Economy Minister Silvio Schembri is still finding it difficult to provide details on a bathroom showroom building in Zejtun that his ministry leased at a staggering cost of €31 million.
Asked repeatedly by The Shift and through repeated parliamentary questions to give the size in square meters of the building the Malta Business Registry is leasing, Minister Schembri stated that “the information is still being gathered and a reply will be given in another session”.
This standard reply has been repeated four times in response to four different parliamentary questions submitted by PN MP Joe Ellis between November 2021 and February 2022.
The Shift had previously reported erroneous replies to parliamentary questions by Schembri, who had left out information related to direct orders given by the Malta Gaming Authority under his watch.
When asked to publish a copy of the lease contract for the Zejtun property, Schembri refused, claiming it was “sensitive commercial information”. However, he said the lease is costing taxpayers some €454,000 per year, with an annual 3% increase.
The information given to parliament contrasts sharply with an investigation by the Auditor General that found the cost of the lease is some €2 million per year – three times more than what the Minister said in parliament. Schembri has failed to explain the €17 million discrepancy.
Last December, a report by the National Audit Office (NAO) described the lease of the MBR head office in Zejtun from Alex Mercieca Bathroom Centre in 2018 as “prohibitive”. It said that “payment of over €26 million in rent for premises, which at the end of the lease term will still be property of the lessor, raises questions from a value for money perspective.”
Apart from the €26 million taxpayers will be forking out over the 15-year lease, the government also agreed to pay an additional €5 million to refurbish the offices, turning them into high end luxury office space.
Neither Schembri nor Prime Minister Robert Abela have provided any explanation following the NAO report.
Schembri is vying to be Labour’s most popularly elected candidate in both the sixth and seventh electoral districts, in direct competition with Minister Ian Borg, in a personal campaign estimated to cost tens of thousands of euro.
His latest activity, held last Saturday in the Mdina ditch, involved the provision of massive tents and canopies, large LED screens and other audio-visual equipment, and catering supplied by James Caterers, the same company involved in the irregular €274 million St Vincent de Paul direct order that the NAO concluded was ‘illegal’.