MEPs can teach UK MPs all about expenses fiddling
Outrage over Westminster corruption is to be encouraged, but why do we allow Euro MPs to get away with far worse?
We MEPs get an easier ride than our Westminster colleagues. When Derek Conway was found to be paying his sons for nothing, it was the scandal of the decade. Yet dozens, perhaps hundreds, of Euro MPs are doing a Conway: that is, keeping immediate relations on their payroll without being required to show that they do any work.
When a British MEP, exceptionally, was challenged by a newspaper over how much he paid his wife, he replied: "It's very complicated, and I don't suppose your readers would understand it." And there the matter rested.
Four Labour peers are now in trouble for allegedly offering to amend legislation for a fee. When a British MEP was found to have been taking money from a company which had a direct interest in the legislation she was overseeing, it didn't even make the national press.
MPs are again in the firing line, over publishing details of how they spent the allowances they get from the taxpayer to cover the costs of a second home. Fair enough. The idea that the Freedom of Information Act might have been modified to exclude the House of Commons was outrageous. Few things make voters as angry as the sight of legislators exempting themselves from their own legislation.
At least MPs will tell us what they spend: the European Parliament won’t
The Freedom of Information Act was passed by this government amid much self-congratulation. MPs can retain it or repeal it; but it would be scandalous to apply it to everyone except the people who passed it. Such a double-standard recalls the way MPs passed a swingeing tax on private pensions at the very moment that they were topping up their own, or the way they exempted political parties from sex equality rules in order to impose all-women shortlists.
Still, at least MPs will eventually tell us what they have spent. No such transparency is on offer from the European Parliament. Last year, a Dutch anti-corruption MEP called Paul Van Buitenen reported widespread malpractice in the use of MEPs' allowances. Some of the behaviour he had unearthed, he said, would result in criminal convictions.
The Parliament's response? To repress the whole story. "We'd like to publish the report," said one official, "but if we did, no one would vote in the European elections." And so the two big groups, the European People's Party led by Joseph Daul and the Party of European Socialists led by Martin Schulz, voted to forbid publication.
It is important to keep a sense of perspective. Westminster MPs are reimbursed only on the basis of receipts; Euro MPs are given a lump sum, which is never audited. Which system do you suppose creates greater opportunities for self-enrichment?
To be fair, some reforms have been made in Brussels. I spent eight years proposing that travel from the constituency be reimbursed on the basis of costs actually incurred, instead of on the basis of a notional fare far in excess of the actual ticket price. After much nagging, the change was made and, from June, costs will match the face price of the ticket.
Stories of Euro-corruption elicit resignation rather than outrage
It should also be pointed out that Conservative MEPs - like Conservative MPs - have volunteered to publish their expenses unilaterally. But there is nothing to stop MEPs from other nationalities treating their allowances as a form of tax-free income; and any attempts to require openness will almost certainly be blocked by the duopoly of Tweedle-Daul and Tweedle-Schulz.
Why does no one care? Partly, of course, because EU institutions are remote. But partly, too, because people expect Brussels to be sleazy. Stories of Euro-corruption elicit resignation rather than outrage. People want to respect our Westminster Parliament, so its imperfections prompt anger and disappointment.
Where Brussels is concerned, however, the anger has long since given way to scorn, the disappointment to contempt. In truth, we gave up on the Euro-racket long ago. ·
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