The decision by Speaker of the House Anglu Farrugia to redact the names of government consultants, including Nigel Vella, in a parliamentary question (PQ) that revealed the additional consultancies Vella was given while working as OPM Deputy Head of Communications, has no legal basis, the Data Protection Commissioner has confirmed.
The Shift noticed that after questions were sent to the OPM for an explanation on Vella’s double contract on a person of trust basis, the online information in the PQ was suddenly redacted. The original information including the names had been completely replaced. The Shift was only able to point this out because journalists had already downloaded a screenshot of the original answer.
When this was brought to the Speaker’s attention for an explanation, Farrugia told The Shift he was following the advice of the Data Protection Commissioner.
A spokesman for the Speaker said the decision was taken by Farrugia himself, “after the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner informed us that when publishing such data online, we would be in breach of Data Protection legislation”.
Questions were then sent to the Data Protection Commissioner Ian Deguara to explain this unprecedented move. Deguara said his Office did not give any advice to the Speaker to redact names from PQs.
“I confirm that this Office did not provide data protection advice to the Office of the Speaker on this specific issue. Having said that, I am informed that several years back, advice has been sought on other data protection matters, which were not related to the publication of the consultants’ names,” the Commissioner told The Shift.
Deguara also questioned the legality of the Speaker’s decision.
“In this specific case, I consider that the data protection law does not in any way hinder the online publication of consultants’ names, particularly when taking into account the fact that their details would have already been tabled in parliament, and therefore this is information which is made publicly available,” the Data Protection Commissioner noted.
“Although other categories of personal data might be included in the papers laid, and therefore physically available at the Office of the Speaker, I believe that a risk assessment should be conducted to carefully determine which personal data, other than names, should be published online, particularly when taking into account the inherent risks attributed to the online environment,” Deguara added.
The Nigel Vella case
Nigel Vella, until 2017 Labour’s spokesman, was put on the government payroll by Joseph Muscat soon after the election. In 2019, following the departure of Kurt Farrugia as a result of his appointment as CEO of Malta Enterprise, Vella was promoted to Deputy Head of Government Communications on a person of trust basis.
Last January, following a PQ by PN MP Chris Said, the Gozo Minister revealed that Vella was also acting as a consultant, on a person of trust basis, at his Ministry on a contract paid at scale 3 of the civil service.
According to Minister Clint Camilleri, Vella was providing advice on the Ministry’s communications strategy – the same job he was assigned to do at the OPM on a full time basis.
No replies were received to questions sent to Vella and Prime Minister Robert Abela, despite repeated attempts.
Soon after The Shift’s questions, the information on Vella in parliament’s online database was redacted.
The Speaker’s flaws
The is the third time in three weeks that questions have been raised on the Speaker’s administrative decisions.
Last week, Standards Commissioner George Hyzler openly criticised the Speaker’s decision to block the publication of a damning report on disgraced Prime Minister Joseph Muscat’s abuse of power and possible breach of ethics.
According to Hyzler, the Speaker’s decision was illegal. Farrugia replied that his actions were based on legal advice sought from Prof Ian Refalo, a constitutional lawyer frequently used by the government to justify controversial decisions.
The Speaker was also recently criticised for denying The Shift access to the income tax returns of MPs, arguing that The Shift was not registered on the government’s press register, despite the fact that the law was changed in 2018 removing the requirement for media houses to register with the OPM’s Department of Information.
Farrugia, 65, a former Labour Deputy Leader, was removed from his post by Joseph Muscat just a few weeks before the 2013 election. At the time, he had accused Muscat of ‘political murder’.
Soon after Labour’s electoral success, Farrugia was offered the Speaker’s post and allowed to take the position on a full time basis even though parliament still operates on a part time basis.
In 2016, in another controversial decision, Farrugia’s daughter, Caroline, was nominated by Prime Minister Muscat to become a magistrate even though she did not satisfy the constitutional requirement of a minimum of seven years of practising law.