European Parliament

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Mr. Kelvin Hopkins (Luton, North): First, may I say that I have absolute confidence in my hon. Friend the Minister as Britain's representative, especially in the discussions on MEPs' allowances, costs, expenses, remuneration and taxation. My hon. Friend is fair minded and I am sure that we shall arrive at a sensible and fair solution to the knotty problems that doubtless exist.

It is important that MEPs should be as independent in their everyday operations as Members of Parliament. That is why I emphasise the importance of the office costs allowance scheme, under which MEPs' staff will not be provided by the Commission or the European Parliament, but can be employed directly. It is important for democracy that MEPs should have access to their own staff and that they should be able to choose their own employees.

The funding of political parties in the European Parliament is an entirely separate issue. I shall suggest a way forward later that might overcome some of those problems. A question mark hangs over the proposals on the democratic operation of political parties in the European Parliament. It is important that parties should retain their independence. They should be able to speak with the voice of their members and of those who vote for them—their constituents. They have a distinctive contribution to make. Political parties should not be pressed into accepting views that may not be exactly what their constituents and members would wish them to accept.

I shall use the Liberal Democrat party as an example because there are no Liberal Democrat Members here today. Let us suppose that the Liberal Democrat party fell out badly with its compatriots in Europe, held different views from the other members of its group and wanted to withdraw from it. If the money were paid to the group, the party would suffer. That would create pressure for it to stay in the group and might make it go along with views that it did not share.

I am also concerned that the money could be seen as the thick end of the wedge—as a move towards state funding of political parties. We should avoid that. The funding should be seen as more in the nature of Short money, which is different. Opposition parties, which do not have access to the civil service and the support that Governments receive, clearly need some research money and support to operate effectively. Lord Short proposed that type of funding in the first instance and we strongly support it. The money for political parties and groupings in the European Parliament should be seen in that light.

If, however, it is seen as campaigning money, that is a different matter. Inevitably, if parties do not have to pay for so much of their research, they will have more money left for campaigning. That is a problem. One cannot subtract money and it can be put to all types of uses. The money should be seen as supporting the effective operation of a political party in the Parliament in terms of research and the gathering of information, not as part of its propaganda and campaigning effort, or its election machine.

I take a strong line on the funding of political parties, not just by the state, but by private donations. Any source of funding that comes from outside a party should concern us. Parties should be financed by their members and by the people affiliated to them directly, in a democratic way, as my party mostly is.

There have been problems with party funding in recent years. I applaud the Government's attempt to make the matter more open and transparent. There should be much tighter limits on the amounts given by individuals. I was one of the very small number of Labour Members—there were five of us to be precise—who suggested in an early-day motion that the limit on individual donations should be reduced from the original £100,000 to £5,000. That is a considerable reduction.

The Chairman: Order. The hon. Gentleman is drifting rather wide of the matter under discussion. I invite him to return to it.

Mr. Hopkins: I apologise, Mr. McWilliam. I was trying to make a point about external sources of funding and the independence of parties, which applies to this debate. Our parties should be independent of any influence other than that of their members.

Mr. Spring: I would like to establish whether the hon. Gentleman has a point of principle in mind. I accept his point about transparency. We share his view. However, does he think that funding—he interpreted it as a variant on Short funding—from European taxpayers should be made available only to parties that are transnational in character? Does he think that that is fair and reasonable in principle?

Mr. Hopkins: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I was coming to that point. The Government should consider the idea that money should be given to national political parties, enabling them to choose to contribute that money to the grouping to which they belong in the European Parliament. For example, the money would go to the Greek Liberal Democrat party, which might be an independent party belonging to the larger Liberal grouping in Europe. That party could choose to pool that funding with others, but it would not be compelled to give it up if it left that grouping. It could take the funding with it.

That would clearly run counter to what has been proposed, but it would overcome the problem. The concerns of our Commissioner, Neil Kinnock, are legitimate and I share them. However, such a measure would not prevent parties from grouping together—in socialist groups, for example—and pooling their funding for legitimate mutual purposes. It would overcome the problem of independent parties that are not part of a wider grouping not receiving any wider funding.

It will be difficult to pursue such views in European discussions, but the concerns are felt not only among Opposition Members. I hope that such solutions can at least be considered as a possible way forward.

5.20 pm

Mr. John Wilkinson (Ruislip-Northwood): It is a privilege to follow my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk (Mr. Spring), whose penetrating speech will, I hope, be widely reported, and the hon. Member for Luton, North (Mr. Hopkins), who always tries to find the heart of European issues.

I declare an interest, in a sense. I am the leader of the Federated Group of Christian Democrats and European Democrats in the Assembly of the Western European Union, and Chief Whip of the European Democratic Group of the Council of Europe. At least at one remove, I have an idea of how the European system of political groups operates, even though I have never been a Member of the European Parliament, as many distinguished Members of the House have, and have never fully comprehended how that Parliament works. I am sure that many of our constituents share my general impression of it—that it is a cosy billet, in Air Force parlance, and that its Members are not short of a bob or two in terms of expenses. I may be oversimplifying, but the Court of Auditors' report emphasised several deficiencies that need to be rectified, and I am glad that Her Majesty's Government are keen so to do.

We focused on travel expenses, so I shall relate my experiences as someone who has served on the WEU and the Council of Europe for several years, in the hope that the system that the United Kingdom delegation operates may be used as a model for travel expenses for MEPs. The normal expense for travel between the United Kingdom and the place of work, be it Strasbourg, Brussels, Paris or wherever, is the business class return air fare. If people choose to make their own way to the place of work, they must produce receipts to show that the travel was undertaken, and he or she is reimbursed according to the sum spent, not according to the notional fare. That straightforward system should operate for the European Parliament. If that Parliament does not operate it, it obviously wants to continue to hide something from the electorate.

There is a clear distinction between the funding of political groups in the European Parliament and the funding of political parties on a European level per se. Nevertheless, I instinctively disapprove of the institutional public funding of political parties, be they national or transnational. I am sure that our electors would feel that it would be much healthier for democracy if there were no state funding, EU funding, or disproportionate funding from big business. I hope that we will move in that direction. We are discussing European Union funding, and I feel that funding political groups in the European Parliament according to their strength in that Parliament merely reinforces success. It makes it difficult for new political parties trying to make their mark on the European scene to compete. I raise the fundamental criticism that that is anti-democratic.

The funding of European political parties as such—not only the political groups—will again be allocated according to respective strengths in the European Parliament, so the same criticisms will apply unless the formula is altered. However, whatever the Minister may say, it is liable to cross-subsidy. As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk said so clearly in his admirable speech, expenditure that would otherwise be met out of national funds can in many instances be met out of transnational funding from EU sources. That is unjust and wrong. The Minister said that EU funding for European political parties cannot be used to finance national activities, but such activities will now have to be funded from the EU when they relate to European policies that have an impact on national politics and there will therefore be some cross-subsidy. I am unhappy with that.

On salaries, I am sure that Her Majesty's Government are correct; the Opposition support them fully on that issue. There should be no question of people who are already regarded as ultra-privileged and, as such, living a life far removed from the mass of our national electors, enjoying tax privileges and salaries that are much higher than those of their national Member of Parliament counterparts. The remedy seems simple: if the European Union awards MEPs a higher salary level and preferential tax treatment, the Government should not make up the difference. In other words, we should limit our contribution to that element of EU expenditure to what MEPs would be paid, and taxed, at the national level. That measure would attract great support and understanding in this country.

As my hon. Friend the Member for West Suffolk eloquently made clear, we do not support the proposal. National parties such as the RPR and the Conservative party have made a great impact on European affairs. No one can say that, when the RPR formed the majority Government in France under de Gaulle, it was not instrumental in driving the European Community forward. The Conservative party has played its part. The fact that we are not a confessional party and differ from our Christian Democratic friends in several areas—and therefore do not wish to join the EPP—should not exclude us from fair treatment.

Fair treatment is all that we are asking for. I hope that members of the Committee will vote against the proposals, even though doing so may seem a futile exercise—even if we secured a majority, the instrument would still automatically go through on a nod on the Floor of the House, without a vote even being taken. However, we will have made a stand for democracy, national rights and accountability. I am sure that electors will be pleased about that.

5.27 pm

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Prepared 29 January 2001