In its reply to the Court of Auditors' report, the European Commission recalls that Member States are entirely responsible for the number of paying agencies they choose to create. The Commission claims to have encouraged the Member States to rationalise their structures, a move already made by several countries. The Commission claims the conciliation procedure is now an integral part of the clearance of accounts procedure and cannot easily be separated from all the other aspects of the reform. It argues that the conciliation procedure has contributed to a general improvement in the clearance of accounts. The Commission recognises that the final corrections for 1996 will not have been made more rapidly than under the old procedure. Notwithstanding, it points out that in the context of the new procedure, a considerable number of corrections have been possible much earlier than in the past. 1966 was the first year during which the new procedure was applied; the Commission is expecting final corrections for subsequent years to be introduced much earlier than under the old system.--Prior to 1996, clearance of accounts decisions were based mainly on audits done by a specific unit within the Commission's Directorate-General for Agriculture, and focused on the implementation of measures in the Member States. Although there were no audits of the national paying agencies as such and their accounts were not subject to certification, these audits could lead to corrections of the expenditure actually declared by the Member States. When all the corrections for a given EAGGF accounting year were known, they were included in a single clearance of accounts decision taken by the Commission. These procedures led to long delays in making clearance decisions. Detailed rules for the application of the reformed clearance procedures were laid down in Commission Regulation (EC) No 1663/95. This Regulation provides a guideline, in the form of an annex, for the criteria that should be taken into account by Member States when accrediting a paying agency and the nature and tasks of the certifying body. The certifying body must produce a report and a certificate for each paying agency by 31 January of the following year. The certificate, report and accounts must be submitted to the Commission by 10 February. The Commission has until 31 March to verify this information and inform the Member States of its position. On the basis of this information the Commission must take...

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