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Last Updated: Thursday, 17 March, 2005, 20:08 GMT
MEPs challenge media access
The European Parliament is discussing new restrictions on media access to MEPs following complaints from parliamentarians secretly filmed while signing for their daily allowances.

Nicola Stanbridge reported for BBC Radio 4's Today Programme on the controversy.


Austrian MEP Hans-Peter Martin
Mr Martin says the current expenses scheme is a "scandal"

The maze of chambers and corridors at the European Parliament building in Brussels grows quiet around 1830.

Most committee meetings are over, but on a Monday night, the silence is broken by the sound of suitcases rumbling along the floor.

They belong to some MEPs who have just arrived in Brussels and have come to the corridor where they can sign for their subsistence allowance of 268 euros (186), which should cover their expenses for their day in Brussels.

That is on top of travel and other allowances, and of course their salary.

MEPs' expenses

I met Giles Chichester, the Conservative MEP for the South-West, and asked if he had worked in Brussels for the day.

"No. I've travelled here. I'm now here, registering my attendance, as is the correct form. I've been working all day, but not in Brussels," he said.

These rules are the scandal that has to be changed - they were set up by the MEPs themselves
Hans-Peter Martin
Austrian MEP
"The daily allowance is not for working - it is my entitlement by virtue of my presence here, to meet the costs involved in getting here and being here."

Glyn Ford, the Labour MEP for the South-West, came to sign the register.

He said he was due to attend a dinner with the Japanese Automobile Manufacturers' Association.

"I consider that's rather serious work, particularly as I've got a Honda plant in my constituency.

"Personally, I think we should move over to the system they have in the House of Commons, where you actually get an allowance for living in London throughout the year," he added.

Austrian MEP Hans-Peter Martin has drawn attention to the generous expenses scheme.

"These rules are the scandal that has to be changed - they were set up by the MEPs themselves," he says.

"It opens the box of cashing in in so many aspects: it's the daily allowance, it's the travel allowance, it's the general allowance - at the end of the day a member of the parliament here can make 15,000 euros (10,435) net income per month.

"Real costs should be covered. In reality, you are making money for yourself."

Tough measures

The European Anti-Fraud Office says there is a problem with the generous rules and interpreting what entitles MEPs to claim a subsistence allowance. But plans are afoot to make it harder to talk to MEPs about it.

I approached Roger Helmer, Conservative East Midlands MEP, as he arrived at the register room.

"I'm interested to see you here despite the advice of the questors. But I don't particularly wish to speak to you at this time. Thank you," he said.

Of course it is important, the media scrutiny. But we are an institution and we are able to define some rules about the utilisation of our facilities
Jose Liberato
European Parliament spokesman

The questors are the parliament's management board, and this programme has seen discussion documents about new restrictions on journalists.

They consider preventing filming and taping of MEPs in new areas of the European Parliament, following complaints about secret filming carried out there by Mr Martin last year.

These could include the area in which MEPs sign for their daily subsistence allowance.

The latest proposal also talks about journalists behaving appropriately and respecting MEPs' privacy. If rules are broken, they could face being ejected from the European Parliament for six months to two years.

'Revising the rules'

While we were recording on Monday night, security was called.

I was asked for my press pass and told security was called so that deputies would not be bothered. I asked if I could enter the corridor. I was told absolutely not. Then I was asked to stop recording.

If the eyes of journalists have been blinded, the public will not even hear about what's really going on in this building
Hans-Peter Martin MEP

Jose Liberato, the director of media and spokesman for the European Parliament, admitted there was confusion.

"Bodies of the European Parliament, including the Bureau, are discussing some revision of the rules governing photographers and television crews and sound-recording.

"This is to clarify things: everybody needs to know where it is allowed and where it is not, and there seems to be some confusion about it.

"Of course it is important, the media scrutiny. But we are an institution and we are able to define some rules about the utilisation of our facilities."

Austrian MEP Hans-Peter Martin explained why that concerned him.

"The European Parliament is here to stand up and be accountable to the voters seen through the eyes of journalists, and if the eyes of journalists have been blinded, the public will not even hear about what's really going on in this building any more.

"That reminds me of other so-called parliamentarian bodies, but up until now they are located in Beijing and in Moscow, not in Brussels."




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