If the government expropriates the house which you have invested in and worked hard for because the land is required for a public purpose, shouldn’t you be given the opportunity to choose the land or property (of similar value) given to you in return as compensation.

It is the least that can be done by the State in return for taking your hard-earned house. The problem crops up if the system does not allow everybody else to do this. I believe we should have an online system where all public land and property can be viewed. But the problem with land and property exchanges is also linked to inadequate valuations and this is why I insist the law is the problem and has to be changed.

The NAO said the parliamentary secretary did not even question the public purpose of acquiring half a building. Aren’t you simplifying the problem when reducing it to inadequate laws?

The current law provides such a wide definition of public purpose that it is difficult to dispute any reason given. Public purpose should be a very well-defined section in the law. Uncertainty at law is a major problem. We also have to include the right for judicial review to be able to contest a government decision to expropriate.

You are referring to a situation where the government wants to expropriate land that is yours. The Gaffarena case is different. It was Mark Gaffarena who approached the government to sell half a building in two separate transactions.

A stricter definition of public purpose would have changed matters. This does not mean that nobody would try and break the law. But a clear law would leave no space for ambiguity and anybody would be able to contest the decision. In this case Gaffarena wanted to dispose of his property so there would be no point for him to seek judicial redress. But I believe it is time to discuss whether the law should allow anybody to challenge the public purpose underpinning any expropriation. As things stand today only an MP and the Attorney General can contest a decision on expropriation.

An issue the NAO raised was undocumented meetings, no minute-taking and in one instance minutes that were doctored. Will you have these type of meetings with people like Mark Gaffarena, which give the impression that some have privileged access to the corridors of power?

Every politician is a people’s person. If ÄŠikku from Valletta and Duminku from St Paul’s Bay wish to meet the minister, it should not be prohibited for them to do so. After all people elect us…

There could be clearly defined rules of how such meetings are conducted.

We can but we also have to be practical. But this is not about meeting people but a question of integrity. Just about anybody can want something and not just the Gaffarenas of this world. The problem is not whether I should speak to them but if I only speak to some and not others. The crux is not allowing anybody to put pressure on you. Decisions should not be taken because you are pressured to do so.

Did your predecessor Michael Falzon have any pressure?

You have to ask Michael Falzon that question. All I know is that since I took over this office the telephones stopped ringing. Everybody in the office is dialling each other to see whether the phone system is working because they used to be inundated by calls. It could be people are giving me a break. I am not ready to bend the rules to accommodate anybody.

Abortion and embryo freezing are no-go areas for me

Didn’t police action to secure the files at the Government Property Department happen eight months too late?

Action was taken once the reports were out. I was not in a position to do anything at the time and so I will limit myself to what I can start doing now.

Do you have a target for the reforms?

I will be meeting different stakeholders to hear their views. The first meeting will be held on Monday [tomorrow]. I will also announce a public consultation period sometime next [this] week. I cannot give a target date as yet but my intention is to have the law passed before the summer recess. I cannot leave the Land Department stuck forever.

Does this administration have a problem of good governance?

No. We are improving the situation and obviously change cannot happen overnight. We are definitely not perfect but I do not feel there is a problem of good governance. Whenever the Prime Minister had to take decisions concerning individuals, he did not shy away from them. The departures of a minister and a parliamentary secretary showed how we upped the standards. Some problems have been there for years and there were many instances in the past where ministers had to resign but failed to do so. We have a different system, which shows the situation is changing in a positive way.

But then you have former home affairs minister Manuel Mallia and Michael Falzon being eulogised at Labour Party events and described as gentlemen. Doesn’t this send a mixed message?

We shoulder political responsibility for anything that happens under our watch. This does not imply that the politician took something for himself or that what happened should tarnish his reputation. Michael Falzon is a gentleman and in no way do I think that what happened should diminish his qualities. Mistakes happen.

The word mistake is being used too loosely. The Gaffarena scandal cannot be called a mistake.

How would you define it?

Corruption plain and simple. Here was a person who did what he wanted.

Corruption has a specific definition at law, which does not apply to this case. It is not corruption. You do not have Michael Falzon enriching himself and this does not emerge from the NAO report.

I am not saying Michael Falzon carried out the corruption but he headed a secretariat where this corruption took place.

This case does not fall under the description of corruption. Michael Falzon did not commit corruption. We are responsible for all that happens under our wings and Michael Falzon shouldered that responsibility by resigning. He was a gentleman about it and I do not think he should be discarded. If politicians are personally not involved in the wrongdoing, their integrity remains intact.

The NAO spoke of collusion between GPD officials, Michael Falzon and Gaffarena.

I do not believe the NAO report in any way tarnishes Michael Falzon to the extent that he needs to be thought of in a different light as if he is a bad person. Things did happen under his watch but he paid for them and that in itself is a sign of gentlemanly behaviour.

Some months ago you had expressed reservations over proposed changes to the Embryo Protection Act that would make embryo freezing legal. Today you are part of the executive. Do you feel your hands have been tied?

Not at all. The Prime Minister has known my position on this matter even before the election. One of the issues I had spoken to him about before deciding whether to contest the election was precisely this. Abortion and embryo freezing are no-go areas for me and I wanted the certainty that I could work well within a parliamentary group without going against the party line. The electoral manifesto does not mention any of these issues. When the embryo protection issue arose I spoke to the Prime Minister about my concerns and he recalled the conversation we had had before the election. He never pressured me to change my position and never brought up the subject since my appointment as parliamentary secretary.

Do you believe there should be a free vote in Parliament on the matter?

That is the Prime Minister’s decision and I will not give a reply. The Prime Minister knows what the individual positions of all of us are and I am sure he is in a position to make an informed decision on whether to grant a free vote or not.