Tens of thousands of political activists, including hundreds from the BNP, have been given free or subsidised holidays by British and European taxpayers.
Even as it grapples with the financial crisis, the European Union is paying almost £25 million this year to subsidise the trips, arranged through MEPs.
The BNP, which has two Euro-MPs, has made heavy use of the scheme to thank some of its most prominent members at taxpayers’ expense. One BNP official boasted that it was “a good way of rewarding our activists” that “didn’t cost the party a penny”. The trips are ostensibly “study visits” to the European Parliament buildings in Brussels or Strasbourg, but the holidaymakers need spend only a fraction of their time at the parliament to claim the full subsidy, which can be collected in cash without the need for receipts.
One subsidised trip to Strasbourg last week, promoted by the Labour MEP Peter Skinner, lasted six days, with only a few hours spent at the parliament. The rest of the visit, according to a programme seen by The Sunday Telegraph, included a river cruise, a tour of the cathedral, a visit to the city’s Christmas market, champagne tasting, a battlefield tour in Ypres and sightseeing in Reims. Like most MEPs, Mr Skinner did not join the party, but hosted a free dinner for the participants.
Just under 30 people went on the tour, according to Mr Skinner’s office, staying in £100-a-night hotels in Ypres, Reims and the German spa town of Baden-Baden, near Strasbourg.
“After a buffet breakfast in the sunny Great Room, take your coffee on to the terrace to enjoy views of the picturesque Black Forest,” the Baden-Baden hotel’s website says. "Stroll beside the meandering River Oos and admire the Belle-Epoque mansions on Lichtentaler Allee. Play for high stakes at the glamorous Spielbank casino, and unwind in the soothing waters of Caracalla Spa.”
The cost of the six-day trip, including some meals, all accommodation, tours, coach and ferry, was £272. If booked directly, the hotels alone would have cost about £500 at this time of year.
One of those who went on the trip, Juan Leahy, who works for Mr Skinner, declined to comment when asked if it was mostly a “holiday”.
A spokesman for the European Parliamentary Labour Party said: “We believe the public should have the opportunity to see their elected officials at work, and we do not want this opportunity restricted to the rich who can afford travel.”
Stephen Booth, of the reform group Open Europe, said: “Spending taxpayers’ money on what are effectively subsidised holidays can only further erode public trust in the EU institutions. The European Parliament seems to exist in a parallel universe, completely ignorant of economic realities.”
Politicians of all parties help to arrange the trips. Hornchurch and Upminster Conservative Association advertised a break to Brussels, including return travel by Eurostar and a night in a city centre hotel, for £80.
“We have almost a whole day to sight-see, wander around the Christmas market and pick up inspiration for gifts,” said the association’s website.
Bill Newton-Dunn, the Liberal Democrat MEP, promoted a three-day weekend break in Brussels this month for £205, advertising it on his website as a “Christmas shopping” trip. The visit to the European Parliament lasted two hours on the Monday morning, just before the guests left for home.
The BNP has made extensive use of the subsidies to reward donors to its Trafalgar Club, who last year were hosted on a three-day visit to Bruges at EU expense by Nick Griffin, the party’s leader and an MEP. Ninety-two Trafalgar Club and life members took part.
Mr Griffin said: “Everyone really enjoyed the opportunity to meet and socialise with like-minded people who care about our country.”
Other BNP outings include trips to the First World War battlefields and Waterloo. Pictures on the website of Eddy Butler, a BNP staff member, show the party enjoying their “second breakfast of the day” at a Brussels café. In the evening, the group enjoyed a taxpayer-subsidised dinner, at what another participant, Chris Beverley, called “the wonderfully atmospheric Bivouac de l’Empereur restaurant”.
“Everyone knew they could let their hair down and relax, safe in the knowledge that they were among good nationalists, men and women of honour,” he added.
One BNP trip, in March last year, cost taxpayers €10,791 (£9,775) for 44 participants, an average of £220 a head. It was free for those who took part, according to the organiser, Mr Butler, and even made the BNP a profit.
“The subsidy is for a set amount,” said Mr Butler. “There is no provision to pay back what you don’t use. The organiser of the trip can use any residue for whatever he sees fit: this is quite legitimate.”
Mr Butler said he had donated the profits to the BNP.
In a report last month, the Court of Auditors, Europe’s spending watchdog, criticised this aspect of the scheme, warning that “the procedures in place do not require groups to provide evidence of travel costs, resulting in a risk of overpayment as most groups use cheaper collective transport”.
The subsidy for the journey from London to Brussels amounts to £85 a head, but Eurostar offers a return ticket for £69, and travelling in a privately hired coach can cost as little as £25. From Edinburgh to Brussels the travel subsidy would be £225, but a return flight with Ryanair costs as little as £49. The meal subsidy is set at £30 a person, but since no receipts are required visitors can buy cheaper meals and pocket the difference.
According to the Court of Auditors, 78 per cent of the payments to trip organisers last year were made in cash. This “limited the possibility of applying internal control procedures”, the watchdog warned.
Mr Butler defended the visits, saying: “Everyone had fun and it didn’t cost the party a penny. The trips are a good way of rewarding our activists for their hard work and dedication. Should we feel guilty for the Euro taxpayer? Certainly not.”
Each of the 736 MEPs is allowed to sponsor up to 110 visitors a year, although not all use their full quota. The visitors must travel in groups of at least 10. The trips are promoted to supporters on email lists and websites. Some are advertised on the MEPs’ websites and are not confined to sympathisers, although in practice most of the holidaymakers are political activists.
The European Parliament declined to give the number of British participants in the trips, but figures for the last available year, 2007, show that British visitors claimed €938,000 (£600,000) in subsidies.
The cost of the schemes for all 27 EU nations this year is €29.7 million (£24.9 million), a 40 per cent rise since 2007. As Britain’s share of the EU budget this year is 12 per cent, taxpayers are contributing £3 million to the programme.
A spokesman for the European Parliament said: “It is essential to the exercise of democratic rights within the European Union for members of the public to be granted access to the parliament’s proceedings and premises.”
The parliament said that better controls on the payments would be too “complex and time-consuming”.