Peer Lord Hanningfield jailed for expenses fraud

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The Independent Online

A disgraced former Tory peer was jailed for nine months today for fiddling his parliamentary expenses.

Lord Hanningfield, 70, falsely claimed for nearly £14,000 for overnight stays in London when he was not in the capital.

His expenses-fiddling included one occasion in February 2008 when he was actually on board a flight to India.

In May he was found guilty of six counts of false accounting at Chelmsford Crown Court and today he was sentenced at Maidstone Crown Court.

Lord Hanningfield joins four ex-MPs and a fellow member of the Lords convicted of dishonestly obtaining thousands of pounds from the taxpayer by making false claims for allowances.

Lord Hanningfield, who showed no emotion as sentence was passed, has lodged an appeal.

Passing sentence, Mr Justice Saunders said he would now be partly remembered as a "benefits cheat".

He said: "While there were ambiguities in the peers' expenses schemes which have resulted in its revision, it was clear from the terms of the scheme, as well as according with common sense, that a peer could not claim an overnight allowance to cover the expense of staying the night in London when he did not stay in London but went home.

"It was perfectly clear from the terms of the scheme, as well as according with common sense, that a peer could not claim for travelling expenses that he did not incur."

The judge said that Lord Hanningfield was not paid for the work he carried out in the House of Lords but he refused to believe the extent to which he claimed he was out of pocket.

"He knew when he accepted a peerage that the job of a working peer was unpaid and he did not have to accept the honour," he went on.

"It is not for me to say whether peers should or should not be paid but whatever you think of the scheme, it was not for any peer to take money to which he was not entitled on the basis that he believes he is worth it."

The judge added: "Great trust was placed in peers to be honest in their claims for expenses.

"The public expects no less of them. Lord Hanningfield and others have broken that trust.

"The consequences for the reputation of the House of Lords have been serious."

Mr Justice Saunders said Lord Hanningfield could not benefit from a guilty plea when considering sentencing.

He said: "He has been diagnosed as suffering from clinical depression and he is being treated for that condition.

"The bringing of these charges brought about the end of his work which was very important to him.

"He is 70 and his physical health is not good. Imprisonment will be harder for him than for others who are mentally and physically fitter.

"Also, while others convicted in this series of prosecution will have some chance to rehabilitate themselves in the eyes of the public, Lord Hanningfield is less likely to be able to do that because of his age but it is not impossible that he will."

Mr Justice Saunders said he would reduce the length of imprisonment after hearing mitigation relating to his ill-health.

Professor Valerie Cowie told the court that Lord Hanningfield "collapsed completely" after being found guilty.

She said: "He was severely shocked. He was in a state of denial and confusion and he became physically unwell.

"His blood pressure increased and he had several falls, and latterly he has been very worried about his custodial sentence."

She added: "He did remark to me that if he did receive a custodial sentence he would be completely crushed.

"He has lost his resilience and he wouldn't be able to pick himself up again. He has since shown suicidal ideas."

Lord Hanningfield, an ex-Lords opposition frontbencher and leader of Essex County Council, claimed £13,379 in parliamentary expenses for overnight stays in London when he was not in the capital.

The peer, a former pig farmer from West Hanningfield, near Chelmsford, also fraudulently claimed £382 in train fares and £147 in mileage by doubling the seven-mile distance from his house to the railway station.

He told his trial that 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 alleged that most other peers treated the House of Lords as a "club", turning up there for only 10 minutes to claim their daily allowance.

The shamed peer insisted his parliamentary duties left him thousands of pounds out of pocket and said he "averaged out" his claims to recoup some of the money he spent.

When he was questioned by detectives, he told them to look at the records of other peers and claimed he was not the only one claiming expenses in this way.

Unmarried Lord Hanningfield told the trial that public service was his life and he worked very long hours on Lords and county council business.

He said he re-mortgaged his bungalow to fight the case and was living on a modest pension because he "never got round to signing the forms" for the local government pension to which he was entitled.

But prosecutors rejected the peer's "feeble excuse" for his "blatantly dishonest" behaviour, saying that peers are meant to serve the public and "not top up their income at the public's expense".

Four former Labour MPs - David Chaytor, Eric Illsley, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley - have already received prison terms for fiddling their parliamentary expenses.

Illsley has already been released from jail, and Chaytor was freed from Spring Hill open prison, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, on the day Lord Hanningfield was convicted after serving just a quarter of his 18-month sentence.

Another Conservative peer, Lord Taylor of Warwick, was jailed for 12 months and faces being suspended from the House of Lords.

In mitigation, defence counsel Alun Jones QC said Lord Hanningfield had been convicted of offences over a period of six out of 72 months.

He said: "He is convicted of dishonesty in six months of the prosecution's own choosing out of 72 months when the reality is that this man has actually given his own money for public service for all the 40 years he has been involved in it."

Mr Jones told Mr Justice Saunders that it would be "unjust and cruel" to jail Lord Hanningfield because of his old age and ill health.

He said: "It would only seek to appease a public opinion that has been moulded by the publicity over the past two years."

But the judge said there needed to be consistency in the sentencing. "Lord Hanningfield does not have the mitigation of a plea of guilty", he said.

"On the other hand his case can be distinguished to some extent from the others.

"As I said in the case of Lord Taylor, the evidence I have heard suggests that the expenses scheme in the Lords was treated more flexibly than in the Commons."

Following the case, the TaxPayers' Alliance said they hoped the case would help serve to restore public trust.

Its director Matthew Sinclair said: "It is good to see justice done and Lord Hanningfield sent to jail for abusing his expenses.

"He needed to go to prison to make it clear that ripping off taxpayers is a serious offence, and that no one is above the law when they falsify accounts.

"Hopefully this can be an important step towards restoring public trust and other expenses cheats will also face justice."