Tuesday, 25 September 2012

Independent: The government is listening

23 September 2012 by David Lindsay

According to Justice, Dialogue and Family Minister CHRIS SAID, the recent draft legislation on IVF and cohabitation are by no means etched in stone and the government is taking on board all the comments it receives through the public consultation process, which, Dr Said tells David Lindsay, is the most important part of the process. And, provided that the underlying principles of the bills are safeguarded, Dr Said is adamant that the government is indeed listening to the feedback it is receiving.

You have recently launched two major, long-anticipated pieces of legislation – on regulating IVF and cohabitation − to no small amount of controversy, how has public consultation progressed so far?

Really well. As regards IVF, we concluded the formal part of the process earlier this month and we have had suggestions from individuals, but mostly from civil society.

As a whole, there are no serious questions about the underlying principle of the Bill, which is the protection of the embryo from the very first stage of life. This Bill is important because it can offer opportunities to couples facing problems having children, and especially because we will be offering IVF free of charge at Mater Dei Hospital.

We are still prepared to receive any more submissions that may come in, but overall it was a positive consultation process. We had a number of meetings with organisations to explain the contents of the Bill and we also asked to meet with some organisations that submitted proposals which we wanted to understand better.

As regards cohabitation, we are still at a very early stage since the consultation timeframe elapses at the end of this month, and because most submissions are usually received on the last day of the period or even a few days after it closes. The vast majority of submissions on the IVF Bill, for example, were received on the last day or up to two days after the closing date.

Both these Bills touch upon very sensitive issues and my task was to go through the whole process – to finalise the Bill, hold internal consultations with Cabinet and our parliamentary group and after their approval, public consultation.

At present, the feedback on the IVF Bill is being evaluated, after which we will decide if any fine-tuning is required before the debate in Parliament begins.

For me, as a minister who is also responsible for public dialogue, this public consultation phase is the most important. When this new ministry was created back in January, the first thing I asked myself was how the areas of justice, public consultation and social policy could come together.

Take the justice sector as an example. The fact that we consulted constantly with the stakeholders, the Chamber of Advocates, and others within the justice system helped us to achieve certain goals. And in these sensitive areas of IVF, cohabitation and civil partnership, which practically all fall under social policy and family remit, the justice element comes in because it was the same ministry that was also tasked with drafting the actual Bills.

But the public consultation phase is, for me, the most important one for me, and I firmly believe that once internal consultations are held, we have a duty to go to the public for its feedback.

You say that the government is willing to take onboard suggestions from the public, does that mean the government is not rigidly inflexible?

The underlying principles were there when I launched both Bills. As a government, we believe in these principles and we are not willing to move away from them. But we are prepared, on the basis of the feedback received, to add to the Bills or fine-tune them up to the final, parliamentary committee stage.

One problem is that up to now the Opposition has not reacted to either Bill and what I know of its stance is what I have read in the newspapers − that they will react later to the IVF Bill, most likely in Parliament. I think the Opposition has a responsibility to react, but that is up to them. As a government we are prepared to discuss and receive the Opposition’s comments and suggestions because, after all, it has a responsibility to help ensure that the country has the best laws possible.

With regard to these two Bills, I am ready to do as I had done with other Bills I had the opportunity to move forward and conclude over the first part of this year. I have always been ready to discuss with the Opposition and to amend draft legislation before we come to the parliamentary stage.

My belief is that if we agree on something, let’s do it now and not wait.

But as matters stand, it is very strange that until now the Opposition has not reacted, consulted or suggested anything.

Even stranger is that the Leader of the Opposition some months back had said that the first law he would enact when in government would be the IVF law. I would take that to mean that the Opposition has prepared a Bill on the subject because for it to be the first law of a legislature you have to have a Bill that is ready to be published.

Drafting a Bill is a long process if you want to do it properly, and the most important part is the public consultation, which also takes time. One would imagine that the Opposition would at least have the basic principles of such a Bill in hand, which is why I find it strange that they have given no feedback.

Why were two such sensitive pieces of legislation launched at this particular point in time, how long had they been on the drawing board?

These have been on the drawing board for some time. As I said, these are sensitive pieces of legislation and discussions had been ongoing for a long time. But when I was entrusted with this ministerial portfolio in January, I found a lot of hot potatoes on my desk. But I was determined as I knew that my time as minister responsible for this vast portfolio was not very long. Still, I wanted to try to conclude as many things as possible. That is my character, I hate leaving things for later and I commit myself to timeframes − even if I know the proposals will not be applauded by everyone and, in these particular circumstances, it is impossible to have everybody on board but the government still has the responsibility to come up with the best legislation possible for the circumstances of our country.

The government has been accused of being homophobic in light of the draft Cohabitation Bill. Is the government homophobic, are you homophobic?

Absolutely not. First of all, I have a lot of respect for the gay community and I have a lot of friends who are homosexual. On a personal level, the accusation hurt because in five to six months I managed, in a relatively short period of time, to pass two laws which show the complete opposite – the amendments to the Criminal Code concerning hate crimes on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity, and the extension of the remit of the National Commission for the Promotion of Equality to include discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation or gender identity.

I pushed those forward, carried out the consultations on those amendments with all the stakeholders, mainly those representing the gay community; we were in total agreement and we did not need a lot of time to agree on what we wanted to do. We are also working together on other issues. I have met with representatives of the Malta Gay Rights Movement quite a number of times in recent months and when there is a need to meet, we do so quickly.

In politics it is normal that there are some people who will try to label you, but there is no doubt that I have huge respect for the homosexual community.

Despite that, there has been a lot of negative feedback from the gay community on the Cohabitation Bill; what did the government take into consideration when deciding to not go for full civil unions for same-sex partners?

This is an issue on which we are obviously receiving a fair amount of feedback from the gay community.

We are here to listen, we are here to try to find the best solution possible in the circumstances, and that is what we will continue to do in the coming weeks.

We have already made it clear as a government that we are against the introduction of same-sex marriage in our country, but that does not mean that we do not want to regulate and give rights and obligations to those in such relationships. And that is precisely what we are trying to do with this Bill. For the first time we are giving rights and obligations to people who live together – homosexuals and heterosexuals.

That is the most important point in the Bill; the underlying principle is that as a government we are not trying to delve into individuals’ private lives, but we have a responsibility to legislate so that when there is a party in a relationship that is suffering, is being mistreated or is suffering discrimination, that person is protected at law. That is the Bill’s main purpose.

Although undoubtedly positive, when you introduced changes to extend the definition of hate crimes, you were accused of merely pandering to public outcry after a couple of incidents…

Yes, we were reacting to two cases that were reported in the media, which dealt with crimes allegedly motivated by sexual orientation discrimination.

It is also the role of the government to see what is happening in the country and to react, but we did not stop there. As regards hate crime, the amendments we enacted were done after consultation with stakeholders, mainly the Malta Gay Rights Movement, and we even agreed on the wording.

Sure we were reacting to what was alleged to have happened, but what is wrong with that? It would have been a mistake had we not done anything.

The government’s opposition to the European Commission’s proposals on setting quotas on the number of women on company boards has also been criticised lately; what is the government’s position?

The most important thing is that the government believes that the principle of subsidiarity has to be applied, which means that the issue should be left to the member states themselves to deal with.

We agree 100 per cent with the Commission’s position that we need more women in boardrooms. We do not, however, agree that the EU should impose how to reach this aim on all member states. The issue has been discussed at a number of European Council meetings at which I have been present and the majority of countries are of the opinion that the issue of subsidiarity should be put into practice as regards this issue.

As a country, we are doing everything possible to achieve the goals mentioned. During this legislature we have imposed on ourselves, as a government, unofficial quotas on the number of women on public boards and in this legislature we have the largest number of female chairpersons and board members.

However, we are, not happy with what is happening in the private sector and we are discussing with the social partners, especially the employers organisations, how we can improve the situation.

That does not mean that the government in the future will not contemplate measures through which we can also achieve better results in the private sector. But it is not enough to speak only about listed companies; the government will not stop there and it will keep working to have more women on boards on non-listed companies.


Firstly, what we are doing with the public sector will also hopefully serve as an example to the private sector. Women serving on public boards will also show their capabilities so that they would then move on to positions on the boards of private companies.

Over recent years we have seen the university demographic change drastically. Today, 60 per cent of the university population are female, which means that 60 per cent of graduates in the coming years will be female.

Still, many of these fall by the wayside, employment-wise, for a number of reasons and we have to ensure that they are kept within the labour market. We are doing that with incentives, such as the one-year tax holiday for mothers returning to the labour market, which over 9,000 women have benefited from in this legislature. We understand it is not easy to balance family life and caring for children with work lives, and we have to work more to make that balance easier to achieve.

So we agree completely with the Commission’s aims, but we do not agree that the EU should impose it on member states. We have to find the best solutions for our country to reach those goals. That does not mean that in future the government will not impose quotas but, in Malta, we want to decide that for ourselves.

You have held discussions with the judiciary on new pension conditions and other related benefits, how are these tied to improvements at the courts for the stakeholders and the citizen?

We reached an agreement over a number of meetings on how we could improve the conditions of judges, not only to improve the efficiency of the courts but also to attract the best possible people to the bench.

As justice minister, one of my responsibilities is to propose new judges and magistrates, which is not an easy job, just as it’s not easy to attract the best minds. But what is also important is working out how we can have a more efficient justice system, which means addressing a number of areas, which we have done and which we are continuing to do.

For example, as from 1 October, thanks to a new IT system that has been developed, all civil cases will be appointed a specific time and a certain amount of time will be allotted to each case, which is agreed upon in advance by the judge and the lawyers involved. This means that since there is an agreement and an allotted time, lawyers will know they have, for example, half-and-hour before the judge at a specific time for that case and that they will have no other hearings at the same time.

As such, there will no longer be cases postponed for future dates because lawyers had conflicting hearings, which is something that irritates the public no end.

We also have everyone on board and a lot of work has been done in this area over the summer. The judge and deputy registrar will now know if lawyers have other cases appointed at that time and they will be able to work around that to avoid conflicting schedules.

Also, the parties involved will know that they do not have to go court at 9am only for their case to be called at 11.30am, for example. They have a specific, allotted time and there will be an agreement, for example, that witnesses A, B and C will be heard. This will provide for a far smoother running of the courts.

Secondly, we also have an agreement that we should look at the powers for the Commission for the Administration of Justice. At the moment, the Commission only has the power to either reprimand or refer members of the judiciary for impeachment, or remove lawyers’ warrants, and nothing in between.

We now have an agreement in principle that the Commission should have more powers between these two extremes so that it can better serve as watchdog on the judiciary and the legal profession. The agreement also goes into how the Commission will be composed, which we will have to fine tune.

We have also agreed with the judiciary that we should provide more training, which is something I agree with 100 per cent. We recently had training sessions on competition law and the next will be on mediation, where we have the law in place but which is not being used enough. It would be a very important step in the right direction if we could manage to use this legal tool in more cases, not only in family law but in other types of cases as well. I believe a lot in mediation, as it is quicker, less costly and removes some of the burden from the courts.

Another area we are working on with all stakeholders is on how to remove certain types of petty cases from the Law Courts – the criminal offences that are normally punished with a reprimand or a small fine. These in my view need to be transferred to the local tribunals.

Another important step as from October is increasing judicial assistants, who play a crucial role in the overall efficiency and expediency of the courts. Up to now we have had judicial assistants only for judges, but as from October, we will also have a pool of legal assistants for magistrates, especially for those hearing certain important cases. Magistrates are now tasked with harder cases where they can send a person to prison for a number of years, which is sometimes more important than a civil court case about a boundary wall, for example.

As regards legal aid, I am not happy with the current system and it needs a total overhaul. What I did was ask stakeholders to nominate people and I appointed Judge Joe Camilleri to spearhead the group, which is currently working on a report on how we can overhaul the entire legal aid system.

I am waiting for the report so that we can then decide as a government on how we can have a truly modern, efficient legal aid system that truly helps those who cannot afford legal counsel in both civil and criminal cases.

All these agreements have been accepted by all stakeholders after a number of meetings, with goodwill from all parties and mutual understanding.

What has become of the proposed Gozo tunnel project?

At the moment Transport Malta is preparing the tender documents for the commissioning of a full feasibility study, which will be published in the coming months. There is still a lot of work to do and I am also informed that Transport Malta is working with the European Commission to attain funding for the full feasibility study. The first, pre-feasibility study had been 100 per cent financed by the EU. The next study will not be 100 per cent EU-funded but it should be co-financed heavily by the EU. Transport Malta is also waiting for the EU’s call for requests for funding before publishing the tender.

I am excited about this project, the pre-feasibility study showed that the project is doable, that it could benefit from EU funding and that it is worthwhile to go for the more costly full feasibility study.

The results of this next study will really be the make or break point of the project.

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