An Open Letter to PACE
Dear Ms Maury Pasquier and Mr Omtzigt
I watched with great interest the PACE debate on Mr Omtzigt’s report on Daphne Caruana Galizia’s assassination and the rule of law in Malta. I write to you as a last resort. I am a Maltese citizen who returned to Malta with my family in 2010 after a 21 year stay in the UK. I have experienced and witnessed for myself the disastrous state of Maltese governance and rule of law.
The first shock to the system was in August 2013. Our ex landlord took out a precautionary garnishee order on our bank account and my salary when we refused to continue overpaying on the incorrect tariff for people living in their primary residence. Two years of attendance at the Small Claims Court later, it was judged by the Chairperson that just as ignorance of the law was no excuse for the tenant, it was also no excuse for the landlord. The judgement was that both of us shared responsibility for the so called arrears on the Arms (the sole, state owned utility billing company) bill. Please note that the court agreed that we were on the incorrect tariff for people living in their primary residence but the court case was about who had responsibility for the ‘arrears’ on the Arms bill. The legality of the Arms billing system was not the subject of the court case. Neither, please note, was the case thrown out of court and the garnishee orders deemed to be vexatious. So, the outcome of this is that, by implication of the judgement itself, Arms – the sole, state owned utility billing company - was in receipt of an overcharge of €3309.84 that it was not entitled to.
Please also note that this is not a one off occurrence. Most tenants are on the incorrectly applied, extortionate summer residence tariff. Many landlords evade tax on their rental income so do not want the powers that be to know there are rent paying tenants living in their so called empty second properties. Effectively Arms is colluding with tax evading landlords. Of course, my first step was to ask for Arms to recalculate the cost of our consumption of water and electricity on the correct tariff. I copied in the then Minister for Energy, Konrad Mizzi, and the Prime Minister to this request. To no avail.
My second experience of Maltese injustice is still ongoing. In August 2015, I submitted a complaint to the European Commission regarding the underpayment of my salary because of the breach of EU law with regard to my right to EU freedom of movement and treatment equal to that of host nationals. Basically, my 15 years’ UK teaching experience was completely ignored with regard to where I was placed on the Teacher Salary Scale. Effectively I was on the same salary scale as a newly qualified teacher. There followed an extensive correspondence with my union, the MUT; Minister for Education Evarist Bartolo, the Secretariat for Catholic Education, the European Commission and the European Parliament. I was met with brick wall after brick wall as the MUT and MEDE came up with creative ways of denying me justice. To cut a very long story short, my persistence paid off and, thanks to the intervention of the European Commission, in January 2017 I was placed on the correct point of the Teacher Salary Scale with respect to my UK teaching experience. Arrears from September 2013 to December 2016 were also paid.
I insisted that salary arrears from September 2010 to September 2013 were also due to me. The September 2013 MUT / MEDE agreement on EU teacher mobility was quoted to justify the non payment of these arrears. (Yes, against the best interests of their mobile teacher members, the Malta Union of Teachers signed an agreement with the Department of Education in 2013 which stipulated that arrears would only be backdated to September 2013.) I took issue with this and wrote to the European Commission again, who advised me to file a complaint with the Maltese National Commission for the Promotion of Equality (NCPE). This entity was the agency responsible for EU freedom of movement disputes. In June 2018, I instructed a lawyer to help me with my case because by now I was wary of any Maltese institution. I was therefore pleasantly surprised and relieved when the NCPE judgement of March 2019 recommended that I be paid the September 2010 to September 2013 arrears. My lawyer wrote to MEDE and asked for these arrears to be paid. Unfortunately to date this has not happened.
In December 2017 and November 2018 I submitted judicial letters to interrupt prescription on my case. The response to these judicial letters by MEDE was that I should refrain from any legal action because I had no case and would therefore waste my money on legal and court costs. The legal costs incurred with regard to the NCPE complaint and the filing of the judicial letters to interrupt prescription amount to circa €4000. The NCPE has recommended that I am paid these arrears, after both sides submitted evidence, and yet MEDE has left me with no choice but to pursue this in court and incur yet more legal and court costs which would probably exceed the amount due to me.
Please note that I am not the only mobile teacher who has suffered this discrimination. Mobile teachers moving sector within Malta or returning to service after taking a career break to have a family pre 2013 or pre 2015 are in the same situation as I am. So, again, this is a systemic injustice and, in a teacher recruitment crisis to top it all.
I have witnessed too many injustices on a daily basis to list them all in this already too long email. However I cannot but mention two other recent injustices.
A few days ago, we received the news that a 49 year old injustice with regard to my late father’s pension had been resolved and that the underpayment of his pension would now go to his heirs. Forty nine years later. How can this be justice? Why was my father denied the full fruits of his labour in his lifetime?
The second injustice I will mention here is far too important not to mention. Recently, three blocks of flats have collapsed or been deemed unsafe because of excavation works next door. Miraculously no one died or was seriously injured.
In 2000, Mrs Vella died after the house she was in collapsed because of excavation works in the neighbouring property. Two other people in the house at the time survived. Twelve years later, the criminal court ordered the two contractors to pay €4000 euro each in damages to the Vella family. Recently a civil court ordered damages of €40000 to be paid. The Vella family received a bill for €9000 in court costs.
The magistrate in the Vella case ruled that the contractors were to blame because they had disregarded the instruction of the architect to leave a mandatory 76 cm gap between the neighbouring house and the excavation.
At least two of the three recent collapses also did not leave a mandatory 76 cm gap between the third party wall and the excavation. Would the victims of these recent collapses have endured the trauma of losing their homes in this way if the damages payable by the contractors then had been much more substantial and more timely than 19 years? Will the victims of the 2019 building collapses endure the same injustice and unfair treatment over the next 19 years?
I must apologize for the length of this email. I will now get to the crucial point. The European Court of Human Rights waives the condition of having to exhaust all national remedies for justice before applying to the ECtHR for some Maltese human rights cases.
I would like to ask whether it would be at all possible for this to automatically happen across the board with regard to all human rights abuses in Malta. Many people in Malta will tell you that only the guilty and the wrong take their grievances to court because the wronged are never served justice. It’s a pretty damning indictment of our justice system. From my own experiences and observations, I cannot but agree.
It is important for me to point out that although my opinion is that the PL government has upped the ante with regard to the dysfunction of our institutions, I consider that both PN and PL are to blame. The examples I have used in this email are of abusive administrative systems that run over successive administrations. Indeed, the injustice endured by my late father began in 1970 under a PN administration, only 6 years after independence.
I look forward to hearing from you. I apologise if I am not meant to contact you so directly in these circumstances. I am only trying to find a way round yet another brick wall put up by the Maltese state against its own citizens and residents.
Please let me know if you need any documentation to support all I have written in this email.
So, in amongst the daily litany of some new scandal or two and the general dysfunction of a failing state, news of collapsing buildings has hit the headlines over the last few weeks. When the first block of flats collapsed, our prime minister and various others were quick to point out - from a very defensive position, I thought - that this event couldn’t be used to characterise the building industry as a whole. Also, third parties were hectored and told that they needed to chase any concerns themselves with a lawyer, an architect, the BRO...
After 9 years of being back in Malta, I don’t think I can ever say any more that I feel angry about a specific situation. I feel angry every day. I have been angry every day for years now. I don’t imagine that being angry is good for your health so I vent on Facebook and write a blog or two to release that anger.
I also can never say now that I am ever surprised or shocked as I learn about some new abusive, perverse administrative system.
I am pretty good at extrapolating. So clearly if we endured abuse as a result of the Maltese utility billing system, the ACL billing system, the discrimination against mobile teachers, the free for all private rental sector..., of course I am not going to be surprised that the rot extends everywhere into all spheres of every day life in Malta.
Did people listening to the prime minister as he swung the responsibility on to the victim think ‘this is not acceptable’? Did people notice this? Or is it that they don’t understand that this is not normal behaviour of a prime minister?
The idea that we shouldn’t worry about the aberration, the minority because it is an aberration or a minority..., - when did this become acceptable? Or has it always been acceptable because people tend to be complacent and smug about how their lives and the lives of their families will always be hunky dory?
Stop making a fuss - It’s only 20% of the population who are tenants. Stop making a fuss - it’s only 3.5% of Teachers of Maths and Maltese who are being treated unfairly. Stop making a fuss - only a few teachers have lost out on tens of thousands of euro in salary payments.
Why do we have a government at all, if this is the case? Is it acceptable for an administration to only look after the majority, the non aberration? Are we happy with having mob rule?
And then - just like that - the prime minister and everyone else changed their tune as the first collapse was followed by another collapse of a Mellieha block of flats and then another collapse in a wall on another Hamrun block of flats.
We also had Janet Walker - one of the victims - who had documented the cracks in the walls, her concern at the shaking of the building. In fact this was a news item on national television on the 10th May. She consulted an architect at her own expense. She followed the warped system as the PM told her to. Where did it get her? Did it stop the wall collapsing? Did it stop her and all the occupants of the block becoming homeless overnight and losing all their belongings in the process?
So the government changed its tune to 'this is now not an aberration, not a minority'. Now many people are living in fear. We’ve got to do something now because this is the majority.
Malta desperately needs administrative systems that work, that make sense, that do not leave anybody by the wayside, especially literally by the wayside.
Nowhere else was this abnormal behaviour of successive administrations more evident than with the story of the Vella family who suffered the trauma of the death of their mother in the collapse of a Sliema block of flats NINETEEN YEARS ago. They’re still in court and they’ve been billed for court costs of 9000 euro. The compensation awarded to them for this unimaginable pain and suffering? The criminal court fined each of the contractors 4000 euro. The civil court case fined the contractors 40 000 euro.
The reason for the collapse of this block of flats NINETEEN YEARS ago? Why, this was attributed to the contractors breaking the law and cutting the foundations without leaving a mandatory two and a half feet away from the third party property.
In the photos of the Mellieha collapse of a few weeks ago you can see there is NO two and a half feet gap between the collapsed building and the excavation.
What stands out for me from over the last few years is that people around th world seem to have lost the art of putting themselves in the shoes of others. Could it be that as these people have become richer, as we have less and less meaningful interactions with each other, the ability to feel empathy with others is being lost? If so, this is dangerous. Not just for the people in trouble. But for everyone. Because life is unpredictable. Who knows when trouble will hit next? If we don't even show solidarity with arbitrary people who overnight have lost their homes and all their belongings in such an arbitrary fashion, will there be anyone left to speak for us when troubles come for us?