Tuesday, March 04, 2008

Now the Ombudsman gets involved

The whole MEP expenses scandal just keeps rolling on. It, of course, does not generate the heat and light that Westminster scandals create. But the cumulative effect on the institutions of the European Union cannot be other than damaging.

Today the FT lays in with the revelation that the Bureau of the Parliament has rejected yet another attempt to clear the air.

Members of the European parliament have rejected a draft ruling that they should
publish how much they pay their staff and claim on expenses in a move set to fuel the debate over their use of taxpayers' money.

Several deputies have recently attacked the assembly's authorities for suppressing a report detailing abuse of the system for paying their assistants.

The European ombudsman, the EU's administrative watchdog, said in September that MEPs should detail staff wage bills and expenses claims. The Financial Times has learned that in a reply sent last Friday, the bureau of senior MEPs who run the house refused, citing privacy concerns.

However, for the first time they have agreed to publish how much each of the 785 members is entitled to, and for what. In 2006 they were granted €135m ($205m, £103m) to pay staff and €70m, almost €100,000 each, for travel and subsistence.

"Some members wanted disclosure. There is a feeling that we aren't quite there yet," said a senior official. "There is gradual progress towards people feeling that it is in the interest of members themselves to think about what the wider world thinks of us."

A spokeswoman for Nikiforos Diamandouros, the ombudsman, said he had yet to receive the letter. He could take legal action if he is not satisfied.

His September 2006 draft ruling followed a complaint in 2005 from a journalist who had been refused details of what the five Maltese MEPs claimed in allowances.

The parliament said at the time that scrutiny from its own budgetary control committee and the court of auditors was sufficient. It cited data protection concerns.
But the European data protection supervisor judged that the public right to know trumped privacy consideration and Mr Diamandouros ruled that the expenses of members and their assistants should be published.

The confidential internal audit report into the employment of members' assistants revealed widespread malpractice.

Olaf, the EU anti-fraud office, is examining the document, which can only be read by MEPs on the budgetary control committee. Parliamentary authorities are to reform the system in time for the European elections next June.

Many MEPs fear the elections could be dominated by outrage about generous pay and perks.

However, efforts to reform are restricted by a culture clash in Europe. British and Scandinavian MEPs have called for more transparency, but those from Mediterranean countries have been less supportive.

Though this article is correct in most ways there are a couple of errors. Firstly that the Ombudsman can take legal action. No he cannot. He can produce a report that should be heard by the Petitions Committee of Parliament, but that's about it.

Secondly and more importantly the split mention, that is the North South. The clean Northern Protestant half of Europe and the dodgy slimy underbelly of the Club-Med countries is a journalistic cliche that is past its sell by date in this instance. The people really driving the Parliament's stonewalling and refusal to be transparent are not a cabal of the Don The Greek and the Wop, but the most senior German figures in the Parliament. Here of course they have the willing assistance of the President of the Parliament himself, Mr Pöttering.

Noises off suggest that something funny is going with the use of allowance s to fund German political parties. A very big no no I understand.

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