By Martin Banks - 23rd June 2011
Parliament must investigate how much public money has disappeared
Parliament has bowed to pressure by releasing a 'secret' report exposing alleged widespread abuse of the expenses regime.
The assembly's bureau, comprising its president Jerzy Buzek and vice-presidents, agreed late on Wednesday to publish the so-called 'Galvin report' on its official website.
However, parliament's top brass immediately came under fire for allegedly "watering down" the report with some MEPs, including UKIP's Nigel Farage, saying that personal details about MEPs' wrong-doing had been left out, a claim strongly refuted by parliament.
The internal audit report published on parliament's website does not name individual MEPs but outlines former abuse of the system for reimbursing MEP assistants.
A spokesman said, "Parliament has not removed names of MEPs from the report. It did not contain the names of individuals to start with as it was a report on the systems in place at the time rather than particular cases."
Den Dover, a former UK Tory MEP, was forced to resign after being asked to pay back about €400,000 expenses he had wrongly claimed. Parliament is still trying to recover the full amount from him.
Parliament had previously resisted calls for the report to be made public but the influential bureau agreed to do so after a decision by the EU general court on 7 June.
The court had ruled that there is "overriding public interest in disclosure" in publishing the report by Robert Galvin, parliament's chief internal auditor.
The report contains an analysis of 167 allowance payments to MEP assistants dating back to 2004 and 2005.
A parliament source defended the previous refusal to deny access to the 2008 report, saying, "In general, in both the public and private sector, internal audit reports are not published, so that the authors can be completely frank in their assessments, enabling the organisation to discover problems and correct them, as happened in this case.
"Parliament can nevertheless decide to make a report of this type public, but to have done so in this case might have disrupted the decision-making process on reform of the system.
"With the passage of time, and the fact that the complete overhaul was enacted in 2009, this is no longer such a pressing concern and parliament is now happy to accept the court's decision that the document should be published."
Parliament has this week received a request for access to other internal reports and says it will respond to this request. "It is too early to say what the response will be," said a spokesman.
Reaction to the bureau's decision to publish the Galvin report was swift, with Buzek saying, "The report from 2008 deals with events from 2004-06 and led to an overhauling of the system of payments for parliamentary assistants in 2009.
"We are pleased that the situation described in the report has been remedied."
On Thursday, a spokesman for the EPP, parliament's biggest political group, told this website, "The internal report was the basis for the adoption of a completely new set of rules, rules which are much more robust and clear and transparent, and this is to be very much welcomed."
UKIP leader Nigel Farage said, "I am astounded that the bureau decided to withhold the names of the offending MEPs.
"The UKIP attitude to any misbehaving MEPs is "once we find out we throw them out".
"Parliament talks of transparency, but practices cover-up; the very opposite. MEPs who have defrauded the taxpayers of their money must be named, exposed and prosecuted for fraud. Parliament's attitude of protecting its own is very disturbing."
Fellow UKIP MEP Marta Andreasen, a former commission chief accountant, said, "Nothing less than the release of the full report will suffice.
"For parliament to attempt to water down and selectively edit the report is unacceptable and akin to the heavily edited reports that Robin Williams was forced to read out in the film Good Morning Vietnam.
"Whether retrospective or not, the public are fully entitled to know the abuses of taxpayers perpetrated by their public representatives. A cover up is a slap in the face to so called reforms, transparency and democratic norms."
Further comment came from UK ALDE deputy Chris Davies, a long time campaigner for more transparency in MEP expenses, who said, "Parliament must investigate how much public money has disappeared and, where appropriate, hand over the information."
"It's such a shame that some people in parliament believe that public confidence is more likely to be gained by trying to prevent them gaining access to uncomfortable information, instead of being bold, upfront and honest. Even now there is still no agreement that auditors' reports will in future be available to be read by MEPs let alone by the public.
"The Galvin report has led to very positive reforms being made, but instead of gaining some credit for this parliament's secretive approach has simply undermined our reputation further."
ALDE deputy Edward McMillan-Scott, who chairs parliament's audit panel, supported publication. He said: "There is proper public interest in this.
"The report revealed many problems which guided the new regime governing MEP expenses since 2009. These are now working well and to the highest international standards of accountability."
Elsewhere, Stephen Booth, of the Open Europe think tank, called for parliament to "name and shame" those MEPs who have tried to fiddle the system in the past, saying, "This would act as a deterrent to others."
A parliament source said that money had been recovered from MEPs "in a number of cases".
He said, "As a rule, we don't provide information on individual cases, but since the Den Dover case is already in the public domain, I can confirm that some funds have already been recovered.
"Following a European court judgement in favour of parliament, the institution is continuing its steps to recover the rest of the amount to be repaid."
The parliamentary website said, "The Galvin report pinpointed a number of weaknesses in the system that existed at the time.
"Parliament reacted by reviewing the system, which was in fact scrapped entirely and replaced with a new one with effect from the 2009 elections.
"MEPs assistants in Brussels now have a formal EU statute and are employed directly by parliament's administration."
Under the new system, assistants in the MEPs' countries of origin are paid via officially qualified "paying agents" who ensure their contracts meet all national law requirements and that tax and social security arrangements are properly handled.
Up to a quarter of the allowance can be used for non-staff services from companies and this too is paid via official qualified paying agents.
None of the parliamentary assistance allowance is paid to or via the MEP themselves.
It comes from a budget - of €21,209 per month - held by parliament, from which the costs of employing assistants are deducted as they are paid out. Any unspent funds remain with parliament.
Generally, MEPs may no longer have close relatives among their staff, though there is a transitional period to 2014 for those individuals already employed in the previous parliamentary term.