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Opinion & Analysis

Dealing with corruption

By Robert Vasquez
Two matters have hit the news in the Cayman Islands and in England and Wales that need attention, which would go some way to improve the ‘peace, order and good government of Gibraltar’.

The first is the proposal to reform corruption laws in England and Wales. The second is an update of the Cayman Constitution, which includes an independent Commission for Standards in Public Life and an independent Public Accounts Committee. However, pointedly, in Gibraltar, we do not have either institution.

Our Chief Minister, Fabian Picardo, on the 4th December sent heartfelt congratulations to the Cayman Islands on it having achieved constitutional reform. These congratulations indicate agreement with that Constitution, so there can be few arguments against establishing both these highly beneficial institutions in Gibraltar.

Coincidentally, the day before the announcement of reforms to the Cayman Constitution, a Law Commission of England and Wales proposed changes to English and Welsh laws dealing with corruption. Anti-corruption laws also require attention, updating and clarification in Gibraltar.

REFORM
Any Commission for Standards in Public Life needs teeth to enforce its findings; such teeth should be provided by a clear and precise criminal law about corruption. Pointedly, the relevant Law Commission of England and Wales has found that the current common law dealing with misconduct in public office is “… too ill-defined and uncertain to be maintained …”.

This Law Commission makes recommendations for reform, amongst them being that the present corruption law be replaced with clearer statutory offences of corruption in public office and breach of duty in public office.
English common law applies in Gibraltar, so criticism of that law equally applies here. Accordingly, it would be wise for us to consider, and generally follow the Law Commission’s recommendations.

STANDARDS
Changing the law on corruption is not enough. We should establish a Commission for Standards in Public Life, preferably as a Constitutional body just like in the Cayman Islands.

A Commission for Standards in Public Life would need to be independent. It should be given wide powers to investigate and deal with issues concerning behaviour in public life and dealing with corruption.

The functions of the Cayman Commission for Standards in Public Life are set out in simple terms, as follows:
“(a) to assist in the setting of the highest standards of integrity and competence in in public life in order to ensure the prevention of corruption or conflicts of interests;
(b) to monitor standards of ethical conduct in the Parliament, the Cabinet, and on the part of public authorities and public officers;
(c) to supervise the operation of registers of interest and to investigate breaches of established standards;
(d) to review and establish procedures for awarding public contracts;
(e) to review and establish procedures for appointing members to public authorities, and the terms of their appointment;
(f) to recommend codes of practice to prevent any Minister, public authority or public officer employing their power for any personal benefit or advantage, and to recommend legislations to provide appropriate sanctions;
(g) to report to Parliament at regular intervals, and at least every six months; and
(h) to exercise such other functions as may be prescribed by law enacted by Parliament.”

ADDITIONAL POWERS
In Gibraltar additional powers should be included, like those that are implicit in the Cayman Constitution, but which are best set out to avoid any doubt.

It should be clear that any Commission for Standards in Public Life should have full power to investigate and deal with any irregularities and/or illegalities.

It should be specifically empowered to pass all and any information and/or evidence gathered to the Royal Gibraltar Police and insist on active investigations and action.

PUBLIC ACCOUNTS COMMITTEE
Additionally, there is a crying need for a Public Accounts Committee in Gibraltar as a Constitutional body, just as there is one in the Cayman Islands.

Such Committee would empower and enhance the workings of a Commission for Standards in Public Life. It would also need to be independent.

It should be empowered to examine Gibraltar’s public accounts and the accounts and financial dealings of all Government owned companies, authorities, Government offices and departments and courts.

NO ROOM
There is little room for political objection from any political party to these suggestions.

Clarity in the law is a human right. Further, there should be nothing to hide concerning conduct in public life or public finances.

If there are things to hide, then, the need for a Commission for Standards in Public Life and for a Public Accounts Committee are a given.

Such an ethos and ideal was given recognition by former leader of the UK Labour Party, Jeremy Corbyn, when he revealed his tax returns. We live in an era of transparency and openness, so such an example is to be endorsed and encouraged and harnessed as the way forward in all matters engaging public life and public finances.

If the GSLP-Liberal Government do nothing on either of these fronts, then all the other political parties, the GSD and Together Gibraltar, have an open day to put forward these matters as their distinctive policies.

In fairness, both these parties have had some policies on the issue of the prevention of corruption, but neither have gone as far as the proposals in England and Wales and the provision in the Cayman Constitution go.

The standard to be followed is at least that set by the Cayman Constitution, as endorsed by our Chief Minister, and the proposed law reforms in England and Wales.

Let us see if there is action in Gibraltar on both or either of these two important fronts. If there is no movement on these matters, should our suspicion of the motives of our politicians in devising policies not increase?

Robert Vasquez, QC, is a barrister. He is a former chairman of the GSD who stood as an independent candidate at the last election on a platform of democratic reform.