Recently Malta was the dream of many a tabloid journalist of low journalistic standards. The Maltese Minister of Economy, Investment and Small Business, was allegedly seen in a German brothel. A television crew, from the media house of the Nationalist Party, visited the brothel with a hidden camera because this, of course, would somehow verify the story. To the outraged horror of many Nationalist Party supporters, the Minister responded with a precautionary garnishee order on the journalist who first published this story. Because, of course, every scandal in Malta has a red / blue tinge to it. Forget all the Maltese against corruption or wrongdoing, a la Iceland or a la Romania. We are not one people against corruption. No, of course not, we are football supporters, and a ‘lose’ for one party automatically means a ‘win’ for the other.
A few years ago, I wouldn’t have had a clue about what this actually meant. In fact, all the partisan, titillated tittering on social media everywhere was testament to the lack of understanding of what was meant by a precautionary garnishee order. The biggest confusion of all was that this was a war on the freedom of the press. Maybe so, but precautionary garnishee orders wreak their havoc with everybody’s lives, not just the guardians of the fourth pillar of democracy.
The five months we spent, as a family of 5, without access to our bank account, and my salary reduced to the minimum wage, will forever be seared into my memory. It was a time of humiliation, fear and huge stress. Our younger children were then 5 and 8 years old – it was not the life we had envisaged when we moved to Malta. And why this punishment? Basically we had found out that we were on the incorrectly applied summer residence tariff, misleadingly named the domestic tariff. So we had already overpaid by 1 600 euro and we refused to continue overpaying. This was an incorrect bill and, in my book, you stand up to be counted and refuse to pay.
In my ex landlord’s book, you do not fulfil your responsibility as a landlord and make sure that your tenants are on the correct tariff for people living in their primary residence. No, of course not. Somehow the tenant is meant to be telepathic and imagine that there is such a dastardly, absurd billing scheme. Moreover, if they find out, you disclaim all responsibility and insist that they pay. If they refuse to pay, then slam them with garnishee orders to bully them into payment.
I will never forget that momentous day in August 2013, when I found out that my bank account and my salary had been garnisheed by our ex landlord. That day I was irretrievably changed – I will forever now look askance at governments everywhere, but especially Maltese administrations. The abuse, the indifference, the political grandstanding, the entitlement, the spin, the deflection – these are evident to me from a hundred miles away. Because, of course, the precautionary garnishee order, would not have been possible if Malta had good administrative policy. I asked for our bill to be recalculated on the correct tariff. Why not? It doesn’t cost 100% more to distribute water and generate electricity to tenants than it does to homeowners. So this is a brazen discrimination – one that is unconstitutional and against EU law (consumer protection) to boot. The answer was no so I had to attend court once a month for 2 years.
It would have been far easier for us to pay up that day. But I couldn’t. I had uncovered a state sanctioned (Arms is the sole, state owned utility billing company) Arms / letting agent / landlord fraud triangle, where all three had something to gain from keeping tenants in the dark. I just couldn’t.
As it happens, when the judgement came, my ex landlord hadn't won. It was ruled that just as ignorance was no excuse for the tenant, it was no excuse for the landlord too. He should also have known. In my book, he, a landlord of several properties for many years, should have known more than us, just 10 days in the country. But this is law, not ethics. The law cannot cater for every single inconceivable injustice.
So precautionary garnishees are unjust in many cases. They don't depend on the merits of the case. So if the plaintiff loses, he doesn't suffer any consequences. Also, in our case, we didn't have a spare 2 000 euro lying about in our account. So, every month my salary was reduced to the minimum wage and the balance was lodged in court by my employer's lawyer, who charged about 80 euro each time for the privilege - a total of about 400 euro on top of the garnishee.
This was the beginning of my life as an activist for tenant rights, but not only. A few weeks ago, I finally put an end to the injustice of my 15 years’ UK teaching experience not being recognised by the Maltese Department of Education. From now on, I will be paid at the top of the Teacher Salary Scale, which should have been the case when I first started my teaching job in Malta in 2010.
Progress on the Arms front has been slow. It is now 3 and a half years since the precautionary garnishee order. Three and a half years of tenants being overcharged, of tenants not having access to their own utility bills, of landlords pocketing balances of overpayment because of this, of tenants not having access to meter readings... A shocking, scandalous state of affairs for a European country of the 21st century.
I’m going to up the ante. Arms has been contemptuous of tenants and their right to be billed on the same tariff as homeowners. There were media reports of Minister Without Portfolio Konrad Mizzi promising that tenants would not need the permission of the landlord to be billed on the correct tariff. This was meant to have happened by October of last year and then December of last year. Nothing. The Arms website still has absolutely no mention of tenants.
I cannot let this one go. I think the EU has a duty to make sure that its member countries uphold EU law. So, how can it allow Malta, which currently holds the EU presidency, to behave with such contempt towards all tenants?