Lawmakers face the law

For whom the bell tolls: This was an expenses charge they didn't want
For whom the bell tolls: This was an expenses charge they didn't want

By Alex Stevenson

Four parliamentarians accused of allowances abuses have pleaded not guilty, as the expenses scandal finally reaches the courts.

The Westminster village was focused not on the Houses of Parliament but on Westminster magistrates court this afternoon as three Labour MPs and a Conservative peer faced the law.

Labour MPs Elliot Morley, Jim Devine and David Chaytor, as well as Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield, were charged with 13 charges under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 for false accounting.

The quartet entered not guilty pleas and were released on unconditional bail until March 30th when they will return to face charges at Southwark crown court.

It followed a joint statement from the three Labour MPs as news of the prosecutions came through last month that they "totally refute" the charges.

If they are convicted they could each face up to seven years in prison.

Huge public interest in the cases is expected, as the allegations contained in the charges come from some of the most serious claims made by the Telegraph newspaper's expenses revelations.

It represents a major development in the chain of events triggered by Metropolitan police commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson on May 15th 2009, when he set up a panel of senior police officers and lawyers to consider whether a criminal investigation should be launched into parliamentary expenses claims.

It has been reported that a fifth parliamentarian, Labour MP Harry Cohen, is facing an investigation by the Met over his expenses claims.

He became the first MP to be stripped of his resettlement allowance, worth up to £65,000, because of what a Commons watchdog said was a "particularly serious breach" of expenses rules.

Mr Cohen rented out the one-bedroom flat in Colchester he designated as his main home, allowing him to make claims on a series of other properties as his main home.

The Telegraph reported a criminal inquiry had been launched and added that Barnsley MP Eric Illsley was also being probed.

Many MPs have been forced to repay expenses claims after auditor Sir Thomas Legg went through those made from 2004 to 2008.

As a result of his work £1.12 million was repaid as he accused MPs of fostering a "culture of deference".


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