Sunday, April 25, 2004

Dealing with Fraud – the European Way

Congratulations to The Sunday Times today for reporting on the European Parliament expenses scam. It recounts how Hans-Peter Martin, an Austrian MEP, has identified more than 30 British colleagues who he claims have been raking in thousands of pounds a year extra in allowances for non-existent parliamentary sessions.

During a two-year investigation, Martin has filmed scores of Euro MPs nipping into parliament to sign up for their daily parliamentary allowance before heading off home minutes later.

But what is particularly chilling is that, as the Sunday Times acknowledges, this practice breaks no parliamentary rules. It notes Robert Goodwill, Tory MEP for Yorkshire and the Humber, saying that he saw nothing wrong with claiming the allowance and leaving early. “I always saw that as reimbursement for staying overnight in Strasbourg,” he says.

In this, he is at one with Glenys Kinnock, wife of Neil Kinnock, the European commissioner in charge of rooting fraud out of the EU. Martin claims she has left the parliament within an hour of signing on at least 26 times, making her by his reckoning Labour’s most prolific claimant. A spokesman for Kinnock said yesterday: “She does not want to give these allegations credibility by commenting on them. She’s broken no rules and got nothing to hide.”

In fact, the practice is perfectly “legal” according to EU Parliamentary rules, and the system not only encourages claimants but actually modifies the business calendar to enable MEPs to draw maximum benefit from it. For instance, Parliamentary committee sessions, which usually run for four to six hours, are invariably scheduled over two days.

That way, MEPs can arrive by midday on one day, attend the committee and clock up their expenses, and then attend the next morning session in order to pick up another day’s expenses before clocking off and dashing for the plane or Eurostar.

The system absolutely typifies the EU. The behaviour cannot be considered criminal, but only because it is in accordance with the rules. What in fact the EU Parliament has done, therefore, is legalise criminality. That, it seems, is the European way of getting rid of fraud.

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