Page last updated at 19:09 GMT, Thursday, 11 March 2010

Politicians tell court they are not guilty on expenses

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MPs Elliott Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine are jeered by crowds on leaving Westminster Magistrates Court

Three MPs and a peer have said they are pleading not guilty in court to charges related to their expenses claims.

Jim Devine, Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Lord Hanningfield all told Westminster magistrates they denied theft by false accounting.

All four were released on unconditional bail and will appear at Southwark Crown Court on 30 March.

The MPs are all suspended by the Labour Party, while Lord Hanningfield has been suspended by the Conservatives.

Police began investigating after details of all MPs' expenses claims were leaked to the Daily Telegraph.

The four politicians were charged last month. The Crown Prosecution Service said then it was not bringing charges against a fifth - Labour peer Lord Clarke - because there was "insufficient evidence to provide a realistic prospect of a conviction".

The CPS said it would announce on Friday whether or not it intended to charge a sixth politician.

Privilege

Mr Devine, Mr Morley, Mr Chaytor and Lord Hanningfield face charges under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968 and if found guilty they face a maximum sentence of seven years' imprisonment.

Barrister for the three MPs Julian Knowles said in a statement handed out to reporters outside the court his clients "unequivocally and steadfastly maintain their innocence of the charges against them".

He is devastated to be in this position
Spokesman for Lord Hanningfield

"They also maintain that to prosecute them in the criminal courts for Parliamentary activities would infringe the principle of the separation of powers, which is one of the principles which underpin the UK's constitutional structure.

"The principle of the separation of powers means that whatever matter arises concerning the workings of Parliament should be dealt with by Parliament and not elsewhere and should be dealt with in a manner that is consistent with the way other members have been treated."

Parliamentary privilege traditionally guarantees MPs and peers immunity from slander laws for statements in Parliamentary debate and also relates to access to the Parliamentary buildings.

Mr Knowles added that his clients were not "saying that they are above the law", but were arguing against the process they were facing.

Lord Hanningfield made a statement after the hearing, via his spokesman Mark Spragg, who said the peer had "devoted the last 40 years of his life to public service".

"He is devastated to be in this position. He feels he has been singled out. He does not believe that he has done anything dishonest."



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