07:39, September 25 47 0 theguardian.com

2018-09-25 07:39:06
MEPs’ expenses details to remain secret after EU court ruling

An EU court has rejected calls for greater transparency about MEPs’ expenses, as it upheld a decision that politicians are not required to reveal how they spend public money intended for their offices.

In a blow to transparency campaigners, the Luxembourg-based general court upheld the decision of the European parliament that MEPs do not have to provide invoices and receipts for their constituency office costs, or provide the public with details of travel expenses.

It concluded that an obligation to publish spending records would undermine MEPs’ privacy, concluding that campaigners had failed to prove publishing information was “appropriate and proportional”.

Transparency International’s Brussels office said it was “hugely disappointing” that the ruling allows the European parliament to “keep details of MEP expenses secret and hidden from journalists, civil society and citizens”.

One MEP campaigning for change, Heidi Hautala, warned that failure to change the rules would mean “the misuse of expenses will continue in the shadows”.

Members of the European parliament are paid €8,611.31 (£7,705) a month in gross salary, plus pension. On leaving the parliament they receive a golden parachute, a transition allowance worth up to €206,664, depending on length of service.

The court case was centred on expenses, including the €4,416 monthly “general expenditure allowance” awarded to MEPs to fund their constituency offices, which costs the public purse €40m a year. MEPs are also refunded first-class travel expenses and get a €313 daily allowance for hotel and living costs when working in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Most MEPs claim the maximum office allowance, with only a handful reimbursing the parliament for unspent funds. There is no requirement to provide invoices, receipts or any details on how the funds are spent.

Since 2009 MEPs have been obliged to provide receipts for travel expenses, but the €313 tax-free “subsistence” allowance is paid in full, without questions or documents.

A consortium of investigative journalists went to court, after the European parliament rejected a freedom-of-information request for documents on MEPs’ office allowances, travel and subsistence expenses. An investigation by the group found 249 “ghost offices”, where MEPs had no office, or refused to divulge the address.

MEPs who did respond to inquiries revealed varying interpretations of what spending was allowed. Some said they used the whole sum for office equipment and work-related costs; others spent their EU allowance on travel expenses for visitors, charity donations and payments to their national party.

Under EU spending rules, public funds are intended for European work, not national parties.

Issuing a ruling on Tuesday, the court rejected the journalists’ case, arguing they had now shown that the transfer of personal data was “necessary to ensure an adequate review of the expenditure incurred by MEPs to fulfil their mandate”.

Finding that applicants were “denouncing shortcomings” in the scrutiny of MEPs’ expenses, the court said: “it is not for the court to assess that point.”

It added that publishing redacted documents would not have been useful, while imposing “an excessive administrative burden” on the parliament in dealing with 4m documents.

The parliament’s most senior leaders, led by its president, Antonio Tajani, in July rejected calls for greater scrutiny of office allowances.

Hautala, a Finnish Green MEP, who has been leading calls for transparency, said the case showed there was an “urgent need for openness around MEPs’ expenses”. “The majority of MEPs agree on the need for more transparency around their own expenses, but the bureau of the parliament and president Tajani refuse to act. The rules need changing now, otherwise the misuse of expenses will continue in the shadows,” she said.

“We cannot demand openness and transparency from others, if those principles are not followed within our own institution. Secrecy around MEP’s expenses only damages the image of the European parliament and emboldens Eurosceptics.

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