British MEPs took gifts from firms they are meant to regulate

Oil, car and nuclear industries among those providing senior decision-makers with services or hospitality

Andy Rowell
Sunday 11 May 2008 00:00

Members of the European Parliament are routinely accepting gifts, wages and hospitality from companies they are charged with regulating.

Although, under pressure to improve EU decision-making transparency, MEPs this week agreed a plan for a mandatory register for the estimated 15,000 lobbyists in Brussels, they have avoided taking action to curb possible abuses of their own.

Among senior British MEPs who admit taking gifts, money and hospitality from businesses is the West Midlands Conservative MEP, Malcolm Harbour. He is a leading figure in the debate on carbon dioxide and fuel efficiency in Brussels. Since 2004, Mr Harbour has been loaned 18 cars by the industry. Also courtesy of the car industry, he has attended Grand Prix races and received cross-country driving instruction.

Provided they declare any interest, MEPs are not breaking any regulations. Mr Harbour says he drives cars because he needs "to understand what is going on, and I declare it as I feel that I have nothing to hide".

Another self-declared beneficiary of the car industry's generosity is Martin Callanan, a Conservative MEP for the North-East. In 2006, he was given a discount by Ford when buying a new car. Along with a colleague, he recently tabled a crucial amendment to a report on CO2 emissions for cars. It gave manufacturers three extra years to prepare for the limit, a move described as "disastrous" by Green MEPs.

Mr Callanan says his discount was available to all MEPs but that he declared it "to avoid any accusation of conflict of interest".

Giles Chichester, Tory leader in the parliament, is also president of the European Energy Forum, which promotes the interests of the oil, gas and nuclear industries. In May 2007, he was the guest of nuclear company Areva at the America's Cup race off Valencia. Mr Chichester says the trip had no bearing on his long-held pro-nuclear views.

Conservative Scottish MEP John Purvis, vice-chairman of the influential Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs, is a non-executive chairman of Belgrave Capital Management, a recruiting arm of a Swiss company that invests in hedge funds. In 2003, Mr Purvis was the rapporteur who proposed a "light-handed EU-wide regulatory regime" for the hedge-fund industry. He sees no conflict of interest: "The whole of my career has been in banking and finance, so at least I know something about it."

Sharon Bowles, a Liberal Democrat MEP for the South-East, is a leading patent lawyer. She is a member of the parliamentary committee of the Chartered Institute of Patent Attorneys, whose role includes lobbying the parliament. She says there is no conflict of interest as she is not practising. She admits that it is "valid" to think there might be a conflict of interest "and would be happy to come off".

Chris Davies, a Lib Dem MEP for North-West England, said: "The European parliamentary rules are 20 years behind those of Westminster. They really are a scandal waiting to happen."

Peter Facey, director of Unlock Democracy, added: "It is welcome that MEPs are requiring lobbyists to be transparent; now they must do more themselves. It is high time we began the process of comprehensive reform. Otherwise public confidence in European institutions will continue to slide."

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