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Special Report: Irish MEPs claim €600k each

In this special report Elaine Loughlin reveals the extent of expenses payments accrued by Irish MEPs over the most recent five-year European Parliament term.

Irish MEPs each claimed €600,000 in expenses during their terms in Brussels.

This staggering sum is on top of their €105,000 salary, a €24,943 monthly allowance to pay staff, and a severance package of up to €210,000.

An Irish Examiner investigation has found nine of Ireland’s 11 MEPs claimed €5.55m in expenses during their five-year term — much of this is unvouched and does not require them to produce any receipts.

European poll-toppers Luke ‘Ming’ Flanagan and out-going MEP Brian Crowley refused to answer questions about expenses and allowances and did not provide any indication of how much they have received in taxpayers’ funding.

Unlike TDs and senators, whose expenses are published on the Oireachtas website, MEPs do not have to tell the public what they claim. Last year, the EU Court of Justice rejected calls for greater transparency and found that politicians are not required to reveal their expenses.

The Irish Examiner submitted an identical list of seven questions relating to the amounts claimed or refunded by each of our 11 elected representatives in Brussels.

While nine of the 11 responded, the level of detail differed and the answers were presented in various formats, for example some MEPs did not provide details for the six months of 2014 remaining in the year after they were elected, while others did./

It is important to note that some MEPs gave details of the amount claimed in the first half-year of their term in 2014 and also provided expenses to date. Others only provided information for the four full years, 2015 - 2018. In these cases the years are blank.

The top claimant over the past five years has been Fine Gael MEP and European Parliament vice-president, Mairead McGuinness, who received €709,625 in allowances and reimbursements.

This was almost €200,000 more than Sinn Féin’s Lynn Boylan, who said she has claimed €517,829 in travel, attendance payments, medical, and general allowances.

The MEPs are allowed to claw back the massive sums without providing receipts or any evidence of spending, through the European Parliament’s expenses system. These include an automatic, €4,513 monthly general expenditure allowance, which is intended to cover computers and telephones, representation activities, conferences, and office rent (although MEPs are provided with offices in Brussels and Strasbourg.)

Our representatives in Europe get a flat-rate “clocking-in” allowance of €320 for each day they attend Brussels or Strasbourg on official business. While this daily payment is provided to cover accommodation and related costs, MEPs do not need to show any proof of how this stipend is spent.

MEPs do, however, have to provide receipts to claim back the cost of their travel to and from parliament. This can include business-class flights, taxis, and first-class train journeys.

They are also entitled to a reimbursement of two-thirds of their medical expenses.

In the Ireland South constituency, Fine Gael’s Deirdre Clune took €642,759, party colleague Sean Kelly €622,212, and Sinn Féin’s Liadh Ní Riada €597,897.

Mr Kelly said he uses the allowances as “a bridge between my constituents and the EU”.

“I have a very big constituency and so costs can be significant,” he said. “I am proud to have handed back over €1m, since being elected as an MEP, in various unclaimed expenses, such as media, language training, etc. I also donate my teachers’ pension of €35,000 to the State.”

Ms Ní Riada said she takes the lowest cost option and she has also called for an end to holding parliament in Strasbourg.

“Travelling to Strasbourg every month is not only a waste of public money, but, by ending the compulsory travel of MEPs to Strasbourg, we would reduce the carbon footprint of parliament by 40%,” she said.

Sinn Féin’s Matt Carthy, who is hoping to retain his seat in the Midlands North-West area, received €646,271 in expenses and his constituency colleague, Marian Harkin, estimated that she claimed €590,017.

Mr Carthy said his largest reimbursement related to air-travel costs, which he said are “an unavoidable expense, considering we live on an island”.

However, he was critical of the monthly, €4,513 general expenditure allowance and said there should be an accountability mechanism attached to it. In Dublin, outgoing MEPs Brian Hayes received €627,313 in allowances, while Nessa Childers got €603,456.

- Since this story went to print, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan has contacted the Irish Examiner. His expenses from his time in the European Parliament can be seen here

Flanagan and Crowley refuse to reveal how much they claimed on EU expenses and allowances

Average amount claimed by nine MEPs who disclosed their expenses was €617,000 writes Political Correspondent Elaine Loughlin.

EUROPEAN poll-toppers Luke “Ming” Flanagan and Brian Crowley have refused to state how much they have claimed in expenses and allowances from taxpayers.

An Irish Examiner investigation has found nine of Ireland’s current 11 MEPs claimed €5.55m in expenses during the current five-year term which averages out at more than €617,000 per representative.

Luke “Ming” Flanagan
Luke “Ming” Flanagan

This was on top of their annual salary of €105,000 paid out of public finances and a separate monthly budget of €24,943 given to pay for recruiting personal assistants’ wages. Neither does this amount include the severance allowance of up to €210,000 that MEPs receive when they stand down or are not re-elected.

However, Mr Flanagan, who is again running in the upcoming European elections did not respond to multiple queries both by email and phone which were first sent on April 5.

Outgoing Cork MEP Brian Crowley who was first contacted in March also failed to provide any details of expenses he claimed when contacted via phone and email.

Unlike TDs and senators whose expenses are published on Oireachtas website, MEPs do not have to make the amount claimed by them public.

MEPs can claim multiple allowances and expenses to cover everything from paper clips to airline tickets, meals, and medical bills.

The Irish Examiner submitted an identical list of seven questions relating to the amounts claimed or refunded by each of our 11 elected representatives in Brussels.

While nine of the 11 responded, the level of detail differed and the answers were presented in various formats, for example some MEPs did not provide details for the six months of 2014 after they were elected, while others did.

Brian Crowley
Brian Crowley

Fine Gael MEP and European Parliament vice president, Mairead McGuinness claimed €709,625, the highest amount based on the figures obtained. Sinn Féin’s Lynn Boylan received the lowest amount of expenses, she was reimbursed €517,829.43 in travel, attendance, medical and general allowances.

Ms Boylan said that where possible she tries to take the lowest cost option available by booking in advance.

In 2018 the total amount of vouched travel was €23,113.70. I am a member of the Single Seat campaign which calls for the Parliament to be located in one place. My personal opinion is that this location should be Brussels.

“Travelling to Strasbourg every month is not only a waste of public money but by ending the compulsory travel of MEPs to Strasbourg we would reduce the carbon footprint of the Parliament by 40%,” the Dublin MEP said.

Ireland South MEP Liadh Ní Riada, who claimed a total of €597,897, gave a similar explanation.

Party colleague Matt Carthy said his largest reimbursement related to air-travel costs which he said is “an unavoidable expense considering we live on an island”.

Mr Carthy also hit out at the general expenditure allowance which he said is “is correctly considered the most controversial of allowances” paid to MEPs, currently €4,513 per month.

“The main problem is that it is completely unvouched and there is no accountability mechanism,” said Mr Carthy who pointed out that he gets this allowance paid into a seperate business account.

Independent MEP Marian Harkin said he was unable to give an exact amount for many expense categories but gave a total of €590,017 as “reliable estimate” and explained how she arrived at this.

She said she could not provide the exact figure claimed from the subsistence allowance but said she is in Brussels on average three days per week and in Strasbourg for four days per week.

“This would work out at €47,500 approximately or maybe a little less,” she said.

Marian Harkin
Marian Harkin

She also provided estimates on the amount claimed back under the vouched travel reimbursement system.

“I travel Aer Lingus/Ryanair about 50/50. Return flights to Brussels vary and can range from €200 to €300 depending on how close to the day you book and if you need to change. Strasbourg flights are more expensive and return flights can be €350 to €450,” the outgoing MEP said.

Some MEPs, including Dublin representative Brian Hayes, who has decided not to run for Europe in this week’s elections, provide information publicly on their websites on an annual basis on the amount they recieve in expenses, but there is no obligation to do this.

Mr Hayes was unable to provide exact details of the amount claimed under the attendance allowance but said: “Roughly, I would be present in Brussels/Strasbourg three to four days per week for about nine to 10 months of the year.”

He added that during the summer break, on weeks when parliament does not sit and over Christmas he works in his constituency.

Ireland South representative Sean Kelly also said he signed in an average of three or four days in Brussels and four days on Strasbourg plenary weeks.

“I have had a participation rate of over 97% in roll calls in parliament since my first appointment in 2014. I am proud to be near the top of the list in parliament in terms of participation in votes, and indeed attendance at plenary and committee, and contributing to parliamentary debates. It is vital that my constituents are well represented at EU level and my record shows that I work hard to ensure this,” Mr Kelly said.

I am proud to have handed back over €1m since being elected as an MEP in various unclaimed expenses such as media, language training, etc. I also donate my teachers’ pension of €35,000 to the State.

Also providing information on her website, Deirdre Clune said the €51,603 she claimed last year covered the cost of her travel to and from her constituency in Ireland South to either Brussels or Strasbourg each week.

“It usually involves four flights a week or two flights and a rail connection, which is the most efficient route from Cork to the European Parliament,” she said.

As well as covering costs involved in running a constituency office, she said she uses the monthly general expenditure allowance “to defray the cost of hotels and subsistence when travelling within my constituency, which includes the 12 counties of Cork, Kerry, Limerick, Clare, Waterford, Tipperary, Carlow, Kilkenny, Wicklow, Wexford, Laois and Offaly”.

Nessa Childers, whose total claim amounted to €604,212, provided full details for each year, apart from her expenses for the first five months of this year.

- Since this story went to print, Luke 'Ming' Flanagan has contacted the Irish Examiner. His expenses from his time in the European Parliament can be seen here

Daily ‘clocking-in’ allowance of €320 one of the many perks

Imagine receiving €320 on top of your salary just to turn up to work — welcome to the murky unvouched underworld of MEPs’ expenses.

The daily “clocking-in” allowance is just one of a number of payments those elected to the European Parliament can claim without providing a single receipt.

The European Parliment building.
The European Parliment building.

From hotel stays, to business class flights, taxis, eye tests, medication, restaurant meals, mobile phone bills, political leaflets, representation activities, baggage charges, the list of things they can claim back is extensive and much of it is unvouched.

But the public — who through their taxes foot the very hefty expenses and allowances bill — have no right to know how much is being paid to our 11 Irish MEPs.

Indeed the nine MEPs who provided figures to this paper — Luke “Ming” Flanagan and Brian Crowley refused — did so on a voluntary basis, they were doing the Irish Examiner and the Irish public a favour.

But Mr Flanagan and Mr Crowley are not alone. An investigation carried out by journalists in 2017 found that out of 748 MEPs just 53 were prepared to show documentation for actual spending.

While MEPs must submit receipts to claim back the cost of travelling (business class is permitted) to Brussels and Strasbourg, they do not have to explain what they spend the €320 flat-rate allowance they get when they sign the register of attendance each day.

Nor do they have to provide details of where the €4,513 monthly general expenditure allowance, that is automatically paid and which the parliament says is “intended to cover expenses resulting from members’ parliamentary activities, such as office rent and management costs, telephone and subscriptions, representation activities, computers and telephones, the organisation of conferences and exhibitions”.

This unvouched general expenditure allowance costs European taxpayers €40m a year alone.

A consortium of investigative journalists has been campaigning for many years to force MEPs to come clean on the amount they claim each year through travel expenses, the daily allowance and other payments.

However, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) last year ruled in favour of the politicians stating that the European Parliament is not required to provide access to documents on how MEPs spend their various allowances.

The court favoured the privacy of the elected representatives rather than the public’s right to know where exactly their taxes are going, effectively allowing the secret spending to continue.

At the time Transparency International EU said the ruling had set a “dangerous precedent” and that it is simply indefensible that the European Parliament continues to block transparency on how public money is being spent by elected MEPs.

“The journalists who brought the case correctly recognised that it is in the public interest to allow citizens to scrutinise how MEPs are using taxpayers’ money. At a time when trust in the EU institutions is so low, this is a ridiculous message to send ahead of the European elections,” said Nick Aiossa, policy officer at Transparency International EU.

Many efforts to introduce greater regulation and proof of spending have been quashed by the parliament itself.

A new system of voluntary disclosure is being adopted, and while this is a step towards greater transparency, it will in no way force MEPs to come clean when it comes to spending.

If you bump into a candidate or their campaign team in the coming days, as those in the race to Europe make a final bid to win your vote, you might ask if they will be willing to come fully clean on what they claim.

Opinion: ‘I don’t believe any MEP is in it for the money’

By Matt Carthy

The allowances and expenses are too high. The transparency and accountability mechanisms are pathetic.

That is why Sinn Féin MEPs have consistently voted in favour of proposals in the European Parliament to reduce salaries and expenses and increase transparency measures. We are the only Irish party with a 100% positive record in this regard.

Matt Carthy
Matt Carthy

I don’t believe any MEP is in it for the money. The hours most of us work are extensive. But anyone who stands over a situation where large sums of expenses and allowances can be received without the provision of receipts is doing themselves, and us all, a disservice.

The European Parliament is currently devising a mechanism whereby MEPs can voluntarily vouch and account for all expenditure. When that system is in place, Sinn Féin will partake in it.

Why only a voluntary scheme? Because MEPs from the largest political groups, those groups of which Fine Gael, Labour, and Fianna Fáil are members, have resisted even the most minimal levels of mandatory accountability.

In fact, even when a majority of MEPs backed nominal improvements, the Bureau of the European Parliament (that’s a core group of the parliament president), the 14 vice-presidents (yes, there are 14 vice-presidents), and five quaestors rejected the proposals, in spite of the majority plenary vote.

It is time for other Irish MEPs to state clearly whether they will partake in the voluntary scheme and whether they will join Sinn Féin in enforcing a mandatory accounting operation that will show our voters how much we draw down and what we spend it on.

It is an honour to represent the Irish people at EU level. The Irish people have a right to know how much money we draw down and what we spend it on.

Matt Carthy, Sinn Féin MEP Midlands North-West

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