The three Labour MPs accused of expenses fraud claimed the protection of parliamentary privilege yesterday as they appeared for the first time in court.
Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine stood together in the dock to plead not guilty to charges of theft by false accounting. They face up to seven years in prison if found guilty.
Their barrister, Julian Knowles, told the City of Westminster magistrates' court that they "unequivocally and steadfastly" maintained their innocence. He said they did not regard themselves as above the law, but believed the accusations against them should be investigated by Parliament and not the criminal courts. Mr Knowles said they would argue that the prosecution infringed the principle of the "separation of powers" between the courts and the legislature.
"The principle of the separation of powers means that whatever matter arises concerning the workings of Parliament should be dealt with by Parliament and not elsewhere," he told the court.
A former Tory frontbencher, Lord Hanningfield, also pleaded not guilty to six charges of false accounting. The four defendants were released on unconditional bail and ordered to appear at Southwark Crown Court on 30 March.
Morley, the MP for Scunthorpe, is alleged to have dishonestly claimed £30,428 in second home expenses on a house in Winterton, Lincolnshire. Chaytor, the MP for Bury North, faces charges that he claimed almost £13,000 in rent on a London flat which he owned, as well as £5,425 to rent a property in Lancashire owned by his mother. He is also alleged to have used false invoices to claim £1,950 for IT services.
Devine, the MP for Livingston, is alleged to have claimed £3,240 for cleaning and £5,505 for stationery using false invoices. Hanningfield faces six charges of false accounting, relating to claims for overnight allowances from the House of Lords, when records allegedly show he was, in fact, driven to his home near Chelmsford.
The three MPs have been suspended by the Labour Party and will not fight the next election, while Lord Hanningfield has been suspended by the Conservatives. As they left court, the group were met by protesters shouting "give us our money back", "pigs" and "oink, oink".