Tory peer Lord Hanningfield convicted of expenses fraud

A former Tory peer is facing jail after being found guilty of fraudulently claiming nearly £14,000 in the final parliamentary expenses trial.

Lord Hanningfield, 70, joins four ex-MPs and a fellow member of the Lords already convicted of dishonestly obtaining thousands of pounds from the taxpayer by making false claims for allowances.

The jury of nine women and three men took just four hours to find him guilty of six counts of false accounting after an eight-day trial at Chelmsford Crown Court.

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.

This included one occasion in February 2008 when he was actually on board a flight to India.

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 train station.

He continues to protest his innocence and is considering an appeal, telling reporters as he left court: "I'm devastated but I have no regrets. I did nothing wrong."

Lord Hanningfield told the jury 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 disgraced 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, who is suffering from ill health, told the court 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.

Stephen O'Doherty, reviewing lawyer for the Crown Prosecution Service, said: "The defence of Lord Hanningfield, also known as Paul White, was that he was not paid a salary and that justified him claiming for expenses that he had never incurred.

"This was in our view completely unacceptable and clearly the jury agreed in returning guilty verdicts.

"It is common knowledge that a peer does not receive a salary for their services, and anyone accepting a peerage does so in that knowledge.

"Peers in the House of Lords are supposed to serve the public, 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 today from Spring Hill open prison, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire, under the home detention curfew scheme after serving just a quarter of his 18-month sentence.

Another Conservative peer, Lord Taylor of Warwick, will be sentenced at Southwark Crown Court on Tuesday and Lord Hanningfield will learn his fate at Chelmsford Crown Court in three weeks.

It can be disclosed now, after the end of the last expenses trial currently before the courts, that the judge hearing the cases ordered Lord Sugar to remove a Twitter message speculating during Lord Taylor's trial that the peer would be cleared because he was a Tory.

Mr Justice Saunders told the multi-millionaire Apprentice business guru, who is a Labour peer, to delete the posting for fear it could unfairly influence jurors and referred the matter to Attorney General Dominic Grieve.

The judge also criticised Prime Minister David Cameron, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg and former prime minister Gordon Brown for joining a "pre-election frenzy" over the expense cheat MPs that nearly scuppered their trials.

At a pre-trial hearing he said the then-leaders of all three main parties "joined in the condemnation" of defendants being granted legal aid to argue that they should not face a judge and jury.

Scotland Yard said a "small number" of other cases involving parliamentary expenses were still either being considered by prosecutors or investigated by the police.