MaltaToday | 16 July 2008 | Ombudsman hits out at European Parliament

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NEWS | Wednesday, 16 July 2008

Ombudsman hits out at European Parliament

EP refuses to disclose MEPs’ accounts to MaltaToday, Ombudsman says MaltaToday complaint is justified and accuses EP of maladministration

The European Parliament was officially censured by the European Ombudsman yesterday for refusing, yet again, to disclose details of Malta’s MEPs’ allowances.
In what is characterised as a severe criticism of the EP’s maladministration, the Ombudsman P. Nikiforos Diamandouros issued a “critical remark” on the EP for failing to comply with the law on transparency as regards the allowances received by MEPs, but said he had to close the case.
MaltaToday was refused its request for access to these documents in 2005 before complaining to the Ombudsman, whose draft recommendation to the EP was to give this newspaper access to the MEPs’ accounts.
Yesterday, the Ombudsman said he regretted that the EP had interpreted the law governing access to documents “in a way that weakens the principle of transparency” and which conflicts with a relevant recent judgment of the Court of First Instance.
He said his critical remark “confirms to the complainant that the complaint was justified and informs the institution of what it has done wrong so that it can avoid similar maladministration in the future.”
“The Ombudsman considers that it is appropriate to put on the public record, in a critical remark, his regret that Parliament has sought to justify its refusal fully to accept the draft recommendation to remedy the maladministration in this case by relying on a legal interpretation that weakens the principle of transparency.”
In 2005, the EP rejected MaltaToday’s request for information about the allowances paid to the five Maltese MEPs, on the grounds of data protection.
The Ombudsman consulted the European Data Protection Supervisor, who took the view that, in a transparent and democratic society, the public has a right to be informed about the MEPs’ behaviour.
The Ombudsman then called on the EP to disclose the requested information, in the light of the public’s legal right of access to documents.
The EP maintained its refusal on the grounds of data protection. It announced, however, that it would publish general information on MEPs’ allowances on its website and alluded to the possibility of re-assessing the situation in 2009.
MaltaToday was not satisfied with the EP’s reaction and maintained its complaint. The Ombudsman issued a critical remark, regretting that the EP had not complied with the law as interpreted by the Court of First Instance.
Diamandouros said: “My role in dealing with this complaint concerned the principle of transparency and not the principle of financial accountability, which is the responsibility of the budget control authorities. I maintain my finding of maladministration but, unlike the Court, I have no power to annul the EP’s decision. I welcome the news that the EP plans to re-assess its position after the entry into force of the new Statute for MEPs in 2009, but that cannot excuse its failure to comply with the law now.”

Critical remark
Diamandouros yesterday said that in his view, Parliament had “failed to provide convincing reasons” as to why it could not grant MaltaToday access to data concerning allowances paid to Malta’s MEPs, their assistants, and their travel expenses, finding its refusal to be an instance of maladministration.
“The Ombudsman therefore concludes that Parliament’s detailed opinion does not contain a satisfactory explanation of its continued refusal to provide the complainant with access to (1) data concerning payments made to the MEPS under the allowance for reimbursement of parliamentary assistance expenditure; (2) data concerning individual payments to the MEPs for their travel to Parliament’s working places; (3) data concerning individual amounts paid to the MEPs as subsistence allowances; and (4) aggregate data concerning reimbursement of the costs incurred by each of the MEPs for travel to places other than Parliament’s working places.
“As regards these aspects of the case, therefore, the Ombudsman maintains the findings of maladministration contained in the draft recommendation.”
The Ombudsman said that Parliament’s detailed opinion to his draft recommendation was not satisfactory, and added that although he could draw up a special report to the EP, “no useful purposed would be served” by submitting the special report concerning the maladministration.
“It is clear from Parliament’s detailed opinion that the contents of that opinion are the result of intense political discussion in Parliament and that, when giving its approval to the detailed opinion, the Bureau of the Parliament (whose members are elected by MEPs) therefore acted as a political organ of Parliament.”

EP reacts
The European Parliament yesterday maintained that reforms were already underway to address the substance of Ombudsman’s concerns
The changes already underway include:
- a new MEPs’ statute from the 2009 elections, with a common salary and a new system for travel expenses, based directly on reimbursement of ticket prices;
- a major change to the system for employment of assistants after the elections, with those working in Parliament’s main places of work (Strasbourg, Brussels and Luxembourg) employed under the EU staffing system and qualified paying agents handling the pay and social security arrangements for most assistance requirements of MEPs in their Member States;
- the barring of close family members from being given new contracts as assistants (although existing contracts may be extended over no more than one Parliamentary term if this is noted in the MEP’s public declaration of interests);
- the publication on the EP website information on the expenses and allowances for Members, including the sums available under each category. The Ombudsman welcomed this in his decision.

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