During a conference-call meeting with the Venice Commission, the Parliamentary Ombudsman, Mr Anthony C. Mifsud, discussed the Government’s proposed legislative changes for the implementation of the recommendations made by the Venice Commission in December 2018.
The meeting focused on the legislative changes to the Ombudsman Act, proposed by Government in a letter sent to the Venice Commission by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Governance, the Hon. Edward Zammit Lewis on 13th May 2020.
The Ombudsman expressed the following:
i. Constitutional amendments
The Ombudsman welcomes the Governments’ proposal which recommends legal amendments whereby the provisions dealing with the appointment, removal and suspension of the Ombudsman will be included in the Constitution.
The Ombudsman has regularly and expressly suggested that in a redrafting of a new Constitution, the provisions regulating the Office of the Ombudsman and that of the Auditor General should be grouped together and placed in a separate title immediately after those regulating Parliament. The Constitution should recognise their status as authorities answerable to Parliament, entrusted by it to verify that the actions of the Executive conform to legislation enacted by it and satisfy the requisites of the right to a good public administration.
ii. Parliamentary Debates on Final Opinions sent to Parliament
The Ombudsman notes that the recommendation made by Government is limited only to the discussion of the Annual Report which outlines a generic picture of the work conducted by the Ombudsman and the Commissioners during the year in review. This falls short from the opinion made by the Venice Commission which recommended that Parliament should be obliged to debate reports addressed to it by the Ombudsman.
When the Ombudsman’s recommendations for the award of appropriate redress are left pending or else are not accepted, from time to time, the Ombudsman and the Commissioners send copies of the reports and recommendations to the House of Representatives.
The Ombudsman has time and time again insisted that it should be the House of Representatives that should finally determine whether the opinion of the Ombudsman and the Commissioners, who are its officers, and the recommendations made by them to rectify administrative injustice, merited to be further discussed to determine whether they were correct and should be sustained.
He has therefore recommended that the Speaker should refer reports sent to him by the Ombudsman to the appropriate Standing Committee of the House and that such reference should be followed by a debate statutorily provided for in Standing Orders.
iii. Amendment to the Freedom of Information Act to guarantee transparency of the administration vis-à-vis the media and the citizens
One of the main concerns voiced by the Venice Commission in its Opinion relates to the availability of information that the Parliamentary Ombudsman and his Commissioners require from the public administration for the proper investigation of complaints.
In its proposals the Government made no reference to this issue.
The Office of the Ombudsman concurs with its statement in paragraph 100 that “the Freedom of Information Act should be updated using available international models to guarantee transparency of the administration vis-à-vis the media and the citizens”.
Even though information to the Office of the Ombudsman is generally forthcoming, the public administration including public authorities adopt a non-cooperative attitude when the subject matter of the complaint or the own initiative investigation does not conform with the government’s objectives or policies. This is fundamentally wrong and unacceptable.
Source: Parliamentary Ombudsman, Malta