12 May 2016.
The financial interest statements of MPs and MEPs were released today following a three year delay, along with the financial statements of those who are responsible for the finances of political parties. According to established practice these financial statements are made public every year for just a single month.
The short time of disclosure is justified by the Parliament on the grounds that the statements contain ‘personal data’, which is protected by law. This protection is temporarily suspended each year in service to the principles of transparency and accountability.
The statements available now are from 2013, which correspond to the parliamentary year of 2012. According to the accompanying notice, the Parliament will endeavour to expedite procedures and to publish in October the financial statements from 2014, covering the parliamentary year of 2013.
Vouliwatch, in the context of its objective to support and promote transparency and openness, calls today for the Greek Parliament to change the way in which such data is published, to “open” the format of the asset declarations display to make it searchable by the public and, especially, to maintain this information on its website permanently or at least for the entire Parliamentary term.
Parliamentarians, as public figures, consent to the monitoring of their activities by the citizens they represent and, therefore, must actively support legislation and practices that enhance parliamentary and political transparency, as already applies to other European Member States: for example, in the UK there is a register of the financial interests of all Members of Parliament since 1997 which is permanently available online and which they are obliged to keep updated.
Vouliwatch will today begin to update the profiles of MPs and MEPs with their published financial information and invite them to give their consent to keep this information posted on our platform after the month’s deadline for publicity which is mandated by the Parliament, in the hope that they will respond positively.
In this way we will make a symbolic step towards the necessary transparency and accountability needed to boost our political system.
When transparency hits a brick wall: A legislative labyrinth prevents the full disclosure of Parliamentary Members’ Financial Interests
(Sources: Government Gazette and Opinion 7/2011 of the Authority for the Protection of Personal Data)
The asset declarations of Members of Parliament are dominating the news following their scheduled publication for 30 days. The vast majority of media is featuring the data that they estimate as significant from these financial interest statements. However, the fact that for yet another year the declarations have been made public with a delay of two years (they relate to the parliamentary year of 2012) and that strict legal safeguards continue to be applied to the disclosure of the financial interests of elected representatives, both of which raise serious questions about the level of transparency in public life, remain marginalized issues.
The legislative framework that regulates the disclosure of MPs’ financial interests for the last 14 years continues to be such a legal labyrinth that any effort to strengthen the existing transparency regime results in deadlock.
General legal framework, Principles of Transparency and Accountability
Transparency in the exercise of public office within the framework of the modern perception of democracy, goes back to a constitutional principle of democracy (Article 1 of the Constitution) which governs the political system and the rule of law. In a participatory democracy or democracy of civil society, the citizen participates constantly in shaping the will of the state and controlling the exercise of state power, which is constantly accountable to him.
In view of the fight against the corruption of public servants which nowadays concerns many states but is particularly pertinent to Greece, transparency is even more important, acting simultaneously as a deterrent mechanism against the exploitation of public office for obtaining unfair economic advantages.
In this sense, the principle of transparency is enshrined, inter alia, in the provision of Article 29, paragraph 2, on transparency in the finances of political parties, MPs, parliamentary candidates and candidates in local government, as well as in international texts. In particular, the United Nations Convention against Corruption, ratified by Greece in Law 3666/2008 (Government Gazette 113 / A/ 18.06.2008), refers to the principle of transparency as a means of preventing corruption, both in the preamble and in specific provisions (Art. 5, paragraph 1, 7, paragraph 1) and provides that the member states “will endeavour to adopt, to maintain and to strengthen systems that promote transparency and prevent conflicts of interest ” (Art. 7 paragraph 4).
According to the provision of Article 8, “Each State Party shall endeavour… to establish measures and systems requiring public officials to make declarations to appropriate authorities regarding, inter alia, their outside activities, employment, investments, assets and substantial gifts or benefits from which a conflict of interest may result with respect to their functions as public officials.”
In addition, article 52 paragraph 5 provides that “each State Party shall consider establishing, in accordance with its domestic law, effective financial disclosure systems for appropriate public officials and shall provide for appropriate sanctions for non-compliance.”
Specific legal framework
The posting on the Greek Parliament website of the financial interest statements under Law 3213/2003 is entitled “Statement and audit of the assets of parliamentarians, civil servants and officials, owners of mass media outlets and other groups of persons”, and the specific conditions of this publication are determined by decision of the President of Parliament, in agreement with the Personal Data Protection Authority and the relevant Committee for the Declaration of Assets.
Critique of the existing framework
It is worth noting that the terms set by the legislation 3023 of 2002 make it compulsory to disclose this data, and strictly define how the President of the Committee of Asset Declarations should do so. As the President has noted, “it determines the form, the type, the duration of the publication, and all other necessary details.” The subsequent legislation, namely 3213 of 2003 also states that “publication in the media of the asset declarations submitted by the persons specified in Article 1, paragraph 1, is permitted under the provision that the text is published in its entirety.”
Although this provision seems reasonable in itself, it means that the Financial Interest Statements of MPs as objects of interest for publication, are governed by a system of protection of personal data, given that they contain personal details (names, tax identification numbers, etc.).
Indeed, violations of this provision are punishable by severe fines since “every violation of this provision is punishable beyond the stipulated prison sentence of six (6) months or more, and a fine of 5,000 EUR to 100,000 EUR”. Article 7, paragraph 2.
Thus, the current legislation is applied under the supervision of the advice of the competent independent authority, i.e. the Personal Data Protection Authority. The last legal opinion of that authority was issued after its meeting of December 12, 2011, and in conjunction with the existing legislative framework, creates certain limitations.
The Committee concluded by a majority vote that disclosure of the financial statements amounts to limiting the individual rights of MPs, but that “the restriction of individual rights is provided for legislatively, justified by compelling public interest, as it serves the transparency of political and public life, and is within the limits of proportionality, and therefore serves an overriding interest.”
It emphasizes that “This restriction relates to public figures, i.e. persons holding public office or managing public money or even those playing a role in public policy and economic life, for whom it is acceptable that they face stronger restrictions on their right to protection of their personal data. Moreover these persons voluntarily undertook the exercise of public office and thus they consented to be exposed to a wider control of their private and economic life. “
Despite this, however, the same legal opinion supports that the retention of financial statements in the public eye for a single month is sufficient to fulfil the desired goal of transparency. As it notes, “the Authority accepts by majority vote that the maintenance for one month on the Internet of these statements does not surpass the limits of a reasonable period of report of such personal data to public scrutiny for the satisfaction of the purpose of transparency, and in this manner is not inconsistent with the law for the protection of personal data. Moreover, the foreseen dates for this publication will contribute to achieving the purpose of the process.”
But what exactly is the purpose? The same legal opinion states that the documents posted online should not be … processable. Indeed, it even proposes special measures for this. It notes “because of the nature of the internet it is necessary to take measures limiting the ability for any automated correlation of the financial interest declarations to other information available online for the same persons. This, for example, can be accomplished through publication in a format that it makes it difficult to extract information from the declarations. According to the note of the Directorate of Informatics and New Technologies, the Greek Parliament has chosen the use of Adobe Flash technology for the publication of statements.”
It is worth noting here that one Committee member did not agree with these recommendations. Citing European legislation, namely Directive 95/46 / EC, they pointed out that “it is not the minimum, but the maximum reasonable amount of time that such data may remain on the Internet that is mandated, dependant on the nature and type of personal data, as well as the reasons that such transparency is required.”
According to this member, the acceptance of the time period of one month as reasonable in practice negates the possibility of the fulfilment of the purpose of public accountability and, therefore, transparency, as the need for such oversight is likely to occur at a later time, proposing instead a period of one year.
From the above, it is clear that much remains to be done to achieve transparency in the oversight of MPs finances regarding both technological advances, but mainly to the ever growing need for citizens to exercise their right to information and oversight.
Effectively, the … “ball,” and the challenge, is in the hands of the political world, in other words, political parties and, chiefly, elected representatives.