Lord Hanningfield 'on plane at time of expenses claim'

A Tory peer accused of fiddling his House of Lords expenses was on a plane to India when he claimed for overnight accommodation in London, a court heard today.

Lord Hanningfield, who is being tried under his name Paul White, made various claims for accommodation expenses incurred after performing his duties in the House of Lords between March 2006 and April 2009 but he did not stay at hotels in the capital, Chelmsford Crown Court was told.

The former leader of Essex County Council would claim for hotel costs but travel back to his home in West Hanningfield, near Chelmsford, Essex, said prosecutor Clare Montgomery QC.

She said: "We will call evidence to establish that each one of Lord Hanningfield's claims for night subsistence was false.

"He never stayed overnight in London at any stage during the period in the charges.

"On the vast majority of nights he went home to Hanningfield.

"On the few occasions he did not, he was not in London. He was variously on an airplane bound for India or at hotels outside London all paid for by someone else, mainly Essex County Council."

The 70-year-old denies six counts of false accounting.

Miss Montgomery suggested that, on some occasions, White would make false claims for travelling expenses to mask dishonest claims for overnight subsistence.

She told jurors: "You will need to consider whether the false travel claims were deliberately designed by Lord Hanningfield to hide the fact that he returned home to Hanningfield every night, normally by car.

"Was this because Lord Hanningfield knew that if he had accurately reported his journey home, it would have been obvious that he was not entitled to be paid overnight subsistence since he would not have had, or needed to have, any overnight accommodation in London?"

Miss Montgomery highlighted some of the instances when White was said to have made false claims for travel costs.

She said that in March 2006, White made claims for travel every Friday of the month, when the Lords rarely sit on Fridays.

He also claimed for a 15-mile journey from Chelmsford railway station to his home in West Hanningfield when the journey was actually only 7.5 miles, jurors were told.

Miss Montgomery said the finance department of the House of Lords, which authorised expense claims, operated largely on a "system of trust".

She added: "The prosecution case is that Lord Hanningfield took advantage of the system of trust to make false claims for travel and overnight accommodation in the six monthly claim forms with which he is charged."

The trial judge, Mr Justice Saunders, allowed White to sit behind his team of lawyers instead of in the dock because of hearing difficulties.

White, wearing a dark suit, a white stripped shirt and a grey patterned tie, listened intently as Miss Montgomery addressed the jury of three men and nine women.

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.

White was charged with the offences 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 leader of Essex County Council.

He was the leader of the council for about 10 years. White was first elected as an Essex county councillor in 1970.

He was made a life peer in 1998, during a spell on the Conservative Party board from 1997 to 2001.

White became a spokesman for the party in the Lords from 2003, shadowing variously local government, education, transport and finally business.

The peer has been a vigorous campaigner against post office closures and the expansion of Stansted airport.