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Poll: Debate over whether Essex County Council should launch legal proceedings against Lord Hanningfield

Lord Hanningfield leaving Chelmsford Crown Court where he stood trial for fiddling his House of Lords expenses.

Lord Hanningfield leaving Chelmsford Crown Court where he stood trial for fiddling his House of Lords expenses.

Councillors debate whether to pursue the former leader over allegedly extravagant spending at County Hall.

The cost of pursuing Lord Hanningfield for allegedly wrongly claimed county council expenses could be more than £100,000 – and much higher if the authority lost.

The figure was revealed at a full meeting of Essex County Council yesterday.

Council leader David Finch said he was “damned if I do and damned if I don’t” when explaining his decision not to launch legal proceedings against the disgraced peer.

Mr Finch added: “I have mixed emotions and a heavy heart and am still angry about Lord Hanningfield and the expenses.”

Lord Hanningfield claimed or spent on corporate credit cards more than £288,000 between 2005 and 2010 when he was the leader at County Hall, and around £50,000 of that has been deemed to be illegitimate of extragavant spending which should be repaid.

A police investigation was dropped for having insufficient evidence, leaving the county council with a decision over whether or not to launch its own civil action to recoup the money.

Legal advice suggested the chances of success were low and it could cost more than £100,000 to bring the case, with the added risk the authority would have to pay Lord Hanningfield’s costs if he won.

Lord Hanningfield, real name Paul White, was jailed in 2011 in relation to wrongly claimed parliamentary expenses.

Conservative councillor Rodney Bass said: “We really do have to turn the leaf of the book and pass on.”

However Liberal Democrat group leader Mike Mackrory claimed there was a conflict of interest in Mr Finch making the decision as he had been councillor for finance during some of the period of spending.

His colleague Barry Aspinell went as far to say: “David Finch was implicated in this case, he was at times involved in the finances of this council when this procurement policy was invoked.

“Checks and balances were not in place and we need an inquiry to find out why.

“I am not suggesting for a second councillor Finch is a criminal or involved, but morally he should not vote on this.”

Several other councillors also called for a deeper inquiry as to who signed off Lord Hanningfield’s spending.

Many said they also sympathised with the tough decision Mr Finch had had to make.

Nigel Le Gresley, UKIP, said: “It is clear to pursue this would not be cost-effective. However the real issue has to be the interests of justice, the message we are sending out is the wrong message.

“Justice has to be seen to be done.”

At the end of the debate Mr Finch added he would be writing once more to Lord Hanningfield requesting repayment of the money, and also adding his name to calls for the peer’s title to be revoked – a suggestion made by UKIP councillor Kerry Smith.

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