Croydon's MEPs: Vital for democracy or a waste of taxpayers' money?
WE HAVE eight of them, they cost taxpayers more than £2 million every year and they enjoy some of the most generous public sector pay packages in the country. As political turmoil continues on the continent, David Churchill and Emily Churchill ask: Do the Members of the European Parliament strengthen democracy in the borough or are they just a waste of taxpayers' cash?
WE FUND their £240-a-day bonus for turning up to work, their £77,000-a-year salary and a host of other allowances – but virtually none of us know who they are, an Advertiser survey has found.
Our reporters stopped 50 people on the street and found just one who could name a single one of the borough's MEPs.
Only half of those we stopped knew what an MEP was.
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But the borough's eight Euro MPs, who also represent the rest of London, cost taxpayers more than £2 million a year and can also claim a £200,000 "secretarial allowance" and £43,000-a-year "general expenditure" allowance.
Croydon Central MP Gavin Barwell, who was able to name five of the MEPs, said the current system is "undemocratic" and needs reform.
He added: "There are two problems with it. One is that instead of having one person you have this group of eight across London so you lose the local tie that you had.
"And the second is that it is very undemocratic because when you vote you vote for a party, and the party controls who is on the [voting] list.
"I think it would feel better if we went back to the old system. We used to elect them like we elect MPs, so you would know who your MEP was. Now we have this silly party list system.
"I think if you look at the number of people who vote in elections, it's not an election people think is particularly important. I think more people would know who their MP is than their MEP."
Turnout for the last European elections in 2009 also suggests Croydon residents have little interest in politics at a European level – just 33 per cent voted.
MEPs spend much of their time travelling between Strasbourg in France and Brussels in Belgium, to attend what are called "plenary" sessions, where they vote on proposed laws and reports and debate the potential for introducing new laws.
Our representatives also sit on committees to amend legislation making its way through the parliamentary process.
This means in total MEPs will spend roughly eight to ten days a month in parliament, voting or debating on a wide range of proposals.
These have recently included everything from how the EU's budget should be spent to ensuring brake lights on farm vehicles are above a certain height on all farms across the European Union.
While some MEPs return to London when they are not sitting in parliament, many live in Europe and make trips back to their constituencies less regularly.
Croydon North MP Malcolm Wicks said: "There are legitimate questions about how well-known they are. As their main role is to go to Brussels and sometimes Strasbourg the link with Croydon and local areas is going to be problematic.
"There is a problem about democratic representation in that sense but there is no easy answer to that, they can't be knocking on every door, every day.
"In terms of value for money it depends on the MEP, but I am pleased we have them representing us.
"I think it is so low [voter turnout] because people are not sure what the EU is about and the immediate issues. The EU seems pretty remote to them.
"But here we are when issues with the European Union are coming to the fore and it is a good thing we have those MEPs representing us."
With more than 50 per cent of new UK laws now being generated in Europe, it is wrong to think that the laws which our eight MEPs help to pass do not have an effect on local issues.
For instance, the European Union passed the Landfill Directive in 1999, meaning Croydon Council now has to pay £56 of tax for every tonne of waste it sends to landfill. This will increase by £8 per year for the next three years.
This policy has forced Croydon Council into considering building a waste incinerator on the borough’s border to dispose of waste to save paying the landfill tax.
The introduction of a landfill tax has also led to weekly bin collections being downgraded to once every two weeks, to try to reduce the amount of rubbish being sent to landfill.
MEPs have also argued for the Living Wage, which helped develop better laws for London’s workers, and for holding the British Government to account over London’s air quality, which is failing to meet EU standards.
According to MEP Claude Moraes, a European “Build to Compete” programme recently resulted in £8.45 million of new business being won for Croydon companies.
We posed three questions to four members from different political parties:
MEP responses to questions:
1) Why do people need an MEP, and what things have you done in the role which have directly benefited Londoners, including Croydon?
2) As an MEP, describe what your typical day involves.
3) Do you believe that Londoners get value for money from their MEPs, and why?
Jean Lambert, Green Party
Attendance to plenary – 93 per cent
1) Global challenges, such as climate change, the financial crisis and growing social injustice which have an impact on our daily lives can’t be tackled only at a national level and require a collective response. I aim to act as a bridge between London and the European Parliament in order to bring positive social and environmental change to the capital.
Since my election, I have helped hold the UK Government to account over London’s scandalous air quality, which is failing to meet EU standards, argued for the Living Wage, which helped develop better laws for London’s workers, and voted for more accessible public transport.
I have also improved the system for the European Health Insurance Card and improved EU law on child protection in relation to sex abuse.
2) Parliamentary activities usually run from Monday to Thursday.
In Brussels I attend committee meetings; meet with colleagues, the council and the commission on proposed legislation; table questions on constituents’ issues; and hold meetings and activities related to the parliament’s Delegation for South Asia, which I chair.
In Strasbourg I vote in the monthly plenary sessions.
The rest of the week is spent back in London, meeting with constituents and local organisations, speaking at events and visiting projects.
3) London’s eight MEPs are proactive and engaged and are often closely involved in proposed legislation; we put in the effort and the hours, as do our staff. We raise constituents’ concerns and take our work seriously.
Sarah Ludford, Lib Dem
Attendance to plenary – 97 per cent
1) Many people believe the EU means faceless unaccountable bureaucrats taking secret decisions. But as an MEP I represent citizens directly, hold Brussels to account and make EU decisions democratic.
In my role on cross-border policing I fight for measures to stop international crime gangs from infecting London’s economy and security and to ensure Londoners who fall foul of the law abroad get fair treatment. And for our city’s shocking air pollution, which kills 4,000 Londoners a year, to be curbed.
2) Most of my weekdays are spent in Brussels. I work in committees scrutinising legislation and drafting reports, table parliamentary questions, meet businesses affected by EU measures, and answer correspondence from constituents.
I work closely with London MP colleagues and helped secure UK participation in a law to tackle human trafficking, vital in the run-up to the London Olympics.
3) With eight MEPs representing eight million Londoners, we all have our work cut out for us. Euro MPs are the accessible part of the EU machinery and we ensure our regions’ views are heard loud and clear.
Lib Dem MEPs are fighting hard to end our enforced monthly travelling circus to Strasbourg and liberate our taxpayers from this absurd burden.
Marina Yannakoudakis, Conservative
Attendance to plenary – 89 per cent
1) Londoners need MEPs because we live in a global world, with the UK an integral part of the EU trading bloc. We need to protect our citizens and ensure British interests are represented. More than 50 per cent of new UK laws are generated at the European level.
As an MEP for London, I am committed to getting a better deal for Londoners and to amending EU legislation so that it is less burdensome for my constituents.
2) I am in Brussels or Strasbourg Monday to Thursday every week and usually work ten hours or more a day.
As a member of three committees, I spend a lot of time in meetings either debating legislation or working closely with MEPs from other political groups or parties to discuss compromises and amendments to bills passing through parliament. As a former businesswoman I know how to negotiate a good deal.
I write and submit a large number of parliamentary questions, either based on issues brought to my attention by constituents or in order to root out waste and hold the European Commission to account.
I work in my London office on Fridays. There I meet companies, individuals, non-governmental organisations, in fact any Londoner who needs help with EU matters.
I also travel around Greater London attending community events, visiting schools and meeting with constituents.
3) I think I do offer value for money. One of my biggest achievements as an MEP has been to secure an impact assessment for EU proposals for 20 weeks’ maternity leave on full pay. The assessment resulted in the plans being shelved.
Had I not played a role in stopping the proposals, they would have cost the UK economy £2.5 billion a year.
Claude Moraes, Labour
Attendance to plenary – 84 per cent
1) As you will know MEPs no longer represent constituency boundaries such as Croydon (as they did before 1999), which I believe destroyed an important constituency link. where Croydon would have had at least one identifiable MEP from one party who fully represented the borough. Now we have to represent whole regions (like London) or countries (like Scotland).
In London that means any one of the eight London MEPs can take up constituency cases from Croydon constituents, but it is difficult for Croydon to identify with an MEP.
However outer London as a whole, including Croydon has benefited disproportionately from European Regional Development Funding, which is designed to ensure that in a competitive European Single Market, areas like Croydon get the assistance needed to compete. Just One small example is the Build to Compete Programme, which won £8.45 million of new business won for Croydon companies.
In my first five years as an MEP I was active in ERDF and related areas of work for London as a whole.
2) A typical working week for me involves getting a bus from Hackney to St Pancras, usually an early morning train on a Monday to Brussels or Strasbourg from London.
In the European Parliament, I am spokesman for my political group on the Home Affairs and Justice Committee and deputy leader of the Labour MEPs. I’m also on the Internal Market Committee. The legislative work, parliamentary questions, speeches etc.
3) Whatever your views on the EU, MEPs are necessary because the parliament now makes law in our name; MEPs can intervene to help London constituents in a growing range of cross-border issues where national politicians can’t and we can influence how budgets are spent locally for the benefit of our citizens.