Former MP is first to be jailed over expenses

 

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The Independent Online

Strip-searched, fingerprinted, photographed, numbered and in ill-fitting prison uniform, David Chaytor began his 18-month prison sentence last night as the first MP to be jailed for defrauding the taxpayer.

Chaytor, visibly thinner than when he was still serving as an MP 18 months ago, had sat with his head bowed at London's Southwark Crown Court as Mr Justice Saunders told him that the public had the right to expect that lawmakers would themselves be honest and that he had brought "humiliation" on himself.

"It is argued that I should conclude that Mr Chaytor has already suffered enough for what he has done," the judge said. "He has been vilified by the public and lost his position as an MP. His family, as well as he, have suffered and will continue to suffer from his public downfall. I am afraid that that is an inevitable consequence for people who achieve important public positions and who then go on to defraud the public who elected them."

Mr Justice Saunders added that while the former Labour MP for Bury North may only have played a small part in the erosion of public confidence that resulted from the expenses scandal, it was nevertheless important: he had been dishonest. "These kind of offences are difficult to detect because of the trust that is placed on the individual to be honest. When they are discovered it is necessary that serious penalties should follow. That is the only way in which the public's faith in the system can be restored and maintained."

The last time Chaytor, 61, had appeared in court – to plead guilty to three charges under the Theft Act – he was booed and hustled as he left. Yesterday he was spared that ignominy: he was led to the cells by a security guard, then to Wandsworth prison in south-west London.

Earlier, Chaytor had sat behind a glass screen in the defence box as Peter Wright, prosecuting, outlined the case against him. Mr Wright said that Chaytor had tried to claim a total of £22,650 in false expenses over two years of which he been paid £18,350 by the House of Commons authorities.

These included £15,275 in rent for a property in London which he claimed he was renting from his daughter and £5,425 rent for a house near Bury which was owned by his elderly mother, at the time in a care home suffering from dementia. In both cases Chaytor signed false tenancy agreements, Mr Wright said, and no money was paid either to his mother or daughter.

Chaytor also created two false invoices for "consultancy fees" from a local Labour party worker Paul France for £1,950 of computer work, labelled "With thanks". But Mr France told police he had never submitted any invoice to Chaytor nor been paid for the work. These claims were rejected by the House of Commons authorities but only because Chaytor had already claimed the maximum allowable to sundry expenses for the year.

"These claims were designed to siphon money from the public purse to which he was not entitled," said Mr Wright. "The invoices were fictitious as Mr Chaytor never incurred any consultancy fees. As far as the rental agreements were concerned, these were based on entirely bogus documents. We say Mr Chaytor knew the rules [of the House of Commons]. Why else would he produce false documents?"

James Sturman, defending, said since his arrest he had received huge support from MPs both past and present, some of whom had provided character witnesses to the judge. He said Chaytor was not attempting to deny his crimes and he felt a "deep and genuine" remorse. "He has nothing left of his sparkle except when he talks of his grandchild who was born just before Christmas," he said. Mr Sturman called on the judge not to "sate the call of the Newgate mob" by delivering "the final kicking of a man while he was down" and sending him to prison. It was a plea that fell on deaf ears.

Chaytor, who had arrived at court at 8am to try to avoid the waiting scrum of television crews and reporters, is likely to be moved to an open prison following a Prison Service assessment. He faces a significant legal bill for his defence and part of the prosecution costs, including for hearings at the High Court and Supreme Court.

Several other MPs and Lords are facing trial over their expense claims. They are the Scunthorpe Labour MP Elliot Morley, Jim Devine, the former Labour MP for Livingston, Eric Illsley, who represented Barnsley Central for Labour, Tory peer Lord Hanningfield and former Tory peer Lord Taylor of Warwick.

Chaytor's wife Sheena and daughter Sarah did not attend court.