Parliament's investigatory powers should be extended to include the right to conduct on-the-spot inspections, summon witnesses to testify under oath, access relevant documents and request experts' advice, says a proposal voted by the Constitutional Affairs Committee on Tuesday.
Drawing on lessons learned from previous EP committees of inquiry, MEPs say that Parliament's currently limited investigatory powers should be strengthened to enable it to look into alleged contraventions or maladministration of Community law.
The report, drafted by David Martin (S&D, UK), and approved in committee with 16 in favour, 1 against and no abstentions, calls on the Council and the Commission to give their consent to a series of changes in Parliament's current right of inquiry, including new provisions on cooperation with national authorities and sanctions.
Testimony under oath and the other proposed new powers
A committee of inquiry, within the limits of its remit, should be able to conduct o-the-spot investigations and get help when needed from national authorities, say committee MEPs. Members also propose that the committee should have the right to ask any person to provide relevant documents, in full compliance with national rules on seizure of objects.
Any EU citizen could be summoned to testify at request of the committee. Witnesses could be asked to speak under oath, but would retain the right to refuse as well as all the other safeguards afforded by national law in similar cases. Travel and accommodation expenses of witnesses would be reimbursed by Parliament within existing ceilings.
EU and Member States' officials may also be asked to speak before the inquiry committee, MEPs propose, and the committee would be able to ask the advice of experts during its investigations.
Sanctions against groundless refusal and false testimony
The proposed regulation would oblige Member States to punish, in accordance with their national rules, those who refuse without justification to provide documents or to testify, and likewise those who give false testimony or bribe witnesses.
The text would also introduce a complaints procedure allowing a person to submit a written objection to a decision taken by the committee of inquiry for any alleged violation of EU or national law.
Under new rules introduced by the Lisbon Treaty, Parliament's proposed regulation needs Commission and Council consent to enter into force. Once the procedure is completed, the regulation would be immediately and directly applicable in all EU countries.
To establish a committee of inquiry, a quarter of all MEPs would have to vote in favour. Committees of inquiry would not be able to investigate matters in which the alleged facts were being examined before a court.
Since 1995, when the power of inquiry was introduced, Parliament has set up three committees of inquiry to investigate VAT and customs duties fraud in the Community Transit System (1997), the handling of mad cow (BSE) disease (1997) and the financial debacle at the Equitable Life Assurance Society.
In the chair: Carlo CASINI (EPP, IT)