MPs claim Parliament not court should judge them
The Mole: Labour MPs accused of fiddling expenses continue to claim they're beyond the courts' jurisdiction
The three Labour MPs who face criminal charges over their Commons expense claims have been roundly harangued by some elements of the right-wing press for the stance they took when they appeared at Westminster magistrates' court yesterday.
Elliot Morley, David Chaytor and Jim Devine, all of whom are charged with false accounting under the Theft Act and face jail terms of up to seven years if found guilty, waited at the back of the court instead of entering the dock.
This was because they are arguing that the case against them should not be heard in court at all. They believe they are protected from prosecution by parliamentary privilege enshrined in the 1689 Bill of Rights and that the House of Commons should decide their fate. The Daily Mail actually headlined its report this morning: "'Thieves' who think they're above the law".
The MPs' barrister, Julian Knowles, told the district judge hearing his clients' pleas - all "not guilty" - that to prosecute them "would infringe the principle of the separation of powers, which is one of the principles which underpins the UK's constitutional structure".
Knowles said the principle meant that "whatever matter arises concerning the workings of Parliament should be dealt with by Parliament".
The big question of course - and it will come up again when the three men appear before Southwark Crown Court on March 30 - is whether filling in your expense form can really be seen as an important "parliamentary matter". Until now, most of us working in Westminster thought parliamentary privilege was about protecting MPs' freedom of speech.
Wherever this argument eventually goes, the judge ordered them from the back of the court into the dock where, the Mail helpfully pointed out, "countless criminals, drunks and shoplifters have stood before".
The charges against the three MPs and the Tory peer Lord Hanningfield, who appeared separately at the same court yesterday and was also bailed to appear at Southwark Crown Court at the end of the month, are serious.
Chaytor is accused among other things of falsely claiming £12,925 in rent paid for a London flat which he actually owned.
Devine is charged with submitting various false invoices and Morley is accused of claiming for mortgage interest repayments totalling £16,000 when the mortgage had actually been paid off.
Hanningfield faces six charges of falsely claiming allowances to attend the House of Lords.
The MPs were jeered by protestors as they entered court, one man dressed as a pig shouting: "Oink, oink". And when they climbed into a cab after the brief hearing, a voice in the crowd called: "Don't forget to get a receipt".
Whether this was a sarcastic comment from a disgruntled citizen, or simply helpful advice from a Mail reporter, was not immediately apparent. ·
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