6. COURT OF AUDITORS SPECIAL REPORT ON
SOCRATES AND YOUTH FOR EUROPE
Special Report No. 2/2002 of the Court of Auditors on the Socrates and Youth for Europe Community action programmes.
|Document originated:||10 April 2002
|Deposited in Parliament:||15 May 2002
|Department:||Education and Skills
|Basis of consideration:||EM of 23 May 2002
|Previous Committee Report:||None
|To be discussed in Council:||Not applicable
|Committee's assessment:||Politically important
6.1 These two Community action programmes were key components
of the EU's strategy for education and co-operation in the field
of youth from 1995-1999. Socrates is mainly aimed at higher education
(through the Erasmus action) and school education (through the
Comenius action) but also includes horizontal activities. Youth
for Europe comprises five actions involving exchanges and co-operation
projects set up by young people. Successor programmes for both
are now in place.
The Court of Auditors report
6.2 The report focuses in particular on the management
system applied to the implementation of the two programmes. In
her helpful Explanatory Memorandum, the Minister of State for
Lifelong Learning and Higher Education (Margaret Hodge) summarises
the Court's findings as follows:
"The Report is critical of the design of Socrates, the implementation
of the programmes, their management both at Community level and
nationally, and the financial arrangements and implementation.
It singles out for criticism the reliance the Commission placed
on the Technical Assistance Office (TAO) to manage the programmes,
and casts doubt on whether the objectives of Youth for Europe
were achieved. Finally it concludes evaluation reports were delayed
and considers their impact remains questionable. At the same time
it acknowledges that the programmes had an undeniable impact on
young people and the student population, particularly the Erasmus
Action, and that some of the shortcomings it identifies have their
roots in the sheer volume of transactions, and the difficulties
of co-ordinating activities across the 27 participating states.
"The bulk of the criticism is directed at the Commission
and the arrangements in Brussels, although the implementation
at national level is also found to be defective in several respects.
No National Agency implementing the programme is named, and the
criticism of procedures does not appear to relate to any of the
practices in the UK. In general the weakness identified caused
delay and inefficiency, and reduced the impact of the programme,
although the potential for more serious consequences is clearly
identified. The Auditors have notified the European Anti-fraud
Office (OLAF) of suspected fraud in a few cases...
"The report ends with a recommendation that the Commission
pursues its efforts to set up Community public-law agencies which
could be entrusted with the implementation of the programmes,
together with more detailed recommendation on specific deficiencies."
6.3 In relation to the Commission's reliance on the TAO,
the report notes:
"The delegation of responsibilities to the TAO gave rise
to weaknesses which the Court was to come across repeatedly: irregularities
in the delegation of responsibility, both with regard to the principle
of delegation and the form its implementation took, various confusions
of interest and risks for the Community's assets, and the costly
nature of the management. The situations which arose from this
were, however, nothing like as serious as those encountered in
other Community programmes."
The Commission's response
6.4 The Commission was notified of the Court's preliminary
findings last December, and its replies are attached to the report.
It points out that the programmes directly benefited over one
million people, in terms of mobility, and almost 10,000 co-operation
projects. It argues that reliance on a TAO was inevitable, given
the scale of activity. Independent reports are adduced in response
to some of the other criticisms made by the Court in particular,
the external evaluation of the Youth for Europe programme which
found that it had met its objectives.
6.5 However, the Commission's response is not wholly
defensive. It concedes some weaknesses in management, and indicates
changes that are being adopted in the new programmes. It undertakes
to take the necessary measures at the appropriate time in relation
to cases of suspected fraud.
The Government's view
6.6 The Minister tells us:
"The UK government welcomes the report, which will be examined
further in the Youth and Education Council working groups. The
detailed findings and analysis in the report are a good basis
on which to pursue with the Commission within the working Groups
ways in which the procedures in the new programmes can be further
improved. The government will seek to establish the extent to
which the weakness of Socrates I have been addressed in the successor
programme, and press the Commission to find ways of increasing
the efficiency and accessibility [of] the programme consistent
with sound financial management.
"The cases of suspected fraud do not appear to relate to
the UK, and the criticism of National Agencies [does] not appear
to involve the British Council ETG [Education and Training Group]
which implemented the programme in the UK."
6.7 In our view, the numerous weaknesses (let alone
the cases of possible fraud) revealed by the Court of Auditors
merit report to the House. We take some reassurance from the fact
that the Court considers that the situation that arose from undue
reliance on the Technical Assistance Office was "nothing
like as serious as those encountered in other Community programmes",
and from the UK's apparent clean sheet. Nevertheless, we urge
the Minister to press for improved management of the new phase
of both programmes.
6.8 We clear the document.