Greek statistics bill may still harbour loopholes

A health ministry official skewed Greece's accounts by about 1 percent of GDP last year by deliberately underreporting state hospitals' debts to suppliers.

Greek statistics bill may still harbour loopholes

A lone health ministry official skewed Greece's public accounts by about 1 percent of GDP last year by deliberately underreporting state hospitals' debts to suppliers, apparently to please her political masters.

"She told us she was asked to 'accommodate the situation'," Vassilis Manesiotis, a central bank official and member of a committee of inquiry on Greek statistics, told parliament.

Despite the new government's promise to the European Union to clean up discredited Greek statistics, experts say there is no guarantee a bill to be debated by parliament from Wednesday will stop this kind of fiddling of budget data in future.

The draft law creates an independent statistics agency and imposes stiff penalties on officials who massage the figures, but critics say it fails to set clear ground rules on how to collect and double-check the data.

"This is a key deficiency," said Savvas Robolis, an economist who sat on the panel which reported last month.

"If the statistics agency is not equipped with adequate mechanisms to ensure that its high principles of integrity and independence will be implemented, it will be crippled from the beginning," Robolis said.

Deliberate misreporting of budget data and shambolic statistics under the previous, conservative government are at the heart of Greece's fiscal crisis, which threatens to destabilise the euro zone.

Irked by repeated major revisions of budget and GDP data over the past years, the executive European Commission has said it will take Greece to court over its faulty statistics.

Greece has admitted twice in the past 6 years to cooking its budget data. The previous instance of bent accounting was to qualify for the euro zone in 2001.

Statistics by phone

Chaotic data collection over several years has left the door open to politically motivated manipulation of budget figures.

"The system was deliberately left in a shambles to make meddling possible," Robolis said.

Greece's discredited National Statistics Agency (NSS) had no stomach, or lacked the manpower, to challenge inaccurate or faulty data submitted by other government agencies, the Greek experts' commission and the EU statistics office Eurostat said.

"The fiscal accounts department at the statistics agency was the least popular in the entire agency. Nobody wanted to work there," Manesiotis said.

In some cases, NSS officials fiddled the figures themselves and then stonewalled EU investigators. "Eurostat asked them for three days where the order came from and they did not respond, no one wanted to name names," Manesiotis said.

NSS and state agencies such as hospitals and local government often exchanged data at the last minute informally by telephone, on the eve of Eurostat visits or reporting deadlines.

Shambolic reporting procedures persist so the government does not know exactly how many people it has on its payroll.

"It must be absolutely clear which agency is responsible for collecting what data and how information will be exchanged between them," said Stella Balfousia, a researcher at state institute KEPE who was also a member of the committee.

The statistics law sets up an independent Hellenic Statistical Authority (HSS) to replace the NSS, with fines of up to 200,000 euros ($273,000) for those who violate the rules.

The government says the new agency's charter will lay down strict procedures to address the critics' concerns.

In response to the Greek fiasco, the European Commission announced plans on Monday give Eurostat great auditing powers and reinforce the EU's ability to counter inaccurate statistical reporting by member states.

However, officials said the proposals, which must be approved by member governments and the European Parliament, were watered down because some countries did not want to yield too much power to Brussels.

Reuters

Last Mod: 16 Şubat 2010, 20:21
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