The intention behind the setting up of a permanent internal greviances board for public officers is political, and it is open to misuse, according to Partit Demokratiku MP Godfrey Farrugia.
He was reacting to a story by The Shift which drew attention to an OPM circular last month announcing that the internal grievances unit, set up in 2014 to investigate alleged injustices against public officers prior to that date, would now become permanent.
Farrugia did not mince his words when addressing the real motive behind the decision. “Political influence and a political finger in the pie of the civil service structures means guaranteed votes. It allows the employer (the government) to dish out favours; to decide who gets rewarded and who does not,” he said.
The former Labour Party whip also touched on a concern expressed by the Ombudsman – namely, the risk posed by a process that puts the complainant at the mercy of those responsible for the injustice.
He explained that if public officers must appear before their employer for grievances, it may encourage a climate of fear and silence rather than fairness. “It may create a fear of speaking up for fear of reprisal. It may encourage officers not to question their employer,” Dr Farrugia said.
The former Labour Party whip said the move was in line with Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s perception of “politics as absolute power”.
“If politics is practiced by perception and this is backed by a media which is easily manipulated and a Constitution whose checks and balances are very fragile, then the takeover of all autonomous and independent entities by the Executive (government) is easy. One of these entities is the Civil Service, as well as the Public Service Commission,” Dr Farrugia said.
The government has presented the move as though it would be creating a fair system, but it will only be another tool in the hands of government to perpetuate political dependency, he added.
Dr Farrugia pointed out there was no legal necessity for this unit. “The Prime Minister is creating a permanent parallel srtucture, a Grievance Board, when the law to prevent all grievances already exists and the mechanism is there to be implemented but there is no will to do so,” he said.
He did not mince his words when saying it was not in Muscat’s interest to enact those laws. The Prime Minister instead chose a route where he can continue to hold the reins.
Soon after the election in June, Partit Demokratiku pressed the Prime Minister to issue the Legal Notices necessary to empower the articles of the Public Administration Act (Chapter 497) which, to date, are not yet in force.
“If these are enacted, the setup of such a grievance board by the government would be futile and the public service and its administration would be given real autonomy. The mechanisms are all there in black and white and they do not permit political influence,” Dr Farrugia said.
Ombudsman Anthony Mifsud said his office was evaluating the implications of the new set up. He said the concerns on the negative impact such boards could have on citizens’ rights remained.
Those concerns were outlined in the 2016 Ombudsplan, which underlined the fact that internal complaint mechanisms could themselves be a cause of injustice. The Ombudsman insisted he would retain the discretion to investigate any complaints, at any stage.