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Tuesday, March 21, 2023

Ex-MPs' expenses decision explained

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Former MP David Chaytor

Supreme Court justices have announced their reasons for ruling that three former Labour MPs accused of fiddling their expenses were not protected by parliamentary privilege.

In a unanimous decision they rejected appeals brought by David Chaytor, Elliot Morley and Jim Devine, who deny theft by false accounting and are facing separate trials.

In their challenge before the nine justices they all raised a common point of law – that criminal proceedings cannot be brought because they would infringe parliamentary privilege.

Their claim to privilege had two bases. The first related to Article 9 of the Bill of Rights 1689, which provides that the freedom of speech and debates or proceedings in Parliament “ought not to be impeached or questioned” in any court or place out of Parliament.

The second related to the “exclusive jurisdiction” of Parliament and referred to the right of each House to manage its own affairs without interference from the other or from outside Parliament.

But the justices, headed by the president Lord Phillips, held that neither Article 9 nor the exclusive jurisdiction of the House of Commons posed any bar to the jurisdiction of the Crown Court to try the former MPs. The three took their cases to the highest court in the land claiming any investigation into their expenses claims and the imposition of any sanctions “should lie within the hands of Parliament”.

During the hearing of the appeal in October, Nigel Pleming QC, representing Chaytor and Devine, told the justices that the parliamentary expenses scheme was part of proceedings in the House, so the men should be protected by parliamentary privilege.

He added: “I also wish to emphasise as firmly as I can on behalf of these former MPs that this is not, and never has been, an attempt to take them above or outside the law.”

He said the House had “the power to punish, and to recover any monies wrongly claimed, and is well capable of investigating allegations, including allegations of dishonesty, made against its members”.

The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, heading a panel of three Court of Appeal judges, earlier this year upheld a ruling by a judge at Southwark Crown Court that the ex-MPs were not protected by privilege. Former Bury North MP Chaytor, 61, of Todmorden, West Yorkshire; ex-Scunthorpe MP Morley, 58, of Winterton, north Lincolnshire; and Devine, 57, of Bathgate, West Lothian, formerly MP for Livingston, are all on unconditional bail.

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