Lord Hanningfield loses expenses conviction plea

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The Independent Online

A former Tory peer jailed after being found guilty of fiddling his parliamentary expenses lost an appeal against his conviction today.

Lord Hanningfield, 70, was found guilty of six counts of false accounting following a trial at Chelmsford Crown Court in May and jailed for nine months on July 1.

At the Court of Appeal in London, Lord Justice Hughes, Mr Justice Treacy and Mr Justice Blake rejected his application for permission to appeal and said the proposed grounds were "unarguable".

The main argument put forward for Lord Hanningfield, who was not in court, was that the trial judge misdirected the jury as to the mental element in his defence, which was that he believed he was entitled to do as he did as it was the accepted custom and practice of the Lords.

But Lord Justice Hughes said: "We are entirely satisfied that, however sad the background to this case may be, and however sad may be the end of what was otherwise a distinguished career in public service, this jury did receive an accurate direction in law.

"It faced, and had to face, the question of whether it believed or rejected the defendant's assertions of belief and, sadly, it is plain that it rejected them."

Lord Hanningfield was accused of falsely claiming nearly £14,000 for overnight stays in London when he was not in the capital.

Passing sentence, Mr Justice Saunders said the ex-Lords opposition frontbencher and leader of Essex County Council, would now be partly remembered as a "benefits cheat".

The court heard that Lord Hanningfield was in ill-health and had been diagnosed with clinical depression.

A former pig farmer from West Hanningfield, near Chelmsford, he told jurors he treated the Lords expenses for staying overnight in London as an allowance for living outside the capital and spent just "a minute a month" completing his claim forms.

He insisted his parliamentary duties left him £50,000 out of pocket and said he "averaged out" his claims to recoup some of the money he spent.

In their ruling today, the appeal judges said that Lord Hanningfield lived in comparatively modest circumstances in a bungalow and was a man who was "both experienced and hardworking in public life".

Lord Justice Hughes said: "It was his explicit case that he believed he was entitled to say that he had stayed the night in London when he hadn't, and incurred costs in travel when he hadn't, in order to recoup the shortfall of rent that was not payable under the expenses system, and research assistant costs which were likewise not payable.

"In this court, the question which matters is not whether the defendant is right, truthful or justified, or not. All of that was a question for the jury.

"This court does not and cannot decide questions of fact of that kind - it does not have the evidence.

"The question raised by this application is one of law. It is 'did the judge misdirect the jury to the disadvantage of the defendant?'."