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MPs clash over draft bill on special advisers

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File photo: Nikos Christodoulides

A discussion at the House Ethics Committee quickly deteriorated on Wednesday when MPs discussed a draft bill that would set minimum requirements for special advisers appointed by the presidential palace and ministers.

Auditor-General Odysseas Michaelides, present at the meeting, strongly reacted to the discussion on the minimum criteria advisers should have and the level of relation they can have with the public official.

Issues about advisers at the presidential palace arose earlier in the year when it turned out that a 19-year-old had been given a position at the deputy tourism ministry, and another adviser to the first lady was found to be an aesthetician by trade, while yet another was found to not have a clean criminal record.

To address these issues, a draft bill was prepared last spring, which was the topic of discussion on Wednesday.

During the discussion on Wednesday, Michaelides mentioned that he had been promised by President Nikos Christodoulides that actions would be taken to correct the questionable appointments, something that never happened.

A suggestion was made during the discussion to potentially give a free pass to advisers who have already been appointed but do not meet the minimum criteria of holding a degree or being over 21, as set out in the draft bill. Michaelides stated that if this occurred, MPs would be giving their blessing to illegality.

Commenting on the issue of kinship between advisers and the government official, Michaelides, not hiding his discomfort at opinions by some MPs that this would be discriminatory, said, “Let me remind you about the issue of kinship… When I have a recruitment process at the audit service, I am obliged to refrain even if [the candidate] is a 4th degree relative.”

He added that it seemed the MPs were fine with allowing ministers to appoint the relatives of other ministers and vice versa. “We believe that an appointment needs to be protected from nepotism,” he said.

The discussion then turned to potentially giving a free pass to some of the advisers already working who do not meet minimum requirements, with Michaelides saying that the parliament is looking to legalise illegality.

Asked about the strong positions of the auditor-general, that the president “promises one thing and does another” and that he “wants to cover these illegalities with legislation”, the head of the committee Disy MP Demetris Demetriou said that the committee cannot know what was said at the meeting they [Michaelides and Christodoulides] had in May, adding that the intention of the government, which is reflected through the text of the bill that has been tabled, is that there should be no retroactive action in these  previous contracts, it is also specific in terms of the degree of kinship the ministers have with their advisers.

“Beyond that, what was said in the meeting between them would be inelegant for me to comment on,” he added.

On his part, Akel MP Andreas Pashiourtides said on the matter that some issues that remained open have been clarified with the legal opinion of an independent legal advisor requested by the parliament regarding the employment status.

He added that the legal counsel’s opinion on advisers’ contracts seems to agree with that of the government that it should be a fixed term contract and not a service contract.

Pashiourtides said that some issues remain open regarding the incompatibility in terms of the adviser’s degree of kinship, with the salary, as well as with what happens to the advisers who have been appointed by the current president and what will happen the day after the passing of the law , that is, if they will remain in their position or if they will have to meet the criteria of the new legislation.

“And in this part, I believe that we are at the final stage, I believe that a text will be sent to the plenary, there will be, if there are any amendments, and everyone will make their own decisions.”

He added that the main demand is that the advisers do not remain civil servants, even after leaving, and become a burden to the state until their retirement.

“That is the essential part and that is what we are trying to resolve from the beginning of the debate along with some others such as the minimum qualifications, which is the degree, and some other issues such as incompatibility and conflict of interest,” he said.

Noting that there is provision for a degree, but not for experience for the positions of advisers, Pashiourtides said that there is indeed a condition in the government bill for the possession of a degree and an age requirement of 21 years.

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