MEPs ban gifts in bid for high ground

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In a move which they claim gives them the moral edge on their Westminster counterparts, Euro MPs yesterday voted to accept a ban on gifts from outside interests and junkets to exotic locations. They stopped short, however, of defining what constitutes a gift, or allowing their financial interests to be subjected to public scrutiny.

After seven years of internal wrangling, deputies hope the latest plan will clean up the gravy-train public image of the parliament and boost the campaign to win more legislative powers.

The vote comes as a breakthrough for those who have been attempting to open the lid on the business activities of MEPs and also regulate the growing army of professional lobbyists prowling the corridors of Strasbourg. Whether the new rules will act as a significant curb on undue influence on law-making by lobbyists, is still far from clear. MEPs claim they have banned gifts and junkets but they will still be allowed to accept invitations from foreign governments and benefits in cash or kind on top of regular pay and expenses - provided they relate to their work and are declared in the public register.

The hope is that the obligation to disclose benefits or invitations will effectively put an end to the spectacle of hundreds of MEPs jetting off to Turkey for a week prior to a crucial Strasbourg vote on the EU- Turkey association agreement.

Labour MEP for Manchester, Glyn Ford, who campaigned for the measures admitted the formula was not perfect, but said MEPs would now be makingfuller declarations of what they received than members of the House of Commons. MEPs will, for the first time, be obliged to make an annual declaration of their professional interests, although they will not have to report on the scale of their earnings from outside activities. Mr Ford conceded that transgressors would not face formal sanctions for breaches but said the threat of public censure would help discourage abuse.

Yesterday's vote came after Socialist MEPs and centre-right Christian Democrats - which include British Conservatives - settled a long-running squabble over the extent to which gifts should be covered by the rules.

Many Christian Democrats argued that a sweeping ban would rule out even cups of coffee or a bunch of flowers for an MEP attending a conference. An amendment by a Conservative MEP, Brendan Donnelly, aiming to limit the ban to gifts likely to affect votes was defeated. Mr Ford said the ban on gifts meant an MEP could accept a bottle of wine from a lobbyist, but not a crate. "Nobody would argue a cup of coffee is a gift but obviously a free weekend in Paris is. It's a question of common sense."

He said "dozens" of MEPs had been to Taiwan and Indonesia in the past few years , at the expense of the two governments, each desperate to win parliamentary ratification for EU trade or political accords.

Meanwhile lobbyists, who now number up to 10,000 when interests from the tobacco giant Philip Morris to Amnesty International are included, will have to sign a special register in Strasbourg and abide by a code of conduct. The expansion of the parliament's powers to shape legislation under the Maastricht Treaty has made the institution an obvious target for lobbyists.