Council of Ministers’ code is ‘weakest of all’ says watchdog

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Series Details Vol.7, No.26, 28.6.01, p4
Publication Date 28/06/2001
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Date: 28/06/01

By John Shelley

COUNCIL of Ministers' officials will be expected to reply to letters from the public within 15 working days and take telephone calls in a "courteous and approachable manner" under a new code of conduct.

The institution's Code of Good Administrative Behaviour was finally approved this week by Secretary-General, Javier Solana, better known for his role as the EU foreign policy chief.

But the European Ombudsman, Jacob Söderman, whose complaints prompted the Council into action, has already attacked the new rules for leaving out basic staff obligations. "This is the weakest code of any of the institutions," said Olivier Verheecke, one of the Ombudsman's legal officers.

The five-page code lays out the way in which all officials at the institution must deal with inquiries from the public.

Fonctionnaires will be expected to respond to all inquires or refer them to somebody who can; they will have to act in "a fair and reasonable manner" and not allow themselves to be influenced by personal issues, national loyalty or political pressure. "Staff shall act in a conscientious, correct, courteous and approachable manner," the code reads. "In replying to correspondence or telephone calls or in any other professional contact with the public, they shall endeavour to be as helpful as possible."

But Söderman says the new code is weak, complaining it only provides guidance for staff when it should be legally binding.

Verheecke said it was "astonishing" that there was "no reference at all" to the Charter of Fundamental Rights - a document agreed by EU leaders in December which enshrines the public's right to be served by a good administration.Söderman is also disappointed that while the regulations oblige civil servants to provide information when they can, it does not force them to give details of the appeals procedure in the event of an application being turned down. The change marks the culmination of a long campaign by Söderman to get all EU institutions to adopt strong codes of conduct to govern the way they handle the public.

In May he told the Council, the last of the major Union bodies to fall in line, that he wanted progress by the end of June. He has welcomed the adoption of the code in time for his deadline, but says the rules compare poorly with those of other institutions - such as the regulations which were implemented last autumn by the Commission.

Feature on the Council of the European Union's new Code of Good Administrative Behaviour.

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