Select Committee on European Communities Fourth Report


  22 July 1997

  By the Select Committee appointed to consider Community proposals, whether in draft or otherwise, to obtain all necessary information about them, and to make reports on those which, in the opinion of the Committee, raise important questions of policy or principle, and on other questions to which the Committee considers that the special attention of the House should be drawn.



  1.    On 8 July 1997, the Committee was pleased to receive a visit from Mr Jacob Söderman[1], the European Ombudsman. In evidence to the Committee, he described his role and work and answered questions from members of the Committee on a variety of issues affecting his office. The European Ombudsman fulfils an important role in the control of maladministration on the part of Community institutions and bodies and the purpose of this brief Report is to bring this to the attention of the House. The evidence given by Mr Söderman is printed with this Report.

Treaty base-appointment

  2.    Article 8d of the EC Treaty (inserted by the Maastricht Treaty) gives citizens of the Union (that is every person holding the nationality of a Member State) two rights; to petition the European Parliament, and to complain to the Ombudsman. Article 138d provides that the Ombudsman can receive complaints from any citizen or any natural or legal person residing or having its registered office in a Member State about maladministration in the activities of any Community institution[2] or body[3], with the exception of the Court of Justice and the Court of First Instance acting in their judicial capacity. Detailed rules (the "Statute of the Ombudsman") concerning the performance of the Ombudsman's duties were adopted by the Parliament on 9 March 1994[4].

  3.    The Treaty requires the Ombudsman to be "completely independent in the performance of his duties".The Ombudsman is appointed by the European Parliament, to whom he is required to make an annual report of his work. Mr Söderman, a former Finnish Ombudsman, was appointed by the Parliament as the first European Ombudsman on 12 July 1995. He took up his duties formally on 27 September that year. His office is situated in Strasbourg. He has a total staff of fifteen, including four legal officers.

Investigation of maladministration

  4.    The Ombudsman conducts enquiries, either in response to a complaint or on his own initiative, into alleged maladministration by a Community institution or body. On finding maladministration he can make draft recommendations to the institution or body concerned. He has no powers to order an institution or body to change a decision or grant redress, by annulling decisions or by awarding damages. Community institutions and bodies are under a duty to assist the Ombudsman in his enquiries. He also has the power to request information from Member States who are under a duty to supply such information unless legal rules on secrecy or other provisions prevent its communication. He cannot deal with complaints against national authorities.

  5.    The Treaty contains no definition of what constitutes maladministration. The introduction to the standard form for making a complaint, How to complain to the European Ombudsman[5], says that maladministration means "poor or failed administration" and gives the following as examples; administrative irregularities or omissions, abuse of power, negligence, unlawful procedures, unfairness, malfunction or incompetence, discrimination, avoidable delay or lack or refusal of information. Mr Söderman said that he construed "maladministration" broadly to include a failure by the institution concerned to follow the general principles of good administration and the jurisprudence of the Court of Justice.

Complaining to the Ombudsman

  6.    A complaint may be made by simple letter, or by using the form provided, in any of the official languages of the Community. It should set out the grounds and enclose copies of relevant documentation. The complaint has to made within two years "of the date on which the facts became known". The complaint must have been preceded by appropriate approaches to the institution or body concerned. It may not concern matters which have been ruled on by, or are pending before, a court. If requested, the complaint will be treated confidentially. The Ombudsman takes the view that it is important that he should act in as open and transparent a way as possible, both so that the public can follow and understand his work and to set a good example to others.

  7.    In 1996, some 842 complaints were received by the Ombudsman. Most of these came from private citizens. About 65 per cent[6] were rejected as being inadmissible. Inquiries were begun in 210 cases, including 3 own initiatives by the Ombudsman. Most complaints related to the work of the Commission, the Community institution with whom the citizen is most likely in practice to come into contact. Even here the number of cases is relatively few, considering the overall size of the Community. Many complaints were about undue delay or lack of information. There was also, Mr Söderman explained, a number of cases concerning recruitment procedures, especially about age limits. In 1996, inquiries were completed in 102 cases, of which 82 resulted in findings that there had been no maladministration. There were 34 findings of maladministration.

Procedure for investigating complaints

  8.    In outline, the Ombudsman's procedure for the handling of complaints is as follows. On receipt, the complaint is examined to see whether it is admissible (in practice, as the above statistics show, a substantial majority are rejected, mainly because the complaint is outside the Ombudsman's terms of reference because it relates to the activities of a national authority). Complaints which are considered admissible and where there seem to be sufficient grounds to conduct an enquiry are communicated to the Community institution or body concerned which is asked to give a "first opinion" on the matter within three months. The complainant is sent a copy of the "first opinion" and invited to make comments within one month. The Ombudsman, having considered the "first opinion" and any comments of the complainant, may decide that no further enquiry is justified or that the institution or body has acted satisfactorily to resolve the matter. A case may be closed with "a critical remark" to the institution or body concerned (there were 32 such cases in 1996), where the instance of maladministration appears to have no general implications and no follow-up action seems necessary The parties informed are informed that the file has been closed. If the Ombudsman considers that there is a prima facie case of maladministration he will seek a solution between the parties. If further enquiries lead the Ombudsman to conclude that there has been maladministration he will make draft recommendations to the institution or body which must respond in a detailed opinion within three months. Only 2 cases in 1996 went to this stage. If the matter is still not resolved, the Ombudsman sends a report, which may include recommendations, to the European Parliament and informs the institution or body accordingly.

Own initiative enquiries

  9.    The Ombudsman has power to commence enquiries on his own initiative. Such enquiries, Mr Söderman said, may have a greater impact on the administration than individual complaints. He explained that where he has seen from a number of complaints that there was a general problem he has taken the opportunity to initiate an enquiry on his own initiative. He has done this on at least three occasions, including public access to documents and the Commission's procedure (under Article 169 of the EC Treaty) for dealing with complaints alleging infringement of Community law by Member States. His primary role remains, however, the investigation of individual complaints of maladministration brought by Community citizens.

Cooperation with the European Parliament and others

  10.    The European Ombudsman co-operates with the Parliament, the Commission and national ombudsmen. As already mentioned, the Maastricht Treaty gave the citizen two rights, to petition the Parliament and to complain to the Ombudsman, and it may not always be clear to whom the citizen might bring his grievance. The Committee on Petitions of the Parliament and the Ombudsman have therefore established ground rules for handling cases and a procedure for the transfer, with the agreement of the petitioner or complainant, of cases between them. In 1996, 10 cases were transferred from the Parliament to be dealt with as complaints by the Ombudsman. Five cases were, with the consent of the complainant, transferred in the opposite direction. Where the Ombudsman finds a case inadmissible the complainant may be advised, where appropriate, to petition the Parliament. As mentioned above the Ombudsman is required to report annually to the Parliament To date, he has presented two reports, for 1995 and 1996.

  11.    As mentioned above, experience shows that many complaints received by the European Ombudsman concern alleged wrongdoing by national authorities. Such complaints are outside his terms of reference and thus inadmissible. They may nonetheless relate to the implementation or application of Community law by national administrations. Failures to implement Community law and other activity by Member States in breach of Community law may be referred to the Commission who has the role of guardian of the Treaty and can take up cases of infringement of the Treaty with the Member State concerned under the Article 169 procedure. In other instances it may be appropriate for the matter to be investigated by a national ombudsman. The European Ombudsman has examined with national and regional ombudsmen practical arrangements for the reciprocal exchange of information and for other forms of co-operation. A network of liaison officers has been established.

Experience to date

  12.    The Ombudsman has received over 1600 complaints. The large majority of these were, as already mentioned, judged to be inadmissible, largely on the grounds that they related to the activities of national authorities. For example, a number of complaints have concerned the failure of national bodies to recognise professional qualifications and diplomas granted in another Member State. This may comprise a breach of Community law, but does not involve any administrative act on the part of the Commission or any other Community body. The Ombudsman expressed concern at the large proportion of inadmissible cases - many more than would be experienced by a national ombudsman. He is taking action, by publicising the scope of his mandate and by encouraging national authorities to be more aware of Community law, to try to reduce the number of inadmissible cases. The Committee believes that this should be a priority.

  13.    More generally on the question of the number of complaints, the Committee is somewhat surprised at the numbers of complaints made so far and forecasted. We recognise that the Ombudsman has not long been in existence and that the number of those coming into direct contact with Community institutions (mainly in practice with the Commission) is relatively small compared to the total population of the Union. Nevertheless the smallness of the numbers may show a lack of awareness and knowledge of the Ombudsman on the part of the citizen. We believe that greater effort should be made, not just by Mr Söderman and his staff but also by all Community institutions and bodies (especially when dealing with complaints), to drawing attention to the role and powers of the Ombudsman.

  14.    Most complaints come from private individuals. Surprisingly few companies complain to the Ombudsman, though they frequently criticise the Commission for late payment of debts and other delays in communication. The Ombudsman may be able to help firms in such matters and Mr Söderman pointed to some success in the few cases which had come his way. This is, in the opinion of the Committee, something to which bodies such as the Confederation of British Industry and the Federation of Small Businesses might usefully alert their members.

  15.    As regards the subject-matter of complaints, the Committee notes that a substantial number relate to lack of transparency and failure to provide information. Of the Ombudsman's own initiative enquiries, that relating to the accessibility of documents and other information was of special interest to the Committee. The Ombudsman has recommended that some 14 Community institutions and bodies adopt rules about public access to documents[7]. The Committee has frequently criticised the Commission and the Council for lack of transparency, for example in relation to membership of scientific and other "expert" committees and the factual scientific or other evidence on which the Commission has based regulatory action. The Committee therefore welcomes the Ombudsman's intervention in these matters. We also support his interpreting "maladministration" broadly to include failure to provide information, including the reasons and explanations for particular acts or omissions on the part of the Commission and the Council.

  16.    The number of complaints made to the Ombudsman is likely to increase as more individuals and firms in the Community learn of his existence and of the assistance which his intervention can bring. The Ombudsman's Office is small. Mr Söderman eschewed the notion of it becoming a big European bureaucracy. For the present, at least, he had no complaint about the lack of resources. The Committee supports the Ombudsman's aim of having a lean, qualified, efficient team.


  17.    The Committee draws attention to the important role played by the European Ombudsman in the control of the behaviour and activities of Community institutions and bodies and looks forward to the continuing development of that role. The Committee makes this Report to the House for information.

1   Mr Söderman was accompanied by Mrs Broms, a legal officer in the Office of the Ombudsman. Back

2   The Parliament, the Council, the Commission, the Court of Justice and the Court of Auditors. Back

3   This includes the Economic and Social Committee (ECOSOC), the Committee of the Regions, the European Monetary Institute, the European Investment Bank and the European Environment Agency. Back

4   European Parliament Decision 94/262 of 9 March 1994 on the regulations and general conditions governing the performance of the Ombudsman's duties. O.J. L113/5 of 4 April 1994. Back

5   This is reproduced in Appendix 2. Use of the form is not compulsory. Back

6   The equivalent figure for the Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration would be about 40 per cent. Parliamentary Commissioner for Administration. Annual Report for 1997. Back

7   New Article 191a of the EC Treaty, as proposed by the Draft Treaty of Amsterdam, provides a right of access to European Parliament, Council and Commission documents. General principles and limits having first been fixed, each institution is to lay down rules of procedure regarding access to its documents. Back

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Prepared 29 July 1997