The Ministry for Senior Citizens and Active Ageing is refusing to abide by a Data Protection Commission decision won by The Shift for transparency in the way it is spending some €49 million of public funds a year on private homes for the elderly by insisting it does not feel it needs to provide such information.
Contesting a decision taken a few weeks ago by the Data Protection Commissioner that slammed the ministry for its outright refusal to provide The Shift with copies of contracts for the purchase of beds at various private homes for the elderly, Jo Etienne Abela’s ministry, through Gozitan lawyer Kevin Mompalao, filed an appeal disputing the decision.
According to Mompalao, since the ministry has already given certain information to the National Audit Office, a completely different entity, it feels that it should not give any more information to any other institution, including the media.
The Appeals Tribunal, headed by seasoned lawyer Anna Mallia, is now expected to decide on this case.
The issue dates back to 21 December when The Shift asked the ministry for copies of contracts related to the ‘residential care in private homes scheme’ being operated by the ministry.
The scheme, which started years ago, helps with the provision of residential care in other homes for the elderly not owned by the government. It has seen exponential growth over the past years, but amid a total lack of rules and transparency since its inception.
While it is estimated the government will be leasing some 1,500 beds in various private care homes this year, no one is being informed of the exact number of beds and their rates as per the contracts.
Citing commercial sensitivity, the government has always refused to give any specific details, even to parliament.
Investigations by The Shift have established that there are no real rules determining the need for such beds, the amount leased, from which home and location.
All contracts are signed in complete secrecy, through direct orders, with rates and conditions negotiated on an ad hoc basis directly between ministry officials, usually headed by Active Ageing Agency CEO Renzo De Gabriele and the private owners of individual residences.
This has already resulted in a hotchpotch of conditions and contracts with substantial discrepancies in payments between different private homes.
According to an NAO audit, the government is paying some €120 a day for each bed in one particular home while another is receiving just €65 a day.
Also, while until a few years ago, the budget allocated to the scheme had been somewhat restricted – at around €9 million in 2016 – it has now ballooned to some €49 million a year, with the government itself ‘buying’ most of the beds provided by the mushrooming lucrative private sector.
The Shift is informed of businessmen, mostly building contractors, who invested in new residential homes after being promised contracts by the government to ‘buy’ most of the bedspace in their still-to-be-built homes.
The scheme, through which elderly persons are accommodated in private residential homes, also turns out to be helpful when it comes to vote buying and political favours.
Businesspeople in the field who spoke to The Shift dubbed the current administration of the scheme as “a convenient way for the government to curry favour in exchange of votes” as even the rules on how the elderly are recommended and to which home they are to be admitted “change from one day to the other”.
“Since we are now depending on the government to buy our beds, we can’t really refuse any recommendations from the ministry,” said one businessman who has been in the business for years.
Others complain about the lack of rules and the different terms being negotiated by the government.
“There is no explanation of why the government leased 100 beds from one home and just 40 from another, nor even why one is paid €65 a bed and the other €80. It’s just the rule of the jungle, and no one bothers to look at what is really going on. Not even the Opposition,” another insider from the sector complained.
Until the Data Protection Commissioner’s decision ordering the ministry to make its contracts available to The Shift, the ministry has held everything under wraps. It is now disputing the order to lift the lid on how it is spending tens of millions of euro of taxpayer funds.
“The scheme, as it is being administered, leaves much to be desired and is open to sleaze and possible corruption. That is why the ministry needs to come clean on the expenditure issue. This is public money, and the government is obliged to be transparent,” industry sources insisted.