Paul White, known to most as Lord Hanningfield and leader of Essex County Council, is to face six criminal charges under Section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 (Section 17 is the part of the Act that relates to “false accounting”).
He, along with three Labour MPs (Elliot Morely MP, David Chaytor MP and Jim Devine MP), have been summonsed to appear at the City of Westminster Magistrates’ Court at 2pm on 11 March 2010. The maximum sentence that could be applied under Section 17 is seven years’ imprisonment.
As these cases have been investigated by the police, the authority responsible for prosecuting is the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS). Interestingly, although defence lawyers for those charged have raised the issue of Parliamentary privilege, the Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC is clear in his statement that “the applicability and extent of any Parliamentary privilege claimed should be tested in court”.
Parliamentary privilege is an ancient privilege granted to parliamentarians, however the extent of its protection is both widely misunderstood and fiercely contested. When the Speaker made a statement to the House of Commons on 3 December 2008, regarding the arrest of Damian Green MP and entry into his offices, he reminded Members of Parliament that, according to Erskine May (Parliament’s authoritative companion guide to procedure), parliamentary privilege has never prevented the operation of the criminal law. He also restated the position of the Joint Committee on Parliamentary Privilege in its 1999 report that “the precincts of the House are not and should not be ‘a haven from the law’”.
In respect of the specific charges against Paul White (Lord Hanningfield), Keir Starmer QC said:
“The charges allege that between March 2006 and May 2009, Paul White dishonestly submitted claims for expenses to which he knew he was not entitled, including numerous claims for overnight expenses for staying in London when records show that he was driven home and did not stay overnight in London.”
According to the BBC, Lord Hanningfield has resigned his front bench position as Conservative business spokesman and stood down as leader of Essex County Council. David Cameron also requested that Lord Strathclyde, the leader of the Conservative opposition in the Lords, suspend the Conservative whip with immediate effect.
Keir Starmer QC’s closed his statement with the following:
“Can I remind all concerned that the four individuals now stand charged of criminal offences and they each have the right to a fair trial. It is extremely important that nothing should be reported which could prejudice any of these trials.”