Italians bridle at high cost of political class

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Italy’s President Giorgio Napolitano has ordered the presidential palace to make sweeping budget cuts in a bid to appease public opinion, increasingly indignant at the massive cost of the country’s political machine.

The Palazzo del Quirinale costs €235m ($320m) a year to run – twice as much as the White House and four times as much as Buckingham Palace – mainly in salaries for more than 2,000 civilian and police employees.

Last week the Italian parliament’s upper and lower houses, home to Europe’s most highly paid MPs, voted to cut their pension privileges, although not until the next parliament. They also cancelled an annual grant of €3,100 for “travel and research abroad”, a sum paid to all MPs whether they travel or not.

Days earlier, the government announced cost-cutting measures in political institutions across Italy, including limitations on free mobile phones and chauffeured cars, and setting ceilings for salaries. The government claims that these reforms will save the taxpayer about €1.3bn annually.

Popular outrage against MPs’ perks has been fuelled in recent months by the publication of La Casta, a best-selling book by two journalists, Sergio Rizzo and Gian Antonio Stella, which describes the manifold privileges of a deeply entrenched political class.

“We estimate that between 600,000 and 700,000 people in Italy live off the political machine,” says Mr Rizzo, “The real scandals and costs are in regional, provincial and municipal administrations, where there are no controls and political and personal patronage creates highly paid jobs of all kinds. But certainly the cost of parliament is the most conspicuous.”

A deputy’s basic salary, before tax, health insurance and pension payments, is €11,703 per month. A British MP earns €7,450, his German colleagues €7,009, a member of France’s Assembly €6,953. Italy’s senators are even better paid.

Italian MPs receive about another €10,000 per month, mostly fixed sums for hypothetical expenses, whether they are incurred or not. They only pay tax on the basic salary and there is a princely end-of-mandate severance payment. After only 30 months of service, they receive a lifelong pension from the age of 60 or 65, depending on seniority. Today, for every active MP there are three on a pension.

The annual cost of Italy’s parliament is the highest in Europe. The estimate for 2007 is €1,465m compared with €845m in France, €644m in Germany, €411m in the UK and €150m in Spain.

Silvana Mura, an MP for the centrist, militantly reformist Italia Dei Valori party, says: “Parliament must absolutely reduce its costs to those of other European parliaments. We receive money without having to justify it. Money for expenses that many MPs do not incur.

“It is our duty to Italy’s citizens to account for every penny we receive in expenses.”

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