Elliot Morley, the most senior politician to face trial over the expenses scandal was sentenced yesterday to 16 months in jail for fiddling more than £30,000.
The former Labour MP, who has been praised by environmentalist as one of the best "green" ministers to serve in any British government, left court in a prison van, a man ruined by what his lawyer, Jim Sturman QC, described as "an absolutely ridiculous and inexplicable course of criminal conduct". Mr Morley sat hunched in the crowded courtroom during the two-hour hearing, and twice wiped tears away. Once was after Mr Sturman had pointed out his client was facing judgment alone, because he did not want his wife and children to have to pass the cameras outside the court.
He was also reduced to tears after Mr Sturman had read from a tribute to his ministerial career by The Independent's Environment Editor, Michael McCarthy, written soon after he had been exposed as an expenses cheat.
Mr Morley pleaded guilty to the largest fraud by any MP to come before the courts, but drew a comparatively light sentence, partly because the crime was so unsophisticated.
He was entitled under Commons rules to reclaim the interest paid on the mortgage on his second home, near Scunthorpe. For three and a half years he submitted claims for £800 a month, which, despite written requests from the Fees Office, were never backed by any documents.
Between May 2004 and February 2009, the mortgage he was paying varied between £52 and £5.85 a month. In February 2009, the mortgage was paid off, and Mr Morley was told in writing by his building society that there was no longer a charge on the property. But he carried on claiming, and the Fees Office carried on paying, despite the absence of any evidence to back his claim, until he had defrauded taxpayers of more than £30,000.
He rapidly repaid the money after the fraud was uncovered by the Daily Telegraph in May 2009, explaining he was "horrified" to have discovered he had committed "an embarrassing and inadvertent oversight". But passing sentence, Mr Justice Saunders said: "I am satisfied from the nature of the mortgage transactions and the correspondence that the excessive claims were made deliberately and are not explicable, even in part, by oversight."
Mr Morley was Labour MP for Scunthorpe from 1987 to 2010, and served for nine years as an environment minister, before being abruptly sacked in 2006 after a dispute with the treasury about government policy on climate change.
Mr Sturman pointed out that, at the age of 59, Morley faced an "uncertain future". Because of his dishonesty, he has forfeited the £64,000 resettlement grant he would have received after 23 years in Parliament, and faced heavy legal costs. Mr Sturman added that his client would have difficulty finding work after leaving prison.
Matthew Sinclair, Director of the TaxPayers' Alliance, said: "Morley's jail sentence is justice for taxpayers who he cheated and stole from. The damage done by the MPs' expenses scandal is still being repaired and it will take time to restore the public's trust."
'The truth about Elliot Morley'
The following is from a piece published in May 2009 by Michael McCarthy, Environment Editor of The Independent, that was used as mitigating evidence during Morley's hearing yesterday
*In the course of reporting on the environment for The Independent, I have observed every Labour environment minister since 1997, and I have no doubt at all that the one who has done the most to protect the natural world is Elliot Morley.
Mr Morley spent nine years in office, from 1997 to 2006, continually dealing with green issues, and, in all that time, he was on what environmentalists would instinctively think of as the right side of the argument.
He sought to follow the advice of scientists concerned about fish stocks; he was an outspoken opponent of commercial whaling; he was a firm supporter of the bill which banned foxhunting; he was a strong opponent of both GM crops and the reintroduction of nuclear power.
Most of all he became concerned about climate change – and it was that which did for his ministerial career. In trying to get other departments to meet Labour's ultimately unsuccessful target of a 20 per cent cut in carbon emissions, he incurred the enmity of a powerful figure in Downing Street who was not only the friend of heavy industry but who had the ear of Tony Blair – and Morley was sacked in May 2006.
This man spent all his long ministerial career defending the environment, and lost his job by trying too hard to save it. Say what you like. Cast what stones you want. This is the truth.