The value for money of the UK's £26 million MEPs
The Daily Telegraph - 18 December 2010
By Rebecca Lefort
Britain's members of the European Parliament are costing the public purse £26 million a year, an investigation has revealed. The cost goes toward the salaries, pensions and expenses of the 72 elected UK representatives and their staff.
It will rise still further next year after MEPs controversially voted themselves a backdated pay rise and expenses hike last week.
Almost all of the UK's MEPs are better-paid than their Westminster counterparts, with basic salaries of around £79,600. In addition they are able to claim hundreds of thousands of pounds in expenses without providing receipts.
The total bill includes £2.5 million in office costs expenses, £2.1 million in travel expenses and £2 million in subsistence allowance, which can be spent on hotels, taxis and meals while staying in Brussels or Strasbourg, the cities where the parliament is jointly based.
The cost of the politicians an average of £370,000 for each MEP every year was revealed as part of a groundbreaking "value for money" investigation which looked at how hard each MEP worked relative to the amount they claimed in expenses.
The resulting league table exposed wide variations in the "value" provided by the politicians. At the very bottom of the table was James Elles, a Conservative MEP for the South East, who claimed £113,000 on travel, office and living allowances in a year putting him among the 10 highest UK claimants while taking part in less than 80 per cent of the parliament's plenary sessions, where he delivered only three speeches in 18 months.
Meanwhile his fellow Conservative Charles Tannock, a representative for London, emerged as the best-value MEP. He had a near-perfect attendance record while posing 189 questions to the European Commission and giving 96 speeches and his travel and office expenses claims were below-average.
MEPs from across the European Union have consistently voted against transparency measures that would force politicians to reveal how they spend public money. Because the parliament does not publish even basic information about expenses claims, our calculations were based on details disclosed voluntarily by MEPs sometimes because they were obliged to by their parties.
Only two MEPs Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons, of the far-Right British National Party had to be excluded from the analysis because they refused to reveal most of their expenses details.
Siân Herbert, analyst at Open Europe, an independent think tank, praised the investigation.
She said: "MEPs' activities and whereabouts are woefully under-scrutinised in this country, so this is a great initiative. The system of MEPs' expenses is an absolute minefield, raising serious questions about transparency and accountability.
"It's still completely unacceptable that MEPs are under no obligation to provide information of their expenditure. The whole system needs to go undergo root-and-branch reform."
The "best value" politician, Mr Tannock, 53, is a former consultant psychiatrist and lecturer who has been an MEP since 1999. He said: "Work in parliament is what we are elected to do, and it is where the money is spent. It is very important that we are there, scrutinising officials.
"I'm very critical of those MEPs who just regard it as a gravy train and do little work. I totally deplore those MEPs who think it is all a waste of time and just grandstand and moan about it.
"You can make a difference as an MEP, and I do, but you need to be there to engage in the discussion."
The "worst value" politician, Mr Elles, 61, is a former civil servant who has been an MEP for 26 years. He said he welcomed The Sunday Telegraph's focus on "value for money", but disagreed with the method used to calculate work rate which, he said, did not take account of his work on the budgets committee or meeting constituents.
He said: "I have always taken my duties as an MEP seriously and my record over the past 26 years proves I am a hard-working parliamentarian."
A spokesman for the Conservative group of MEPs said: "We welcome this initiative from The Sunday Telegraph but unfortunately the methodology does not take into account the many varied activities of different MEPs."
He said the formula used to calculate the scores was based only on participation at plenary sessions, which are staged around one week in four, and gave no credit for committee work. He added that many MEPs email questions directly to Commissioners instead of submitting them formally.
However, the European Parliament does not disclose comprehensive figures for members' attendance at committee meetings.
The £370,000 average cost of a UK MEP includes salaries, pension entitlements and the actual total travel, living and office expenses claimed, added to the maximum allowable staffing costs as most MEPs did not divulge the actual amount they spent on staff.
Robert Sturdy, the Conservative MEP, who had the second-worst value-for-money score, said the finding was linked to his ill health. His spokesman said: "Mr Sturdy has undergone two operations this year ... This has naturally affected his attendance as he has been unable to travel. However, he has still worked extremely hard for his constituents."
Doru Frantescu, co-founding director, of VoteWatch. eu, an independent watchdog, said: "It is great that journalists are using this data in the way it should be used.
"The information is the best we have. The attendance is the attendance rate only in the plenary, not committees or other places, but it is all the European Parliament publishes, so it is the only thing we can use. It has got better but still they do lack some transparency."
The pay deal agreed for MEPs last week includes a two per cent rise in annual salary with a backdated element which means that each will receive a lump sum of more than £5,000 in salary and extra expenses next month.
Alyn Smith, the Scottish National Party MEP, said he hoped his fellow MEPs would agree to make the expenses system more transparent.
"I challenge the MEPs on a cross party basis to come up with a template for all MEPs. Currently different MEPs reveal different things which makes it very confusing," he said.
"I would ideally like all MEPs to sign up to a voluntary code to coordinate the release of expenses data."
The Sunday Telegraph was the first to publish, in 2007, a "value for money" table for Westminster MPs, which showed that Philip Hollobone, the Tory MP, was the best-value, while Clare Short, the former Labour minister, was the worst.
It was hailed by Martin Bell, the former independent MP who campaigned against parliamentary sleaze, as a valuable step forward in holding MPs to account.