Friday, 7 January 2011

MP jailed for fraudulent expenses claims

The former Labour MP for Bury North, David Chaytor, today received a custodial sentence for dishonestly claiming over £20,000 in expenses.

The charges related to rent he had claimed for the use of a number of homes owned by his family. He was accused of "siphoning off" public money for his own use. Chaytor, who changed his plea to guilty in the days leading up to the trial, was sentenced to 18 months in prison.

Mr Justice Saunders, referring to the damage the MPs' expenses scandal had done to the perception of UK politicians, said: "These false claims were made in breach of the high degree of trust placed in MPs to only make legitimate claims. These offences have wider and more important consequences than is to be found in other breach of trust cases. That is the effect they have had and will have in the confidence the public has in politicians."

Two other former MPs, a sitting MP and two peers are all due to appear in court in respect to their expenses claims. All five deny the charges against them.

It is hard to have much sympathy with Mr Chaytor. Many MPs have failed to escape with their reputations intact following the Daily Telegraph's expose but, unlike most other claims which at least had some basis in fact, Chaytor's were entirely fictitious and based on fraudulent documents. It is difficult to see any possible justification for his action other than to deliberately and systematically claim monies to which he knew he was not entitled.

Chaytor's defence team argued that "the sums he received, if he had gone about it transparently, honestly and frankly, he would have been entitled to every penny, if not more than he claimed". That is highly questionable. But they're missing the point - it's not a question of the amounts claimed and whether they were or weren't excessive. It is a matter of betrayal: a betrayal of public trust and a blatant disregard for parliamentary accountability.

I would agree with Chaytor's lawyers that he behaved with "inexplicable stupidity". I can only surmise that he genuinely felt his fraudulent claims would never be uncovered. Chaytor 's parliamentary career could hardly be described as "glittering", but there is little question that his stupidity, combined with his greed and arrogance, brought about his exit from politics prematurely. He has paid a heavy price for his actions and deservedly so.

This is a very dark day for David Chaytor. It is a much better day for British democracy. I've never been one to play up the significance of the MPs' expenses scandal which in many respects served only to demonstrate the agenda of the Daily Telegraph. While inevitably it cast light on the excesses of a small number of MPs and exposed the ineffectiveness of the Fees Office, in many respects the effect the scandal had on public perception (fuelled as it often was by misinformation) was vastly disproportionate to the alleged offences committed. The Telegraph's criticism of Jo Swinson (for claiming for cosmetics) was one of many such allegations which were not only petty and designed purely to sell papers but which also had a very damaging effect on the esteem in which MPs are held, both locally and nationally.

However, when the system was misused as blatantly, deliberately and as cynically as it was by David Chaytor, appropriate action must be taken. A custodial sentence, however regrettable, was the only appropriate outcome in the circumstances. I express no glee about this. I do not wish to gloat at the downfall of a Labour MP. But democracy demands accountability and Chaytor, who for so long showed scant regard for it, was today brought to account.

Debate raged today about whether Mr Chaytor should have "got more" than 18 months. Perhaps he should have, but it isn't for me to make that kind of judgement. All I would say is that irrespective of whether the outcome represents a great victory for justice, it most assuredly is a victory for democracy.

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