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Cleaning up the mess

Just as this newspaper reported the other day that a long-standing company was strangely sidelined in a call for tenders for a fast ferry service to Gozo after it had been considered as the selection board’s first choice, the Finance Minister announced yet another planned reform of the contracts department.

Particularly striking is not the announcement of the planned reform but his admission of the flaws in the work of the department when, less than two years ago, new regulations came into force that were precisely aimed at making public procurement more efficient and transparent.

The regulations have certainly not produced the desired results. If anything, the government has become even more secretive, a matter that has raised deep concern as it has fanned more speculation of wrongdoing.

Still, Finance Minister Edward Scicluna has had the temerity of saying, before admitting the faults existing in the process, that transparency and good governance in public procurement would remain the most important aspect. The department may have very well been transparent in the award of small contracts but when it comes to contracts that are of national importance, the government has been anything but transparent.

The Finance Minister was reported as admitting there was a flaw in the procurement process because not much monitoring occurred once the awarding process was over. How could the government have neglected such an important aspect of the contract-awarding process? This beggars belief and calls for censure of both the department and the ministry, which is responsible for it. It amounts to crass amateurism in a most sensitive area of government operations and gives an indication of how wrongly-placed the priorities are even in some of the more important aspects of public administration.

Rubbing salt into the wound, Prof. Scicluna illustrated what he meant by bringing up the award of the contract for the running of three State hospitals that had originally been given to Vitals Global Healthcare. He acknowledged that it had been a problem that a multi-million euro contract with Vitals had missed all the milestones agreed upon as part of the deal.

It was not just a problem. It was far, far more serious than that, especially when considering the millions of taxpayers’ money involved in the contract. How can a minister – the Finance Minister, no less – now say all this after the company has nicely squirrelled out of its obligations and, to boot, was allowed by the government to sell its concession, at an undisclosed price, to an American company?

But there is more to the story that makes even the most distant observer of what is happening in the health sector squirm with disgust and amazement. The deal with Vitals was supposed to be monitored by no fewer than seven committees. Were these not finally accountable to anyone? How is it that neither the Health Minister nor the Finance Minister sought to find out if the targets were being met? Was the Prime Minister aware of this?

The last straw was the minister’s remark that the follow-up of contracts had to be looked into more closely. He can say that again. Is it not time for the administration to stop wasting time boasting about economic progress and start sorting out the mess in key areas of government operations?

This is a Times of Malta print editorial

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