Govt and GSD clash again over housing case
The GSD has suggested that Chief Minister Fabian Picardo should resign following the controversy over the Court of Appeal’s recent judgement in a housing rent control case, drawing a stinging response from the Gibraltar Government.
The GSD accused Mr Picardo of misinforming Parliament when he presented an amendment to housing legislation in 2013 which the Court of Appeal later found to be unconstitutional, adding that in the UK, a minister would resigned under such circumstances.
But No.6 Convent Place dismissed the accusation as “comically nonsensical” and said the position of ministers could not be linked to the decisions of the judiciary, adding that ministers had acted properly at every stage in this case.
The exchange followed an interview with Mr Picardo on GBC in which the Chief Minister defended his government’s decision to amend legislation in 2013 to protect a small number of tenants in Matilde Francis Flats.
Mr Picardo had stated that the tenants – who included the then Housing Minister Paul Balban – had faced rent increases of up to 300%.
But the GSD said this was not the case and accused Mr Picardo of “not telling it like it is”.
“The control introduced had the effect of reducing rents that had been agreed freely between the benefiting tenants and the landlord,” the GSD said in a statement.
“There had been no increase of rent from which the affected tenants were being protected.”
The GSD also referred to statements in the same interview in which Mr Picardo said he had presented the amendment in Parliament in 2013 from notes provided to him by those who drafted the law.
“This statement amounts to an admission that he did misinform Parliament,” the GSD said.
“Reliance on others does not absolve him from his duty not to misinform.”
“Ministers at the UK Parliament, that we like to compare ourselves to, would have resigned.”
“Further, in contradiction of that very argument, the Chief Minister defends the change in law saying that it is a social policy that the Government wants.”
The Gibraltar Government has said it will appeal the judgement of the Court of Appeal – which found the 2013 amendment unconstitutional – to the Privy Council in the UK.
But the GSD questioned the wisdom of this move.
“Is it right that further large sums of money, belonging to all of us, should be spent taking this case to the Privy Council in London?” the party asked.
“After all, the highest court that sits in Gibraltar has decided the point and the law benefits just 23 tenants, who all agreed to pay the rent the court has found they should be paying. What is the public interest in this?”
“If the Government, at the insistence of the Chief Minister, continues with its appeal, spends our money on it and loses, surely it will be a greater resignation issue for the Chief Minister than it is already.”
The GSD also raised questions about the role of Mr Balban in this case.
The minister was not involved in the legislative process and did not present the amendment or vote on the law, having informed Parliament at the time that he was one of the tenants affected.
Mr Balban, who prior to becoming a minister had tried unsuccessfully to challenge the rent payments on the flat in court, has also stated that he continued to pay the higher rent after the amendment was passed, even though the law allowed him to pay less.
“Where is the logic in his having taken the landlord to court in 2008 to fix his own rent, lost that case and then the Government having changed the law to get just what Mr Balban went to court to get, whether or not he voluntarily does not take advantage of it?” the GSD asked.
“Yet the Chief Minister persists Mr Balban had no involvement in that change of law.”
“The draft Ministerial Code - that has not yet been implemented - has very specific provisions on ministerial conflicts of interest. Were these followed by Mr Balban, because it seems not?”
“Should he not resign?”
Last night the Gibraltar Government insisted Mr Balban had acted “entirely properly” and had gone beyond the requirements of the ministerial code.
“He did not just declare his interest, not vote in Cabinet or in the Parliamentary debate, he has not claimed the benefit,” the government said, .
“The ministerial code would only have required him to declare the interest.”
No.6 added that it was “remarkable” that the GSD was speculating about the effect of a ministerial code that they could have reviewed.
It dismissed too as “foolishly misguided” the GSD’s suggestion that the Chief Minister should resign if the government loses its appeal to the Privy Council, more so because the government was represented in the case by the law firm of which the GSD leader and one of its executive committee members are partners.
The government pointed out, for example, that Sir Peter Caruana had lost two human rights cases in the Privy Council - the case on women jurors and the cases on same sex rights in government tenancies – but that neither the GSD nor the GSLP/Liberals had called for his resignation.
Likewise the UK government wins and loses cases without anyone calling for the resignation of the Prime Minister.
“Whoever in the GSD drafted or approved this press release seems to have lost touch with reality,” Mr Picardo said of the GSD statement.
“This is, nonetheless, an excellent and helpful opportunity to see the GSD's political hypocrisy in amusing technicolour glory.”
“When their leader as Chief Minister lost sex discrimination cases in the Privy Council, they would say that they were right to defend those cases.”
“Now, as we indicate we are going to appeal this important case to protect tenants against landlords, they say the direct opposite should apply to me.”
“The tenants who have petitioned the Government to proceed with the appeal need not fear that we might not support them with an appeal.”
“Yet, this sort of hypocrisy makes the GSD the laughing stock of serious politics.”
“It serves to demonstrate once again their ‘do as I say and not as I do approach’ and continuing intellectual decline that the party is suffering since Sir Peter's retirement.”
The Chief Minister said the GSD’s “worrying” position could open “a cavernous crack” in the principle of the independence of the judiciary.
“Linking the fortunes of the head of an executive to the decisions of the judiciary as a matter of principle is worse than foolish, it is entirely constitutionally suspect,” Mr Picardo said.
“Frankly, I think that people will consider that whoever drafted this laughable GSD press release should resign now, and not wait for the result of the decision of the Privy Council or the General Election."