'Horrified' Lord Hanningfield defends expenses claims

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A Tory peer accused of expenses fraud said today he believed he was entitled to the money because most other members of the House of Lords claimed the full amount available.

Lord Hanningfield told Chelmsford Crown Court he was "horrified" to find himself being prosecuted because of claim forms he spent just "a minute a month" filling out.

The former Lords opposition frontbencher and Essex County Council leader is alleged to have fraudulently claimed parliamentary expenses for hotels in London between March 2006 and April 2009 when he did not in fact stay overnight in the capital.

Lord Hanningfield, 70, who denies six counts of false accounting, said he "quite honestly assumed" he could claim the maximum amount after learning that this was what 85% of peers did.

Asked by his defence counsel why he thought he was entitled to the full sum, he said: "The £30-40 a day that was then available on the daily allowance was very little."

The peer, from West Hanningfield, near Chelmsford, Essex, told the court he saw the money as a "living-out-of-London allowance" rather than overnight subsistence.

Lord Hanningfield said he spent "a minute a month" completing the Lords' expenses claim form in exactly the same way each time, not even including rises in train fares.

"If I had known how important some people saw those forms, I would have done much more. I didn't see it as self-certifying, I saw it as means of getting expenses," he said.

"No-one ever told me those forms were so important. I am horrified to be where I am now because of those forms."

He said he was told nothing about expenses when he was given an induction into the House of Lords for new peers and paid "very little attention" to the guidelines on the back of the claim forms.

Lord Hanningfield, who was ennobled in 1998 and served as a Tory shadow minister in areas including education and transport, said many other peers saw the House of Lords as a "club".

He alleged that another peer who had their main home in London designated a cottage in Wales as their primary address and claimed the full allowances for overnight subsistence, although he did not name them.

The court heard that Lord Hanningfield, who is from a farming background, receives only the state pension and a small agricultural pension of £120 a month.

He would be entitled to a local government pension for his 40 years on Essex County Council but "never got around to filling in the forms", the jury of nine women and three men was told.

The peer said he paid off the mortgage on his modest bungalow 10 years ago but recently remortgaged it to help pay for his lawyers during the trial as he is not taking legal aid.

Lord Hanningfield - who is being tried under his name Paul White - only learned that he was facing charges when director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer made a televised statement about the parliamentary expenses investigation in February last year.

He was suspended from the parliamentary Conservative Party and stood down as a frontbench business spokesman in the Lords and as Essex County Council leader.

"I was traumatised and haven't really recovered from it yet," he said.

Defence counsel Alun Jones QC asked him how he got with other members of the House of Lords now.

Lord Hanningfield replied: "Very well indeed. They have supported me 100% in the last few months - 'carry on fighting this to the end'."

But he said it was "very, very difficult indeed" to persuade any peers to come to court and give evidence on his behalf.

Lord Hanningfield said he started off attending the Lords for about 60 days a year but this increased to 100 when he became a frontbench spokesman.

"I think I was probably one of the 10 busiest peers that didn't get paid out of the 800 there," he said.

The unmarried peer worked extremely long hours on Lords and county council business and only rarely had a day off, the court heard.

"It was my life. I live by myself except for my dog and I really let it take over my life," he said.

He told the jury that he always used income from his farming to support his work as a councillor and a peer.

"I have enjoyed my public life and therefore I haven't minded subsidising it," he said.

Lord Hanningfield also had an Essex County Council corporate credit card which he used to pay for hotels, meals and travel for himself and others, the court heard.

He said: "If you're chairman of something or a peer, everyone thinks you've got masses of expenses.

"If you go into a bar or even a coffee shop with 10 people, they expect you to pay. It's just automatic.

"All the time you're paying for everyone else. It just happens all of the time."

Lord Hanningfield, who was wearing glasses and a blue suit with a striped shirt and a grey patterned tie, looked frail and had to lean on the witness stand for support as he gave evidence.

He has suffered from a "catalogue" of ill-health since being charged, including needing an eye operation, back problems and a cancer scare which turned out to be appendicitis, the court heard.

The grey-haired peer also "almost had a breakdown" in November, for which he needed psychiatric help and is still being treated for depression.

The trial was adjourned until tomorrow, when Lord Hanningfield will be cross-examined by the prosecution.