Police Handover More Files On Westminster Expenses

(Guardian) – TWO MORE POLITICIANS may face criminal charges in the new year after Scotland Yard passed files of evidence to prosecutors.

Detectives from the Metropolitan police have been examining allegations that a “handful” of MPs and peers have committed criminal offences, including fraud and false accounting, over their expenses claims.

The Crown Prosecution Service is already examining files on four politicians and the cases of two more individuals were referred. Scotland Yard is continuing to investigate a small number of cases, a spokesman said.

The Met commissioner, Sir Paul Stephenson, said last month that a team of detectives was looking at a number of politicians – in single rather than double figures.

Scotland Yard has not confirmed the names of those individuals whose files were passed to prosecutors. But six individuals have been named in media reports as possibly being the subject of police inquiries. These include the Labour MPs Elliot Morley and David Chaytor, who each claimed thousands of pounds for mortgages which had already been paid off. Jim Devine, a third Labour MP, has reportedly been under investigation for invoices he submitted for electrical work worth more than £2,000 from a company with an allegedly fake address and an invalid VAT number.

Other names linked to the inquiry include the Labour peers Lady Uddin, who is facing allegations over a £100,000 claim in allowances, and Lord Clarke of Hampstead, a former party chairman, who has admitted his “terrible error” in claiming up to £18,000 a year for overnight subsistence when he often stayed with friends in London or returned home to St Albans, Hertfordshire.

Lord Hanningfield, a Tory peer who is also leader of Essex county council, was reported to be under investigation over whether he was returning to his home while claiming overnight allowances totalling £100,000 over a seven-year period.

The files are being considered by the director of public prosecutions, Keir Starmer, who has to decide whether there is a realistic chance of securing a conviction and what charges he should bring.

The criminal offences which are likely to be being examined are fraud and false accounting. The former has maximum penalties of 10 years in prison and the latter seven years.

False accounting is covered by the 1968 Theft Act and carries a sentence of up to seven years. It states that a representation is false if the person making it “knows that it is, or might be, untrue or misleading”.

The 2006 Fraud Act states that a person is guilty if he “dishonestly makes a false representation”.

The Met said a small number of cases remained under investigation by detectives. “The Metropolitan police service has delivered two further files of evidence relating to parliamentary expenses to the Crown Prosecution Service.

“These files relate to two people and will now be subject to CPS consideration on whether there should be any charges.

“The CPS is now considering files relating to a total of six people from both houses. A small number of cases remain under investigation.”

The CPS said: “The CPS received two additional files of evidence from the Metropolitan police in relation to parliamentary expenses. Any decisions on whether or not there should be any charges in relation to these files and those already received will be made as quickly as is reasonably practical. It would be inappropriate to comment any further at this stage.”

The alleged abuses of the expenses system by MPs, such as claiming for “phantom” mortgages and creating fake receipts, are obvious cases for investigation as potential breaches of these laws, according to criminal lawyers.

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Lord Hanningfield File To Go To CPS

(Telegraph) – THE DAILY TELEGRAPH UNDERSTANDS that detectives will imminently pass files on Labour MPs Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine, and peers Baroness Uddin, Lord Hanningfield and Lord Clarke of Hampstead to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Keir Starmer, the country’s top prosecutor, is expected to make a decision on whether to prosecute the politicians as early as January, before a General Election.

The Director of Public Prosecutions will decide whether the MPs and peers face court on counts of fraud, which carries a maximum sentence on conviction of 10 years, or false accounting, for which the maximum penalty is up to seven years.

Police and criminal lawyers are confident that charges will be brought.

A team of detectives have been assessing and investigating cases for the past five months since The Daily Telegraph’s Expenses Files investigation disclosed widespread abuse of parliamentary allowances.

They are now on the verge of finalising their files to send to prosecutors.

A Westminster source said: ‘We have heard that things are about to come to a head.’ A spokesman for the Crown Prosecution Service said that they had not yet received files; but it is understood that they are expected imminently.

Police are liaising with Sir Thomas Legg, who is carrying out a full audit of MPs expenses, and are believed to have taken witness statements from senior civil servants and members of the Fees Office who processed the suspected claims. Witnesses, including constituency workers and banking officials, have also been interviewed by police as detectives build up a file of evidence.

A small team of officers who specialise in financial investigations have carried out a low profile inquiry, with no arrests. It is believed that MPs and peers have co-operated with requests from them for evidence from their emails and bank statements.

The most serious suspected frauds are considered to be those of Mr Morley and Mr Chaytor who both claimed thousands of pounds for ‘phantom’ mortgages that they had already paid off.

Mr Morley, the former agriculture minister, claimed £16,800 for a mortgage that did not exist and also admitted wrongly claiming £20,000 for mortgage capital repayments in contravention of rules.

Mr Chaytor admitted making an ‘unforgiveable error’ in ‘accounting procedures’ when claiming almost £13,000 in interest for a mortgage that he had paid off. Police will also be interested in why the Bury North MP also claimed almost £5,000 under his office allowances to pay his daughter, Sarah Chaytor, under an assumed name of ‘Sarah Rastrick.’

Mr Devine, a Scottish Labour MP, submitted invoices for electrical work worth £2,157 from a company with an allegedly fake address and an invalid VAT number.

Detectives from the Metropolitan police have made several trips to Mr Devine’s constituency of Livingstone to interview witnesses.

Lord Hanningfield, the Conservative peer who is also the leader of Essex County Council, claimed £100,000 over seven years for staying in London despite living just 46 miles from the capital. He has been investigated over whether he was returning to his home in Essex while claiming ‘overnight allowances’’ for staying in London.

He has a full-time chauffeur provided by the local authority at taxpayers’ expense and his claims from both parliament and the council are being studied.

Lord Clarke, a former Labour Party chairman, admitted his ‘terrible error’ in a newspaper interview after claiming up to £18,000 a year for overnight subsistence when he often stayed with friends in the capital or returned to his home in St Albans, Herts.

Baroness Uddin allegedly claimed £100,000 in parliamentary allowances by registering as her main home a property in Maidstone, Kent, that was apparently barely occupied.

MPs Shahid Malik and Tony McNulty will face no further action, and police have ruled out criminal investigations into the practices of ‘flipping’ or avoiding capital gains tax. However HM Revenue and Customs has launched the inquiries into 27 MPs.

MPs could avoid tax on their expense claims on the basis that they were ‘wholly, necessarily and exclusively’’ incurred in relation to the performance of their parliamentary duties.

MPs found to have claimed for non-essential items now face a tax bill of up to 40% on their value. They may also have to pay interest and fines on the back-dated tax bills.

In May, HMRC wrote to all MPs asking if they wished to come forward and make voluntary payments. The authorities said last night they had opened formal inquiries into 27 MPs.

It is thought that they are also scrutinising MPs who avoided capital gains tax when selling second homes; those who claimed for personal tax advice; and travel claims for journeys between their homes and office if they did not live in their constituencies or London, where they are working.

Mr Devine and Mr Chaytor denied last night that they had been formally questioned by police. Lord Clarke refused to comment.

Mr Morley said: ‘I have always made it clear that I am not guilty of any offence and that I am very happy to co-operate with the police, and the parliamentary authorities and procedures. I have been advised not to comment on press reports particularly when they are based more on speculation than fact.’

Baroness Uddin and Lord Hanningfield were unavailable for comment.

A Met police spokesman refused to comment on the ongoing investigations.

… (BBC, 05/02/2010) – Charged expenses peer Lord Hanningfield quits council

… (05/02/2010) – Lord Hanningfield faces six charges under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 for false accounting, which carries a maximum sentence of 7 years in jail. 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.

… (06/02/2010)  – Chauffer Records At Heart Of Lord Hanningfield Charges

MPs Threaten To Defy Expenses Enquiry

(Telegraph) – MPS HAVE THREATENED to defy an official inquiry into the Commons expenses scandal led by Sir Thomas Legg by refusing ‘unfair’ demands to repay questionable claims.

Independent auditors will on Monday write to up to 500 past and present MPs to highlight concern about their use of parliamentary allowances, before inviting them to refund the public purse.

But in an astonishing act of defiance, a spokesman for the MPs complained that many would not accept orders to repay claims which were approved by the Commons fees office.

Sir Stuart Bell, who sits on the Members Estimates Committee — which will rule on whether to accept the Legg inquiry’s findings — said that if the investigation asked MPs to pay back approved expenses, it would amount to a change in ‘criteria’ and would be unfair.

He suggested that if the audit, led by Sir Thomas, a former civil servant, strayed outside its ‘remit’ in this way, then MPs would be justified in refusing to pay the money back.

The threat to defy the Legg inquiry risks reigniting public anger over the expenses scandal and is likely to overshadow the return of Parliament today after the summer break and party conference season.

The public has already made clear its dismay at MPs who tried to excuse their questionable claims by explaining that they were ‘within the rules’ that existed at the time. However, some are said to be poised to call in their solicitors in an attempt to avoid repaying any money.

The prospect of MPs challenging the inquiry will alarm Gordon Brown and David Cameron, who are keen to draw a line under the affair.

Sir Thomas and his team began scrutinising MPs’ expenses claims dating back five years in the wake of The Daily Telegraph’s disclosures about widespread abuse of the system.

He is said to be applying a ‘reasonableness test’ to the task and is thought to be taking a critical view of claims, such as excessive bills for cleaning or gardening, even where they were approved by the Commons fees office.

He is writing to MPs who he feels should either repay money to the taxpayer or provide further information about questionable claims.

His inquiry, which was ordered by the Prime Minister, will ultimately report to the Members Estimates Committee, which will decide on whether to accept the inquiry’s recommendations.

But speaking on Radio 4’s World at One, Sir Stuart suggested that Sir Thomas might have ventured beyond his remit.

‘The MPs will have in their breast pocket a letter from Sir Thomas dated July 2, saying that his review will be carried out in accordance with the rules at the time and the standards that applied at the time over the past five years,’ he said.

‘I think many MPs, if they read the newspapers, may feel he’s not staying within that remit, he’s not respecting the decisions that were made by the fees office in accordance with the rules at the time.’

As the Members Estimates Committee has the final say over whether the Legg review should be implemented, Sir Stuart’s words raise the prospect of MPs refusing to repay money on a wholesale basis.

Even if the Legg recommendations are accepted by the committee, a number of MPs — including many among the 100-plus who have announced their retirement at the next election, and others who have privately made up their mind to go — are said to be planning to call in legal advice to challenge the rulings.

As Sir Thomas has no legal powers, MPs who refuse to accept a recommendation that they repay expenses cannot be forced to do so.

While it would be possible for reluctant MPs to be referred to the parliamentary watchdog, the worst sanction open to the Commissioner for Standards is suspension from the House.

And with any sleaze inquiry likely to last many months, certainly beyond the election, there is little incentive for retiring MPs to pay any money back to the public purse.

John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, said: ‘There are going to be some very bitter MPs who feel that Legg is being unreasonable.

‘I’ve heard that some are hiring solicitors. They will argue that they made decisions based on advice from the fees office. If people are asked to repay the profits made from renovating their properties, they will be pleading poverty. But if people are standing down you won’t be able to force them.

‘For those who are not staying on in the Commons or who want to become a Lord, there will be some who will refuse to pay altogether.

‘They will say that the system wasn’t a good system, the system didn’t require them to keep receipts, and it may be unreasonable in their eyes to pay up.’

The row over Legg’s findings is likely to rumble on well into the new year, at a time when tension among MPs over expenses is already high as they wait to hear the recommendations of the review being conducted by Sir Christopher Kelly, the chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, into the future system for parliamentary allowances.

Many are concerned that he could propose banning MPs from claiming mortgage payments, or even force them to live in rented communal accommodation.

And there will almost certainly be more expenses furore when the latest round of claims, relating to the financial year 2008-09, is made public in November.

So far, 106 MPs have announced their retirement from the Commons; but dozens more are expected to stand down before the election, which must come by June.

The row over the Legg review increases the likelihood that some of those with the most questionable claims will avoid refunding the taxpayer simply by opting to bow out of Parliament.

Sir Thomas has not examined the expenses of MPs who are undergoing police investigation, such as Labour’s Elliot Morley, who announced he would stand down over allegations he claimed for a ‘phantom’ mortgage.

Members subject to a parliamentary sleaze investigation, including the Conservative backbencher Anne Main, who submitted allowances for a flat in which her daughter lived, will also not be covered by the review, meaning repayments in both categories are unlikely for some time.

… (Daily Mail, 13/10/2009) – With the connivance of this wretched new Speaker, MPs are trying to destroy an honest man for daring to expose their greed

… (13/10/2009) – MPs’ Expenses Place Browns Authority In Crisis