Friday saw the conclusion of the third session of the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry, following sessions on 10 and 17 August.
With more than 12 witnesses already having taken the stand before the three-person inquiry board, the prevailing consensus confirms a construction industry whose enforcement escapes the grasp of its regulators.
The inquiry board, presided over by Ombudsman Joseph Zammit McKeon and with Deputy Auditor General Charles Deguara and architect Mario Cassar serving as its two additional members, has so far heard from ministers and former and current chairpersons of the various authorities involved in regulating the industry.
The three sessions so far have looked at the incident from several perspectives, with the session on 10 August hearing moving testimony from Sofia’s mother Isabelle Bonnici.
This was followed by brief testimonies from Finance Minister Clyde Caruana and Planning Minister Stefan Zrinzo Azzopardi, with the latter insisting his only involvement is his appointing of the chairs and CEOs of the various regulatory bodies.
The back-to-back sessions on 17 and 18 August saw testimony from police officials along with former and current chairpersons and CEOs of both the Occupational Health and Safety Authority and the Building and Construction Authority.
OHSA Chairman and BCA Member David Xuereb, suggested a system of “naming and shaming” rogue “cowboy” contractors, describing the industry as an “ill patient that needs to be seen to”.
Xeureb attempted to outline the different roles held by the two authorities, confirming that “if a building collapses, that is the responsibility of BCA, but if workers are hurt or injured that falls under OHSA” when asked by the Board.
Despite this, BCA CEO Jesmond Muscat claimed that the Authority was not tasked with overseeing sites such as the Corradino building where Jean Paul Sofia was killed, as it did not affect third-party sites.
The inquiring board’s questions revealed that such responsibilities nationwide fall under the enforcement of just 13 OHSA inspectors and 21 BCA officers. Of the latter, only 17 are “on the ground”.
When asked to present minutes from an OHSA meeting in March that discussed Jean Paul Sofia’s death, Xuereb attempted to keep them from the inquiring board by claiming they were “confidential” and citing the inquiry’s terms of reference to present them behind closed doors.
The terms of reference for the Jean Paul Sofia public inquiry give the board the power to prevent public access to information only in cases where it is “confidential in terms of the law, necessary for the security of a witness, or the interest of national security”.
During Thursday’s session, Mark Gauci, who has been CEO of the OHSA since 2001 and is retiring in two months, also testified. He said 72% of all occupational injuries happen at construction sites and that the OHSA hit a stumbling block in its investigation into the death as all the witnesses from the site refused to answer questions.
During Friday’s session, Board President and Chair McKeon characterised the construction industry as gripped by a “frightening culture of lack of enforcement”, asking former BCA chair Maria Schembri Grima, who resigned last February, what she had done to address this.
Schembri Grima, a close associate of Gozitan developer Joseph Portelli, evaded the question. She could not name the appropriate authority to contact when asked who the public should contact by family lawyer Therese Comodini Cachia.
She claimed the Kamra Tal-Periti (Chamber of Architects) should be contacted regarding structural issues but could not name the regulator for construction-related issues.
Testimony from former BCA CEO Karl Azzopardi, who Jesmond Muscat replaced in June 2022, also revealed that the BCA had completed work on three building codes which would standardise practices across the industry, but these have been gathering dust.
Finishing off Friday’s session, Muscat acknowledged the massive shortcomings in the regulation of the industry and admitted that the BCA does not “even know how many contractors are out there” as it does not have the data. He assured the inquiring board that all contractors must register with the Authority by October.
The inquiry board will reconvene on Friday, 25 August, with those wishing to testify under oath instructed to email firstname.lastname@example.org with their evidence and details.