A Bill tabled last summer which was supposedly aimed to give a legal basis for the appointment of persons of trust was recently shot down by the Standards Commissioner who did not mince his words to make his point. Were this Bill to become law it would be “a major step backwards,” the Commissioner said in a guidance note on outlining the current state of play and the legal ramification of government’s proposals. Ironically, this Bill was presented as government’s response to the criticism by the rule of law experts of the Council of Europe, known as the Venice Commission.

The recruitment of persons of trust by the government is no new phenomenon, and might be justified in certain cases. However, there is wide consensus that in recent years this mechanism has been abused to flout recruitment regulations and give jobs to blue-eyed boys. While it makes perfect sense that some members of a minister’s private secretariat are political appointees be it from within or outside the public service, this mechanism has been abused to absurdity. The engagement of a dog handler on a position of trust basis by the Home Affairs Ministry in 2015 is testament to this. This was no exception as the government recruited security guards, maintenance officers and crane or forklift operators through this system as if they were political appointees. No wonder that by October 2017, there were no fewer than 683 persons employed on a trust basis on government’s books.

Faced by a barrage of criticism but most notably the prospect of suffering huge reputational damage should Malta be grey listed by Moneyval – a Council of Europe body which fights money laundering – government decided to act and presented a short Bill, as part of a package of institutional reforms. Luckily, this Bill is still pending. It turns out that if it had to become law, the situation would go from bad to worse on various fronts.

It beggars belief that this Bill proposed wider use of this system as it would also apply for positions which would remain vacant following “repetitive calls”. Given that it is up to the government to decide on the number of vacancies this is even more worrying. As the Commissioner said such proposal would only serve to politicise Maltese public administration and result in the further lowering of standards of ethical conduct and service delivery. What is even more baffling is the discrepancy between the English and the Maltese versions of the Bill. In view of the fact that in such cases the latter prevails, it would mean that all members of ministerial secretariats, who are political appointees other than consultants would no longer be under the scrutiny of the Standards in Public Life Act. Moreover, the new definition also excludes anybody appointed on a trust basis from within the civil service.  The Bill also falls foul from a strictly legal perspective as contrary to what had been recommended by the Venice Commission it has no Constitutional amendments. Consequently, the law could be easily challenged in a court. The longer the government takes to ditch this Bill, the higher the mountain to climb to win people’s trust that it really means business and it truly believes in meritocracy.