Disagreeing with the Ombudsman

One wonders whether it was the ministry that pushed the Commissioner to sign the letter or if it was the other way about. Whichever it was, it is a reflection of the cosy relationship between the Police Commissioner and the home affairs ministry

I was surprised to read this week that the Police Commissioner and the Home Affairs Ministry wrote to the Ombudsman saying they disagreed with the conclusions reached in the case of former Police Superintendent Carmelo Bartolo and Police Superintendent Ray D’Anastasi. The Ombudsman had found that a promotion exercise made under former Commissioner Lawrence Cutajar was a ‘parody of a selection process’.

An ombudsman is an official, usually appointed by the government, who investigates complaints lodged by private citizens against public entities, and attempts to resolve the conflicts or concerns raised by making recommendations.

In Malta the Ombudsman Act refers to an Officer of Parliament who is a Commissioner for Administrative Investigations and who is appointed by the President acting in accordance with a resolution of the House of Representatives supported by the votes of not less than two-thirds of all the members of the House.

Our Ombudsman has the power to investigate the government, including any government department or other authority of the government, any minister or parliamentary secretary, any public officer and any member of a state authority; any statutory body, and any partnership or other body in which the government has a controlling interest or over which it has effective control; as well as local councils.

In the Nordic tradition – from where the word ‘Ombudsman’ originates – although the Ombudsman can make recommendations, his decisions are not enforceable. But an Ombudsman’s report could be part of a powerful ‘name and shame’ process.

The Ombudsman is not infallible but a public entity writing to him to tell him he is not right, in my opinion, goes on to show disrespect to the Ombudsman who is an Officer of Parliament.

Press releases explaining the position of those who were found lacking in one way or another by the Ombudsman are normal fare but complaining about an Ombudsman decision by writing directly to him, accusing him that he was wrong, and publishing such a letter is, in my opinion, not on. It shows disrespect not towards the current Ombudsman but to the office of the Ombudsman itself. It shows that the Police Commissioner and the home affairs minister think that there is no difference between an Ombudsman’s report and a report published in a newspaper or in some other media.

Worse still, it shows that the current Police Commissioner and the current home affairs minister do not understand the function of the Ombudsman as a protector of citizen’s rights. They do not even understand the status of this officer of Parliament!

Does the Police Commissioner write to a Judge or a Magistrate who delivers a judgement with which he does not agree? Of course not! But the current Police Commissioner did it in the case of the Ombudsman – signifying that in his mind, the status of the Ombudsman does not deserve the same level of respect he shows towards the Judiciary.

For the Police Commissioner to send the letter to the Ombudsman with the connivance of the permanent secretary of the home affairs ministry – who also signed the letter – makes the situation even worse. One wonders whether it was the ministry that pushed the Commissioner to sign the letter or if it was the other way about. Whichever it was, it is a reflection of the cosy relationship between the Police Commissioner and the home affairs ministry.

Such cosy relationships are a negative indication of the state of our democracy.

The elephant in the room

Despite all the efforts and money that goes into our education system, large numbers of Maltese school-leavers fail to get beyond secondary school.

Minister Clyde Caruana was completely right when in an interview with Lovin Malta he said that the problems with our education system will not be overcome by throwing money at them. In his words: “Throwing more money at the problem won’t resolve the issue at all. I think we’re spending more than enough.”

Malta is one of the top ten spenders on education in the entire EU with the country providing free education up to university level to all of its citizens. Yet some 35% of the population still leave school before receiving a complete secondary school level education.

Solving these issues within the education sector remains a big problem for the government. More so, as too many families do not understand that education is the key to a successful future.

As Minister Caruana put it: “If we lose them young, we don’t have a chance.” He is completely right in dismissing a PN proposal to increase teachers’ salaries by 25%, rejecting suggestions that paying teachers more would magically result in better teachers.

As a matter of fact, teachers’ salaries and working conditions have been increasing for as long as I can remember. Their output never improves.

Addressing the launch of a national employment strategy, Caruana said that politicians liked to use buzzwords when it came to technological developments like blockchain, yet, in the span of 20 years there had been only marginal improvements in the number of students leaving compulsory education with six O-levels. Caruana described the education sector as the elephant in the room, adding that “these things cannot be ignored if we want the country to advance”.

He acknowledged that many high-end jobs are being taken up by foreigners, as the Maltese did not have the skills to take them on, saying that it would be ironic for the country to keep creating new opportunities, while Maltese youngsters do not have the skills for them.

He questioned how Malta could ever hope to compete in a world where Scandinavian youths spend an average of 21 years in education, while Malta has one of the highest rates of early school leavers in the EU.

The idea of increasing compulsory school age by two years to 18 was mooted by some, but experts agree that this will only work if the education system is revamped to be more relevant and engaging for students.

Educational psychologist Carmel Cefai was quoted in the press as saying: “The focus needs to be on restructuring the system so that young people find it motivating and rewarding to continue their education beyond 16 years.”

I am sure that the need for this restructuring is the more important issue. When will the ministry of education tackle this vital issue to our country’s future?