MEPs’ expenses should be subject to more “rigorous and regular” checks in order to avoid potential abuse of the system. That is the view of Richard Corbett, a British MEP and former close aide to Hermann Van Rompuy, ex-European council president.
Even though some long-overdue reforms have finally been made to the system of MEP expenses, they still remain open to abuse, and further changes are urgently needed.
Recent years have seen several MEPs brought to task for abusing the system, including former UK Independence Party deputy (and police officer) Tom Wise, who was jailed for two years and admitted he had abused his position as an elected representative and fiddled his expenses.
Another high profile case involved former UK Conservative MEP Den Dover who was expelled from the party after the EU Parliament told him to repay €652,000 in expenses paid to his family for office work.
He was accused of paying about €978,000 in staff and office allowances to a family owned firm, thus directly benefiting his wife and daughter. An EU probe later found him guilty of a conflict of interest.
In addition to their salaries, MEPs are paid a range of what are generally regarded as generous allowances.
This includes the “general expenditure allowance”, a flat-rate allowance which is intended to cover expenditure such as office rent and management costs, telephone and postal charges, computers and telephones. The allowance is halved for members who, without “due justification,” do not attend half the number of plenary sittings in one parliamentary year (September to August).
The allowance is currently €4,299 per month (as in 2011 and 2012).
On condition of not being named, the assistant to one Italian MEP said he knows of “several deputies” who use the allowance merely to “top up” their salaries, adding, “They know all too well that there are few, if any, checks done on how it is spent so they simply pocket the money each month.”
He added, “The office costs are kept to an absolute minimum and, after basic deductions, there is always a tidy sum left over.”
Corbett, a member of the Socialist group, Parliament’s second biggest political grouping, was one of the few MEPs contacted by The Brussels Times who responded to our questioning how exactly they spend this allowance.
He said, “It is used for the rental and running costs, including electricity and water, of my constituency office in England. It also goes on printing publications such as a quarterly report and operating a website.”
Corbett, an MEP veteran and constitutional expert, added, “Parliament has guidelines on expenses and what you can and cannot do but the problem is that there are insufficient checks on how the allowance is being spent.”
The UK Labour delegation was the first of the mainstream British political parties to oblige their MEPs to submit their expense claims to an annual, independent audit. All of the 20 Labour members now post the results on the internet.
But Corbett is among those who want the Parliament itself to “toughen up” its own auditing of expenses.
At present, the only checks undertaken are by the European Court of Auditors and then only on a spasmodic and very much random basis.
Corbett said, “We need more rigorous and regular controls in order to ensure that Parliament’s own guidelines and rules on the general expenditure allowance are actually being enforced.”
Another assistant, for a Spanish centre right MEP, said it was “common knowledge” in Parliament that some deputies abuse the system, particularly the office allowance. Speaking on condition of anonymity, he added, “Some use it, basically, for things like paper clips, pens and notebooks. But ask yourself, how far does €4,299 a month go on paper clips, pens and notebooks?”
However, a spokesman for the Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD) group in Parliament said, “UKIP MEPs spend the office allowance in order to communicate with their constituents, much the same as others MEPs and always according to the rules of the European Parliament.”
Corporate Europe Observatory is a Brussels-based pressure group that campaigns for more openness and transparency in the EU.
Its spokesman Vicky Cann said, “As citizens across Europe face public service cuts, high levels of unemployment and austerity policies, the EU institutions should be scrupulous in ensuring there is transparency and value for money on its expenditures. For the general expenditure allowance, MEPs should properly account for all expenditure and there should be independent scrutiny to ensure the overall level of the allowance is appropriate.”
In October 2011, MEPs decided to freeze their allowances for 2012. In February 2012, they decided to extend this freeze on allowances until the end of the last legislative term (mid-2014).
In the past, some MEPs have been criticised for using the allowance merely to employ family members on the payroll but a Parliament spokesman pointed out, “In general, MEPs may no longer have close relatives among their staff, though there is a transitional period for those who were employed in the previous parliamentary term.”