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Euro-MPs - on the gravy train or great value?

Richard Moss | 11:51 UK time, Thursday, 17 March 2011

European parliament sign

All roads lead to the European Parliament, but is it worth the expense?

I may have only spent a couple of days in Strasbourg last week but it did give me some insight into the life of an MEP.

I am sure if he or she were so inclined, an MEP could limit the workload to a lowish level, but to be fair there was little evidence of that on show.

The parliament building is not too distant from the city centre, but most of the MEPs I spoke to said they rarely saw the more scenic Strasbourg because of the long hours spent in meetings.

But I suppose the question is, are all those meetings worth having?

I sat through a small amount of one about emission limits from tractors - I am glad I didn't have to stay for all of it.

Of course, the meeting actually is important to tractor manufacturers and to environmentalists, but it doesn't set the pulse racing.

Any MEP who's a euro-enthusiast might be happy to spend their life on such matters, but wouldn't it frustrate sceptics?

I spoke to two with different approaches.

The Conservative North East MEP Martin Callanan certainly thinks Europe should interfere less in UK affairs.

But he says that as long as the EU has the powers it has, he has to engage fully to ensure any legislation is as well-drafted as possible.

UKIP's Godfrey Bloom though takes another approach, saying he rolls up in Strasbourg each month determined to vote against everything.

He says: "I take the Groucho Marx approach. Whatever it is, I'm against it."

European Parliament in Strasbourg

The European Parliament in Strasbourg - one of two buildings which house our MEPs.

And there are of course real concerns about the money spent on having a parliament - or rather two as MEPs split their time between duplicate buildings in Brussels and Strasbourg.

That duplication costs around £200m a year - something that a majority of MEPs are disgusted with. While I was there the opponents achieved a minor victory by effectively stopping one of the sojourns to Strasbourg each year.

But on paper MEPs also look expensive.

They get a salary of around £81,000 - £16,000 more than an MP (inflated mainly because they get paid in Euros at a time when the pound is weak).

They also get £258 each day they attend towards accommodation and living expenses. Add in up to £242,000 in staff salaries and office expenses and an MEP can cost around £400,000-a-year.

The Lib Dem MEP Fiona Hall admits that sounds like a lot, but she says it sounds much better value if you realise it amounts to 24p for each of her North East constituents every year.

And while I was there though I did come across someone who felt her MEP and the Parliament did have something worthwhile to offer.

Heather Cairns and Fiona Hall

Heather Cairns celebrates with her MEP Fiona Hall after getting the signatures she needs for her campaign.

Heather Cairns is from Northumberland. Her daughter Eilidh was killed while cycling in London, when a lorry collided with her. The driver didn't see her.

Her family is campaigning for sensors to be compulsory for all HGVs - something that needs a change in European law to be effective.

With the help of Fiona Hall and her staff, she had come to Strasbourg to gather signatures of MEPs.

She needed half of the parliament's MEPs to sign up to what's called a Written Declaration - something which then forces the parliament to debate the issue.

While we were filming, the campaigners secured the final signature - no mean achievement.

She was overjoyed. There's still a lot more work to do before any law is passed, but the Cairns family certainly think the parliament is worthwhile.

And as long as we are part of the European Union, it is also up to us as constituents to ensure our MEPs do represent our interests to the best of their ability.

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