COLCHESTER MP Sir Bob Russell has repeated his calls for an inquiry into Lord Hanningfield’s expenses following claims the former leader of Essex County Council (ECC) spent about £160,000 more than previously thought.

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During a speech made in the House of Commons Sir Bob said Lord Hanningfield was issued with a council credit card in 2002 - three years earlier than when he was believed to have started claiming large sums of council expenses.

The 71-year-old, whose real name is Paul White, of West Hanningfield, was last year jailed for falsely claiming parliamentary expenses.

It later emerged Lord Hanningfield, who served as leader of ECC between 2005 and 2010, spent more than £286,000 on luxury hotel stays and trips abroad using his council credit card.

But City of London Police said in November it would not be taking further action, saying there was insufficient evidence.

Sir Bob said he found Lord Hanningfield had been issued with a council credit card in mid 2002 through a Freedom of Information request made to ECC. He said based on his later spending patterns, Lord Hanningfield’s total claims could have reached up to £450,000.

Sir Bob said: “It is difficult to believe that the former leader was able, for eight years, to live the ‘life of Riley’ paid for by Essex Council Tax-payers without others knowing. After all, many of the credit card bills refer to the leader being accompanied more often than not by officers and councillors.

“Why did the internal audit not notice the monthly credit card payments, and ask questions? Why did the external audit not notice, and ask questions?”

Conservative councillors at ECC rejected calls for a full inquiry into Lord Hanningfield’s expenses when a motion was put forward by the Liberal Democrat opposition.

Sir Bob said he was told credit card records from 2002 to 2005 have been destroyed but he believes the council’s records should still show the total credit card sums claimed by the former leader even if individual items cannot be listed.

Concluding his speech he said: “What has happened in Essex brings all local government into disrepute, which is unfair on hardworking councillors and officers – including those in Essex – and I feel that only a full independent inquiry into the stewardship of the council from 2002 to 2010 will be able to draw a line under the most disgraceful period since Essex County Council was established in 1889.”

Peter Martin, leader of ECC, said: “I do not believe an independent inquiry is needed. We referred our concerns to the police for independent investigation and that was appropriate. We have also been subject to an ethical governance review by the independent Audit Commission and they recognised that ECC has made significant improvements in respect of our governance procedures over the last three years and I’m confident that all the changes made have tightened up our processes so we now have one of the most robust systems in local government.

“The senior officers at the council worked hard during Lord Hanningfield’s time as Leader to get him to understand the seriousness of the situation and to recognise his responsibilities to be compliant with the governance processes. I am fully supportive of the way they handled the situation during what was a very challenging time, and they continue to have my full support.

“As I promised at council in July 2011 – and repeated a few weeks ago when the police ended their investigation – the council’s position continues to be that if any inappropriate expenses have been claimed then we will take action to recover them, including through civil proceedings if necessary.”

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