Expenses peer Lord Hanningfield is found guilty – on day disgraced MP is freed early

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The Independent Online

A former Tory frontbencher faces jail after being found guilty yesterday on six counts of fiddling his parliamentary expenses. Lord Hanningfield, who had been a Conservative transport spokesman as well as leader of Essex County Council, was convicted for false claims for overnight stays, mileage and train fares.

He had denied dishonestly claiming expenses totalling almost £14,000, but was found guilty by a jury at Chelmsford Crown Court. The vast bulk of the fraudulent claims - £13,379 – were for £174-a-day overnight allowances for London when he was often returning in a chauffeur-driven car provided by the council to his home in Essex.

On one occasion the peer, who was a pig farmer before he embarked on a political career, was actually on a flight to India. He also wrongfully claimed £382 in train fares, as well as £147 in mileage by doubling the seven-mile distance from his house to the station.

Lord Hanningfield, who will be sentenced in three weeks' time, said as he left court: "I am devastated, but I have no regrets. I did nothing wrong."

He said he was considering an appeal. When he was caught up in the expenses scandal, the 70-year-old peer, who was tried under his name of Paul White, told detectives he was only doing the same as "500 or 600 other peers".

He told the court that he had "averaged out" his expenses claims to compensate for the money he had spent elsewhere pursuing parliamentary duties. He added that he needed to return to his home to look after his pet dog, which he described as his best friend.

"I do not lead an extravagant lifestyle. Most of my clothes are from Marks and Spencer," he said. "I enjoy the occasional glass of wine but that's about it. I have no savings, no stocks and shares, nothing like that."

Stephen O'Doherty, for the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "It is common knowledge a peer does not receive a salary for their services, and anyone accepting a peerage does so in that knowledge. Peers in the House of Lords are supposed to serve the public, not top up their income at the public's expense.

"The jury has today seen through this feeble excuse for his conduct and rightfully agreed with the prosecution that such behaviour is blatantly dishonest."

Lord Hanningfield was promoted to the Tory frontbench in 2003, holding a series of posts until he faced accusations over his claims.

He stepped down both as a party spokesman, and as leader of Essex council, and was suspended from the Tory whip when the expenses allegations emerged.

He blamed the allegations against him on a "vindictive campaign" and insisted he could justify all claims. Lord Hanningfield is the sixth parliamentarian to be found guilty of expenses fraud. Four former Labour MPs – David Chaytor, Eric Illsley, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley – have already received prison terms.

Chaytor was freed yesterday on an electronic tag from Spring Hill open prison, Buckinghamshire, under the home detention curfew scheme. He has nearly five months of his 18-month sentence for falsely claim more than £22,000.