Just a month after forming his new cabinet last March, changes were discretely made to the cabinet manual regulating the engagement of political staff, and the political appointee headcount at Abela’s office rose by 26 people – from 37 to 71.
The Shift can report that on Abela’s direct order, then-Principal Permanent Secretary Mario Cutajar changed the rules of the manual, originally published in 2014, so the Prime Minister’s private secretariat could almost double the number of its persons of trust.
The move will set taxpayers back an additional €1 million a year in direct salaries and allowances, apart from the miscellaneous costs related to the hiring of new staff such as offices and transport.
The changes, which were not publicised, only came to light earlier this week through a parliamentary question tabled by PN MP Joe Giglio.
The new manual also shows that while Abela substantially increased the size of his office, he left the other ministers and parliamentary secretaries with the same staff complements.
Abela’s office has now increased its staff from the original 37 posts to 71, while ministers contend with just 19 members of staff.
While the PM, through the stroke of a pen, gave himself an additional 26 extra pairs of hands, he remains adamant about not giving any additional resources to parliament and the opposition. MPs in particular have been requesting assistance to be able to carry out their parliamentary duties.
How the manual was changed
According to the Cabinet Manual of Procedures published by the OPM in August 2014, the OPM was allowed to engage a total of 37 members of staff for the PM’s private office – from the head of secretariat to messengers and drivers.
During the Joseph Muscat administration, the number of these employees, normally party activists or personal friends, was increased over the limit with the creation of new positions, which were mostly left unnoticed. The OPM was also allowed to employ eight consultants, another way of giving jobs to more party loyalists.
Following revelations by The Shift that when he became Prime Minister, Abela engaged 10 consultants, two more than what the 2014 rules allowed, PN MP Joe Giglio asked the PM to state whether the rules have been changed.
Abela published a set of new rules, which show major changes inserted for his benefit. While keeping the headcount of the PM’s secretariat the same, at 37 employees, the new manual, which is now called ‘Manual on resourcing policies and procedures’, added three new ‘units’ as part of the Prime Minister’s secretariat, increasing the number of persons of trust he can employ while centralising even more power at the OPM.
The new units, called, Communications, Customer Care and PQ unit, have been filled with party employees. The new communications office, headed by former Labour reporter Edward Montebello, now has an additional six employees, mostly former ONE TV reporters who still work at the station while on government time – while the customer care centralised office, which is used to hand out favours has an additional 18 recruits.
In total, the OPM now can appoint 71 persons of trust, all working for Robert Abela and the Labour Party while being paid from state coffers.