Three former MPs and a peer have failed in their attempt to avoid standing trial in the criminal courts over claims they fiddled their expenses by arguing that their Westminster seats made them immune from prosecution.
David Chaytor, Elliot Morley, Jim Devine and Lord Hanningfield had argued that the 300-year-old law of "parliamentary privilege" meant that the allegations against them could not be tried in the courts. However, they will now face trial after their plea was thrown out by a senior judge yesterday.
In his landmark ruling, Mr Justice Saunders said there was no justification for expenses bills to be covered by privilege, a principle enshrined in law as part of the 1689 Bill of Rights. "I can see no logical, practical or moral justification for a claim for expenses being covered by privilege," he said. "I can see no legal justification for it either."
The three former Labour MPs and the Tory peer are now set to have the allegations of false accounting against them put before a jury. They face a maximum prison sentence of seven years if found guilty. All four deny the charges. They did not appear at the hour-long hearing at Southwark Crown Court yesterday.
Restrictions on the media were also lifted so that Mr Justice Saunders' ruling could be reported in full. He said his decision cleared the way "for what most people accused of criminal behaviour would wish for: a fair trial before an impartial jury". He also granted the men the right to appeal against his decision. A hearing is expected to take place at the Court of Appeal within the next two weeks.
The judge said he would have raised the issue of parliamentary privilege even if it had not been queried by the defendants. "The even more extreme suggestion in some quarters, that the fact that the defendants have raised this issue is some indication of guilt, is not only misconceived but also unfair," he said.
However, he concluded that their attempt to suggest parliamentary privilege extended to the submitting of expenses forms was like arguing that a coin used in a slot machine was part of the machinery. "The principle that all men are equal before the law is an important one and should be observed unless there is good reason why it should not apply," he said. "To do otherwise would risk bringing both the courts and Parliament into disrepute and diminish confidence in the criminal justice system."
Parliamentary privilege means that MPs cannot be sued for speeches they make in the Commons. It has been extended over the centuries to cover other parliamentary work including drafts of speeches.
The four men will be tried separately should their appeal fail. Chaytor, 60, the former MP for Bury North, is accused of claiming rent on a property in London that he already owned, of falsely handing in invoices for IT work, and of breaking rules by renting a property from his mother.
Morley, 57, the former energy minister and MP for Scunthorpe, has been charged with falsely claiming £30,428 in mortgage interest payments given to him between 2004 and 2007 on a property he had already paid off in full. Devine, also 57, the former MP for Livingston, is alleged to have wrongly claimed £3,240 for cleaning services and £5,505 for stationery, using false invoices.
Lord Hanningfield, who has been suspended from the Tory Party, faces six charges of false accounting. The former leader of Essex county council is accused of making dishonest claims for travelling allowances.Reuse content