LONDON // A former British government minister was charged with fraud yesterday for allegedly fiddling his parliamentary expenses. In the latest chapter of a scandal that has rocked Britons' confidence in politics and politicians over the past year, Elliot Morley, a former environment minister, will be joined in the dock by two other Labour MPs and a Conservative member of the House of Lords. The four were among six MPs and peers investigated by police last year after widespread abuse of the parliamentary expenses system was revealed.
Keir Starmer, the director of public prosecutions, announced yesterday that charges would be brought against Mr Morley, fellow Labour MPs David Chaytor and Jim Devine, and the Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield, charged under his birth name of Paul White. If convicted, they each face a maximum of seven years in jail. Mr Starmer said an investigation into a fifth parliamentarian ? believed to be Baroness (Pola) Uddin, who claimed £100,000 (Dh560,000) in allowances for a home she barely visited ? was still continuing. Mr Starmer said there was insufficient evidence to charge the sixth person investigated, Lord (Anthony) Clarke of Hampstead.
The decision to prosecute the four was announced 24 hours after an audit of parliamentary expenses claims in recent years resulted in almost 400 present and past MPs being ordered to repay a total of £1.12 million. Some of the claims included allowances on London properties owned by members of their own families. Less seriously, other parliamentarians were found to have claimed for items such as a luxurious duck house, cleaning the moat at one MP's estate, pornographic videos and dog food.
Yesterday's charges, however, now guarantee that, far from the audit signalling the end of the affair, the scandal will drag on into 2010 and is likely to dominate the campaign for the general election, expected in May. The charges against Mr Morley, who has been MP for Scunthorpe for more than 20 years and who served as a fisheries and environment minister from 1997 to 2006, will inevitably grab most of the headlines.
Last May, the 57-year-old MP announced that he would not be seeking re-election because of the adverse effects the expenses furore was having on his family and his health. He now faces two charges of theft by false accounting in relation to a mortgage on his constituency home in Winterton, near Scunthorpe. The charges allege that, between 2004 and 2007, he made claims of £14,428 more than he was entitled to, and a further £16,000 in mortgage interest payments at a time when "there was no longer a mortgage on that property".
Mr Chaytor, the MP for Bury North, was accused of dishonestly claiming £12,925 in rent for a property in London that he owned outright, and £5,425 for rent on a house in Lancashire owned by his mother. Mr Devine, the MP for Livingston in Scotland, was charged with using false invoices to claim for almost £9,000 for cleaning services and stationery. He has always admitted making a mistake in submitting the invoices and said yesterday he was "astonished and devastated" to be charged.
Lord Hanningfield, 69, the Conservative spokesman on local government and transport in the House of Lords, faces six charges of dishonestly submitting claims "for expenses to which he knew he was not entitled". These include claims for numerous overnight stays in London when records show that he had been chauffeured back to his home in Essex. All four have denied the charges. The Labour Party has already barred Mr Morley, Mr Chaytor and Mr Devine from standing at the next election. Lord Hanningfield said he would stand down as a Conservative spokesman in the Lords.