Council leader quits amid expenses probe charges

THE leader of Essex County Council dramatically resigned this afternoon vowing to clear his name after it was announced he was to face criminal action.

EXCLUSIVE

By Roddy Ashworth

THE leader of Essex County Council dramatically resigned this afternoon vowing to clear his name after it was announced he was to face criminal proceedings.

Lord Hanningfield quit after it emerged he is to appear in court next month charged with falsifying parliamentary expenses claims.


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But the peer, who is to be charged with six offences, denied the allegations and vowed to “vigorously” defend himself against them.

He was also suspended from the parliamentary Conservative Party and resigned as a Tory frontbench spokesman after news of the impending legal action came to light.

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Director of public prosecutions Keir Starmer said that the Conservative Lord - along with three Labour MPs - will face charges under the Theft Act.

He faces six charges of false accounting in connection with claims for overnight allowances from the House of Lords between March 2006 and May 2009.

This afternoon he said: “I will defend my case vigorously. To allow me to do this properly, given what will be a time consuming business, I am resigning as leader of Essex County Council.

“At the next meeting of the Conservative group on Tuesday February 9 the process to elect a new leader will start.

“I intend to remain active with the work of the council.”

Lord Hanningfield is due to appear before City of Westminster Magistrates' Court on March 11.

He will be accused of dishonestly submitting claims to which he knew he was not entitled, including claims for overnight expenses for staying in London when records showed that he was driven to his home near Chelmsford, 46 miles away.

The charges carry a maximum sentence of seven years in prison.

Mr Starmer alleged there were “numerous” occasions on which Lord Hanningfield, 69, had knowingly claimed overnight expenses even though he returned home.

Reports have suggested that he claimed �99,970 in “overnight subsistence” since being made a Lord in 1998.

Case files on six Westminster politicians were handed to the CPS by detectives in November and December.

Mr Starmer said that one further case was still under investigation, while no action would be taken against Lord Clarke of Hampstead due to insufficient evidence.

The House of Commons politicians to face action are former minister and Scunthorpe MP Elliott Morley, Livingston MP Jim Devine and Bury North MP David Chaytor.

Mr Starmer said that the cases had been carefully reviewed by lawyers - including an independent and “highly experienced” QC - before a decision as to whether or not to proceed with charges had been made.

“In four cases, we have concluded that there is sufficient evidence to bring criminal charges and that it is in the public interest to charge the individuals concerned,” he said.

“Accordingly, summonses in these cases have been obtained from the City of Westminster Magistrates' Court and will now be served on the individuals in question.”

Lord Hanningfield last year blamed the allegations made against him on a “vindictive campaign” linked to a highly controversial shake-up of Colchester secondary school provision, and insisted he could justify all of his claims.

Yesterday the life peer, who has also served as a Tory whip in the House of Lords, said: “I am extremely disappointed by today's announcement that I am to be charged.

“All the claims I have ever made were made in good faith.

“I have co-operated fully with the police throughout their inquiries.

“I totally refute the charges and will vigorously defend myself against them.

“I have never claimed more in expenses than I have spent in the course of my duties.

“To avoid any embarrassment or distraction for my party, I am standing down from my frontbench duties in the House of Lords with immediate effect.”

A Tory party spokesman said: “Lord Hanningfield has today resigned his position in the House of Lords as shadow business spokesman.

“David Cameron has also asked Lord Strathclyde, Leader of the Opposition in the House of Lords, to suspend the Conservative whip with immediate effect.

“The Conservative Party has led the way in dealing with the MPs' expenses scandal.

“We were the first to publish the Right To Know form, the first to require the front bench to put their expenses online and the only party to have carried out a scrutiny of all our MPs expenses - leading to the paying back of over �250,000.”

On hearing news of the four parliamentarians being charged, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said: “I am very angry about what has happened.

“These are very serious criminal allegations.

“All criminal allegations have got to be investigated. It's a matter now for the courts.

“We have got to get rid of that old politics, it cannot be part of the new system.

“That's why I put forward proposals not just to reform the MPs' expenses system but to reform the way that Parliament works and the link between Parliament and the people of this country.”

Jack Straw, the Justice Secretary, declined to be drawn on the “possible outcome” of today's announcement of criminal action.

However, he said: “There is no doubt that the expenses scandal has of course been damaging to the reputation of individual MPs but also to the reputation of politics and Parliament.

“It is because of that that Gordon Brown, and I on his behalf, have established the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority.

“That will have complete control over the setting and administration and regulation of MPs' salaries and pensions, as well as expenses.

“Never again will we be in the position where we are setting our own allowances and, I'm afraid, not administering them properly either.”

Yesterday the TaxPayers' Alliance (TPA) welcomed the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) announcement that the four politicians would face criminal charges over the alleged expense abuses.

Matthew Elliott, the TPA's chief executive, said: “It is excellent news that the CPS have decided to bring charges against these politicians.

“The taxpaying public wants to see justice done.

“It has taken a long time to get to this stage, and the priority now must be for trials to be held as soon as possible.

“Anyone found guilty of breaking the law in their expenses claims should be punished severely for their breach of trust.”

- The charges in full:-

- Elliot Morley

The former Agriculture Minister and Labour MP for Scunthorpe faces two counts under the Theft Act 1968 of dishonestly claiming expenses.

The first count alleges that between April 2004 and February 2006, Mr Morley dishonestly claimed mortgage expenses of �14,428 for a house in Winterton, Lincolnshire.

The second count alleges that between March 2006 and November 2007 Mr Morley dishonestly claimed mortgage expenses of �16,000 for the same property when there was no longer a mortgage on that property.

- David Chaytor

The Bury North MP faces three charges under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 for false accounting.

The first count alleges that in May 2006 Mr Chaytor dishonestly claimed �1,950 for computer services by using false invoices.

The second count alleges that between September 2005 and September 2006 Mr Chaytor dishonestly claimed �12,925 for renting a property in Regency Street, London, when he was in fact its owner.

The third charge alleges that between September 2007 and January 2008 Mr Chaytor dishonestly claimed �5,425, purportedly for renting a property in Bury, Lancashire, from his mother.

- Jim Devine

The Livingston MP faces two charges under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 for false accounting.

The first count alleges that between July 2008 and April 2009 Mr Devine dishonestly claimed �3,240 for cleaning services using false invoices.

The second count alleges that in March 2009 Mr Devine dishonestly claimed �5,505 for stationery using false invoices.

- Lord Hanningfield

The Conservative Peer, who is also leader of Essex County Council, faces six charges under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 for false accounting.

The charges allege that between March 2006 and May 2009, he dishonestly submitted claims for expenses to which he knew he was not entitled.

The allegations focus on numerous claims for overnight expenses for staying in London when records show he was driven home and did not stay in the capital.

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