Thursday, 26 February 2009

European Parliament: “Trust us ─ we are clean (soon)”

It is a promising sign. The European Parliament has reacted to reports on wide-spread sleaze.

But the statement is an almost blanket denial. The issues are serious enough to merit space. First, let the EP speak.

Then we try to evaluate the measures and trust of the European Parliament.


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European Parliament press statement

On 24 February 2009 the European Parliament issued the following press release:


Getting the facts straight on MEPs’ allowances

Institutions - 24-02-2009 - 10:34

Recent media reports in some Member States have given a false impression of the situation on MEPs’ expenses. In fact, following an Internal Audit Report made one year ago, the European regulatory framework was subject to a major change last December when Parliament and Council approved a new statute for Parliamentary Assistants.

Moreover, effective controls have already taken place: 99.5 per cent of the payments made by Parliament to Members' assistants in years 2004-2007 under the rules governing parliamentary expenses and allowances has now been cleared as regular based on extensive checks of the relevant documentation.

These checks have been carried out by Parliament’s services for all Members, whether or not they have been subject of reporting in the media and whether or not payments made to their assistants were mentioned in the Internal Audit Report. The checking of the payments relating to parliamentary assistance made in 2008 is currently ongoing.

Major reforms of systems for employment of assistants and travel expenses

Various claims have been made relating to an Internal Audit Report, which found a number of weaknesses in the system for the employment of MEPs’ assistants. The aim of Internal Audit Reports is to enable problems to be fixed, and this report was one of the factors behind Parliament’s decision essentially to replace the system governing the payments of parliamentary assistance allowances with a new European and common regime.

From July this year, Brussels-based assistants are being added on to the employment system for EU officials, with those based in the MEPs’ Member State being handled by qualified paying agents chosen by the Institution, guaranteeing tax and social security arrangements in the relevant Member State. The practice of Members employing close relatives as assistants is being phased out with new contracts no longer allowed.

A major reform of MEPs’ travel expenses will see, from July this year, expenses refunded on the basis of documented costs incurred rather than on a flat-rate basis as is the current practise.

Effective controls in place

Parliament’s services have undertaken and undertake a variety of checks on the various payments made to MEPs' assistants and request further information where doubts arise. If it has turned out that funds have been improperly claimed, the relevant sums have been recovered from the payments concerned. Where there has been and is good reason to suspect fraud, Parliament’s services can, and do, call in the EU’s anti-fraud investigations office, OLAF. This can ultimately lead to cases being passed to the relevant national prosecutors.


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The EP press release is available at:

http://www.europarl.europa.eu/news/expert/infopress_page/008-50236-054-02-09-901-20090224IPR50235-23-02-2009-2009-false/default_en.htm

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Documentation

The European Parliament offers supporting documentation, available through the same web page.

‘Allowances paid to Members of the European Parliament’ offers basic information about the amounts paid to MEPs.

There is a link to Decision 2005/684/EC, Euratom of the European Parliament of 28 September 2005 adopting the Statute for Members of the European Parliament, published in the Official Journal of the European Union 7.10.2005 L 262/1.

There is also a link to the so called Assistants’ statute, European Parliament legislative resolution P6_TA-PROV(2008)0606 of 16 December 2008 on the proposal for a Council regulation amending the Conditions of employment of other servants of the European Communities, awaiting final approval and publication.

In addition, there is an explanatory press release of 16 December 2008 ‘New employment and payment system for MEPs' assistants’.


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Evaluation

It is indeed a positive sign that the European Parliament engages in a discussion about its practices. But can the case it presents be likened to more than white-wash?

The European Parliament offers no excuses for the notorious misuse of public funds by elected representatives, for the lack of controls and action against culprits, or for the active suppression of available evidence.

Only the belated reforms undertaken serve as an indirect admission of guilt.

We are now told to trust the European Parliament that the 99.5 per cent of MEPs’ expenses currently cleared as regular are indeed in order. How can we verify that? Are we offered any credible proof? Has the EP decided to publish audit reports?

The European Parliament has placed itself in the unenviable position of having forfeited the trust it might have had.

There is but one remedy to the credibility problem on past history and existing practices: earning back trust by extreme openness. Publish every audit report and invite new ones, open the books for outside inspection and take action against the sinners.


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Promised reforms

Unrepentant and secretive about the past and present, the European Parliament lets us understand that it is going to become virtuous in July 2009, after the European elections.

The MEPs’ Statute seems to plug one gaping hole, since Article 20 foresees reimbursement or actual travel expenses only, from July 2009. Other allowances can still be flat-rate.

Late in the day, some changes were made to the status of MEPs’ assistants by way of a Bureau decision on 9 July 2008 on Implementing Measures for the Statute for the Members of the European Parliament. (Where are these Implementing Measures on the EP’s web pages?)

If the 16 December 2008 resolution on the so called Assistants’ Statute enters into force, accredited assistants at the EP’s places of work would be paid by the Parliament.

The Assistants’ Statute seemed less clear about the salaries of local assistants in MEPs’ home countries, but perhaps the following sentence in the press release should be interpreted as a promise of implementing measures (reforms) to come:

“The larger package of measures includes not only a European statute for assistants working in Brussels but also the handling of contracts of and payments to assistants working in the Member States by qualified and duly recognised payroll organisations in those countries.”


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Let me get the facts straight: The European Parliament’s grudging reforms and recent press statement are still a long way off from a public relations success, especially from an institution which profiles itself as a watchdog with regard to how taxpayers’ funds are spent by other EU bodies and member states.


Ralf Grahn