Three Labour MPs due to appear in court after allegedly abusing their expenses have risked angering voters further after they won their battle to have their legal fees paid by taxpayers.
David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and Jim Devine will all receive legal aid to fight their cases, despite earning a £65,000 annual salary as MPs. Each faces a maximum prison sentence of seven years if found guilty of false accounting. They stand accused of stealing almost £60,000 in allowances.
The trio have already caused consternation by using an archaic law to suggest that, as politicians, they should not be tried by the courts. Their legal team has argued that parliamentary privilege dictates that their cases should be dealt with by Commons authorities.
Under legal aid rules, the three MPs were deemed eligible as they were at risk of losing their liberty. All Crown Courts are due to switch to a means-tested system for allocating the aid, but the MPs' income was not taken into account because Southwark Crown Court, which will hear their cases, has not yet switched to the new system. Lord Hanningfield, a Tory peer accused of making false claims for his travel costs, did not submit an application for legal aid. All four deny the charges.
David Cameron, the Tory leader, said the decision was a "complete outrage" that the public would never understand. "A Conservative government would have a review of legal aid, and there won't be legal aid available for members of Parliament who are accused of fiddling their expenses," he said.
Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, last night accused Mr Cameron of hypocrisy as the Tories had opposed government moves to limit the availability of legal aid in crown court cases. "Once again Mr Cameron expresses outrage when the cameras are on, but failed utterly to support change when he had the chance to do so," he said.
The MPs have hired barristers to argue their case, meaning their potential legal bill is set to run into hundreds of thousands of pounds. The final sum could rise even higher should they choose to take their cases all the way to the Supreme Court. They may be forced to pay back part or all of the money should they be convicted of the false accounting charges. Scotland Yard has disclosed that the cost of investigating the expenses scandal has run to £508,500 so far.
Mr Morley, 57, a former environment minister, faces charges that he falsely claimed £30,428 in interest payments for a three-year period on a "phantom mortgage" that had already been paid off. Mr Chaytor, 60, MP for Bury North, is accused of falsely claiming rent for a property he already owned, and of falsely filing invoices for IT work. Mr Devine, 56, MP for Livingston, is accused of wrongly submitting invoices worth £5,505 and of attempting to claim a £3,240 cleaning and maintenance bill using false invoices.
Their representatives will use two days of lengthy legal argument, due to start on 27 May, to try to stop the case going ahead. The principle of parliamentary privilege was enshrined in the 1689 Bill of Rights.
Yesterday, Michael Gove, the shadow Schools Secretary, said: "It's a slap in the face for every decent taxpayer in this country that these individuals should be continuing to use public money to fund their defence. It shows that you simply cannot trust a promise, either in this manifesto or uttered on Radio 4, by Labour Cabinet ministers during this campaign."
Chris Huhne, the Liberal Democrat home affairs spokesman, said: "It's absurd that well-to-do MPs on double-national-average earnings and extra expenses to boot should be entitled to legal aid when so many more deserving cases have been refused," he said.Reuse content