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Opinion • October 3 2004

Mr Prime Minister, please note!

Sometimes I think that our Prime Minister is surrounded by a bunch of incompetent people who pose and are paid as consultants. These people know that the government has a huge deficit problem and yet, their only advice to the government on how to generate more revenue is to increase and introduce more taxes. On the other hand, you and I know, although we are not ‘consultants’ that taxes should be the last resort and taken into consideration once we put all our house in order.
Perhaps the Prime Minister does not know, but there are many ways by which he can increase the country’s revenue. The case of redemption of ground rent of government property is one of them. For your information there are people in Malta who collectively are ready to pay millions of liri for the redemption of the ground rent and who can’t because the joint office does not have the staff to handle the bureaucracy. Last Friday I went to the Joint Office to make an application on behalf of my client, and I was informed that the applications of 2004 cannot be processed because of the back log. I may be stupid and I am not a consultant but I cannot understand how the Government does not invest in human resources in an area which is going to earn it millions of liri.
It is odd how the Government has engaged the services of lawyers on a contract basis when it comes to advice on compensation to those whose land was expropriated and has not done the same for rent redemptions that will see money coming in and not going out. At the Joint Office the Government knows that it needs to engage more notaries to handle the situation, but because of its incompetence, it is refusing to make the necessary arrangement so that people who are ready with money in their hands to give to the Government, for the redemption of the ground-rent, can do so without delay.
Besides ground rent, the Joint Office is also responsible for the collection of rents. However, it seems that hardly any action is taken on those who fall behind. I am told that there are many people who have not paid what is due without any action being taken on the Government’s part to recoup what it is legitimately owed.
Besides the Joint Office, the Government is also failing as regards the rents of its commercial and residential properties. It is allowing the tenants to transfer its property in the form of ‘management agreement’ at its own expense. I can assure that if anyone where to ask information as to what is the rent of the shops in Republic Street; you will be informed that they are still being charged at pre or post-war rents for nor more than Lm40 monthly. Not only that, but you will most probably also find them registered in the name of their original owner.
Moreover, the management agreements which are made at the expense of the Government as the owner, involve abominable fees which go in the pockets of the tenant who is allowed to dispose of and change the use of the premises to his liking without any interference from the Government. Some years ago, the Lands Department, which is responsible for this entire hotchpotch, sent a letter to those occupying the premises in Valletta to inform them that they have no title to the shops, but the situation stopped there.
So today we have a situation where Government property, especially that which is being used commercially, is under the control of the original tenant and not of the Government. The policy of the Government, that it only acts when it is requested to do, is stupid. The officials at the Government Property Division, within the Lands Department, are in Valletta every day and they know the shops and those that from stores have been converted into restaurants and vice-versa. They also know how the system works and yet they turn a blind eye as if nothing were happening.
That is why we cannot take the government seriously when it tells us that we have a deficit problem and that the gap has to bridged by tax collection. The government has other means of making money: revenue from the Joint Office which is at a standstill because there is lack of human resources; revenue from its property which is at a standstill because it allows third parties to negotiate it as if where their own; revenue from tax and national insurance contribution arrears.
Why it is missing these opportunities I do not know and I cannot understand. It is true that maybe there are people whose financial situation does not allow them to pay for tax arrears or arrears in their national insurance contribution, but in the case of the Joint Office it is the people who want to pay the Government and the Government is prohibiting them from doing so. If the consultants of Dr Gonzi do not know this, I suggest that they should first understand how the Civil Service works, and then go through each government department and make suggestions as to how it can generate revenue.
The more taxes the Prime Minister introduces, the more it continues to prove that it is incapable of exercising control. If it fails to correctly administer its revenue making machines like the tax department, the joint office, the National Insurance section, the government property section and the licensing office, it cannot be taken seriously when saying that the situation is under control.
We do not mind paying taxes, but we do mind that we are not getting a good return for the taxes that we are paying. We are glad that finally, and at long last, the government has taken the agreement that it had signed with Skanska seriously and are curious to know if it is true that the agreement gave a free hand to Skanska to allow it to do all it takes to build the hospital without restrictions of any kind.
Not only that, but we demand a report as to how much we were overcharged by Skanska because somebody I know who was there told me that he had to resign because he could not put a stop to the waste and the squandering on the hospital site. You may not believe it but I was told that all the bathrooms and toilets had to be destroyed and installed anew because the Foundation made the wrong specifications regarding the grouting. I was also told that the insulation was made according to Swedish standards, as if we have Scandinavian weather down here. If all this was approved by the Foundation then it is incompetent and an accomplice to all that has happened.
Now how much the mistakes cost the taxpayer we do not know, but what we do know is that the money has given the country a leap in the wrong direction. Not only that, but the hospital will be smaller than the one at St Luke’ in terms of bed capacity, and the management costs of this hospital per week amount to more than one million Maltese liri. A word of advice: when you hear any Member of Parliament from the Government or the Opposition, discuss Skanska, make sure that the person did not have a finger in the pie.
So Mr Prime Minister, thank you for having the gall to stop all this, but please before you introduce more taxes, put your house in order and collect all that is due to you. I suggest you start from the Joint Office which is the only department where, for a change, people are eager to pay you with a big smile so that they can have the ground-rent of their property redeemed. And please, leave your family out of it!

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