Ex-MP 'used false invoices for cleaning work'

A former Labour MP accused of fiddling his parliamentary expenses used false invoices to claim for cleaning work that was not done, a court heard today.

Jim Devine, 57, who held a Commons seat for Livingston in Scotland is on trial at London's Southwark Crown Court for falsely claiming almost £9,000 from the public purse.

He also claimed for the printing of leaflets that were never printed, the prosecution says.

Peter Wright QC, prosecuting, said: "The defendant is James Devine, known as Jim. He is 57 years of age.

"In September of 2005 he was elected as Member of Parliament of Livingston, West Lothian, Scotland.

"These proceedings arose out of a series of allegedly false and dishonest claims submitted by him in his capacity as an MP in respect of claims for expenses that he asserted he had incurred."

The prosecutor told the jurors that the case against him was "very straight forward".

Going through the charges against Devine, he said the former MP made the claims "with a view to gain for himself, or with an intent to cause loss to another - the public purse".

Mr Wright said he used five false invoices to claim for the cleaning work, and two false documents to claim for printing leaflets.

"It's a false claim for expenses. That's what it amounts to," he said.

"They are from a legitimate company but they are not in respect of work that was done.

"They were, in fact, false documents."

The first count alleges that, between July 2008 and May 2009, Devine dishonestly claimed £3,240 for cleaning services from Tom O'Donnell Hygiene and Cleaning Services.

This claim was made for his second home in south west London, near Westminster, where Devine sat in the Commons.

The second count alleges that between March 2009 and April 2009, Devine dishonestly claimed £5,505 for stationery from Armstrong Printing using false invoices.

Devine, of West Main Street, Bathgate, West Lothian, denies both charges of false accounting.

Before the jury was sworn, Mr Justice Saunders, the trial judge, asked the six men and six women selected to try Mr Devine if they had researched the expenses scandal on search engines or social network websites.

If they had, it was feared they may have come across inaccurate reports. He said reading newspaper websites did not count as research.

Mr Devine sat in the dock, wearing a black suit, white shirt with blue stripes and a red tie as Mr Wright addressed the jury.

The judge earlier told the press they could use the micro-blogging site Twitter from inside the courtroom to report the case as it progressed.

Mr Wright said count one involved Devine submitting five false invoices, "to which we say he was not entitled in respect of cleaning, security and maintenance charges allegedly incurred by him at his London flat".

He added: "We will hear in due course that Tom O'Donnell cleaning services really does exist and does provide hygiene and cleaning services in an entirely proper and legitimate fashion.

"Mr O'Donnell was the landlord of Mr Devine's local pub, and that's where the connection arises from.

"Tom O'Donnell neither submitted these five invoices, nor provided the services to him."

Referring to the two invoices relating to count two, Mr Wright said: "The invoices were fiction. No such costs had been incurred.

"It was merely a device used by Mr Devine in which to receive a substantial amount of public money to which he was not entitled."

He explained to jurors that MPs may only claim back expenses which "are wholly reasonable and necessarily incurred by them in relation to their parliamentary duties".

He said the rules and regulations on submitting expenses were clearly set out in a volume entitled The Green Book which was readily available to every MP.

"It is, we say, a very significant document. It sets out in detail what an MP is entitled to. It also sets out what an MP is not entitled to.

"A document, which we say, all MPs are familiar with."

Referring to the rules, he said of the defendant: "He had every opportunity to acquaint himself with them. It was clearly in his best interests to do so.

"We say it's wholly unambiguous. It couldn't be clearer."

Mr Wright said Devine had three addresses: his constituency address in Livingston, his main home in Bathgate, and his second home in London.

He added: "The system permits an MP to make claims in respect of certain expenses incurred in maintaining a second home if their main home is in their constituency and can claim for a second home in London, or vice versa."

Claims can be made monthly or quarterly, with MPs only being able to be reimbursed for expenses which they have already paid.

He said that, at the time, receipts were only needed for claims over £250, although this had since been modified so that a receipt is needed for any cost, apart from certain items such as food.

Mr Wright said the Green Book made it clear what MPs should do if they were confused about how the system worked.

He quoted the guide: "If you are unsure about whether an expense may be met by the allowance, it is very important that you contact the advice team.

"If you don't, we may not be able to reimburse you for costs incurred."

The prosecutor said the guide listed the fundamental principles MPs should adhere to when making expenses claims.

He said: "These are based on concepts of selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership.

"We say these are qualities of which Mr Devine demonstrated a woeful inadequacy."

Mr Wright went on to read from the Green Book, which asked MPs: "Could the claim in any way damage the reputation of Parliament or its members?"

He said it was an "important question" the former MP must have considered when he made the claims.

The barrister explained how the prosecution say Devine made the false claims for cleaning, and how he came to acquire the invoices.

He was a "regular" at a pub called the Prince of Wales near his second home on Elliot's Row in Elephant and Castle, south-east London, Mr Wright said.

Devine asked the landlord of the pub, Tom O'Donnell, if he knew of any cleaners. The publican recommended his own cleaner, a Polish woman.

Mr Wright said work was done in June 2008 on Devine's flat by the cleaner and a Polish handyman.

The arrangement was that Mr O'Donnell paid the workers, and in turn, Devine paid Mr O'Donnell.

A blank invoice was given to the MP by the publican, whose cleaning company was registered for VAT, the prosecutor said.

Devine signed and dated the legitimate form, which the prosecutor said had a number of spelling errors, to claim for £1,890, on June 30, 2008.

The former MP submitted five more forms for a total of £3,240 on later dates.

"Well, the invoices came as something of a surprise to Mr O'Donnell," said the prosecutor.

Devine, of West Main Street, Bathgate, West Lothian, denies both charges of false accounting. The trial continues.