Essex: Lord Hanningfield claimed for hotel costs ‘when on plane to India’, court heard
A Tory peer accused of fiddling his House of Lords expenses claimed for hotel costs in London when he was actually on board a flight to India, a court heard.
Lord Hanningfield, who is being tried under his name Paul White, submitted an expense claim for accommodation costs for February 25, 2008, when he was actually on a plane.
White “dishonestly cheated the system” and abused a “system of trust” to recoup bogus parliamentary expenses, Chelmsford Crown Court was told.
He made various claims for accommodation costs incurred before or after performing his duties in the House of Lords between March 2006 and April 2009 but he did not stay at hotels in the capital, jurors heard.
The former leader of Essex County Council was either staying at his home in West Hanningfield, near Chelmsford, Essex, or at hotels paid for by someone else, prosecutor Clare Montgomery QC said.
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She said: “We will call evidence to establish that each one of Lord Hanningfield’s claims for night subsistence was false.
“He never stayed overnight in London at any stage during the period in the charges.
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“On the vast majority of nights he went home to Hanningfield.
“On the few occasions he did not, he was not in London. He was variously on a plane bound for India or at hotels outside London all paid for by someone else, mainly Essex County Council.”
She continued: “The majority of Lord Hanningfield’s travel claims in each of the six months were also false, either he did not make the journeys he claimed or, if he did make the journey, it was paid for by Essex County Council.”
Miss Montgomery said that on some occasions, White would make false claims for travelling expenses to mask dishonest claims for overnight subsistence.
She told jurors: “You will need to consider whether the false travel claims were deliberately designed by Lord Hanningfield to hide the fact that he returned home to Hanningfield every night, normally by car.
“Was this because Lord Hanningfield knew that if he had accurately reported his journey home, it would have been obvious that he was not entitled to be paid overnight subsistence since he would not have had or needed to have any overnight accommodation in London?”
Miss Montgomery said in March 2006, White made claims for travel every Friday of the month, when in fact, the Lords rarely sits on Fridays.
Jurors were told that the scheme which sorted expenses in the House of Lords operated largely on a system of trust.
“The prosecution case is that Lord Hanningfield took advantage of the system of trust to make false claims for travel and overnight accommodation in the six monthly claim forms with which he is charged,” she said.
She told jurors expense claims were administered by the Members’ expenses section in the finance department of the House of Lords.
When peers join the house they are provided with a general guide which highlights rules regarding which expenses they are entitled to recover. A shortened version of the guide is also on the back of every claim form.
She said the rules were “clear” and that night subsistence was paid to cover the expense of staying in London overnight after or before a member attended the House of Lords. Claims for travel could be made if they were undertaken and paid for by a peer.
“Lord Hanningfield knew these rules of eligibility - but he did not respect them,” she said.
“The evidence you will hear will make you sure that Lord Hanningfield knew he was not entitled to claim as he did and that he made the claims in the sure and certain knowledge that he was dishonestly cheating the system.”
Jurors heard from Jonathan Smith, the head of finance at the House of Lords, who said: “If the Member has signed and authorised that they had incurred expenses, it would be deemed that they had incurred the expense.”
In police interview, White told officers he would generally ring his office at the end of each month and they would tell him the dates he had been in attendance at the Lords.
He would then fill out the form without “even thinking about it”, Miss Montgomery told the court.
He thought the overnight allowance did not mean he had to stay in London but was also used to cover costs of other subsistence regardless of where he slept.
White also told police that on many occasions he incurred expenses exceeding the maximum allowance and would be out of pocket.
The court also heard from three of Lord Hanningfield’s former drivers employed by Essex County Council.
The drivers went over dates they had picked him up in various locations around London, including one evening when he was picked up from Chinatown and another when he attended an awards party.
The trial judge, Mr Justice Saunders, allowed White to sit behind his team of lawyers instead of in the dock because of hearing difficulties.
The 70-year-old, wearing a charcoal suit, a white shirt with blue stripes and a grey patterned tie, denies six counts of false accounting.
He was charged with the offences in February last year.
Following the charges he was suspended from the parliamentary Conservative Party and stood down as a frontbench business spokesman in the House of Lords and as leader of Essex County Council.