When I watched Joseph Muscat give us his version of the conclusions of the Egrant magisterial inquiry, I should have, for all intents and purposes, felt sympathy as he described the effect on his family, especially his children. Instead I was left completely stone cold, even though my family and I had been through a similar experience.
My youngest was 5 years old when a precautionary garnishee order was applied to our bank account and my salary. He was with me in the checkout queue and a mountain of shopping in my trolley, when I had to phone my bank because my card didn't work. I had to educate him about how a justice system works. He was under the misapprehension that going to court meant there was a chance I could end up in prison. I spent two years in court. Five months without a bank account and my salary frozen on the minimum wage. I tried to make Arms re calculate our bill on the correct tariff. I wrote to Joseph Muscat and the then Minister for Energy, Konrad Mizzi. To no avail.
That day in August 2013 was the day the bottom of my world fell out. We had done absolutely nothing wrong and yet, even though I didn't have to attend Criminal Court, I did feel, as my son correctly perceived, just like a criminal. All I did was insist that we pay for our utilities on the primary residence tariff, not the secondary residence tariff. It put a huge strain on our family life as we pinched our way to the end of the month, every month.
Joseph Muscat, on the other hand, made eunuchs of the police, the FIAU, the MFSA, the Attorney General; he kept Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri in office, even when it was revealed that they had Panama companies. It was obvious that there needed to be an investigation into the very serious allegations against him. Like there should have been investigations into all the serious allegations against other politicians.
But there he was on my television screen, making it seem as though he should never have been investigated.
I have touched upon this politician / ordinary person divide before in other blogs in Malta Tenant Support. It is a reflection of the automatic reverence with which most of us look at politicians, as if they are the deities and we are the ordinary mortals. We have allowed them to think that they are gods when really their sole raison d’etre is to serve the public, without fear or favour. After all, this is what they say they will do in their oath of office.
It doesn’t help that we have members of parliament from only two political parties* in our Parliament and have done so for decades. This has created a toxic political partisanship where you are either red or blue. It’s binary – if you’re not red, then you must be blue, and vice versa. It’s been a vicious descent into the current poisonous situation, the flimsy checks and balances on the Executive, long having given way.
It is depressing to see this reverence even in well educated people – there is no room in their minds for criticising ‘their' party, no matter how serious the shortcomings. That would be seen as a victory for ‘the other side’. It is an ugly impasse which breeds hate upon hate, intolerance upon intolerance.
Do they understand, I wonder, the implications of Minister Konrad Mizzi and the Chief of Staff for the Prime Minister, Keith Schembri, having set up Panama companies one day after taking their oath of office? Do they understand the utterly cold cynicism of PEPs setting up secret companies in order to hide their money within days of being elected? That’s right - they set up these secret companies to hide their money. If it hadn’t been for the Panama Papers, we would be none the wiser. Please don’t believe the ridiculous stories of family trusts and all the other nonsense. It’s as clear as the light of day. This is why there are rules against politically exposed persons setting up these financial structures.
Do they not make the link with Azeri Socar overcharging us on our fuel by 40 million dollars every year? Or the sale of our health care system to Vitals? Or the sale of our preciously finite pristine land to Sadeen to build a ‘university’?
Is it possible that they don’t see the link between the above and the setting up of opaque financial structures within days of PL winning the 2013 general election?
Or do they understand this but admitting it would mean that ‘their' side has lost and ‘the other' side has won? Yes, it’s that infantile.
One final point. The aftermath of the Egrant magisterial inquiry is a prime example of how this toxic partisanship is creating more disunity and exposing the dysfunction of our institutional checks and balances. The police did not investigate a single Maltese person revealed to have a Panama company. This inquiry was ordered by the accused himself. Joseph Muscat decided when to ask Magistrate Aaron Bugeja to set up the inquiry. As it happens, this was 13 months after the Panama Papers were published. Whoever Egrant belonged to had 13 months to get rid of the evidence. Joseph Muscat decided on the terms of the inquiry, he presented the conclusions to us in a perfectly orchestrated press conference. We then have Pilatus Bank, Mossack Fonseca and Nexia BT. The owner of Pilatus Bank was arrested in the States and faces 125 years in prison for money laundering. The MFSA recently asked the EBA to rescind the licence for Pilatus Bank. Mossack Fonseca was shut down. Nexia BT is still open, even though it set up companies in tax havens for PEPs. We have Maria Efimova contradicting Daphne Caruana Galizia in her testimony. We don't have Daphne Caruana Galizia to comment on this. What did Karl Cini say when / if asked who the individual in his email to Mossack Fonseca was? The forgery - who forged the signature? Isn't it the nature of these financial structures that they are difficult to attribute ownership to?
With all this in mind, how can we trust the outcome of the inquiry, no matter how excellent the magistrate is?
I also wonder whether these people read the conclusions. The two conclusions at the end of the report begin with ‘Ma nstabx’ (It wasn’t found). This is not a guilty or innocent ‘verdict’. An inquiry is a compilation of evidence from which a magistrate draws conclusions and makes recommendations. And yet we are treated to triumphant jubilation when not proven does not necessarily mean innocent.
We also have the angry PL supporters who label the sceptics PN supporters, who jeer and crack jokes at the expense of people they say are from ‘the other' side. They do not see the context of this inquiry in its entirety: the fact that the inquiry was tainted from day 1 or that Joseph Muscat and six other defendants are doing their utmost to delay another inquiry instigated by Simon Busuttil more than a year ago. Is it that Joseph Muscat is uneasy with an inquiry of which he has not dictated the terms?
Why is it that we don't see that the inquiry should never have even taken place? Instead of entrenching ourselves behind PN or PL, we should have all made sure that Joseph Muscat dismissed Konrad Mizzi and Keith Schembri, that fateful day in 2016 it was revealed that these owned Panama companies. The fact that he didn't has only cast doubt on Joseph Muscat himself. It shouldn't only be the sceptics - the small group of neither PN nor PL - who see this. It should be ALL of us holding the political class to account, without fear or favour, ALL the time. It's down to us - the collective us. Politicians will certainly not uphold their oaths of office if they know that we will let them get away with behaviour like this. So they will keep on laughing all the way to the dodgy tax haven as the frothing at the mouth partisan provides a smokescreen for them to be able to do this.
*(I’m ignoring the PD anomaly – they were elected under a PN ticket and it remains to be seen whether other political parties will go down this route again. It did show us, however, that this is a way to get round the prohibitive impossibility of electing a third political party to our parliament.)
the state ignores categorical proof that a consumer of electricity has been overcharged by €152.92 on their electricity bill, in contravention of the Electricity Supply Regulations which stipulate that the quotas of units at the cheaper rates are annual quotas, not two monthly quotas;
the state overcharges us when we were tenants by €3309.84 over 35 months and ignores my request to re calculate the cost of our consumption on the tariff meant for primary residences, not secondary residences. With the result that I have to attend court once a month for 2 years to see who was responsible for the overcharge - my landlord or I. For the first few months of this action, we endure a precautionary garnishee order on our bank account and my salary;
the state does a Pontius Pilate and blames the Secretariat for Catholic Education for underpaying me by circa €20 000, in breach of EU law. When it is the state which is responsible for the approval of church school teachers, when it is the state which decreed that I was to start at the bottom of the Teacher Salary Scale and when it is the state that pays the salary of church school teachers;
the Secretariat for Catholic Education quotes the 2013 MUT / MEDE agreement as reason for not paying me arrears for the first 3 years. Does it understand that this is based on the 2002 Equal Pay for Equal Work Act, which is of dodgy legality? Also, in my case, it doesn't apply because of
EU Article 7(4) Reg. 492/2011:
• ‘Any clause of a collective or individual agreement or of any other collective regulation concerning eligibility for employment, remuneration and other conditions of work or dismissal shall be null and void in so far as it lays down or authorizes discriminatory conditions in respect of workers who are nationals of the other Member States’
my employer - basically, the Church - disregards how its practice of ignoring prior teaching experience for teachers who moved sector pre 2015 is in breach of the Universal declaration of fundamental human rights and colludes with the state to deprive me of equal pay for equal work.
This is Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights:
(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.
(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.
(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.
(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.
There's more but I think I'll stop here.
Please note that it is not just the money that exercises me no end. It's the casualness by which the state, employers, a monopoly utility billing company steals WITH IMPUNITY from the ordinary person, trying to live their life as best they can. The IMPUNITY with which Maltese constitutional law, EU law, fundamental human rights... are breached.
The casualness is obscene. The entitlement to your money, the callousness by which they conduct their wars of attrition...
Also, please note that this behaviour is universal. It is not aimed at just me. These breaches of law, of all jurisdictions, are systemic, institutionalised.
Which brings me to my complete incomprehension that the people - the ordinary people - stand for this arrogant maladministration. If only people could see the power we have when we act as a collective. If only people would see that we have to step up. How much more circumvention of the maladministration can we take? Is this what we want for Malta's next generation?
And the powers that be continue to get away with gross maladministration because the people do not understand the numbers. So they are easily led into thinking that the complainants are inventing stories so as to discredit 'their' government. The truth of the matter is that both PN and PL are to blame for this dysfunctional billing scheme. Both PN and PL have stolen thousands from hapless consumers of electricity and water. Both PN and PL have made utility bill payments a political football.
What should happen is that people should have faith in the utility billing company. ESPECIALLY if the utility billing company is the sole, state owned utility billing company.
I have spent hundreds of man hours calculating my bills because I do not trust Arms. Let me stress this point - I have done the job of the sole, state owned utility billing company because I could see the glaring mistakes from a mile away.
And I was correct to not trust Arms. Every time I checked their bills, I found a mistake. When we were tenants, we were overcharged by €3309.84 on the summer residence tariff. We also endured precautionary garnishee orders on our bank account and my salary because Arms refused to re-calculate the bills on the correct tariff for people living in their primary residences.
When we became homeowners, I had two bills corrected in the first year because 1) they had us down for 4 occupants instead of 5 and 2) they bulked 6 months of consumption into a period of 2 months.
This last year, when we we were billed (actual) every two months, we lost out on our full annual quotas at the cheaper rates.
How is it possible that people do not see the numbers? Is being numerate such a problem in Malta? What an indictment of our education system. What an indictment that we allow this state sanctioned theft from consumers of water and electricity to continue because we don't understand the numbers.
From: johanna axisa1 <email@example.com>
Sent: 09 July 2018 17:32
To: firstname.lastname@example.org; email@example.com
Subject: Re Invoice Number 25655574
FAO Mr John Attard, Arms CEO
FAO Mr Joe Mizzi, Minister for Energy and Water Management
Re Invoice 25655574; €497.64
I am writing to you to put on record that - over the billing period 10th March 2017 to the 9th March 2018 - our household has been overcharged by the amount of €152.91, in contravention of the Electricity Supply Regulations.
I have attached an Excel spreadsheet which shows how I have come to this conclusion. I used the second page of the last 6 two monthly Arms bills to calculate the total number of units at each band charged. To my surprise, our annual consumption of 8868 units of electricity did not utilize all the quotas at the cheaper rates. We lost out on 341.22 units of electricity at €0.1298 per unit, 2005.48 units of electricity at €0.1607 per unit and we were also charged at €0.3420 per unit on 1215.01 units of electricity. We should never have paid at the €0.3420 per unit band because we did not breach the 10000 units per year, to be liable at this band, as stipulated by the Electricity Supply Regulations.
Additionally, I would like to say that the cost of our electricity over the last year has ranged from €1.60 per day to €8.00 per day and from €0.12 per unit of electricity to €0.20 per unit of electricity.
This is problematic - who wants to have to pay bills of €401.68 for November to January and €456.08 for January to March? These two bills - representing our electricity cost of 4 months - amount to 60% of the total annual cost of electricity for our household. We were billed for the remaining 40% of the total cost over 8 months. This is simply not tenable and will create huge problems for people with cash flow issues.
Unfortunately, Arms is the sole, state owned utility billing company. Therefore, under duress and without prejudice to any legal action I may consider in the future, I enclose two cheques – one for the amount of €344.73 and the other for the overcharge of €152.91. These total to the €497.64 we were billed for the billing period 12th January, 2018 to 9th March, 2018 (invoice 25655574).
I would like to think that you will carefully study the Excel spreadsheet and understand that we have indeed been overcharged. If that is the case, then please return the uncashed cheque in the amount of €152.91.
I would ask you to pass on this correspondence to any authority, responsible for the overseeing of the correctness of Arms bills. I have tried to ascertain which entity is responsible, to no avail.
I used the Arms online calculator to check my workings. As you no doubt know, the crux of the problem is that the billing period - in number of days - constitutes part of the algorithm for calculating the cost. So - simply put - to work out the cost of the bill, the algorithm will calculate the pro rata quota of allowances, according to this number of days. If the billing period is a year, then there would be no problem at all. But because the billing period is chopped up into 6 two monthly bills, then the pro rata quotas will not be at all sensitive to the peaks and troughs of consumption over the year.
In fact, this, of course, is the reason for the lengthy disclaimer that comes with the Arms online calculator. The cost depends very much on the length of the billing period.
I used the Arms online calculator to check my workings and the Arms online calculator, in fact, agrees with me, minus a discrepancy of €0.70. I have attached a screenshot of this Arms online calculation.
Edit - 13/7/2018: I've narrowed the discrepancy between the Arms online calculation and my workings from €0.70 to €0.06. The dates I entered in the first version were the 9th March, 2017 to the 9th March, 2018, when in fact they should have been the 10th March, 2017 to the 9th March, 2018. The remaining €0.06 discrepancy is likely due to rounding.
Finally, I would like to say that this analysis is the analysis of the cost for our household for this last year. Of course, it will differ from household to household and from year to year. The point is that it will be an exceptionally massive fluke if the cost with annual quotas were to match exactly the cost with pro rata quotas. Surely Arms needs to look at this situation urgently to ensure that consumers of electricity are not paying over the odds. Maybe a look at the UK will do the trick? When I lived in the UK, we paid a fixed amount by direct debit per month over the year (which also solves the issue of paying 60% of the annual cost over 4 months), with the understanding that there would be an adjustment at the end of the year, if needs be.
I hope to hear from you soon.
PS Letter with cheques sent by post
Yesterday, England beat Sweden in the quarter finals of the 2018 World Cup. In Malta, the usual suspects carcaded for all their worth. Unlike Iceland - of equivalent population - Malta has never had a national team to cheer on in the World Cup. So, instead they cheer on a proxy team of their choice and behave very much as though this team was indeed their national team.
The state of our world is never perfect. Unfortunately, our world is not - and will never be - a utopia. This time round, however, I cannot summon any enthusiasm for this world football tournament. I see it as a grotesque diversion away from the increasing right wing, racist rhetoric from all over the western world. Trump, Brexit, Malta… Photographs of dead migrant children in their rescuer arms. Harrowing videos of crying migrant children, separated from their parents. Harrowing videos of parents reunited with their children after months of separation. Captains of rescue ships prosecuted for the act of rescue. Bulldozers razing Palestinian villages, replacing these with Israeli settlements. Some British / EU immigrants – aka expats – supporting Joseph Muscat’s action of closing Maltese borders to drowning refugees.
Imagine there’s no country…
Who are we to decide that we must wall our country from some people and not others? Why are rich migrants - able to buy EU citizenship - allowed to do so, if people fleeing what must be a horrific situation – using up all their resources to get on a flimsy boat to get to an uncertain future – are not allowed to do so?
Are our consciences dead? Can we look at these images and feel nothing? How is it that we passionately care about eleven men kicking a ball on a football pitch and yet we are able to close our hearts to the images of crying or dead children? How can we – in Malta – transfer our allegiance to another country so easily and yet be immobilised in the face of such horrific inhumanity?