25th Session of the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe

Strasbourg, 29-31 October 2013

Speech by Jose Herrera, Parliamentary Secretary for Culture and Local Government, in Malta

Less Bureaucracy - Good Governance – More Participation Vote 16

President of the Congress, Dr. Van Staa

Presidents of the Chambers of Locals and Regions,

Members of the Congress

Ladies and Gentlemen

It is my pleasure and honour to have the opportunity, as Parliamentary Secretary in whose remit lies the responsibility for Local Government in Malta, to address the Congress of Local and Regional Authorities of the Council of Europe meeting at this 25th Plenary Session.

It is indeed a pleasure for me to address such an important session of the Congress. I shall be giving you an overview of the achievements we have made in Malta, and also update you with some useful information.

20 years now have passed since the introduction of the first elections of Local Government in Malta. An important day for Local Democracy in Malta.

It was exactly the 20th of November of 1993 that the first local council’s elections were held in Malta.

This year we will be celebrating the 20th anniversary, I must say that we couldn’t have started in a better way these celebrations by addressing this 25th session of the Congress today.

Indeed, this is an important moment for Local Democracy in Malta, and it is my intention to share as much as possible the different experiences we had during these 20 years and also set a vision for the next 10 and 20 years.

The Congress and tha Councils of Europe has always promoted democracy in Malta and has also been an inspiration to local democracy in Malta, a member state since 1965, who was always active in the field, both through active participation in the Congress, as well as through representation in the Steering Committee on Local and Regional Democracy (CDLR) and its committees and in the Council of Ministers.

It is also to be noted that our local government legislation has been based on the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

That is why throughout the years we have taken certain measures that reflect the developments within the Congress and the Council of Europe especially in the area of local democracy.

If I had to give one example I would refer to the set up of the Code of Ethics for Local Councillors in Malta, this was mainly set up by the Maltese members of the congress who based this document on the recommendation by the Congress of the Council of Europe.

Surely it is not a secret that we based mostly of our legislation on the acquis of the Council of Europe in order to strengthen local democracy.

As I mentioned early on we are in for the celebration of the 20th anniversary at a time when europe is experiencing difficult financial times.

All of you heared and some of you experienced austherity measures which had to be adopted in several member states within the European Union. These measures have in one way or another had an impact on our budgets.

Malta, although being a small country in the Mediterranean and also member of the European Union has managed to survive the financial crisis and limited the damage.

Obviously measures had to be taken and since funding of Local Councils in Malta is mainly done by the Central Government they have also been affected by a reduction in their annual budgets.

To minimize the impact, these measures have been done gradually so as to reduce as much as possible the risk of creating a negative financial impact on local government.

Inspite of all these measures we are looking forward and in a few days in November this year we shall be organizing a number of activities accompanied by consultations where we shall be putting forward some very important challenges for the future.

One of them is intended to lower the voting age in the local councils election to 16 year olds. On this point I will base my conclusion.

In our electoral manifesto we have made it clear that we want our local governments to be there for their community for the families and to improve local economy.

We are in the process of setting up a number of proposed emendments to improve and facilitate the valuable work which is being done by our mayors and councilors. We want to reduce burocracy.

In the near future we will be setting up a number of liasing officers within the different departments and ministries who will have to respond directly to the needs of all Local Councils in Malta and Gozo. This is a very important measure which should speed up requests put forward by the councils.

Another important delegation of power is related to primary health care which until now still falls under the respinsibility of the ministry for health. Very soon my ministry together with the minsitry for health and the Local Councils’ Assocation in Malta who are also members in this congress will be signing a memorandum of understanding.

We are also in the process of radically reforming the Local enforcement system.

This is one of the most untrusted systems by our people since it has been prooved that service is not up to standard and is mostly generating a good income for the private companies but not the same for the Councils and Regions.

A consultation process will soon be launched and I hope to get a good feedback so that we can move on to propose a radical change in the operation of this system.  

Last week we have also launched a scheme which is mainly intended to give Local Councils financial support so that they can help vulnerable persons finding employment within the Local Councils.

I am coordinating this scheme with the ministry for family and solidarity. Through this initiative and by tapping EU funds, Local Councils will be in a position to increase their human resources without the need to make use of their own budgets.

Considering always the limited amount of financial resources we will continue to issue an amount of schemes which local councils can benefit from. This is a temporary measure which was intended to make up for the lack of direct funding from the central government.

It is impressively to note that these schemes have been properly used by most of the local councils with some of them even organising special cultural activities which do not only promote the local economy but are also having an impact on our tourism sector.

In 2009 new legislative and procedural amendments where set up as a result of the Local Government Reform Process. This was done and introduced as soon as the recommendations in the report were agreed by the Cabinet of Ministers, and later discussed in the Maltese Parliament.

These were mainly concerns on financial and environmental matters which had to be adopted with immediate effect. Other measures were also introduced to assist in the better management of local affairs through the provision of additional financial and human resource assistance to the Local Councils Association and the respective Local Councils through tangible information and guidelines relating to EU funded programmes.

I hope that you agree with me that assisting local councils is not only a duty but a must. We have a common goal to achieve and a special interest in the well-being of our citizens.

I will take the opportunity today to thank you for the good work you have done, especially your recommendations on Local Democracy in Malta. I want to thank the rapporteur and the whole delegation, as I am informed that you have done a good job during your visit in Malta.

As you have already stated in your report, we have taken action and acted on these reports but we need to keep improving local democracy in Malta.

Local Democracy is not only important because rules say so, but because we have keep getting citizen’s respect and support, as this is not something that is guaranteed, unless we deliver in an accountable and transparent manner, unless we have good governance .

So we need from time to time to update and amend our laws to improve supervision and to help our councillors’ respect the rule of law as is well stated in article 3 paragraph 1 of the Charter for Local self – Governance that states: 

“Local self-government denotes the right and ability of local authorities, within the limits of the law, to regulate and manage a substantial share of public affairs under their own responsibility and in the interests of the local population.” The autonomous right of local government to regulate and manage public affairs is limited by the legal dictum of “ultra vires”, that is, local government is autonomous within the parameters of the law.

This is exactly what we mean by helping our councilors:

The ‘Report on Local Democracy in Malta’ which was carried out in November 2002, while acknowledging the fact that the system of local government was relatively a new one, less than 10 years at that time, in Malta, the report makes several comments with respect to certain legal provisions in the Maltese Local Councils Act with reference to Malta’s obligations under the European Charter of Local Self-Government.

Many of these concerns indicated in this report are being addressed.

For example:

Note 23 of the report, it was noted that “complete equality between localities when it comes to tasks to be accomplished may create problems if the functions endowed are too big or complicated for the smallest ones”.

Note 27 of the report comments on the fact that “in order to fully comply with the European Charter of Local Self-Government in the future, it is important that the progressive development be steadily continued towards a situation where the functions of local councils as part of the total public administration is more important than it is today”.

In Note 35 of the report, concerns were raised as to the present limitations on the engagement of municipality employees. This concern has been taken on board and we have waved this limitation.

Note 36 of the report comments on the limited opportunities for training of prospective Council staff. This issue is also being addressed.

The Department for Local Government has been given the remit and will soon begin another structured training programme aimed at prospective Council members, Executive Secretaries and staff.

Note 38 of the report comments on the present system of re-imbursement to Councillors that does not provide for “lost earnings”. This issue has also being addressed.

In 2009 the central government presented a local government reform with an intensive six months process of consultation with all stakeholders, with no less than 3000 contribution from the general public which proved an excellent example of a direct citizen participation.

    We have also addressed issue on the report of 2010:

We believe in good governance, that is to say, an accountable and transparent government both at national and local level. Our vision for the future of local government in Malta is based on these believes.

Now let me put forward some remarks on the recommendation 305 (2011)1 Discussed and approved by the Chamber of Local Authorities on 23 March 2011, and adopted by the Congress on 24 March 2011, 3rd sitting (see document CPL(20)3, explanatory memorandum), Rapporteur: E. Calota, Romania (L, SOC).

9. However, there remain some issues of concern:

a. increase the share of public affairs and funds that the local authorities in Malta have the right and ability to regulate and manage;

I do understand that the share of total spending in Malta is relatively small compared with other countries; this is mainly due to certain responsibilities which still fall under central government. Discussions will be held at the beginning of next year with all stakeholders, especially with the Local Councils’ Association so as to find solution how to improve this situation.

b. reconsider some of the provisions regarding the status of executive secretaries in order to ensure that ministerial discretion does not hamper the freedom of local councils to select their main executive officer;

I perfectly agree with this point and I can assure you that this is exactly what I am doing, it is intended that an amendment will be proposed to change the regulations so as to reduce the ministerial discretion to an endorsement.

c. reconsider the tight system of financial monitoring and control that is currently in place, in order to promote local responsibility and the freedom to determine expenditure priorities which would encourage the growth of a system of genuine local self-government;

To tell you the truth I am still working on this proposal and I hope to find a suitable solution so that monitoring is limited to special cases, but before we do this we have to make some changes in our financial regulations.

d. given the importance of local taxation for the development of a system of responsible local self-government, the Maltese authorities are again invited to introduce such a system. To overcome the objections to local taxes and in order to train municipalities to deal with taxation issues, the Maltese authorities should consider, as a first step, the possibility of transferring some state taxes to local authorities;

I am really concerned about this recommendation and I will do all I can to find a solution, but you did understand our special situation, being such a small Island where we have problems introducing local taxation, compared with the number of central taxes that are in place.

I can assure you that my government is taking this issue seriously.

e. improve the system and practices of consultation and cooperation between central and local authorities in Malta, acknowledging the importance of the role of local councils as interlocutors and citizens’ representatives;

I have already stated liaison officers will be set up between departments and ministries so as to facilitate contacts with local authorities.

f. introduce measures, in co-ordination with local authorities, to encourage and enable women’s access to local political office to ensure a more balanced representation;3

We will do our best to ensure this participation but in my opinion we need to get more support from the main political parties.

g. to grant the city of Valletta a special status, on the basis of Congress Recommendation 219 (2007), establishing different legal arrangements to take account of the particular situation of the capital compared with other municipalities;

I have the pleasure to say that our Capital City is in the front for the European Capital of Culture for 2018 – V18 this is a good opportunity to make the necessary arrangements for our capital city.

h. to take care that the ongoing reforms regarding supplementary levels of territorial self-government (communities (hamlet and regions) do not dilute the already limited resources and functions of local councils.

My intention is to enhance the limited resources and functions according to resources available to the Central Government.

Dear members of the Congress, the Maltese Government firmly believes in the values of the protection and development of the democracy and the rule of law, the promotion of our cultural identity, social integration and democratic reform in all levels of government.

I have tried to give you an overview of our commitments, a report on our gradual developments in the field of local democracy and on the measures undertaken by central government to strengthen local government in line with its stated objective to develop strong communities at local level that in turn results in a stronger national identity.

Before I end my speech I would like to brief you on a debate which is ongoing at the moment in Malta. Because we believe in the principle of subsidiarity and because we want an inclusive society so that all can participate, we are recommending the introduction of voting at the age of sixteen.

These measures are to be preceded by a proper educational and informative process which would prepare youths for the challenges and also with opportunities that are brought about by this right.

We are in the process of introducing a legislative amendment to give the right to vote to 16 year olds for the upcoming local councils elections.

We have still a debate going on whether we should legislate apart the right for sixteen year olds to also give the right to contest local elections. Youth organisations are in favour of both rights, however what is sure until now is the right to vote to 16 year olds.

We are doing history, for this reason we sincerely appeal to the society in general, especially to parents to accept and embrace the maturity of our youth population. I praise the good will of the political class who are willing to create this new platform for our young citizens to voice their thoughts and embrace this opportunity for our local governments to regenerate and become more in tune with today’s society.

I appeal for your consideration to follow up this historic moment which we are commemorating in our Islands. Take up the challenge and you will not regret it. 

Jose Herrera