Three Labour MPs and a Tory peer charged under the Theft Act are preparing to argue that parliamentary privilege should protect them from being prosecuted for allegedly fiddling their expenses.
The focus of the expenses saga switched to the criminal courts yesterday when it was announced that the MPs David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley had been charged with false accounting. The Conservative peer, Lord Hanningfield, who resigned from his frontbench post yesterday, has been charged over his Lords expenses. All four strongly deny the charges.
The charges were announced by Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions. The three MPs said they believed questions over their expenses claims were a matter for the parliamentary authorities. Mr Starmer said: "We have considered that question and concluded that the applicability and extent of any parliamentary privilege claimed should be tested in court."
The Theft Act carries a maximum jail sentence of seven years. Six charges have been brought against Lord Hanningfield, three against Mr Chaytor and two each against Mr Morley and Mr Devine. They relate to claims for mortgage interest, rent, cleaning, computers and overnight allowances.
Mr Starmer said a fifth investigation, believed to be into claims by the Labour peer Baroness Uddin, was continuing. He said there was insufficient evidence to bring charges against the Labour peer Lord Clarke of Hampstead over claims for overnight allowances.
Mr Devine, the MP for Livingston, is alleged to have claimed £3,240 for cleaning and £5,505 for stationery using false invoices in 2008 and 2009.
Last night he told Channel 4 News that he was advised to claim for his year's cleaning bill in advance, even though, at the time, the work had not been done. "I was advised by a whip that I could do this. I was told that was acceptable," he said. "If I have done anything wrong it is that I have been naive. Have I benefited one pound financially? No, I haven't and that I think is the difference between saying I'm a criminal and saying I've made a mistake."
Mr Devine said he had also transferred the £5,505 from his stationery budget to his staffing budget to pay someone, and had then provided a receipt which "came from a printer's". When asked whether he invented the receipt, he replied: "It was not invented. It was not a lie. I would argue this was allowed at the time."
Mr Morley, the MP for Scunthorpe, is alleged to have dishonestly claimed £30,428 more than he was entitled to in second home expenses on a house in Winterton, Lincolnshire, between 2004 and 2007 – including 18 months after the mortgage was paid off.
Mr Chaytor, MP for Bury North, is accused of claiming almost £13,000 in rent in 2005 and 2006 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 claimed £1,950 for IT services using false invoices in 2006.
Lord Hanningfield faces six charges of false accounting, relating to claims for Lords overnight allowances between March 2006 and May 2009, when records allegedly show he was in fact driven to his home near Chelmsford.
The three Labour MPs said in a joint statement earlier yesterday: "We totally refute any charges that we have committed an offence and we will defend our position robustly. We are confident of our position and have been advised by eminent QCs."
Lord Hanningfield yesterday resigned as a Tory frontbench spokesman and had the party whip removed. He also stood down as the leader of Essex County Council. The four parliamentarians are to appear before City of Westminster magistrates' court on 11 March, less than a month before the expected start of the election campaign.
Visiting Exeter for a regional meeting of the Cabinet, Gordon Brown said: "It is a matter now for the courts. We have got to get rid of that old politics – it cannot be part of the new system." David Cameron, the Tory leader, said: "The police and prosecution authorities should prosecute anybody who has broken the law without fear or favour."
*It was reported last night that Nadine Dorries, Conservative MP for Mid Bedfordshire who is being investigated by the parliamentary sleaze watchdog over her use of the second homes allowance, paid £35,000 of public money to a PR firm run by a close friend. Ms Dorries, according to The Daily Telegraph, claimed the money under her office allowance, staffing budget and communications allowance between September 2008 and June 2009, paying Marketing Management (Midlands) Ltd, run by Lynn Elson, for "PR, research and media services". Ms Dorries declined to comment.
In the dock: The accused politicians
The former psychiatric nurse and union official served as Robin Cook's election agent for 22 years.
When the former Foreign Secretary died in 2005, Mr Devine was a natural choice to contest the by-election in his Livingston constituency four months later. He retained the seat for Labour but saw the party's majority of 13,000 under Cook cut to 2,680.
He served as a parliamentary aide to the Health minister, Rosie Winterton, until he resigned in protest at the decision to renew the Trident missile system.
Mr Devine, 56, was barred from standing at the general election by Labour's National Executive Committee over the expenses scandal. He has been charged with dishonestly claiming expenses for cleaning and stationery.
The long-serving Scunthorpe MP and former special needs teacher became one of Labour's most prominent voices on rural affairs and animal welfare. He notched up a marathon 17 years on the party's front bench, first as opposition spokesman on agriculture and then as agriculture and environment ministers. Mr Morley, 57, left government in 2006 with a high reputation in the green lobby. He pursued his interests on the back benches as chairman of the Commons Energy and Climate Change Select Committee. He was suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party, over allegations he claimed expenses for a mortgage that had been paid off.
A former teacher at the Manchester College of Arts and Technology, Mr Chaytor became the MP for Bury North in Labour's 1997 general election landslide. In his maiden speech, he paid tribute to the black puddings produced in his home town, as well as its league football team.
Mr Chaytor, 60, who is on the left of the party, has remained on the back benches throughout his parliamentary career, concentrating on environmental and education issues. Mr Chaytor announced in June that he would stand down at the election after he was accused of dishonestly claiming £18,000 in rent.
Paul White, a 69-year-old pig farmer, took his title from West Hanningfield, the Essex village where his family can trace its roots to the 15th century. A Conservative councillor for 40 years, he was leader of Essex County Council from 2001 until he stood down yesterday. Last year he won headlines over the establishment of a "Bank of Essex" to help local companies raise money during the credit crunch. He was created a life peer in 1998 and promoted to the Tory front bench five years later. Until yesterday, when he also lost the party whip, he was a shadow business spokesman.