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Government is to press on with St Philip’s deal

The Government will be pressing ahead with the St Philip’s Hospital lease deal in spite of calls to postpone the contract’s signing pending a parliamentary debate.

The decision gives short shrift to calls made by the Labour Party, independent MP Jeffrey Pullicino Orlando and Nationalist backbencher Franco Debono for the deal to be debated.

Finance Minister Tonio Fenech said the Government did not need parliamentary approval to rent or buy property and would table the contract on the day of signing. There is no date for the signing so far.

He also justified the agreement, which has not yet been signed, saying there was “an acute need” for hospital beds.

Meanwhile the Government also announced yesterday that following the signing of the lease agreement with the hospital, the contract will be submitted to the Auditor General for an evaluation and review.

Last week Dr Debono tabled a private member’s motion asking for the agreement to be postponed and the matter came to a head during a meeting of Parliament’s House Business Committee last Thursday.

Mr Fenech said a specific clause was inserted in the contract to allow full disclosure of the agreement and other relevant information to Parliament.

But this will only be done “on the date of signature” when the Government will table a request for the Public Accounts Committee to review the contract.

Mr Fenech said that while the Government respected the right of MPs to request parliamentary scrutiny, this “should not be perceived as subjecting or limiting the right of Government to enter into such a contract in the public interest”.

He added that the Government was committing itself to seek parliamentary scrutiny should it opt in the future to buy the hospital.

Dr Portelli was reported in The Times yesterday as being surprised at the opposition to the deal, stressing that negotiations were held with the Government and not the Public Accounts Committee.

He said Dr Pullicino Orlando and Dr Debono were transferring “their hate towards Richard Cachia Caruana” onto him because he was a friend.

Reacting to this statement, Dr Pullicino Orlando yesterday described Dr Portelli’s outburst as “arrogant” and insisted that many taxpayers were asking why the Government was spending millions on the rehabilitation of “an abandoned private hospital” when St Luke’s Hospital could be rehabilitated at “a fraction of the price”.

The Government gave details of the deal last week. It wants to lease St Philip’s Hospital for €850,000 a year for eight years. But the Government also has an option to buy the hospital for €12.4 million from the third year onwards.

St Philip’s is a 100-bed hospital and will be used by the health authorities as a rehabilitation facility to ease the bed shortage at Mater Dei hospital.

The private hospital closed its doors two years ago after running into financial problems. According to the last set of accounts filed with the Registry of Companies for 2006, the company running it reported a loss of more than €500,000.

But Mr Fenech said the Government was not buying the company and negotiations were on a lease agreement.

On Wednesday a pharmaceutical company will be seeking a judicial sale by auction of a property belonging to Dr Portelli, to recover money it is owed by the hospital.

ksansone@timesofmalta.com

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