Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Fourth Report


6. COURT OF AUDITORS SPECIAL REPORT ON SOCRATES AND YOUTH FOR EUROPE


(23457)
8229/02

Special Report No. 2/2002 of the Court of Auditors on the Socrates and Youth for Europe Community action programmes.

Legal base:
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
Committee's decision:Cleared


Background

  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."

Conclusion

  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.


 
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Prepared 11 July 2002