After weeks of scathing criticism and two tense days of meetings, the Prime Minister yesterday corrected his “mistakes” and proposed a way of reversing the controversial salary increases granted to people’s representatives.

He ordered his ministers to refund about €19,000 each and postponed any rises to MPs until they were discussed and agreed upon by the House Business Committee. He said this should be done by the end of the month not to leave the issue pending.

After a long day of meetings with the Cabinet and his parliamentary group, Lawrence Gonzi addressed Parliament in the evening, something Opposition Leader Joseph Muscat later pointed out was done “30 months late”, since the decisions on pay rises were taken in May 2008.

With hands in pockets, Dr Gonzi defended Cabinet’s 2008 decision to allow ministers and parliamentary secretaries to keep their parliamentary honorarium. He said this was done in line with a previous decision that allowed civil servants who became MPs to keep both their jobs and honorarium.

“This too was a ‘double salary’,” he later explained, as Dr Muscat continued to decry the idea of ministers receiving their honorarium.

Dr Gonzi conceded the idea of increasing the honorarium of MPs had not been formally discussed with the opposition as Cabinet had hoped back in 2008. Therefore, he said it was not fair for ministers and parliamentary secretaries to receive their already upwardly revised honorarium since 2008. The only reason why this had happened was because he had “assumed” that, since oppositions MPs had long been asking about the rise, they would have supported the idea.

The problem was that the Select Committee set up to discuss various issues, including the rises, never got off to the right start and Labour eventually withdrew its participation. This meant some issues, which had to be resolved before the new honorarium came into effect, never did, leading to a situation where ministers were already receiving 70 per cent of pay scale one while other MPs were only getting the original 50 per cent.

Dr Gonzi stressed that changes to MPs’ salaries should be made, especially in light of the fact that Maltese politicians were among the lowest paid in Europe, surpassing only those in Lithuania and Bulgaria.

Dr Muscat, who was the first MP sitting in Parliament, slammed Dr Gonzi’s “changes”, saying the only thing that changed was that, instead of getting €600 a week, ministers would receive a double salary of €500 a week. The figures were later corrected by the Nationali­­­st Party, which said the real change was from €515 to €367.

Dr Muscat said the only reason Dr Gonzi had decided to backtrack on certain issues was fear of losing a vote in Parliament, as had happened in other instances this legislature. He was making a reference to Nationalist MP Jean-Pierre Farrugia who, over the past weeks, lambasted Dr Gonzi on his handling of the matter and also threatened to vote against the government if it was put to a vote in Parliament.

Dr Muscat reiterated the concerns of former Prime Minister Alfred Sant that the government’s actions had been in contempt of Parliament, stressing that a decision that affected his constitutional role as Leader of Opposition was never communicated to him. (The Opposition Leader is classified on the same level as ministers and parliamentary secretaries in terms of honorarium.)

Dr Muscat peppered his speech with taunts to the Prime Minister, stressing that, contrary to Nationalist MPs, his parliamentary group was a “united front” and in a meeting they had all decided to contribute to a fund of unwanted increases, which would go to charity.

He said he would not accept any deadlines to be imposed on the House Business Committee because it was up to the Committee itself to decide.

Dr Muscat asked whether ministers were actually receiving an honorarium or just a rise equivalent to the honorarium because they had been paid the increases from their ministries not Parliament.

Dr Gonzi later explained that, ideally, ministers would receive their honorarium from Parliament but, since no agreement had been reached with the opposition, this was not possible yet.

He said there should be an independent body to revise MPs’ conditions every so often not to have such a public reaction every time changes were made.

Responding to criticism that the rises were decided behind the people’s backs, Dr Gonzi stressed ministers and parliamentary secretaries always had to declare their income in detail. Unwittingly, however, he said proof of this was when they were “caught out” by the press, which wrote about their earnings.

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