So who’s getting desperate here?

I never thought I’d say this but on current evidence if you want to follow the burgeoning MPs/MEPs expenses saga as its unfolds then you’d be better served following the action at Guido’s than you would reading the newspapers, not because Guido is necessarily any quicker with the stories but because, thus far, his reporting his been considerably more open and honest than, say, that of the Daily Telegraph, whose reporting of Michael Cashman’s expenses amounts to little more than a blatant attempt to manufacture a smear out of an otherwise seemingly innocuous situation:

The Telegraph article begins by  stating that:

Labour MEP Michael Cashman paid boyfriend ‘£8,000 a month from expenses’

Michael Cashman, a leading Labour MEP, has paid his boyfriend more than 8,000 pounds a month from his taxpayer-funded expenses, the Telegraph can disclose.

So, clearly, readers are meant to think that Cashman’s partner (and now civil partner) Paul Cottingham was sleazily trousering the full £8,000 a month. However, when we come to the first sentence proper of the article, we find the Telegraph and already back-pedalling furiously.

Documents show that Paul Cottingham was given secretarial allowances worth £8,143 a month to administer in 2002. This was the maximum allowance available at the time. Euro-MPs can now receive an allowance for staff of £160,000 a year.

There is a distinct difference between paying someone £8,000 a month and employing them to administer a staff allowance of £8,000 a month, much of which is likely to have paid to other employees.

Mr Cashman says that he currently pays his civil partner an annual salary of £30,000 inclusive of expenses. However, he has so far not disclosed how the rest of the allowance is distributed after being given to Mr Cottingham. It is known he employs at least one other Brussels-based assistant.

The Euro-MP and former actor will now come under pressure to explain how the rest of his allowance has been spent.

I may be able to help the Telegraph out here as I know for a fact that in addition to his office in Brussels, Cashman also has, with Neena Gill MEP, a UK office in West Bromwich and, so far as I am aware, contributes to the staffing costs of this office.

However the Telegraph continues with:

The disclosure will lead to accusations that the Euro-MP expenses scandal has spread beyond the Conservative Party. Several prominent Tories have been forced to step down from their positions after admitting paying large amounts of money to members of their family.

Which is precisely what the Telegraph are trying to engineer by picking on Cashman who, as former actor and an openly gay man, is the perfect target for a manufactured smear story in a newspaper that has been visibly swimming down market in its reporting of late.

Assuming that Cashman’s civil partner, Paul Cottingham, actually carries out the duties assigned to him – and the Telegraph appears to have nothing by way of evidence to suggest that he doesn’t – then a salary of £30,000 a year including expenses is not an unreasonable amount to be paying for someone who manages Cashman’s office accounts. payroll and personnel. Nor, indeed, has Cashman made any effort to conceal with arrangement, as the Telegraph concedes:

…at the end of February this year, Mr Cashman updated his declaration of financial interests to confirm that he still employs Mr Cottingham.

The confirmation came amid increasing media scrutiny over the spending of Euro-MP staff expenses and his practice of paying his civil partner is not in breach of current parliamentary rules.

The former EastEnders actor’s declaration states: “I employ my civil partner, Paul Cottingham, as accounts manager, personnel manager and payroll administrator at £30,000 pa (inclusive of travel and expenses).”

Michael Cashman’s entry on the MEP’s register of interests can be downloaded here (pdf) and confirms what the Telegraph has to say above, although it noticeable that form indicates that MEPs are required to update their entry the register of interests on an annual basis, a little fact that the Telegraph fails to report, no doubt in the hope of creating the false impression that Cashman’s recent update may have been to add information that had previous been omitted when it seems apparent that he’s been declaring that he employs his civil partner all along.

It’s worth noting that the other paper to run this smear story is, of course, the Daily Mail, which eschews the little niceties like referring to Cashman’s civil partner as his ‘boyfriend’ and goes straight for the usual thinly veiled homophobia angle with:

EastEnders MEP pays gay lover £30,000 to be his secretary

Clearly there’s no gutter too deep that you won’t find the Daily Mail peering up out of it.

The Mail does, at least, add one thing to the story; Cottingham is also, apparently, a director of a PR firm, Cause Celebre, which the Mail describes and “a high-profile PR firm that has hosted a string of glitzy events for the Labour Party”.

All of which seems to rather overstate the case somewhat as having tracked down the company’s website at it turns out that what it does, or rather did, is organise events and there’s little or no sign of recent activity. Two of the projects it organised launch events for, The Indigo Club and Stonewall’s Citizenship 21 project have web addresses that lead to parked search pages operated by their domain registrars and the few events it do organise appear to date back to the period between 1997 and 2001.

So far as I can see, Cause Celebre is, to all intents and purposes, dormant. According to Companies House it files only abbreviated account under the full audit exemption permitted to small businesses, which suggests that there may be a very small sum of share/trading capital left in the company, and Cottingham appears to file all his paperwork on time and in good order.

The Mail quotes Neil O’Brien of Open Europe as stating that:

‘This opens up serious questions about how Mr Cottingham can combine both roles. Is he providing value-for-money for a salary of £30,000 a year if he is also the boss of a PR firm?

Well, if you do happen to look in, Neil, then I think I’ve answered your question as it looks very much as if Cause Celebre has been effectively dormant since around 2001-2, maybe 2003 at the latest, all of which leaves Paul Cottingham with plenty of time to devote to giving value for money for his salary.

That said, and for all its efforts to drag Cashman into the unfolding allegations of sleaze arising out of MEPs expenses, the Mail goes on to provide a rather nice point of contrast in highlighting the story of Tory MEP David Sumberg:

It also emerged that a Tory MEP who has made just just two speeches in four years, pays his wife up to £60,000 a year of taxpayers’ money to be his ‘secretary/assistant’.

David Sumberg uses his parliamentary expenses to pay Carolyn an annual salary, which is almost as much as he earns himself.

Since 2004, the North West MEP has spoken only 536 words in the Brussels chamber despite being allowed pay and perks worth about £1.1million  –  which works out at £2,052 a word.

Despite representing the North West constituency, the former solicitor lives 200 miles away in a £2million house in London.

In the past four years, he has made only two speeches  –  one on antisemitism and one during a debate which he claimed was biased against Israel  –  in the European Parliament. He has only tabled two questions.

By way of contrast, Cashman, who actually pays his civil partner half the salary that Sumberg pays his wife, openly publishes a record of his activities as an MEP on his website, from which we find that Cashman has asked 75 questions, tabled 34 motions for resolutions, written 48 reports, given 65 speeches and tabled 40 written declarations.

So who’s on the gravy train here?

It remains to be seen what, if anything, Guido manages to turn up by way of allegations against Labour and Lib Dem MEPs but one would hope that whatever he might have doesn’t turn out to have the overpowered stench of desperation evident in the efforts of the Mail and Telegraph to smear Michael Cashman with what is patently a nothing story.

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