Having lived in the UK for more than two decades, I am in the unenviable position of constantly comparing Britain with Malta. Would that I were ignorant of how things could be or should be, I sometimes wish.
Don’t get me wrong: we’re here to stay and there are many things about Malta, some difficult to describe in words, that I absolutely love. While the UK just does not cut it in these aspects of family life.
However, it is apparent to me that absolutely no coherent thought has been put into a range of administrative policies to do with everything that governs our daily lives. Transport, building policy, environmental policy, law enforcement, consumer protection, an effective justice system …
Overriding all these deficiencies is my realization that the vote to join the EU more than ten years ago did not translate into a serious attempt by successive administrations to engage with the founding principles of the European union. It is as if the powers that be believe their own sales talk, as if they truly believe that there are just perks to do with being in the EU but no responsibilities. Or maybe they just do not care and the system does not help them to care. As long as they get the votes.
This is not to say that there are other EU states that do not have tense interfaces with the perceived overbearingness of the EU. You are always reading about them. However, what makes Malta stand out, in my opinion, is that Malta seems to always be reactive rather than proactive in handling this important national / EU interface.
No thought whatsoever, it seems to me, was put into making sure, for example, that the fundamental principle of freedom of movement and the right to treatment equal to that of host nationals was respected.
There are many EU nationals residing in Malta who would vouch for this illegal behaviour where freedom of movement is concerned: more expensive utilities, deposits for telephony accounts, banking discrimination, discrimination by the justice system …
An example of this is how the definition of ‘tourist’ in the Malta Travel and Tourism Services Act clashes with the Free Movement of European Union Nationals and Their Family Members Order.
This is the definition of ‘tourist’ in the Malta Travel and Tourism Services Act: "any person who travels to a place other than that of his usual environment for less than twelve months and who stays at least one night in the place visited";
This is an extract from the Free Movement of European Union Nationals and Their Family Members Order: "Subject to the provisions of this Order, a Union citizen may enter, remain and reside in Malta, seek and take up employment or self-employment therein, and shall enjoy equal treatment with Maltese nationals within the scope of the Treaty, and such right shall, subject to what is stated in this Order, be also applicable to other family members accompanying or joining the Union citizen, including those who are not nationals of a Member State, and to the partner with whom the Union citizen has a durable relationship"
Is this a clash between Maltese law and EU law?
In my opinion, it is.
Some EU nationals have been asked to prove that they have been resident in Malta for over a year. Other EU nationals have reportedly been charged VAT on their rent because they were classed as tourists for their first year of residence in Malta. Even when they have been employed, self employed or financially self sufficient.
So, is Malta going to be reactive or proactive? Will it just wait until the inevitable infringement is handed down or is it going to do something about this?
How I wish.
To this day, I do not know whether serendipity was involved or whether it was all a Machiavellian masterplan. However it happened, the hellish situation some tenants find themselves in when they rent in Malta is often diabolically escape proof. Even Houdini would have found it impossible to set himself free.
Most tenants in Malta are non Maltese. When they arrive in Malta, they are totally unaware of the possible pitfalls.
The No. 1 pitfall is the utility tariffs issue.
I will not repeat what I have said in previous blogs. The blog piece “Which tariff is just right?” explains the three tariffs and when they are meant to be applied.
Most tenants are totally unaware that there are two residential tariffs. They reasonably assume that the default is the correct tariff. Why should they believe anything else? Unfortunately, in most cases, no one, not the letting agent or the landlord or Arms, tells them that this is not so.
If only one of these three key people or institutions were to provide tenants with this information, then the tenant would be able to make an informed decision.
As it is, in most cases, tenants sign the rental contracts totally unaware that they will be paying at the incorrect, extortionate domestic rate, designed for owners of EMPTY or occasionally used second homes.
No tenant would ever envisage that the consequences of this may not only be that they would pay much more than they should for their utilities. Another possible consequence is that, if they find out and refuse to continue overpaying, they might find themselves subject to garnishee orders on their salary and / or bank accounts.
Wouldn’t it be great if either ALL the landlords or ALL the letting agents or at a flight of fantasy (!), Arms were to give each prospective tenant this important information? Notice that it wouldn’t have to be all three, just one of these three key characters.
Unfortunately, we have met with much resistance when we have asked letting agents, landlords and Arms to do this.
However, I am so pleased to see that things are a-changing. Julie McKenzie has set up a real estate agency and has included wonderful amounts of information for tenants in her website, including information on this issue. She is also introducing the novel (for Malta!) idea of tenant references. Surely this will be a reassuring added feature for Malta’s landlords?
Onwards and upwards!
This is a link to her website: http://homerentmalta.com/
I’ve often wondered whether there was something wrong with me.
Many Maltese people I know will bristle at any perceived or actual criticism of Malta if the person doing the criticizing was not Maltese or perceived to be not Maltese.
Was I born without this prickly defensiveness gene? Do you have to have this gene to be properly Maltese? Or is this lack of touchiness about my native country something to do with the fact that I lived away from patria mia for more than two decades?
I’d like to think that being away from my native country would not have made any difference whatsoever to my insouciance about people criticizing Malta, when it is well deserved.
But who knows? Maybe I’m kidding myself.
Now, if someone tells you that Arms hounded a poor woman for 10 months about arrears of 130 000 euro on her account, disconnected her electricity and water supplies for 10 months, when it turns out that there were no such astronomical arrears, what would you do? Would you not shout from the rooftops to all and sundry that something must be done about the criminally incompetent Arms? Would you not want to express your anger and disgust that this state of affairs was allowed to continue?
And do you know what the problem was in this case? Somehow the meter reading went from a 5 digit reading to a 6 digit reading; an increase of about 650 000 units over a 7 year period, 6 years of which the building had been demolished. Common sense, it seems, is not so common.
Face palm to infinity.
And this is by no means the first time that we, in CArms, have seen this mistake. Another person was billed for 700 cubic metres of water when she had only consumed 0.7 cubic metres. These are just two mistakes of this kind that we know about; goodness knows how many more are not even noticed.
If you knew that the very day this problem was solved at a swipe by somebody in CArms pointing out this glaringly obvious error, that another family with two young children had been disconnected because their landlord hadn’t paid the Arms bill, what would you do?
Instead of being so touchy or instead of coming out with the predictable “If you don’t like it here, what are you doing here?”, why can’t we All of us, no us and them, hold our government to account? Why don’t we insist that the right thing is done and not childishly, offensively say those infantile words?
In previous blogs, I have criticized my country for a litany of wrongs done to tenants. This wasn’t a gratuitous criticism of the kind practised by some people when they go off on an “Only in Malta” beating of the chest fest. This was a criticism that comes from somewhere primitive inside of me, resembling a reflex action. I want to make this kind of state behaviour stop. I want proper governing by my government. Anyhow. Yesterday. By shouting long and hard. By conducting a hard fought for campaign of information to correct the huge misinformation out there.
And I do not like being told to go back to where I came from if I don’t like it. Not by people who should be shouting long and hard with me. From rooftops. Anyhow. Yesterday.
In the Scottish hills, I often heard the strangely human sounding "Go back Go back" call of the red grouse.
I have to admit that the last few years have taken their toll on me, and therefore my family. I have spent a lot of time and energy battling faceless, indifferent entities in my quest for justice. There are clear opportunity costs when a mother, wife and employee has much of her time taken up by this. What hurts most of all is hearing my youngest son say: “You’re always on Facebook.”
Just to be clear, the kids, the husband and the job are doing just fine. Somehow, I have always managed to find reserves of energy and strength from somewhere which allow me to keep everything just about ticking over. However, all this has taken something, I don’t know quite what, away from me.
Before we moved to Malta, we found tenants for our house in Scotland, which stubbornly refused to sell in the then stagnant housing market. Our managing agent gave us a checklist of things that we needed to do before we could let our property. This included registration with our local council for a fee of 66 pounds. We also had to get gas and electrical safety certificates and make sure that smoke detectors were placed on each floor of our three storied house. I wrote to our telephony company, and gas and electricity suppliers to cancel our accounts with them. And that was that. We moved out on September 9th, 2010 and the tenant moved in on September 10th, 2010.
You see, it is not any Tom, Dick or Harry who can be a landlord in Scotland. It is not as simple as waking up one morning on a whim and thinking that you’d put your house on the rental market, later that afternoon. The Scottish government regulates what happens in the private rental sector. It doesn’t leave this important sector to the wherewithal of investor landlords, some of whom may only be interested in cutting costs down to the bone to maximize profits. And let’s face it, if left to their own devices, most landlords would fall into this category, human nature being what it is. The Scottish government, and I’m sure most decent governments all over the world, understand that they have a responsibility towards tenants.
So when we moved to Malta, it never entered our minds that we were entering a totally unregulated rental market.
We were ten days in Malta when we signed our first rental contract. I read the contract and it seemed fine to me. I never thought to have it checked by a lawyer because we never had to do that in Scotland when we rented on two different occasions. No landlord in Scotland would ever dream of making the contract tenant unfriendly because it just would not stand up in court.
The contract included a clause which stated that we were to pay 100 euro per month on account towards the Arms bill. That seemed pretty reasonable to me at the time so I thought nothing of it.
However, three years later, I was to bitterly regret that I was not a clairvoyant, when the 100 euro became 150 euro and then 200 euro, and still there were arrears of about 1 400 euro.
When I did some research on the Arms tariffs, I discovered that we had been paying at the incorrect domestic tariff. This tariff is designed for empty or occasionally used second homes. You are allowed 33 cubic metres of water per year at the slightly more expensive rate of 2.19 euro per cubic metre. You pay for your electricity at a slightly higher price per unit and are not entitled to any eco reduction. Perfectly fine for an empty or occasionally used property because you would not exceed these pitiful allowances. But for a family of 5 living in their primary residence all year round, these allowances are easily exceeded after 3 to 4 months with the result that you would then pay 5.14 euro per cubic metre of water (instead of 1.40 euro at the correct residential rate) for the remaining 8 to 9 months of the year. Plus you would not get your eco reduction.
At the correct residential rate, you are allowed an allowance of 33 cubic metres of water PER PERSON per year and 1 750 units of electricity PER PERSON per year.
In fact, over the three years, we were charged 6 185.01 euro, when at the correct residential rate we should have paid 3 270.28 euro.
Simple, you think. Phone Arms, explain the situation, get your overpayment back and get Arms to cancel the bogus arrears. But no, ‘tenants do not exist for Arms’. Arms only deals with the account holding landlord. So, you speak to your landlord and explain that you are not going to continue overpaying. By this stage we had overpaid by 1 600 euro. And we sure as heck were not going to pay the 1 400 euro or so arrears. The landlord is outraged, makes an application to the Maltese courts to establish that you are indebted to him. Court issues a garnishee order against your bank account and your salary. A garnishee order freezes your bank account and reduces your salary to the minimum wage until the money 'owed' is deposited in court. You correspond with the then Arms CEO and ask him to refund your overpayment and cancel the arrears, seeing as you were a family of 5 living in your primary residence, and that you had been on the incorrect tariff. If Arms were to do that, then you would not ‘owe’ your landlord money and you would not have to attend court once a month for years.
No, replies the ex Arms CEO. Arms cannot do that because Arms doesn’t do refunds.
It transpires that there are two barriers for tenants to be billed at the correct residential rate. The main one is that no one, I mean no one, tells the tenant that they are on the incorrect tariff. The letting agent, the landlord and certainly not Arms, do not provide the tenant with any information whatsoever about the two tier tariffs. Clearly, tenants are meant to be psychic.
The second is that even if a tenant knew, Arms cannot bill the tenant at the correct residential rate WITHOUT THE PERMISSION OF THE LANDLORD. Because this would be illegal, don’t you know.
There you have it. How convenient is all this for Arms? Tenants are overcharged, tenants ‘do not exist for Arms’, Arms gets more money than it should from people living in their primary residences BUT ARMS DOES NOT DO REFUNDS.
And do you know who owns Arms? Why, Arms is owned by Enemalta plc and the Water Services Corporation. In other words, the Maltese government.
The title of this blog piece is: To regulate or not to regulate?
The behaviour towards tenants by my government on the Arms issue alone, does not fill me with hope that the answer to this question will ever be in the affirmative.