Politics: Lord Neill Inquiry: British MEP `gravy train' may dry up

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The Independent Online
BRITISH MEPs could face tighter rules on expenses and on the registering of their interests as Lord Neill's Committee on Standards in Public Life prepares to examine the European "gravy train".

The issue is on a list of possible topics for the committee to consider now that its major inquiry on political funding is complete.

Although rules on MEPs' expenses and on registering of interests are set in Europe, the committee could ask the British contingent to adopt a stricter code. Dutch and Swedish MEPs have already done this, and such a move would help to put pressure on the European Parliament to change its rules.

Although MEPs have to register financial interests, no one can remember anyone being disciplined for failing to do so. Instead, their misdemeanours are quietly pointed out to them and they register them retrospectively. British MPs can be suspended from Parliament if they fail to register interests.

Rules on expenses have been tightened up recently, but are still much looser than those for MPs at Westminster. MEPs used to be able to claim a flat-rate flight fee on production of a boarding pass, often receiving considerably more than they had spent.

Now MEPs are restricted to claiming club-class fares, but this leaves them free to travel economy and pocket the difference.

Some officials in the European Parliament have argued that generous expenses help to make up the difference between different delegations' salaries. Spanish MEPs receive between pounds 20,000 and pounds 30,000, while Italians receive about pounds 80,000.

The Neill committee, which meets tomorrow to discuss its next inquiry, has a list of possible investigations to consider.

Among them is an investigation into members' interests in the House of Lords, where the system is largely voluntary. However, some figures close to the committee feel it would be better to wait until the first stage of Lords' reform, depriving hereditary peers of their voting rights, is complete.

Another possible inquiry could look into disciplinary arrangements in the police and the armed forces. However, the Stephen Lawrence inquiry has not yet been completed and it might be felt that the two could overlap if Neill began considering the subject now.

The judiciary might be another possible area of investigation, as might disciplinary arrangements in the House of Commons. However, the Standards and Privileges Committee is looking into its own procedures after a row last year over accusations against Neil Hamilton, the former minister. Ann Widdecombe, now shadow health spokesman, resigned from the Standards and Privileges Committee over the way the affair was handled.

The final item on the committee's list is the relationships between ministers and civil servants. There have been allegations since the general election that some civil servants have been asked to overstep the mark in making potentially political statements, and a number of senior press officers have been replaced by "special advisers" who are close to Labour.

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