Spain: why transparency is the best policy
The Spanish parliament is currently considering a new law on Transparency, Access to Information and Good Governance that has been stalled for the past year as politicians sought to weaken its proposals. The current corruption scandal about alleged illicit political party funding that is threatening the government is a good illustration of why Spain needs strong anti-corruption legislation and greater transparency to allow citizens to hold their politicians to account.
Parliament should not waste more time. They need to pass a Transparency Law that not only affirms citizen’s rights to access to information but also covers political parties. This will increase public trust in politics and politicians and help prevent future corruption of political parties.
Spain is the only large economy in Europe that does not have an access to information law making it hard for citizens and civil society to find out what the government is doing on issues ranging from public spending to procurement
The funding of political parties is particularly opaque, leading to a series of scandals in the past decade. Political parties receive about 90 per cent of their financing from the public treasury. The current scandal involves politicians from the ruling Popular Party who allegedly received kickbacks from an under-the-counter slush fund of corporate donations held in a Swiss bank.
It took an investigation by El País, a newspaper, to break the story. The news angered hundreds of thousands of people who took to the streets last week, calling for reforms.
Enacting the right law
The first version of the new Transparency Law was published in March 2012. At the time Transparency International Spain welcomed the initiative and the public consultation period that followed, which it believed will allow for needed amendment. One year on, however, loopholes still exist in the proposed legislation. If the law was passed as it stands now, Spain would be passing up the opportunity to have a strong legal framework for fighting corruption.
Of great concern is the fact that political parties would be exempt for the law as it stands. There are no explicit sanctions for corruption and there is a vague clause giving government a catch-all reason to refuse to release information at its discretion.
For these reasons, Transparency International Spain went before parliament to demand the law be amended and recommended the following:
- Access to information should be explicitly made a fundamental right of citizens
- Political party financing should come under the law
- All public institutions and civil servants should publish and disclose their assets
- Sanctions should be spelled out for politicians and civil servants who are found guilty of corruption and any legal proceedings should be carried out by an independent agency not the government itself
- The agency responsible for administrating the law must be independent from the government and well-resourced so that it can operate without political interference.
- There should be no limits to what information can be accessed. The current draft has a broad exemption for “economic and environmental” information which governments can hide behind to refuse proper access.
- The law should explicitly require the government to publish information, including detailed budgets, in a timely manner and in a way that civil society and citizens can easily use, that is online and searchable.
Timetable for change
Three-quarters of those asked also said that the government’s actions to curb corruption were ineffective. The current scandal should act to galvanise support for strengthening the Transparency law. The government and parliament have a chance to act now. They should take it.