4:54pm UK, Tuesday June 29, 2010

Damien Pearse, Sky News Online

Three former Labour MPs and a Tory peer have started an appeal against a ruling that they should stand trial over their expenses.

Lord Hanningfield, David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley

Lord Hanningfield, David Chaytor, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley

 

David Chaytor, Elliot Morley, Jim Devine and Lord Hanningfield are asking the Court of Appeal to overturn a ruling earlier this month.

The ruling stated that they are not protected from prosecution by parliamentary privilege.

All four all deny theft by false accounting.

Three senior judges heard that the defendants did "not suggest that MPs are immune from the criminal law by reason of their status as MPs".

Nigel Pleming QC, for Chaytor, told the packed court: "This is not an attempt to take these defendants above the law.

"It is to ensure they, and indeed other members in a similar position, are adjudicated by the correct law and the correct body."

The central submission on their behalf was that any investigation into their expenses claims and the imposition of any sanctions "should lie within the hands of Parliament".

The earlier decision under appeal was made by Mr Justice Saunders, sitting at Southwark Crown Court in central London.

It meant the four having to face Crown Court trials.

He rejected argument that they were protected by parliamentary privilege and should be dealt with by Parliament alone.

It was said by the defendants that submitting an expenses form was part of the proceedings of Parliament, and therefore protected by parliamentary privilege.

Houses of Parliament and Big Ben The expenses scandal has rocked Parliament.

Mr Pleming told the court that the men submitted that "they have immunity from prosecution arising solely from the performance of their functions, or acts ancillary to the performance of those functions, as MPs when they were MPs".

Former Bury North MP Chaytor, 60, of Todmorden, Lancashire, is accused of falsely claiming rent on a London flat he owned.

He is also accused of falsely filing invoices for IT work and renting a property from his mother, against regulations.

Ex-Scunthorpe MP Morley, 57, of Winterton, north Lincolnshire, is charged with falsely claiming £30,428 in interest payments on his home.

Devine, 57, of Bathgate, West Lothian, formerly MP for Livingston, is accused of wrongly submitting two invoices worth a total of £5,505.

He faces a second charge alleging that he dishonestly claimed cleaning and maintenance costs of £3,240 by submitting false invoices.

Lord Hanningfield, who is also known as Paul White, 69, of West Hanningfield, near Chelmsford, faces six charges of making dishonest claims for travelling allowances.

Each of the four defendants, who are all on unconditional bail, face separate criminal trials, pending the outcome of the appeal.

At the start of the proceedings, the appeal judges lifted statutory reporting restrictions which are normally applied to preparatory hearings in criminal matters.

Lord Judge said that the single issue in the appeal was "an issue of constitutional importance".