An appeal brought by Tory peer and former Essex CC leader Lord Hanningfield and three ex-Labour MPs facing trial over allegations that they fiddled their expenses was not an attempt to “take them above the law”, three of the country’s top judges have heard.
David Chaytor, Elliot Morley, Jim Devine and Lord Hanningfield, who are all on bail, are asking the Court of Appeal to overturn a ruling earlier this month that they are not protected from prosecution by parliamentary privilege.
Lord Chief Justice Lord Judge, sitting in London with Master of the Rolls Lord Neuberger and Sir Anthony May, heard that the four - who all deny theft by false accounting - also did “not suggest that MPs are immune from the criminal law by reason of their status as MPs”.
Nigel Pleming QC, for Chaytor, told the packed court: “This is not an attempt to take these defendants above the law. It is to ensure they, and indeed other members in a similar position, are adjudicated by the correct law and the correct body.”
The central submission on their behalf was that any investigation into their expenses claims and the imposition of any sanctions “should lie within the hands of Parliament”. The decision under appeal was made by Mr Justice Saunders, sitting at Southwark Crown Court in central London, which resulted in the four having to face Crown Court trials. They will all face separate trials pending the outcome of the appeal.
He rejected the argument that they were protected by parliamentary privilege and should be dealt with by Parliament alone. It was said by the defendants that submitting an expenses form was part of the proceedings of Parliament, and therefore protected by parliamentary privilege.
Mr Pleming told the court that the men submitted that “they have immunity from prosecution arising solely from the performance of their functions, or acts ancillary to the performance of those functions, as MPs when they were MPs”.
Lord Hanningfield, who is also known as Paul White, 69, of West Hanningfield, near Chelmsford, faces six charges of making dishonest claims for travelling allowances.
Each of the four defendants, who are all on unconditional bail, face separate criminal trials, pending the outcome of the appeal.