The PL government has ensured it is able to control the distribution of social benefits by appointing umpires – the arbiters who decide on disputed cases flagged by the Social Services Department – who are known to be close to the ruling Labour Party.
According to information provided in parliament to PN MP Paula Mifsud Bonnici, Social Policy Minister Michael Falzon said that to date he is using the services of 10 different lawyers, who have been nominated as umpires by the government under the Social Security Act.
The nominated umpires include Simon Micallef Stafrace, the son of a former Labour minister who has been given a number of appointments since 2013; Noel Cutajar, who used to represent Labour on the electoral commission; Vince Micallef, a former partner of Parliamentary Secretary Andy Ellul’s legal firm; Edward Gatt, defence lawyer for former OPM chief of staff Keith Schembri, and Noel Camilleri.
The list also includes Adrian Camilleri, a Senior Associate at Ganado Advocates who is related to former Justice Minister Edward Zammit Lewis, and Shaheryar Ghaznavi, a regular on the direct orders list of various ministries and government entities.
According to the Social Security Act, every dispute over social benefits, ranging from unemployment to children’s allowances and pensions, can be referred to an umpire (a sort of arbiter) by the Director of the Social Security Department. It is up to the umpire to decide on the settlement of a dispute and the decision is final.
This comes in the context of widely suspected, rampant abuse of social benefits, which results in people receiving benefits to which they are not entitled. The many ways to circumvent rules include undeclared income and false medical certificates.
Controlling the umpires means the government is able to pick and choose which individuals receive benefits, an important tool in a political system that is heavily reliant on clientelism.
In 2021 taxpayers paid over €1.2 billion in social security benefits, according to a government statement.