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Value-for-money audits

Good political governance entails that members of Parliament should account in the most transparent way how taxpayers’ money they claim to cover the expenses incurred in their official duties are spent. The international media often reports with prominence incidents where MPs are caught fiddling their expenses claims by the internal auditors of the public sector.

The more reputable private firms take a grave view of executives who fiddle their expenses claims at the companies’ cost. Such abuse is often a good enough reason for instant dismissal. Moreover, in the last few years, the message from the top of even large private companies to their executives is to limit their overseas travel and to use the most cost-effective way of travelling. This attitude should not be interpreted as penny-pinching but as one that sets an example to all staff that travelling is not a perk or status symbol but a duty that needs to be carried out with the least possible expense for the company.

Malta’s membership of the EU and various international organisations makes it necessary for Cabinet ministers and other public officers to attend meetings and conferences abroad. Though one would assume that strict rules govern the manner in which civil servants claim for expenses incurred in official travel, one would be justified in asking whether the control of travelling expenses by MPs and, especially, ministers needs to be tightened up if taxpayers are to feel reassured public money is being spent judiciously.

Questions in Parliament by Nationalist MP Claudette Baldacchino revealed that Economy Minister Chris Cardona travels on average at least twice a month. He is usually accompanied by his chief of staff and one or more advisers. The Auditor General had remarked that, in a trip to Dubai in 2015, Dr Cardona and two top aides had spent €758 on drinks. The minister’s aide eventually refunded the money spent on drinks. The National Audit Office has also noted that out of 10 official and ministerial trips, nine had anomalies in the expenses listed.

The Prime Minister is also a seasoned traveller and, last year, his office spent €1.1 million on trips abroad.

Whether such expenses are justified remains questionable as no specific value-for-money audits seem to be made on travelling done by Cabinet ministers and the officials accompanying them. Whether or not anything has changed in the way decisions on travelling are made when compared to pre-2013 practices is immaterial. What really matters is that the taxpayers’ right to know whether their money is spent most cost-effectively must be satisfied.

Good governance in the public sector calls for changes to practices that involve travel expenditure without measuring the benefits that result from such costs. Value-for-money audits are one tool the Auditor General could recommend to help in the strengthening of the ethical values that people in a position of trust should embrace at all times. The findings of such audits should be published as a matter of routine not only to keep taxpayers informed on how public funds are being spent but also to keep ministers and their entourage on their toes.

If a low-ranking civil servant is caught fiddling with small expenses, s/he will risk disciplinary action. The same should apply to MPs and ministers.

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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