Committee on Petitions
22 January, 2004
Petition 239/2003, by Hector McNeill (British) on behalf of the European Committee on Romani Emancipation, on racial discrimination, denial of adequate education, illicit use of public funds
1. Summary of petition
The petitioner writes about the financial scandal uncovered by the European Committee on Romani Emancipation, through which massive financial resources, were diversed from the education and training of a major section of the Roma community. He believes that the European Commission has failed to draw adequate attention to this racial discrimination and has, in failing to analyse this situation negotiated and provided European Union funding to agencies, who had used up their national financial resources for illicit purposes. He writes that the discrimination and fraud which concerns in particular Special Schools for children with learning difficulties is practiced in the Czech Republic, Hungary and the Slovak Republic.
Declared admissible on 17 October, 2003. Information requested from Commission under Rule 175(4).
3. Commission reply, received on 13 November 2003
The petitioner, representing the European Committee on Romani Emancipation (ECRE) formulates several accusations against the Governments of the Republic of Hungary, the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic and the local authorities of these countries. These accusations are set out in a report, which is attached to the petition. According to the report local authorities in these countries, direct Roma children to special schools in order to maximise financial transfers from the central budget and subsequently use these funds for purposes other than the education of Roma children. In particular the petitioner affirms that:
The Commissison has the following remarks on the petition:
1. The Commission notes that the text of the report, which is currently being posted on the petitioner's web-site, has been updated on 18 March 2003, eighteen days after the submission of the petition. The latest version is significantly different from the one attached to the petition. In particular paragraphs 70, 71, 72, 76, 77, 78, 80, 144, 146 have been deleted and paragraphs 69, 83, 111, 142 modified. All these paragraphs included allegations concerning "illicit" use of funds. As the petitioner recognizes in the revised report "…the range of allegations is too wide for ECRE to either investigate further or make a previous judgement about their veracity".
2. The petitioner sent the report to the Commission on March 6, 2003. Following this information, Commission officials had several contacts with the petitioner including a meeting on April 2, 2003. In this context the Commission had underlined, on request of the petitioner, the points of the reports where the issues were not thoroughly investigated and where the conclusions appeared hastily drawn. The Commission also facilitated a meeting between the petitioner and the Commissioner for Roma issues in the Hungarian Ministry of Education. Following these contacts the petitioner agreed that the report needed to be further revised to better reflect the facts. However, as of today this was not done. Moreover, since then, the petitioner has published on his website deflamatory posters and articles which are offensive of the European Institutions, the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission.
3. The first Commission observation concerns the geographical coverage of the report. The Commission considers it to be not very sound to draw conclusions regarding the situation in the Czech and Slovak Republic simply on the basis of fieldwork that appears to have been done mostly in Hungary. In particular, the system of per-capita normative financing of education, which is the basis of the alleged irregularities, is not applied in the same way in the three concerned countries. Unlike Hungary, the Czech and Slovak Republics local authorities do not appear to have the freedom to utilize funds allocated to special schools for other purposes.
4. Secondly, inn Hungary the current budgetary framework does no per se oblige local government to spend funds for the same purposes for which they receive them from central budget. This provides to the local communities some budgetary flexibility and may lead to more or less expenditure in a certain area in accordance with the specific needs of the local community. In that context the fact that not all the funds transferred for special schools are spent for that purpose is legal and does not necessarily imply illicit use. It should also be noted that contrary to what the petitioner indicates, special schools have annual budgets documenting the amount of resources received and their use. In view of that, drawing the conclusion that all the money not spent for teachers' salaries is not used for the special schools and education and, more so, that "because of the financial greed, politicians, educational officers and others have taken illicit funds", seems far-fetched and unsubstantiated.
5. Thirdly the Commission finds it striking that the petitioner does not appear to have even made the attempt to officially confront the authorities of the countries concerned and in particular Hungary, with the findings of the report before naking public the final conclusions. Equally the petitioner appears not to have consulted those institutions whose task it is to ensure that the principles of non-discrimination and of equal treatments of minorities are applied, such as the Hungarian Ombudsman for Minorities, the Czech Government Commissioner for Human Rights or the Slovak Government Plenipotentiary for Roma Affairs.
6. Fourthly the Commission objects to being labeled with "Criminal intent and professional incompetence" as it might appear under the misleading presentation of paragraphs 192 to 204 of the report. The Commission confirms that Phare projects have never been directed to special schools but rather targeted to improve the situation of the Roma Community including re-directing children from special schools to mainstream education. This fact was explained to the petitioner as a meeting with him.
7. The problem of the special schools is a complex problem. Special schools for children with mental disabilities exists in the member States as well ans there is an ongoing debate on their effectiveness compared with the inclusion of children in mainstream education. Of course children without such disabilities should not be enrolled in special schools just because of their ethnic, cultural or social background.
8. Contrary to the petitioner's statement in paragraph 208, the European Commission has consistently pointed out (most recently in 2001 and 2002) in its Regular Reports on the progress towards accession of the three countries concerned with the problem of the excessive presence of Roma children in special schools and has underlined that discrimination exists in terms of access to education. The Commission has consistently encouraged all Candidate Countries to address this problem through the design of appropriate policies and the provision of adequate resources to implement them.
9. It is also as a result of this sustained pressure that Candidate Countries have become more attentive to the need of tackling the problem of the over-representation of the Roma in the special schools as well as the practice of segregating Roma children in special classes within normal schools.
10. Specific measures have been taken to address these problems. In Hungary, the Public Education Act has been modified to include the definition and prohibition of discrimination, indirect discrimination and segregation. In addition starting from the 2003-2004 academic years important financial incentives and specific professional support have been introduced for schools promoting inclusive education of children with different social and cultural background. Rules used to determine mental disability have also been made stricter. Measures to promote a more inclusive education (financial incentives for schools, assistance to teachers…) are also being implemented in the Czech and Slovak Republics. These efforts clearly need to be sustained as the number sof Roma children in special schools remains high.
11. Phare support has been directed to projects aimed at combating discrimination against the Roma at all levels, improving their access to education (including their inclusion in mainstream education), addressing the problems related to unemployment and alleviating their poverty situation. This is exactly what the petitioner seems to consider as being needed. Specific measures to promote the social inclusion of the Roma minority are currently being discussed in the context of programming for Structural Funds.
12. In that respect, the use of Community funds has been fully consistent with the findings of the Commission reports and has helped Candidate Counties to develop more progressive policies towards the Roma. This is recognized by NGOs and Human Rights activities in Candidate Countries.
13. The three countries concerned have committee themselves to transposing EU anti-discrimination Directives (Council Directive 2000/43/EC of 29/6/2000 implementing the principle of equal treatment between persons irrespective of racial or ethnic origin and Council Directive 2000/78/EC of 27/11/2000 establishing a general framework for equal treatment in employment and occupation), at the latest by the time of accession and to identifying equality bodies responsible for the application of the rules on racial discrimination. These bodies should be responsible for providing independent assistance to victims of discrimination, and for making independent reports and recommendations on discrimination issues. This is already the case in Hungary where the Ombudsman for minorities has underlined in several instances the problems of discrimination within the education system and most recently denounced a case of a private school refusing to enroll Roma pupils.
In the view of the above the Commission:
A. Recognises that the problem of discrimination in relation to education and over-representation of Roma children in special schools remains a matterof serious concern and that the countries concerd have to continue their efforts to address it;
B. Considers that, after accession, the new anti-discrimination legislation should help in further improving the situation in this respect;
C. Not in a position to conclude (on the basis of the information provided) that state budget funds destined for Roma 3education have been diverted to illicit use;
D. Cannot concur with the petitioner's conclusion that … "a temporary embargo on any further funding .. " should be placed and remain in force "until such a time as the special schools system is done away with.";
E. On the contrary, it considers that the Phare programme is playing a very useful role in promoting anti-discrimination measures in favour of the Roma community, including re-directing Roma children to mainstream education.