The private staff of ministers have access to influence on the conduct of the public’s affairs. The fact that ministers trust them should not be sufficient qualification. Ministers can’t know everything about their staff and the government should use the resources at its disposal to screen people it places in such positions. It is a basic measure to prevent corruption before it happens. Or, of course, to prevent even worse risks such as breaches of national security.

I worked in the private staff of ministers between 1994 and 1996 and again between 1999 and 2013. For some of that time I worked three rooms away from the prime minister’s desk. Before I got the jobs I was checked. The ministers who recruited me had to ask their boss for an ok which only came after the police (later, the security services) checked out my background. I can’t say I know exactly what the checking criteria were, but I know they included whether I was ever involved in crime or whether the law enforcement agencies ever had any reason to suspect I might have.

It was not enough to show a clean criminal record. That is what you’d expect for any ordinary job. But the government’s reputation and the country’s safety require a higher standard from people placed in a position of trust. It wasn’t enough that it was never proven that they had committed a crime. It was necessary to determine whether there has ever been any reason to think they may have.

I don’t know the procedures used since Labour came to power in 2013. Whatever those procedures were, they allowed a man that presented false evidence to a government board to get a severe disability pension he was not entitled to, to be hired to the minister’s private staff.

Times of Malta yesterday reported the individual concerned told the medical board in 2016 that he had frequent epileptic fits to the point that it was no longer safe for him to drive. But in 2022, when Andy Ellul was hired by Robert Abela as a parliamentary secretary in the prime minister’s office, the man was hired as Ellul’s driver.

The man has since resigned as the parliamentary secretary’s driver and is the subject of a police investigation. Times of Malta says the police suspect he was more than a mere beneficiary of benefit fraud. He was, it seems, an agent in the grand conspiracy to defraud the public and secure votes for the Labour Party in the process.

So, one of three things must have happened. If the Labour government abolished the procedure of vetting candidates for ministerial staff, they have exposed the state to a new vulnerability: recruiting criminals to positions of trust. Remember this is one staffer we heard about. Since 2013 hundreds of people have been recruited to positions of trust and if they haven’t been vetted there’s no estimating what harm they could have done if they had criminal intent.

The alternative is that the security services still vet candidates for positions of trust, but they missed the fact that someone being hired to be the driver of a minister had told a government board he was not driving because of frequent epileptic fits. Consider that the man concerned was (at the time he would have been vetted) receiving a severe disability benefit for epilepsy. Even assuming they missed the fraudulent element altogether, they should have at least raised the alarm that the minister’s safety would have been endangered when he was being driven by someone who risked getting a fit at any time.

The third option is that the security services vetted the driver, found the problem, raised the flag to ministers, and the ministers hired him anyway.

All three scenarios are terrible. There is not one possible option where the government comes out good from this one and there can certainly be no justification for Andy Ellul’s gung-ho statement yesterday where he outed himself as the employer of the offending driver saying he was pushing back on some imaginary assault on his equally imaginary integrity.

It looks like there’s something even more sinister going on here. Silvio Grixti, the Labour MP who resigned on the eve of the 2022 general election when the police first questioned him about benefit fraud, was retained by Robert Abela on his staff as a consultant. The driver working for Andy Ellul from the 2022 general election is suspected of having helped Silvio Grixti disseminate the fraudulent scheme.

The question to ask now is how well Andy Ellul knew the man concerned before he hired him as his driver. Andy Ellul yesterday made it clear he was not made aware of his driver’s alleged wrongdoing before he hired him. But he left out the detail of whether he knew the driver at all.

Perhaps he didn’t. Perhaps Andy Ellul’s driver was his boss’s choice. Perhaps in the same way that Robert Abela retained Silvio Grixti on his staff, Robert Abela found a job for one of Silvio Grixti’s corner dealers on the staff of his parliamentary secretary. Perhaps this is one more piece of evidence to suggest that the mastermind of this benefit fraud (and consequential electoral fraud) at the expense of the government was the head of that government.

Perhaps it is time for Andy Ellul to come clean.