EU gravy train must run to new timetable

Harmonisation of salaries and restrictions on expenses are likely to benefit `low-paid' British
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The Independent Online
Plans for the first clampdown on the lavish expenses and fringe benefits paid to members of the European Parliament could lead to the doubling or trebling of salaries for "low-paid" British MEPs.

Klaus Hansch, the president of the parliament, yesterday endorsed proposals to harmonise salaries for the 626 Strasbourg MEPs as a prelude to any reform of the widely abused expenses system.

British MEPs are paid the same salary as their Westminster counterparts: pounds 42,000 a year, which is about a quarter of the sums paid to Italian or German MEPs, the top earners.

"A single wage is the aim," Mr Hansch told reporters after a meeting of party leaders summoned to launch the tentative first steps towards an overhaul of the generous perks regime which some MEPs abuse, taking home twice or three times what they earn in basic pay.

The latest move to reform the gravy-train image of the Strasbourg assembly comes after an expose by the ITV documentary programme The Big Story of some of the practices which have brought the European Parliament into disrepute.

A hidden camera was used to show a number of MEPs signing on for their pounds 175-a-day meal and accommodation allowance but then leaving the building to return home.

One of those caught on camera was a Danish MEP, John Iversen, who has been spearheading calls for a crackdown on waste and fraud.

The film has prompted an outcry in Denmark, where the former prime minister and Christian Democrat (conservative) MEP Poul Schluter is calling for radical cuts in travel and daily allowances.

Mr Hansch insisted yesterday that only a small minority of MEPs were guilty of misdemeanours and he rejected attempts to tar the institution with the same brush.

He admitted however that the parliament at present did not have the power to discipline those on the fiddle.

He also defended the practice of MEPs absenting themselves from debates or votes on Fridays. "People must travel back to their constituencies and discuss things with the citizens. That is part of the job of an MEP."

Dismissing suggestions of widespread fraud, he hinted that The Big Story may have been sponsored by Euro-sceptic elements in Britain.

Its accusations "fit splendidly" he said with the campaign being waged against the EU by the Referendum Party leader, Sir James Goldsmith.

The Socialist group, which represents 200 MEPs, yesterday listed specific reforms that they will back, such as asking MEPs to produce airline tickets before they can be reimbursed for travel.

The Socialist deputy leader, Hedy d'Ancona, said it was "too funny for words" that this standard business practice was not observed.

But she said the Socialists too would be pressing for a single rate of pay for the job. "As long as we have salaries which differ so much we will have members who feel they need to be compensated with allowances".

Any move to harmonise salaries is likely however to trigger a backlash at national level, as it would result in some countries, such as Ireland, in MEPs earning more than the prime minister. The lax rules on expenses have traditionally been seen as a way of allowing the lower-paid deputies to redress the in-built discrimination they suffer on salaries.