You will often read in the press pretty lurid tales of how much MEPs get paid “no questions asked” etc, etc, on our “lavish gravy train lifestyle”. The story will always present the information in a way that suggests all my office budgets are somehow part of my salary. If only!
In this section I list the truth of it, without fuss, without hype, without the intrigue you’ll so often be led to believe exists. It is complicated, and I have tried to summarise masses of complex rules but, to the best of my knowledge, this is a decent summary of how it works. If I’ve missed anything out it was to try and keep it comprehensible, and I’ll happily answer questions as best I can.
Below I also outline how I run my office, and how the only money that ends up in my pocket is my salary. In order to do my job I have a permanent team of four people as well as interns, a great deal of travel and live away from home roughly three nights a week. My job is to be available to the whole of Scotland, and to cover the whole of the output of the European Union. This is a busy operation.
I hope that I will get some credit for being upfront about the whole business. Since I was elected I have argued and campaigned for maximum transparency, and the system is changing, albeit slowly.
I’m sick of all MEPs being tarred with the same brush because a few bad apples tarnish the whole lot of us. The SNP has long campaigned for transparency and accountability, the Campaign for Parliament Reform has always had SNP support and the Scottish Parliament is an international example of best practice in financial transparency. The European Parliament is not, but there are a great many of us working within it to bring about reform. I hope that constituents will read this and at least acknowledge that I have nothing to hide. I’m also tired of the Parliament staff being criticised by people who should know better. The system is far from perfect but there are a lot of good people trying to change it, not all of them politicians.
The first distinction to make is between salary, expenses and allowances. My salary is my salary, my expenses are the money I pay then claim back on travel, taxis or daily living expenses, and my allowances are made available to me to pay my staff costs, office rents and costs, and other expenses like paper and phone bills. I deal with each in turn below.
Salary and pension
My salary is the money I receive from the taxpayer in Scotland to do my job. That’s mine, except for the £250 each month of my net monthly wage I pay to the SNP because I want to. When I was first elected in 2004 MEPs were paid the the same pay as their national counterparts, so MEPs received 27 different salaries depending upon where they came from. In my case, as far as the EU is concerned my “national” counterparts are MPs at Westminster. This system changed at the 2009 election, with returning MEPs being given the choice of opting into the “Member Statute” whereby MEPs would all receive a common salary, paid in euro and subject to an EU tax, or to opt to remain with their existing system (newly elected MEPs did not get a choice). I was unhappy at the idea of being paid in euro when I spend in sterling, as well as paying a different tax to my constituents, so I opted to remain with the old system, so I receive an annual salary of just under £65,000 a year, in sterling, into my personal bank account along with a payslip through the post. I am also a member of the MP pension fund, and make contributions to that, same as other MPs. All of this is on the public record at Westminster. It is worth pointing out that while I have the same salary and pension as MPs, the allowances and expenses regime is and always was very different.
You may hear about a further pension, which the European Parliament used to run for members. I never signed up to that pension and know little about it.
General expenditure allowance
This is the “office budget” and pays for: office management costs, telephone and postal charges, computer and IT equipment (purchase and maintenance), and any other “office” expenses. My office account receives €4299 paid in Sterling per month from the Parliament in Brussels by bank transfer to my office bank account in Edinburgh.
I have offices in Edinburgh and Glasgow in order to have an office closer to people in Scotland than Brussels and to deal with constituency work closer to home. I employ two people full time in Edinburgh and one part time, and rent appropriate desk space from SNP Headquarters at a commercial rent. The Glasgow office is currently moving so is costing nothing.
The office budget is often criticised in that the Parliament does not require receipts for these expenses, though the Finance Office may well audit it at any time. I am especially careful that this budget is run out of a distinct bank account, and reviewed by a Scottish firm of Chartered Accountants. There are rules as to what the budget can be spent on, guidelines can be found here.
Secretarial Assistance Allowance
This is the “staff budget”, and as you can guess pays for my staff, my employer taxes and their pension contributions. It also pays for their travel and incidental expenses should they be travelling with work. I have one Brussels-based member of the team, Chief of Staff Laura Rayner, and under the Parliament’s rules she is employed directly by the Parliament. My three other full time staff are employed directly by me, in Scotland, with their salaries, tax and pensions being run by a Scottish firm of Chartered Accountants.
The Secretarial Assistance Allowance is a maximum of €16,914 per month, part of which is paid to Laura, directly in euro, and part to the firm of Scottish Chartered Accountants for onward payment to the other team members, so this comes nowhere near me.
The Parliament will not pay out anything until the finance office sees an employment contract, and proof the staff member is registered for social security, in our case a P45 or P46. Likewise, the finance office will not reimburse travel costs until they see ticket stubs and original hotel invoices, whereupon the real costs incurred will be reimbursed.
This budget also pays for the consultancy costs of my website and IT consultants, the accountancy fees themselves and for a further consultant who provides us with ad hoc media and training advice.
I am not related to any of my team.
Annual Travel Allowance
A travel budget is provided by the Parliament to allow me to attend meetings outside of Brussels or Strasbourg or Scotland/the UK.
This budget allowed me to go to Iceland where I addressed the Icelandic Parliament about how to better interact with the EU; and to Gaza, the West Bank and Israel to see the awful conditions there and argue for peace; and to Kosova where I met with all sides of the ethnic conflict there to promote civic nationalism as Europe’s newest state became independent.
This budget is this year up to €4,000, and covers expenditure incurred in travelling anywhere in the world in performance of my duties. To claim on this budget the finance office requires receipts, an itinerary, other supporting documents and refunds the actual cost paid by me. This budget runs from January to December, and once spent is exhausted. I have never used this budget to the limit.
My travel and living expenses are run as follows. To keep myself tidy I run a euro bank account in Brussels and a euro credit card onto which I put all my personal costs and claims. Chiefly, this is my hotel, food and taxis while I’m away from home. I keep this distinct from my personal money, even though in effect it is, and use this account to cover incidental office expenses, and the costs of my internship programme.
From Scotland to Brussels or Strasbourg
The Parliament has a travel agent in the building who book travel on our behalf. They provide a great service, and book flights regularly from home in Scotland to Brussels or Strasbourg. The travel office book the flights and issue me with an e-ticket, I sign a piece of paper which they pass to the finance office, and when I have taken the flights I pass the original ticket stubs to the finance office, which then pays the invoice. The cost of the flights is the actual cost, and comes nowhere near me.
Additionally, the finance office gives a distance allowance and a time allowance in respect of travel as well as an incidental allowance of €12.74 per trip. These allowances are designed to compensate for time and energy spent travelling, as well as any additional costs like airport parking or airport connections. In my case these work out to an additional €241.86 per return trip to Brussels.
Within Scotland (or on Parliamentary business within the UK, the member state of election), constituency travel is also paid on an actual cost basis if travelling by bus, train, boat or plane. I pay for the trip myself, then claim the sum back from the finance office and it is repaid in cash directly to me. Should I be driving then on submission to the finance office of a claim form detailing the date, destination and distance, I am reimbursed at a rate of 50 cents per kilometre.
Subsistence “Per Diem”
The per diem is to cover my daily expenses of living away from home. It is designed to cover a night in a hotel, taxis and meals and this year is a flat rate of €304 per day for each day of attendance at official meetings of Parliament. I stay in a hotel near the Parliament at a cost of €179 per night. Members are only entitled to the subsistence allowance if they are physically present in a meeting and sign the register, so if I am not in town then I cannot claim it.