Friday, July 13, 2007

Malta: Corruption and national values

Editorial: Corruption and national values

A spate of allegations of corruption, some of which have already led to court cases, is sending alarm bells ringing louder than ever. With the island having not yet recovered from the trauma of a bribery case that had rocked the law courts some years ago, sending a shiver down the spine of law-abiding citizens, the bribery claims that have now been surfacing for some time are of great concern to a society that for long thought it had high moral values.

Even though the recent cases may not get close, in substance, to the scandal that had hit the judiciary, they are nonetheless serious enough to warrant an investigation, as it were, of the national conscience. As The Times commented editorially yesterday, standards must not only apply to the civil service and Cabinet but nation-wide.

Moral and ethical standards are today under the constant threat of the strong influences of rampant hedonistic lifestyles gripping societies elsewhere. Heavy financial pressures brought about by new societal fads and demands are adding to the temptation by many to resort to fraud, which, as the cases being uncovered show, may take various forms.

There are also serious political implications in all this, and as events have already indicated, politicians are unlikely to miss taking the opportunity to score political goals. They may well consider this par for the course in such a keen political environment, although, irrespective of whether the political environment is keen or not, political accountability is essential in a serious and healthy democracy.

But putting the political implications aside for a moment, what is most disturbing, above all considerations, is the extent to which so many are prepared to go to bypass the system. The reported cases over the payment of bribes for driving or mariner licences are horrendous, but this appears to be only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to efforts made by quite a good number of people to defraud the Administration or authorities supplying a service.

For example, hot on the heels of the cash-for-driving/mariner licences scandal comes the news that a number of people are being investigated over alleged abuse in the award of invalidity pensions. Some time ago, the director general of the Department of Social Security went on record saying in this newspaper that fraud was one of the department's headaches, something which their Benefit Fraud Unit was trying to iron out.

The fraud figures he gave are almost unbelievable. Last year, he said, the unit carried out no fewer than 928 investigations and recommended the withholding of benefits in 712 cases. In 2005, the government saved Lm500,000 following investigations. The director general even tells of an incredible story: One family claimed benefits of a dead relative, with a member even faking an identity card and posing as the dead person before a review board!

The mind boggles over the number of people caught tampering with water and electricity meters and the rampant abuse in sickness benefits claims.

Last year, Enemalta gave people whose electricity meters had been tampered with, a time within which to regularise their position. Quite a number, some 2,400, had come clean but the corporation believed people were still stealing electricity. There are other abuses, such as of those who take up work while drawing unemployment benefit.

Taking to court those caught defrauding the state is a major deterrent, but it looks as if genuine efforts need to be also made towards seeing how the country can regain some of the ground lost in the upholding of traditional values.

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