Thursday, May 21, 2009

MEPs and their expenses - the facts

Over the weekend Open Europe published a new 'league table' of all 785 MEPs, ranking them on 20 different criteria, including how they voted on proposals to increase transparency and reduce the waste of taxpayers' money, attendance, whether they opt into the controversial second pension fund, and whether they voted to respect the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

There are some interesting findings. While the UK, for instance, fares comparatively well among its counterparts in Europe - coming fourth out of 25 - many British MEPs, while talking a good game at home about EU reform, in fact leave a lot to be desired on closer inspection of their behaviour in Brussels (and Strasbourg).

Par exemple:

- In April 2009, a majority of British MEPs (60%) voted to keep details about their own expenses secret, as well as voting against financial disciplinary measures for MEPs found guilty of misuse of funds, and voting to keep secret demands to pay back money. Only 24% of all British members voted to make expenses public.

- Only 13 out of 78 British MEPs voted in favour of a symbolic proposal calling for governments to respect the outcome of the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty -before the referendum had even taken place.

- In 2005, 11 Labour MEPs voted in favour of a proposal to allow the deficit in MEPs' highly controversial, and possibly illegal, second pension scheme to be plugged with taxpayers' money. They also voted against attempts to oblige MEPs to contribute funds from their own pockets, as opposed to from their allowances, as is currently the case.

- Extraordinarily, in 2008 three Conservative British MEPS voted in favour of spending €290 million of taxpayers' money on subsidies to tobacco farmers - despite the fact that the EU simultaneously spends millions on anti-smoking campaigns, such as the €74 million campaign named "Help: for a life without tobacco".

- 30 British MEPs voted in favour of signing off the European Parliament's own accounts for 2006, despite serious concerns raised by the European Court of Auditors over allowances for MEPs' assistants. The auditors noted that only around 27% of the expenditure was adequately accounted for in 2006. Despite this, the European Parliament voted to clear the accounts.

You can also read our key findings from other MEPs here.

In the midst of the currenty public outcry over MPs' expenses, the ranking's findings on MEPs' expenses are particularly interesting.

Because also over the weekend, Gordon Brown told the FT that he would force Labour MEPs to publish receipts for all their expenses in future. This is a big move - as currently, ludicrously, MEPs are not required by the European Parliament to produce any receipts for their spending of public money. The move goes further than that offered by any other British party.

BUT - if they are serious about this idea, then why on earth is it missing from their manifesto for the European elections on 4 June? The manifesto was unveiled just 2 weeks ago - right in the middle of the expenses scandal unfolding at Westminster - so there can be no excuses that they didn't know this was going to be a big issue.

If Labour means business about keeping an publishing all receipts - which we sincerely hope they do, as this would send a powerful message to the EP and would put all 200 odd parties in the EP under pressure to do the same or change the rules - then Labour should change its manifesto immediately to reflect the new commitment. They have more than a week before the elections, so it's not too late.

Voters need to something to be able to hold them to (not that it worked with their manifesto commitment to a referendum on the EU Treaty, mind). Because our study shows that in 2005, three Labour MEPs voted against obliging MEPs to produce receipts for their travel expenses.

After all, as the front page of the Sun newspaper repeated this morning, Open Europe has found that the expenses we're referring to are no small matter - amounting to an enormous £363,000 a year per MEP. This is on top of the basic salary of £83,282 (representing a huge pay rise for UK MEPs from June onwards) £41,573 in ‘transition payments’ when they leave office, and pension rights of up to £30,000 for a single five-year term.

The expenses break down as follows:

£36,778 in 'subsistance allowances' (£259 a day for 142 days of the year)
£5,885 in language and IT courses
£87,407 in travel expenses (the EP's budget for 2009 puts aside €77,988,000 for 'ordinary travel expenses', which works out at €99,347 for every MEP)
£3,756 in 'additional annual travel allowance'
£183,776 in staff allowances, and
£45,648 in office expenses (£3,804 a month)

Unbelievable.

In June, there will be a slight change to the rules, which will mean that MEPs will be required to produce receipts for their travel expenses for the first time - however, offsetting that, is a new, explicit reference to 'business class' for flights even within the EU - raising the barrier instead of lowering it.

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