The European Parliament's committee on constitutional affairs approved changes to the Ombudsman's statute which are designed to "boost citizens' confidence" in his work by making it easier for him to obtain the information he requests from the EU institutions. The proposals, presented in a report by Finnish MEP Anne Jäätteenmäki (ALDE), were adopted by the committee with 19 votes in favour and three abstentions.
The decision should oblige the EU institutions to provide the Ombudsman with all the information he wants, primarily by deleting a provision allowing officials to refuse to disclose certain information on secrecy grounds. MEPs said this clause could "restrict the Ombudsman's right to require information".
In addition, the text changes rules governing the testimony of EU officials by abolishing a requirement for them to testify "in accordance with the instructions of their administrations".
But Jäätteenmäki expressed her disappointment that the improvements to the statute did not go further. "I had hoped for a more transparent text but this was the only compromise possible," she said, in reference to tensions over the confidentiality rules governing the protection of personal data of EU officials.
The report requires the Ombudsman "not to divulge any sensitive information or any document falling under the scope of Community legislation regarding the protection of personal data" while handling classified information during the course of his enquiries.
MEPs amended the report after expressing concern that in the previous version, both the original secrecy clause and testimony rules would mislead citizens "into thinking that officials are not always required to tell the truth".
Welcoming the adoption of the report, British MEP Andrew Duff, who is ALDE coordinator on the committee, said: "With this new power the Ombudsman will be in a stronger position to fight bad administration and protect the interest of the citizen".
The Ombudsman, P. Nikiforos Diamandouros, had originally requested the changes to the statute himself in a letter to Parliament President Hans-Gert Pöttering in July 2006. If adopted by MEPs during the full plenary in Strasbourg in April, Jäätteenmäki's report must still be approved by member states before the changes can become law.
Transparency is currently high on the agenda of the EU, with the publication of the Commission's lobbyists register and accompanying code of conduct, proposed by Administration and Anti-Fraud Commissioner Siim Kallas in 2005 as part of the wider transparency initiative, expected this spring (EurActiv 14/02/08).