MP Devine denies expenses conversation
Two MPs did not advise a former colleague accused of fiddling his expenses to take cash from an allowance to pay his staff, a court heard today.
Former Labour backbencher Jim Devine claims he had a conversation with Tom Watson and Steve McCabe in the House of Commons Strangers Bar in which they told him he could use a communications allowance to cover staffing costs.
But the two MPs told Southwark Crown Court that no such discussion took place.
Devine, 57, who held a seat in the House of Commons for Livingston, West Lothian, is on trial for falsely claiming almost £9,000 from the public purse.
Tom Watson, MP for West Bromwich East, said he hardly knows Devine.
He told the court: "He was a colleague, a parliamentary colleague, that's basically it.
"I don't share any political interest with Jim Devine and I was a minister for a long time and he was a back bencher, so we didn't meet often, and never did I socialise with him, so I hardly know him."
The MP was asked by Peter Wright QC, prosecuting, about the alleged conversation in Strangers shortly before the parliamentary recess for Christmas in 2008.
He said: "Jim was in there quite a lot. But I don't recall going with him to the Strangers Bar.
"I was slightly taken aback when I saw the defence statement suggesting I did that. I have absolutely no recollection of any conversation that took place."
Mr Watson, a former defence minister, told the court if anyone came to him with a question about expenses, he would point them in the direction of the fees office, rather than give them advice.
The prosecution barrister asked the MP if he ever told Devine he could use money from his communications allowance "in order to fund staffing costs".
He said: "No."
Devine is on trial facing two charges of false accounting.
The first count alleges that, between July 2008 and May 2009, Mr Devine dishonestly claimed £3,240 for cleaning services from Tom O'Donnell Hygiene and Cleaning Services.
The second count alleges that between March 2009 and April 2009, Mr Devine dishonestly claimed £5,505 for stationery from Armstrong Printing using false invoices.
Mr Devine, of West Main Street, Bathgate, West Lothian, denies both charges.
Cross-examining Mr Watson, Gavin Millar QC, defending, put it to him that he did have the conversation with Devine.
The MP said he did not and then told the court: "I don't know what I'm doing here, if I'm honest, I hardly know Jim Devine."
Mr Millar asked the MP if he thought parliamentary expenses were "quite generous" before the scandal hit the headlines.
The MP replied: "I don't know what a barrister earns but I expect it's not as much."
Mr Millar said: "£10,000 a year to communicate with your constituents, and there's an opportunity to employ staff, to run an office, personal travel expenses, plus the opportunity to claim for a second home.
"It seems fairly generous."
In a moment of light relief from the tense courtroom exchanges, Mr Justice Saunders, the trial judge, interjected to say: "Can I just say, criminal barristers do not earn a lot of money."
Devine's defending barrister went on to press Mr Watson further, asking him if it was commonplace for MPs to discuss their expenses with each other.
Mr Millar said: "It would be a topic of conversation, about your expenses?"
The MP said: "Rarely actually. We were very busy. I have no recollection of a conversation with Jim Devine."
Mr Millar said he did not ask him about Devine.
The MP replied: "They don't spend all the time talking about it."
The barrister then said he was not asking if they spoke about expenses "all the time".
At this point, the judge interrupted the exchanges to say: "This is getting like a Jeremy Paxman interview.
"So let's just calm down. That's no slur on Jeremy Paxman, by the way."
Mr Wright then called another MP, Steve McCabe, who holds the seat for Birmingham Sellyoak.
The Scot said he knew Devine from when he was a member of a team sent by the Labour Party to help win the Livingston by-election in 2005 after the death of Robin Cook.
He also denied the conversation in the Strangers Bar ever took place and said he would advise any colleague with a query about expenses to contact the fees office.
Cross-examining Mr McCabe, the defence barrister told him what Devine remembered from the evening around Christmas 2008.
Mr Millar said: "His recollection is you had been to some sort of do in the afternoon or early evening, and you were quite merry."
The MP denied that, saying he had been suffering from colitis at the time, so it was "quite unlikely" he would have been drinking alcohol.
Mr Millar said his client remembers mentioning to Mr McCabe that he was having difficulty meeting his staffing cost because he was being taken to an employment tribunal.
According to Devine, Mr McCabe told him he could transfer a certain amount of money out of his communications allowance to cover the costs.
Mr Millar said: "You suggested he could do that if he got a 'friendly printer' who could give him a receipt."
The MP denied he said that.
Yesterday, the court heard Devine asked for his printing company to mark two invoices to indicate he had paid for orders when in fact the jobs were never completed or paid for.
Terry Bird, the director of operations of resources at the House of Commons from September 2004 to March 2005, told the jury about the expenses handbook which was issued to MPs, the Green Book, and how parliamentarians could contact the fees office by telephone or visit a drop-in centre.
Mr Bird said his staff would not have advised any MP that they could submit a receipt for something they had not yet paid for.
He said: "The Green Book was clear, and the staff were clear, that the additional costs allowance was a reimbursement allowance."
The man in charge of the team of fees office clerks said they would only pay out for expenses backed up by invoices.
Mr Wright explained the financial difficulties Devine found himself in as a result of the employment tribunal against him.
He said: "Mr Devine had encountered problems with a member of his staff, Marion Kinley. That had resulted in him suspending her.
"She would have received pay during the period of suspension. That wouldn't be payment directly from his pocket."
He said the fees office would continue to pay her.
Mr Bird said if Devine found himself in difficulty with paying for temporary staff and asked for advice from his clerks, they would have told him he may be eligible for the temporary secretarial allowance.
During cross examination, Mr Millar said his client had taken advice from a member of the fees office called Andy Gibson.
He has since been convicted for obtaining money by deception while he was processing expense claims and was jailed in September last year for nine months.
The trial was adjourned to Monday, when the defence is likely to open its case.
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