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GSD outlines pledges on transparency and anticorruption, vowing to ‘follow the money’

Photo by Johnny Bugeja

A GSD government would establish a public inquiry into the allocation of government contracts to improve oversight mechanisms and performance, party leader Keith Azopardi said on Monday, adding that if wrongdoing is uncovered, it would be “pursued”.

In government, the GSD would also set up an independent audit of “the jungle” of government-owned companies to see how public monies have been allocated and spent.

The pledges are part of the party’s 24-point anticorruption policy and were sketched out by Mr Azopardi and GSD candidate Roy Clinton at a press conference during which they described the issue as “central” to their campaign.

The GSD manifesto will include plans “…to clean up Gibraltar, to set up rules to regulate this area and to ensure that we have robust controls that prevent waste, abuse and corruption”, Mr Azopardi said.

“And the reason that that is important is because without those controls and without the proper supervision of public contracts that are sometimes worth thousands of pounds but sometimes involve millions of pounds of public expenditure, there is a possibility that lack of control will lead to either waste, abuse or indeed corruption, and that cheats the taxpayer.”

Mr Azopardi said the inquiry would be led by either a King’s Counsel from the UK Bar or a UK judge, supported by forensic accountants.

It would be tasked with looking at the performance of contracts, land deals and systems to make recommendations to ensure the “best and most robust” oversight.

Mr Azopardi said the GSD would also “scrutinise and tear down the jungle” of government-owned companies through which it believes “humungous” sums of money have been channelled without adequate parliamentary oversight.

“It's clear that behind that jungle there are now not just tens, but hundreds of millions of pounds belonging to the people of Gibraltar, where there hasn't been proper accountability to Parliament, where we don't know how it's been spent and indeed how much is left,” Mr Azopardi said.

He said “these opaque practices” had in effect created “a parallel government”.

The GSD also proposes implementing an “an anti-abuse law” to regulate tenders and eligibility for applying for public contracts.

The aim would be to “control and regulate” conflicts of interest, including the creation of a “public register of conflicts” and establishing different categories of people, some of whom – he cited as examples immediate relatives of ministers or people in party executives – would be prohibited from applying for certain contracts if they are “too close to the political party in government”.

Others would be classed as “controlled persons” who, while not prohibited from pitching for contracts, would need to declare conflicts of interests if those arose.

Mr Azopardi said this would “replace the rather weak and toothless anticorruption authority legislation” passed by government majority in Parliament earlier this year.

As for the “audit and investigation” of all government-owned companies, Mr Azopardi said the aim would be to provide the public with the “comfort of understanding where monies have gone” and what they have been used for.

“It will affect all government-owned companies and in the same way as the public inquiry on anticorruption, if there is evidence of wrongdoing that is kicked up by this process, it will be pursued,” Mr Azopardi told reporters.

The policy initiatives seek to tackle one of the GSD’s main criticisms of the GSLP/Liberals in recent years, including its view that the government has been opaque in its handling of public finances and has parked debt off-balance sheet in government-owned companies.

And they would give a role to the elected Opposition, for example allowing it to nominate a person to sit on a contracts award panel to scrutinise deals and ensure accountability and transparency.

“This will be a government, a GSD government, that will legislate and put rules in place so as to lose power, not sit in places so as to gain more power and control more,” Mr Azopardi said.

“We want to legislate as our legacy to ensure that greater accountability and that future governments lose power, including the one that I am the leader of.”

Mr Clinton said the GSD was “very serious” on its anticorruption policies and wanted to get public finances “back on track and back to basics”.

“And that means following the money, whether it’s the awarding of a contract, whether it’s how the money is spent, it’s about ensuring that the taxpayer at all points in time has accountability and transparency as to how the government is spending money,” Mr Clinton said.

“Whether the money goes through the government’s own books or goes through a government owned company, the taxpayer has a right to know what has been done with the money and whether it’s been spent well.”

Mr Clinton cited as an example the National Economic Plan, through which monies from the Gibraltar Savings Bank were being used to fund as investments projects that were then executed by a private entity.

Mr Clinton said that when the GSD had probed the issue in Parliament, it had not been given clear answers the by the government.

“This is the duality that the government plays with,” he said.

“On the one hand, it’s part of their plan, on the other hand, it’s not accountable to the people.”

“And that is totally unacceptable and there’s no way that this should be allowed to continue.”

And he added: “This is public money. The public deserve to know what's been done with that money.”

Mr Clinton said that in some cases, there may be good reason for business to be structured through government-owned companies, but that if so, the accounts of these companies must fully public and accessible.

At present, there was “a whole shadow government” outside the control of Parliament and government “of which we have no visibility”.

“This cannot happen,” he said. “This is just not acceptable.”

“It breaks all the rules of public finance and certainly I would dismantle it.”

“I’ve said so in Parliament, and I say it now.”

Mr Clinton said the government’s use of the Savings Bank in its National Economic Plan effectively “disguised” government borrowing.

“If the government thinks it’s a good project and has the availability to borrow, the government should do it because then you have all the safeguards and the controls that go with it,” Mr Clinton said.

The GSLP/Liberals were leaning on the Savings Bank to fund projects run by third parties “outside government control” because there was no money left in the public kitty, he said.

“This is disguised borrowing, there’s no other way of putting it,” Mr Clinton said.

“They’ve run out of money, they can’t borrow anymore, and so now they’re using the Savings Bank money. It’s politically dishonest, that’s my view.”

If a future GSD government has to lend or borrow, “it will borrow, but you will know it’s borrowing”, he added.

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