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Editor’s blog: Dear European Parliament newcomers, fiddling your expenses is an art form, I’m afraid

Newly elected members of the European Parliament will naturally want to know how much money they are entitled to under the Strasbourg-based body’s generous expenses scheme, writes Justin Stares.

So here’s the bad news first: fiddling one’s expenses has become something of an art form.

Long gone are the days when you didn’t have to provide any proof that you had actually taken the plane for which you required a taxpayer refund. It’s receipts please, nowadays.

You can’t even travel as much as one used to. Two trips a week back to your home constituency, if you have one, have been reduced to just one.

Neither can you squeeze money out of your assistants anymore; the laissez-faire, anything goes contracts which used to involve kickbacks to Euro MPs from grateful underlings have been replaced by regimented pay grades.

It is, in fact, almost a tightly run ship – thanks largely to the euro-sceptic press and its constant calls for higher ethical standards.

Almost. For there are still one or two wheezes bent parliamentarians can use to extract a bob or two.

The car expense allowance is a case in point. Euro MPs can drive home and back from the Brussels institutions and subsequently put in a claim for a flat rate fee per kilometre. As proof they need to provide evidence of some kind of payment along the way: a toll booth slip, or a petrol pump receipt, for example.

But unlike named airplane boarding cards, these car trip receipts will not necessary show who spent the money. You can, after all, purchase petrol with cash.

One source who works within the Parliament’s expenses department says Euro MPs can claim this money without undertaking the trip at all. It could be someone else’s receipt. Alternatively, they and their national chums could jump into the same car, each pay for something along the way, and then each claim for the full amount when in reality the costs have been shared.

“I think this happens, but there is no desire in the Parliament to actually check up on the way this money is spent,” the source says.

Other “office expenses” still rely on sworn oaths of some kind. How honest do you believe your MEP to be?

In some countries, expenses and the fiddling thereof used to be considered a very British obsession. Mediterranean voters, or so it was said, expected their representatives to be on the take and were therefore by no means as shocked when some MEP was caught with his grubby fingers in the till.

This mentality has also changed over the last five years. Perhaps because of the recession, voters everywhere in Europe are outraged. They will be sending iconoclasts to Strasbourg by the score.

If these newcomers were hoping to join the gravy train, they might be a touch disappointed. There are a few choice morsels left, but the traditional roads to self-enrichment are few and far between.

Follow Justin on Twitter @JustinStares

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