REPORT on the annual report on the European Ombudsman's activities in 2007

    18.9.2008 - (2008/2158(INI))

    Committee on Petitions
    Rapporteur: Dushana Zdravkova
    PR_INI_AnnOmbud

    Procedure : 2008/2158(INI)
    Document stages in plenary
    Document selected :  
    A6-0358/2008

    MOTION FOR A EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT RESOLUTION

    on the annual report on the European Ombudsman's activities in 2007

    (2008/2158(INI))

    The European Parliament,

    –   having regard to the annual report on the European Ombudsman's activities in 2007,

    –   having regard to Article 195 of the EC Treaty,

    –   having regard to Article 43 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union,

    –   having regard to Decision 94/262/ECSC, EC, Euratom of the European Parliament of 9 March 1994 on the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman's duties[1],

    –   having regard to its resolution of 6 September 2001 amending Article 3 of the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman's duties[2],

    –   having regard to the framework agreement on cooperation concluded between the European Parliament and the Ombudsman on 15 March 2006, which entered into force on 1 April 2006,

    –   having regard to the Commission's communication of 5 October 2005 entitled 'Empowerment to adopt and transmit communications to the European Ombudsman and authorise civil servants to appear before the European Ombudsman' (SEC (2005)1227),

    –   having regard to the letter of July 2006 sent by the European Ombudsman to the President of the European Parliament with a view to initiating the procedure for the revision of the Ombudsman's Statute,

    –   having regard to its draft decision of 22 April 2008 [3] and its resolution of 18 June 2008 on the adoption of a decision of the European Parliament amending its Decision 94/262/ECSC, EC, Euratom of 9 March 1994 on the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman's duties[4],

    –   having regard to its previous resolutions on the European Ombudsman's activities,

    –   having regard to Rule 195(2), second and third sentences, of its Rules of Procedure,

    –   having regard to the report of the Committee on Petitions (A6‑0358/2008),

    A.  whereas the annual report on the European Ombudsman's activities in 2007 was formally submitted to the President of Parliament on 10 March 2008 and whereas the Ombudsman, Mr Nikiforos Diamandouros, presented the report to the Committee on Petitions in Strasbourg on 19 May 2008,

    B.   whereas the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union, originally proclaimed in December 2000, was signed on 12 December 2007, and reconfirmed by the Presidents of Parliament, of the Commission and of the Council, and whereas the commitment to a legally binding Charter, contained in the Treaty of Lisbon, which is in the process of ratification, reflects a growing awareness that citizens should be placed at the centre of a transparent, accessible and contactable Europe which is aware of the concerns of its citizens,

    C.  whereas Article 41 of the Charter states: 'Every person has the right to have his or her affairs handled impartially, fairly and within a reasonable time by the institutions and bodies of the Union',

    D.  whereas Article 43 of the Charter states: 'Any citizen of the Union and any natural or legal person residing or having its registered office in a Member State has the right to refer to the Ombudsman of the Union cases of maladministration in the activities of the Community institutions or bodies, with the exception of the Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance acting in their judicial role',

    E.   whereas it is essential that the European institutions and bodies make full use of the necessary resources in order to fulfil their obligation to ensure that citizens receive prompt and substantive responses to their enquiries, complaints and petitions,

    F.   whereas, although seven years have passed since the adoption of Parliament's above-mentioned resolution of 6 September 2001 approving the Ombudsman's Code of Good Administrative Behaviour, the other main institutions have not yet complied with Parliament's urgent request that they bring their practice into line with the provisions of that code,

    G.  whereas about 16% fewer complaints were received in 2007 than in 2006 but the number of admissible complaints increased in both absolute and relative terms from 449 (12% of the total) to 518 (16% of the total) in 2007,

    H.  whereas the findings of the 348 completed inquiries, of which 341 were linked to complaints and 7 were own-initiative investigations, show that in 95 cases (corresponding to 25.7% of the complaints investigated) no maladministration could be ascertained,

    I.    whereas the year 2007 saw a doubling of the number of cases of maladministration settled by the institution or body itself following a complaint to the Ombudsman (129 cases), which reflects a growing willingness on the part of the institutions and bodies to see complaints to the Ombudsman as an opportunity to put right mistakes that have occurred and to cooperate with the Ombudsman for the benefit of citizens,

    J.    whereas 5 cases were closed in 2007 after an amicable resolution had been achieved, and at the end of 2007 31 proposals for amicable resolutions were still under consideration,

    K.  whereas in 2007 the Ombudsman began to make wider use of more informal procedures to help resolve problems in a flexible way and will continue to develop this approach in the future, which proves the extent to which the Ombudsman is respected and demonstrates the institutions' readiness to help citizens,

    L.   whereas in 2007 the Ombudsman closed 55 inquiries with critical remarks and whereas a critical remark confirms to the complainant that his or her complaint is justified and indicates to the institution or body concerned what it has done wrong, so as to help it avoid maladministration in the future,

    M.  whereas eight draft recommendations were made in 2007, seven draft recommendations from 2006 led to a decision in 2007 and one case led to a special report to the European Parliament,

    N.  whereas neither the critical remarks contained in decisions closing irremediable cases of maladministration, nor recommendations or special reports by the Ombudsman, have binding effect, as his powers do not extend to directly remedying instances of maladministration but are intended to encourage self-regulation on the part of the European Union's institutions and bodies,

    O.  whereas the Ombudsman submitted one special report to the European Parliament in 2007 and whereas submitting a special report to Parliament represents a valuable means by which the Ombudsman can seek the political support of Parliament and its Committee on Petitions in order to bring satisfaction to citizens whose rights have been infringed, as well as promoting the improvement of standards of EU administration,

    P.   whereas, since the entry into force of the Treaty of Nice, Parliament has enjoyed the same right as the Member States, the Council and the Commission to bring an action before the Court of Justice of the European Union on grounds of lack of competence, infringement of an essential procedural requirement, infringement of the EC Treaty or of any rule of law relating to its application, or misuse of powers,

    Q.  whereas the critical comments regarding maladministration voiced by the Ombudsman in the 2007 report (critical remarks, draft recommendations and special report) may serve as a basis for avoiding a repetition of errors and malfunctions in future by the implementation of appropriate measures by the institutional and other bodies of the EU,

    R.   whereas the cooperation established by the Ombudsman within the European Network of Ombudsmen has functioned for over ten years as a flexible system for exchanging information and best practice and as a means of directing complainants to the ombudsmen or other similar bodies most able to assist them,

    S.   whereas the role of the Ombudsman in protecting EU citizens has evolved in the 12 years since the office was created, thanks to the Ombudsman's independence and Parliament's democratic scrutiny of the transparency of his activities,

    T.   whereas the activities of the Ombudsman and of the Committee on Petitions must remain separate and, as a general rule aimed at avoiding conflicts as regards their respective prerogatives, should include reciprocal definitive referral of their respective files,

    1.   Approves the annual report for 2007 presented by the European Ombudsman and the form in which it is presented, combining a summary of the year’s activities and a thematic analysis of the Ombudsman’s decisions and the problems raised at various stages of the procedure; considers, however, that further efforts should be made to improve the tables of statistics, in which the mix of figures and percentages can be confusing;

    2.   Calls for all EU institutions and bodies to be given the necessary budgetary and human resources to ensure that citizens receive prompt and substantive responses to their enquiries, complaints and petitions;

    3.   Considers that the Ombudsman has continued to exercise his powers in an active and balanced way, both with regard to examining and handling complaints and conducting and concluding enquiries and with regard to maintaining constructive relations with the European Union's institutions and bodies and encouraging citizens to avail themselves of their rights in relation to those institutions and bodies;

    4.   Calls on the Ombudsman to pursue his efforts and to promote his activities effectively, transparently and flexibly so that, in the eyes of citizens, he represents the custodian of sound administration and a genuine culture of service in EU institutions;

    5.   Considers that the term 'maladministration' should be broadly interpreted so as to include not only unlawful administrative acts or infringements of binding legal rules or principles but also, for example, cases where the administrative authorities have been sloppy, negligent in their duty to their citizens or lacking in transparency or have infringed other principles of good administration;

    6.   Regards the role of the Ombudsman in enhancing openness and accountability in the decision-making processes and administration of the European Union as an essential contribution towards a Union in which decisions are taken 'as openly as possible and as closely as possible to the citizen', as provided for in Article 1(2) of the Treaty on European Union, in collaboration with the ombudsman authorities within each Member State, so that the EU is in closer contact with the citizens of Europe;

    7.   Repeats its call, expressed in previous resolutions, for all EU institutions and bodies to adopt a common approach with regard to the Code of Good Administrative Behaviour;

    8.   Notes that the Code of Good Administrative Behaviour proposed by the Ombudsman, as approved by Parliament on 6 September 2001, covers the staff of all Community institutions and bodies and, unlike the other codes, has been regularly updated and published on the Ombudsman's website;

    9.   Stresses the need to further enhance the public profile of the Ombudsman, whose aim is to provide citizens, companies, NGOs and other entities with information, and considers that high-quality information may help to reduce the number of complaints which do not fall within the Ombudsman's terms of reference; at the same time, calls on the Ombudsman to forward immediately those complaints which do not fall within his terms of reference by way of the most appropriate network at national and local level;

    10. Recognises the increase in the absolute number of admissible complaints but considers that the figure in respect of admissible complaints – 16% – remains unsatisfactory; in view of this, recommends that an enhanced information campaign be conducted amongst European citizens designed to raise their awareness of the functions and competence of the European Ombudsman;

    11. Welcomes the generally constructive cooperation between the Ombudsman and the EU institutions and bodies and endorses him in his role of external control mechanism and, in addition, as a valuable source of ongoing improvement to European administration;

    12. Calls on the Ombudsman to ensure that the Commission makes proper use of its discretionary powers to initiate infringement proceedings under Article 226 of the EC Treaty or to propose penalties under Article 228 of the EC Treaty, while taking scrupulous care to avoid delays or unjustifiable failure to take prompt action, which are incompatible with the Commission's powers to oversee the application of EU law;

    13. Considers that, if an institution refuses to follow a recommendation contained in a special report by the Ombudsman despite Parliament having approved that recommendation, Parliament could legitimately use its powers to bring an action before the Court of Justice in respect of the act or omission which was the subject of the Ombudsman's recommendation;

    14. Notes that the Ombudsman has presented a special report criticising the Commission for not dealing with a complaint concerning the European Working Time Directive, on which Parliament adopted a resolution on 3 September 2008[5];

    15. Considers that, when the Ombudsman and the Committee on Petitions, acting within their respective mandates and competences, investigate overlapping issues, such as, respectively, the manner in which the Commission has conducted infringement proceedings and the alleged infringement itself, they can achieve useful synergy through close cooperation;

    16. Welcomes the relationship between the Ombudsman and the Committee on Petitions within the institutional frameworks as regards the reciprocal respecting of competences and prerogatives;

    17. Recognises the useful contribution made by the European Network of Ombudsmen, in line with the subsidiarity principle, in securing extra-judicial remedies; welcomes the collaboration between the European Ombudsman and ombudsmen and similar bodies at national, regional and local levels in the Member States and urges further strengthening of the exchange of best practice, thereby allowing for the harmonisation of best practices between Member States;

    18. Welcomes the European Ombudsman's initiatives to advertise widely both his own work and the work carried out by national ombudsmen, and recommends that the Ombudsman further pursue his efforts to raise citizens' awareness;

    19. Encourages the Ombudsman to continue to place great emphasis himself on events involving citizens and, hence, potential complainants, since it is clear that the demarcation of responsibilities and decision-making processes between the European, national and regional levels is still too hard to grasp for many citizens and businesses;

    20. Welcomes the enhanced information campaign promoted by the communications strategy adopted by the Ombudsman, which leads to greater awareness of citizens' rights and Community competences, as well as a greater understanding of the Ombudsman's sphere of competence; urges him, however, in the light of the still substantial number of complaints falling outside his terms of reference, to intensify his efforts to provide more comprehensive information about those terms of reference on a more regular basis;

    21. Given that each institution has its own web site enabling complaints, petitions, etc. to be lodged, and given that this frustrates citizens in distinguishing between the various institutions, welcomes the development of an interactive manual designed to assist citizens in identifying the most suitable forum for resolving their problems;

    22. In order to reduce the number of inadmissible complaints filed with the European Ombudsman, suggests that this idea be developed further and that a common web site of the European institutions be put in place to help citizens and refer them directly to the institution competent to handle their complaint;

    23. Proposes that the Ombudsman take measures to reduce the number of complaints (a total of 1 021) in relation to which no steps have been taken by him at all;

    24. Calls on the European Ombudsman to commit himself to directly forwarding, after obtaining the consent of the petitioner concerned, each complaint that falls within the competence of a national or regional ombudsman;

    25. Proposes, with a view to the provision of a better and more efficient service to citizens, that the Ombudsman bring to their knowledge the internal procedures and deadlines for handling complaints, as well as the criteria used to make decisions at the different stages of the examination of a complaint;

    26. Instructs its President to forward this resolution to the Council, the Commission and the European Ombudsman, and to the governments and parliaments of the Member States and their ombudsmen or similar competent bodies.

    EXPLANATORY STATEMENT

    Introduction

    The annual report on the European Ombudsman's activities in 2007 was formally submitted to the President of the European Parliament, Hans-Gert Pöttering, on 10 March 2008 and the European Ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros presented his report to the Committee on Petitions on 19 May 2008.

    The report provides a good overview of the European Ombudsman's activities over the last year. The various inquiry findings are presented clearly using examples and are broken down by categories such as nature of alleged maladministration or institution concerned. While it is true that the annex does list both absolute figures and percentages, there can nevertheless still be made improvements for the statistical tables, where the mix of figures and percentages can be confusing.

    Complaint-handling

    The number of admissible complaints received by the Ombudsman in 2007 increased in both absolute as relative terms from 449 (12% of the total) in 2006 to 518 (16% of the total in 2007. As a result, 17% more inquiries were opened during the year on the basis of complaints received. Furthermore, the number of inadmissible cases was lower in 2007 than in 2006.

    The total numbers of inquiries dealt with by the Ombudsman in 2007 was 641. Of these, 64% concerned the European Commission, 14% concerned EPSO, 9% the European Parliament and 1% the Council of the European Union. The main types of alleged maladministration were lack of transparency, including refusal of information, unfairness and abuse of powers, unsatisfactory procedures, avoidable delay, discrimination, negligence, legal errors and failure to ensure fulfilment of obligations.

    348 decisions closing inquiries were made in 2007, including 7 own-initiative inquiries, which represents a 40% increase compared with 2006.

    In 95 cases the inquiry revealed no maladministration, a finding which is not always negative for the complainant, since he or she gets a full explanation from the institution or body concerned, and there may be an opportunity to identify a potential improvement in the quality of administration provided by an institution or body.

    During 2007, 129 cases were settled to the satisfaction of the complainant by the institution or body concerned. This is more than twice the number of cases settled in this way in 2006, and it reflects a growing willingness from the institutions and bodies to regards complaints made to the Ombudsman as an opportunity to correct mistakes and to cooperate with the Ombudsman for the benefit of European citizens. After a German university complained about a payment dispute with the Commission regarding a project under the Erasmus Programme, the Ombudsman contacted the Commission, which settled the matter within 2 weeks by repaying the requested sum plus interest.

    When the Ombudsman finds maladministration, he tries to achieve a friendly solution. In some cases, a friendly solution can be achieved if the institution or body concerned offers compensation to the complainant. Any such offer is made ex gratia, i.e. without admission of legal liability and without creating a legal precedent. Friendly solutions achieved in 2007 included the European Aviation Safety Agency, which replaced a contested decision relating to the type-certification basis of certain aircraft, and the former European Monitoring Centre for Racism and Xenophobia, which agreed to provide better information to an unsuccessful tender about how his bid compared with that of the winner. Following the inquiry, one of the complainants expressed his gratitude for the outcome and stated that the inquiry had helped provide a reliable safeguard for transparency in the EU.

    When a friendly solution is not possible the Ombudsman closes the case with a critical remark, or makes a draft recommendation. A critical remark confirms to the complainant that his or her complaint is justified and indicates to the institution or body concerned what it has done wrong, so as to help it avoid maladministration in the future. In 2007, the Ombudsman closed 55 inquiries with critical remarks.

    He criticised e.g. the Commission for its failure to publish in 2006, as required by law, its annual report 2005 on access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents. This followed a complaint from the NGO Statewatch. While recognizing that the Commission finally in September 2007 published the report in question, the Ombudsman pointed out that the timely publication of reports is a key mechanism of accountability to European citizens.

    The Ombudsman also issued two critical remarks against EPSO in two cases concerning the use of languages of the "new" Member States as opposed to those of the "old" Member States. This followed a complaint from a Polish association concerning recruitment tests. EPSO replied that the language requirements for competitions had been changed in the meantime.

    It is important for the institutions and bodies to follow up on critical remarks from the Ombudsman, taking action to resolve outstanding problems and thus to avoid maladministration in the future. The Ombudsman's services have also completed a study of the follow-up to all critical remarks made in 2006 and the results was sent to all the institutions involved on 22 May 2008.

    In cases where it is possible for the institution concerned to eliminate the instance of maladministration, or in cases where the maladministration is particularly serious, or has general implications, the Ombudsman normally makes a draft recommendation to the institution or body concerned, which must respond with a detailed opinion within three months. During 2007, eight draft recommendations were made.

    If a Community institution or body fails to respond satisfactorily to a draft recommendation, the Ombudsman may send a special report to the European Parliament. This constitutes the Ombudsman's ultimate weapon and is the last substantive step he may take in dealing with a case, since the adoption of a resolution and the exercise of Parliament's powers are matters for the political judgment of the Parliament.

    In 2007, the Ombudsman submitted one special report to Parliament, criticising the Commission for not dealing with a complaint concerning the European Working Time Directive, to which the Committee on Petitions, with Proinsias De Rossa as rapporteur, has drafted a report[1].

    The Ombudsman makes use of his power to launch own-initiative inquiries in two main instances. Firstly, he may use it to investigate a possible case of maladministration when a complaint has been submitted by a non-authorised person (i.e., when the complainant is not a citizen or resident of the Union or a legal person with a registered office in a Member State). Two such own-initiative inquiries were opened in 2007. He may also use his own-initiative power to tackle what appears to be a systemic problem in the institutions.

    For example the Ombudsman launched in December 2007 an own-initiative inquiry into the subject of the timeliness of payments made by the Commission. He asked the Commission to provide information on what has been done to avoid late payment, statistical data on late payment cases, as well as information about the Commission's policy on paying interest. This follows complaints from individuals, companies and organisations involved in EU-funded projects and contracts. Among the other own-initiative inquiries opened in 2007 were one into EPSO's computer-based testing, and one concerning the management of human resources at the Commission's Joint Research Centre.

    In 2007, the Ombudsman concluded an own-initiative inquiry into the measures adopted by the Commission to ensure that people with disabilities are not discriminated against in their relations with the institution. Among the positive measures he identified were those designed to provide easier access to information via the Commission's website and to improve recruitment and promotion conditions. He underlined, however, that more should be done to sensitise the Commission's staff to the needs of people with disabilities. Finally, he also criticised as inadequate the situation in the European Schools concerning for pupils with disabilities.

    The Ombudsman has this year again included in the Annual Report the notion of "star cases" in order to highlight instances of good administrative practice by institutions and bodies revealed through his inquiries and to emphasise that the Ombudsman institution is there also to support and encourage good administrative practice, especially when that can serve as a general model for the EU institutions and bodies. Seven such "star cases" are highlighted in the Annual Report. Four of these concerned the Commission, one concerned the Council, one the European Central Bank and one the European Aviation Safety Agency.

    Priorities of the European Ombudsman

    The main priorities of the European Ombudsman is to ensure that citizens' rights under EU law are respected at every level in the Union and that EU institutions and bodies conform to the highest standards of administration.

    The Ombudsman has continued his efforts to improve the quality of information provided to citizens and potential complainants concerning their rights under EU law especially through the European Network of Ombudsmen. The Network, which includes the Committee on Petitions, consists of roughly 90 offices in 31 countries and co-operates on a daily basis in case handling, and on a continuing basis in sharing experiences and best practice through seminars and meetings, a regular newsletter, an electronic discussion forum and an electronic daily news service. One of the purposes of the Network is to facilitate the rapid transfer of complaints to the competent ombudsman or similar body. When possible, the Ombudsman transfers cases directly or give suitable advice to the complainant. During 2007, he advised 816 complainants to turn to a national or regional ombudsman and transferred only 51 complaints directly to the competent ombudsman.

    The Ombudsman strive to make certain that the EU institutions and bodies adopt a citizen-centred approach in all their activities, by seeking every opportunity to achieve friendly solutions to complaints and by launching more inquiries on my own-initiative in order to identify problems and encourage best practice. To promote this goal he continues to develop contacts with the Members and officials in the EU institutions and bodies with a view to promoting the culture of service within the EU administration. Over 60 such meetings took place during 2007.

    In the light of the importance of ensuring that those who might have problems with the EU administration know about their right to complain and the Ombudsman's services more than 130 presentations were made by the Ombudsman and his staff at conferences, seminars, and meetings during 2007. The Ombudsman also made information visits to Germany, Sweden, and Belgium with a view to promote awareness of the Ombudsman's role in these countries. He also gave six press conferences and over 40 interviews and 17 press releases were issued and distributed to journalists and interested parties throughout Europe.

    Amongst the publications produced and distributed in 2007 was a new information sheet for businesses and organisations, which explains succinctly what the Ombudsman can do for these entities. Chambers of commerce and bar associations have been particularly interested in receiving this sheet.

    The Ombudsman's website has been regularly updated during 2007 with decisions, press releases, and details of communications activities. A new section of the website was created in order to give a higher profile to own-initiative inquiries. From 1 January to 31 December 2007, the website received 449 418 unique visitors. The links section of the website includes links to the sites of national and regional ombudsmen throughout Europe. Over 82 000 visits were made to the links pages during 2007, clearly demonstrating the added value for citizens of the services provided through the European Network of Ombudsmen. At the moment the Ombudsman's office is developing a new website, which will include an interactive guide to help citizens find the most appropriate avenue of redress for their grievances. The guide should enable an even greater proportion of complainants to address directly the body best equipped to deal with their complaint and lead to a further fall in the number of inadmissible complaints received by the Ombudsman.

    Conclusion

    The Committee on Petitions encourages the Ombudsman to continue the dual aim, he announced in his 2006 Annual Report, namely working with the institutions to promote good administration and increase the communication efforts so that citizens who might need to make use of his services are properly informed of how to do so. The Committee also takes note of the fact that the information campaign has lead to an increase of the number of admissible complaints.

    With the adoption on 18 June 2008 of the report on a Decision amending its Decision 94/262/ECSC, EC, Euratom of 9 March 1994 on the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman's duties[2], proposed by the Ombudsman in 2006, the Parliament agreed to a qualitative expansion of the Ombudsman's powers without affecting the nature of his competences or the non-binding effect of his decisions.

    The most important changes guarantee that the Ombudsman will have full access to EU documents during his inquiries. Furthermore, the Ombudsman's co-operation with his national counterparts and international institutions will be facilitated. The modifications also include clearer provisions for when EU officials testify at the request of the Ombudsman in the course of an inquiry. By supporting these changes, the European Parliament and its Committee on Petitions has demonstrated its confidence in the work of the Ombudsman and his efforts to improve the service that he can provide for citizens, thus strengthening their trust in the European Union and its institutions.

    RESULT OF FINAL VOTE IN COMMITTEE

    Date adopted

    11.09.2008

     

     

     

    Result of final vote

    +:

    –:

    0:

    23

    0

    0

    Members present for the final vote

    Marcin Libicki Carlos José Iturgaiz Angulo, Kathy Sinnott),

    Robert Atkins, Daniel Caspary, Cristina Gutiérrez-Cortines, Mairead McGuinness, Manolis Mavrommatis, Marie Panayotopoulos-Cassiotou, José Javier Pomés Ruiz, Nicolae Vlad Popa, Rainer Wieland, Victor Boştinaru, Glyn Ford, Lidia Joanna Geringer de Oedenberg, Miguel Angel Martínez Martínez, Maria Matsouka, Janelly Fourtou, Marian Harkin, Margrete Auken, David Hammerstein, Eoin Ryan, Willy Meyer Pleite,

    Substitute(s) present for the final vote

    Marie-Hélène Descamps, Dushana Zdravkova , Grażyna Staniszewska, Tatjana Ždanoka

    Substitute(s) under Rule 78() present for the final vote