The Malta Business Weekly
OECD might suggest that Standards Commissioner take up additional functions
The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) might suggest that the Office of the Standards Commissioner take up additional functions, Julio Bacio Terracino, the acting head of the OECD’s Public Sector Integrity Division, told The Malta Independent on Sunday during an interview.
In September, a 24-month project was launched which seeks to greatly improve standards in public life in Malta, including through a better Code of Ethics for MPs and Cabinet members, while introducing better practices for lobbying transparency and asset declarations. The project, undertaken by the Office of the Commissioner for Standards in Public Life, is supported by the European Commission and the OECD.
Bacio Terracino stressed that the OECD is acting in a supporting role to help the Office of the Standards Commissioner and Malta. “We will provide recommendations to the Commissioner on certain issues that we identified jointly when we had set up the project proposal, based on work we have done in other countries and the information on practices we have collected from them.”
The OECD is looking at what is needed in Malta, identifying the gaps, weaknesses, strengths and seeing what can be adapted to the Maltese context.
“Our engagement with Malta and the Office of the Commissioner has only just started so what I can say is very preliminary, based on the preliminary research we conducted.”
What the OECD is doing now, he said, is an organisational review of the Office of the Commissioner, to check whether the Office has the right mandate, the right resources, etc.
“What we would say at this stage is that perhaps it needs to be strengthened, not necessarily with more resources as we would need to look into that, but perhaps with the right human resources.” He clarified that: “When you want to work in this kind of institution the threshold is much higher, in the sense that there are less people with the right expertise who are at the same time independent from political parties etc.”
This is as he is “almost sure” that one of the things the OECD will end up suggesting for the Commissioner’s consideration, is the take-up of some additional functions. “Having this in mind, I could see that the office, in its current form, would not be able to take this up so, as a minimum, I think it would need to expand its human resources, with the right expertise.”
Asked about what kind of added functions he has in mind, he said that one of the issues being covered in meetings is lobbying. “Based on the practices in other countries, I think we would be looking at the setting up of, possibly, some sort of transparency system or a transparency register, which the Office of the Commissioner would have to not only set up but also run. This would be one example that would require more resources for the Office of the Commissioner.”
He was asked for details as to how a lobby register, if introduced, would work, or what other ideas could be implemented in terms of lobbying oversight. “I’m speaking about general ideas here, as we are still in our early data collection phase. What Malta could do is, in principle, limited in terms of what options have been tested and are working in other countries. On the one hand there is what is called a lobbying registry and for such an idea the best practice would be a national one, not one handled by individual ministries (…) I always give a word of caution about these registries as they are not a silver bullet and have their own challenges. Lobbyists would need to register and
there are different consequences for registering or not – in some countries, when not registered, they cannot meet with the government. This is one option where the burden is more on the private sector, on the lobbyists.”
“Another option, which in some countries is combined with the lobby register, is what we call the setting up of public agendas. So the burden is more on the government, having a regulation or law that requires and obliges all ministries, or certain levels of officials, to make their agendas public.”
“We don’t know what would be the best for Malta yet from our point of view, but it is not the silver bullet.” Because of the risks in the relationship between the government and business, especially in Malta, which is a small country where everyone is naturally closely connected, this might not be enough and there may be a need to go beyond transparency, such as by going into the rules of conflict of interest, he added.
During the interview, he also mentioned that they will be looking at how the Office of the Standards Commissioner deals with the asset declarations from MPs.
He was asked about part-time MPs. While not having yet gone into the local situation in detail, he said that this issue is found in other countries too and not just in Malta. The OECD official said that there are benefits and disadvantages. The argument in some countries with part-time MPs “is that MPs should be connected to what is happening in people’s lives, as a business person, as a doctor in the community and that has a value added when acting as an MP”.
“Then there are disadvantages, like what happened in the UK and as I think we are seeing in Malta, which is that it creates, in general, distrust in the function of the MP and in the whole House of Parliament (...) There are different types of secondary jobs you could have, you might be a doctor, which is perhaps fine, but if you’re a businessman or a lobbyist, like what has happened in other countries, I would say that the risks of violating integrity standards as an MP is much higher.”
Many countries have fulltime MPs and they have a small staff working in Parliament, he said. This has its own consequences, including the requirement of more resources. Another, he said, is the possible disconnect between the MPs who might live in a bubble and real life.
“But I think in Malta’s case, I dare say that we may well suggest for the country’s consideration that MPs should be full-time. I’m saying this as Malta is a small country with close, natural and well-meant connections between different people, and perhaps having full-time MPs and transparency around them might be needed to reduce distrust in the House.
“We don’t know what would be the best for Malta yet from our point of view, but it is not the