Germany's Constitutional Court has strengthened the rights of parliamentarians to obtain information from the federal government. In a landmark decision, the tribunal has ruled questions should be answered in public.
On Tuesday, the Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe ruled that the German government is obliged in principle to answer parliamentary questions in public — unless they jeopardize the welfare of the state.
The judgment is intended to allow parliament to "detect legal violations and similar grievances in government and administration."
"The verdict announced today leads to a strengthening of parliamentary information law," court President Andreas Vosskuhle said on Tuesday in Karlsruhe. "Without its far-reaching constitutional protection ... effective opposition work in the Bundestag and thus a public, effective control of the government is not possible."
The 121-page ruling is the fifth one to be made by the court since 2009 and is viewed as one of its most far-reaching decisions.
For the first time, the court in Karlsruhe has determined that the federal government must not only provide information about its own activities but also those of affliliated companies, such as state rail operator Deutsche Bahn.
The duty to provide information has also been applied to authorities such as the Federal Financial Supervisory Authority (BaFin).
Majority-held state companies
The case had been brought by the Greens parliamentary group in the Bundestag. In 2010, they asked the federal government to provide details on the banking crisis, BaFin, and agreements between the government and Deutsche Bahn, including on the multi-billion-euro Stuttgart 21 train station construction project.
The Greens complained to the court that their questions had not been answered in full, and therefore their rights to ask questions as parliamentarians had been violated.
According to Tuesday's judgment, the federal government must always answer inquiries about companies that are "majority-held or fully in the hands of the federal government." This applies to Bahn AG, as the federal government is the sole owner of Deutsche Bahn and can thus influence its policies.
The court ruled that limits could only apply if the disclosure of trade secrets would have negative effects on the value of the company and thus affect "public interest."
According to Tuesday's verdict, the government also unfairly refused to provide information on BaFin's role in the supervision of the 2005 to 2008 banking crisis.
The Greens asked for information on salaries and bonuses worth more than €500,000 paid from the rescue fund to managers of bankrupt banks. The federal government refused to answer the question on the grounds of financial market sensitivity, claiming there could be "economic disadvantages." They argued that taxpayer funded support for threatened banks would be in vain should sensitive information be disclosed.
The court ruled that the government is responsible for BaFin and the banks it controls and that the government's claim of potentially damaging sensitive information does not apply. The Greens asked for information about the 2005 to 2008 banking crisis only in 2010 and there was no evidence, the court ruled, that information from that period could lead to "negative reactions on the markets."
The court also ruled that questions on bonus payments of over €500,000 should be answered by the federal government without reference to secrecy considerations. Parliament's interest in the public response to the use of taxpayers' money outweighed the secrecy interests of the federal government, the court ruled.
jm/rs (AFP, dpa)