Three MPs to fight criminal charges over expense fiddle
Politicians claim exemption
THREE Labour MPs and a Tory peer charged under Britain's Theft Act are preparing to argue that parliamentary privilege should protect them from being prosecuted for fiddling their expenses.
The focus of the expenses saga switched from parliament to the criminal courts yesterday after the announcement that MPs David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley had been charged with false accounting.
The Conservative peer, Lord Hanningfield, who resigned from his frontbench post yesterday, has been charged over his Lords expenses. All four strongly deny the charges.
The charges, which follow a seven-month police investigation, were announced by Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions. The three MPs said they believed questions over their expenses claims were a matter for the parliamentary authorities.
Mr Starmer said: "Lawyers representing those who have been charged have raised with us the question of parliamentary privilege. We have considered that question and concluded that the applicability and extent of any parliamentary privilege claimed should be tested in court."
The four politicians have been charged under the Theft Act, which carries a maximum jail sentence of seven years. Six charges have been brought against Lord Hanningfield, three against Mr Chaytor and two each against Mr Morley and Mr Devine.
They relate to claims for mortgage interest, rent, cleaning, computers and overnight allowances.
Mr Starmer said a fifth investigation, believed to be into claims by the Labour peer Baroness Uddin, was continuing.
In a televised statement, Mr Starmer said six files sent to the Crown Prosecution Service by Scotland Yard had been reviewed "very carefully by senior prosecuting lawyers in the Crown Prosecution Service ".
Mr Morley, the MP for Scunthorpe, is alleged to have dishonestly claimed £30,428 (€33,400) more than he was entitled to in second home expenses on a house in Winterton, Linconshire, between 2004 and 2007, including 18 months after the mortgage on the property was paid off.
Mr Chaytor, the MP for Bury North, faces charges he claimed almost £13,000 (€14,900) in rent in 2005 and 2006 on a London flat which he owned, as well as £5,425 (€6,200) to rent a property in Lancashire owned by his mother.
He is also alleged to have dishonestly claimed £1,950 (€2,230) for IT services using false invoices in 2006.
Mr Devine, the MP for Livingston, is alleged to have claimed £3,240 (€3,700) for cleaning and £5,505 (€6,301) for stationery using false invoices in 2008 and 2009.
Lord Hanningfield faces six charges of false accounting, relating to claims for Lords overnight allowances between March 2006 and May 2009, when records allegedly show he was, in fact, driven to his home near Chelmsford.
The three Labour MPs said in a joint statement: "We totally refute any charges that we have committed an offence and we will defend our position robustly. We are confident of our position and have been advised by eminent QCs."
Lord Hanningfield yesterday resigned as a Tory frontbench spokesman and had the party whip removed from him. He also stood down as the leader of Essex County Council. He said: "I totally refute the charges and will vigorously defend myself."
The four parliamentarians are to appear before City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on March 11, less than a month before the expected start of the election campaign.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: "It is a matter now for the courts. We have got to get rid of that old politics -- it cannot be part of the new system." (© Independent News Service)