Accused MPs 'will have to pay back legal aid'

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Labour MPs awarded legal aid to fund their court battle against charges that they fiddled parliamentary expenses will have to pay the money back, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said today.

The disclosure yesterday that David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and Jim Devine would receive legal aid was denounced as a "complete outrage" by Tory leader David Cameron, who promised a review of the system if he won power to ensure it would not happen again.

But Justice Secretary Jack Straw said Labour had already introduced reforms, against Tory opposition, to enable the courts to means-test white-collar defendants for legal aid. The changes were not being implemented in time to cover the MPs' case.

Asked about the case today during a phone-in on BBC Radio Derby, Mr Brown said: "I think this money will have to be paid back by these politicians.

"I think the evidence is that people in their position will have to pay back the money - or most of the money - they get in legal aid.

"We have actually abolished this free legal aid from the end of June, so it has to be means-tested from the end of June and they wouldn't have got it in these circumstances.

"The law has changed, so I think the money will have to be paid back."

Mr Brown said the offences with which the MPs are charged were "completely morally unacceptable" and said he was proposing changes to the law to allow voters to recall MPs who are found to have committed financial wrongdoing.

"I think it is very unfortunate that we have had these MPs who nobody really knew were actually doing these things," he said.

"These are practices that, of course, the courts have got to judge on, but are completely morally unacceptable to me.

"I have always believed that the only reason to be an MP is for public service and not to serve yourself, for what you can put in not what you can get out."

The three MPs are accused of stealing almost £60,000 between them in allowances through false mortgage applications, rent claims and invoices for services.

The cost of preparing their defence and of their legal representatives is likely to run into six figures, depending on the length of the trial, with speculation that it could exceed £3 million as the men threaten to take their battle to the Supreme Court.

An HM Courts Service spokesman confirmed an application for legal aid for the three men was granted last Friday.

A court official said Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield, who is accused of making false claims for travel allowances, has not made an application for legal aid.

The MPs have brought together some of the country's most eminent barristers, who can charge hundreds of pounds an hour, to fight their cases.

They have already told judges they should be dealt with by parliamentary authorities instead of the courts.

Mr Straw said yesterday that the decision to award legal aid had been taken by officials at Southwark Crown Court in London, where the three MPs are due to stand trial later in the year.

He said it was "unfortunate" that the changes to enable means-testing which were being rolled out around the country had not yet reached Southwark.

"I can understand why people can be angry about this kind of potential expenditure," he said.

He emphasised, however, that, as a result of the Government's changes, the MPs could be ordered to repay the aid they received if they were subsequently found guilty.

Speaking on his battlebus tour yesterday, Mr Cameron said: "What a complete outrage. The people who wouldn't even stand in the dock and answer the charges now expect all of you to pay for their defence.

"Well, I can tell you something - we are having a review of legal aid under a Conservative government.

"You can't preview and prejudice every part of that review but I can tell you what - there won't be legal aid available for MPs who are accused of fiddling their expenses."

This morning, Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg said: "It is outrageous that Labour MPs be given access to legal aid, totally incomprehensible.

"It is a very fitting footnote on the last day of the last week of what I think will go down as the most corrupt Parliament in living memory."

There is now likely to be protracted legal argument over whether the men should face trial at all later this year.

Barrister Julian Knowles said the defendants will claim to be protected by parliamentary privilege, covered in the 1689 Bill of Rights.

The opening shots will be fired during a two-day hearing before trial judge Mr Justice Saunders at Southwark Crown Court from May 27.

Bury North MP Chaytor, 60, of Todmorden, Lancashire, is accused of falsely claiming rent on a London flat he owned, falsely filing invoices for IT work and renting a property from his mother, against regulations.

Scunthorpe MP Morley, 57, of Winterton, North Lincolnshire, allegedly falsely claimed £30,428 in interest payments between 2004 and 2007 towards a mortgage on his home which he had already paid off

Livingston MP Devine, 56, of Bathgate, West Lothian, is said to have wrongly submitted two invoices worth a total of £5,505 for services provided by Armstrong Printing Limited.

He also faced a second charge alleging that he dishonestly claimed cleaning and maintenance costs of £3,240 by submitting false invoices from Tom O'Donnell Hygiene and Cleaning Services.

Former Essex County Council leader Lord Hanningfield, 69, faces six charges of making dishonest claims for travelling allowances.

The politicians could face up to seven years in jail if found guilty of stealing taxpayers' cash. Each defendant will be tried separately.