Mr. Vaz: This has been an excellent debate, if a little quiet. I had expected the hon. Members for Buckingham (Mr. Bercow) and for Stone (Mr. Cash) to join the hon. Member for Ruislip-Northwood, but they did not. We nevertheless had a thoughtful, intelligent debate about an issue of great importance to MEPs and the public. It is not a burning issue that people in Luton town centre, Bury St. Edmunds or, indeed, the centre of Leicester rush up to talk about, but it is one that can easily get out of control because the way in which things are done is perceived in a certain way. That is why it is important that we conclude a statutewe hope as soon as possiblethat will stay with us for many years to come.
I want to pay tribute to the speeches of my hon. Friend the Member for Luton, North and the hon. Members for Ruislip, North and for West Suffolk. We keep saying that he is from Bury St. Edmunds, but as he points out, we have got his constituency wrong.
Mr. Spring: It is the saintliness.
Mr. Vaz: Indeed. I understand that Bury St. Edmunds is near the hon. Gentleman's constituency and that is why we make this mistake.
The Government are pro-Europe and pro-reform. The adoption of a statute has been one of the matters that has most concerned us. It is important that we look for ways to ensure complete transparency from those who receive European funds. The Government are at the forefront of initiatives to improve financial management and to fight fraud. The European Parliament has taken steps to ensure that changes are made, but we believe that it must do more. It must get its house in order. We want the statute to be agreed as quickly as possible, but we do not want it at any price. We must have thorough expenses reform and we believe that United Kingdom MEPs should pay UK tax. From the general murmuring that I heard when I first mentioned this, I assume that the hon. Member for West Suffolk concurs.
Mr. Spring: I realise that these are difficult times. I just want to make it plain that we are opposed to the idea that MEPs should pay different taxes from their electors. I said that during my speech and I appreciate that it may not grab the Minister's attention, but I should just like to reinforce it.
Mr. Vaz: My mind may have wandered temporarily to the metric legal action. I am glad of that support and to hear that there is at last Opposition unity on a European policy. The salaries must be fair. The formula that we have proposed will result in a fair salary. It will not be as high as the Italians or as low as the Spanish, but it will be decent and the same as an MP's parliamentary salary.
Mr. Spring: This point simply has to be made. European MEPs get the identical salary to MPs. If we agree to this proposal, we lose control over the ability to accept those salaries, both for ourselves and for the European MEPs. There are already enough problems of disengagement from the EU and the sense of distance of European institutions; if that linkage is lost, it will simply make matters worse. I make that point sincerely and I ask the Minister to take that on board. This is an important point.
Mr. Vaz: I assume that the hon. Gentleman always makes his points sincerely. Of course I note his comments, but I think that the system that we have suggested is right. I will look at the matter. I understand the point that he is making. I understand the need to reassure the public that that link is still there. However, if by some miracle the Senior Salaries Review Body suggested that the salary of MPs should be increased, and that was supported by the Opposition, the average salary of the 15 would increase.
Mr. Wilkinson: Is there not another dimension at issue? The formula that the Government suggest to decide the salary of MEPs is to take the average salary of MPs in the 15 member states. If that proved to be significantly higher than the salary of British MPs, it would be a ratchet for the augmentation of our salaries, which the British public would not wish.
Mr. Vaz: I understand the hon. Gentleman's point. I will not turn this into a debate about whether we are paid a decent salary as this is about a statute applying to MEPs. I think that all hon. Members would accept that other issues must be discussed elsewhere. I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, but I do not think that we need to make too much of the linkage. I believe that our suggestion is the right one, but I have noted the points made by both hon. Members.
On the funding of political parties, I must re-emphasise to the hon. Member for West Suffolk that there is no question of funding for the Labour party or the Liberal Democrats and not the Conservative party. We want no domestic political party to have funds channelled to it for national political purposes. The Conservative party is allied to the EPP parliamentary group, which is funded from public money allocated by the European Parliament. The Conservative party is also a member of the European Democratic Union, which shares offices, staff and equipment with the EPP at their joint headquarters in Brussels. The hon. Gentleman has probably visited them.
The recent European Democratic Union leaders' meeting, which was attended by William Hague, the leader of the Conservative party, was held in Berlin at the same time as the EPP congress on 11 January 2001. The right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks (Mr. Hague)--you were about to correct me, Mr. McWilliam--has been invited to, and has attended, meetings of EPP leaders before European summits, although we missed him at Nice because he was otherwise engaged. The point is that no party should receive national funding, not that one should do so or not do so because it does or does not belong to a particular group. No party should receive such funding as a result of what the European Commission or Parliament does.
On the taxation point, it is important to remember the declaration that we secured at Nice, but it is also important to continue to work on the reform agenda. The kind words of the hon. Member for West Suffolk about the former leader of the Labour party, Mr. Neil Kinnock, will be welcomed in Brussels when I show him the Hansard report. It is good to know that Conservative Members support wholeheartedly the excellent work that is being done by Neil Kinnock. The souffle is about to rise and Conservative Members--I remember what they used to say about Mr. Kinnock--now accept that he is going a good job in the European Commission. He wants what the Labour Government want: reform of the European Union. What will most impress the British people is to achieve the consensus that we have achieved today. The institution is worth while, but it needs to be reformed and we shall continue our efforts to drive that reform agenda forward.
Question put and agreed to.
That this Committee takes note of European Union documents Nos. 9712/00, relating to a statute for Members of the European Parliament, and 9560/00, relating to an audit of expenditure of European Parliament Political groups.[Mr. Vaz.]
Committee rose at twenty-two minutes to Six o'clock.
The following Members attended the Committee:
The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(2):
Day, Mr. Stephen (Cheadle)
Joyce, Mr. Eric (Falkirk, West)
McNulty, Mr. Tony (Harrow, East)
MacShane, Mr. Dennis (Rotherham)
Spring, Mr. Richard (West Suffolk)
Vaz, Mr. Keith (Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office)
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