A former Tory peer accused of submitting false expenses has been formally acquitted after parliament made an unexpected intervention in the case.
Lord Hanningfield, who served a jail sentence for expenses fraud in 2011, was accused in Southwark crown court of claiming around £3,300 in House of Lords allowances in July 2013 to which he was not entitled.
The 75-year-old was temporarily suspended from the House of Lords in May 2014 after the standards watchdog found that he claimed a daily £300 attendance allowance on 11 days when he did not undertake any parliamentary work. But the court case was abandoned on Monday after the House Lords submitted “observations” claiming that it had sole jurisdiction over parts of the case, which should not be ruled upon by the criminal courts.
A spokesperson for the upper chamber denied that it had intervened to protect one of its own, claiming that it had stated to the court that a trial might still proceed.
The Crown offered no evidence in the case after a request for an adjournment was turned down. Judge Alistair McCreath, the recorder of Westminster, returned a not guilty verdict, allowing Hanningfield to walk free.
McCreath said that it had become clear on Friday that the parliamentary authorities were exercising “exclusive cognisance” in relation to the case. “It is not widely understood, even among lawyers, I suspect, that the criminal courts in this country do not have jurisdiction over every alleged criminal wrongdoing.
“Towards the end of last week, and relatively late on Friday, it became evident that parliament was exercising exclusive cognisance in relation to the nature of parliamentary work. In essence, it is saying, ‘It is matter for us as parliament to make that determination, not for the criminal courts,’” he said.
Hanningfield was charged with false accounting last September following a Daily Mirror investigation in 2013. The newspaper recorded how the peer had spent as little as 21 minutes in Westminster before submitting claims for a daily allowance.
Following an inquiry by the House of Lords’ standards committee, Hanningfield was ordered to repay the £3,300 he had claimed and was suspended from the House of Lords for a year.
Prosecutor Patrick Gibbs QC said: “The authorities are asserting exclusive cognisance over the meaning of parliamentary work. The prosecution ask the court to rule on the issue … The courts and parliament strive to respect each other’s role, and courts are careful not to interfere with the workings of parliament.”
Hanningfield, of West Hanningfield, near Chelmsford in Essex, was formally found not guilty of false accounting. He was given a peerage in 1998 in recognition of his help in establishing the Local Government Association.
The non-affiliated peer was sentenced to nine months in prison in 2011 after being found guilty of nearly £14,000 worth of expenses fraud. He served a quarter of the sentence in jail.
Hanningfield said in a statement: “I am relieved the matter has come to an end. I always maintained that I carried out parliamentary work on the dates in question away from the House and that my short time in the House on those dates was explained by my ill health.”
The House of Lords authorities said in a statement that Hanningfield’s lawyers first raised the issue of parliamentary privilege with the court last year, but it was not raised with the parliamentary authorities until June. A spokesman said: “The House of Lords administration sought to assist the court by making written submissions last week on the question of whether parliamentary privilege might apply to aspects of the trial, including the question of what did or did not amount to ‘parliamentary work’, following the receipt of papers outlining the nature of the prosecution case. The submission explicitly stated that this did not mean that the trial should not proceed.”
A Crown Prosecution Service spokesperson said: “Following new information received on 15 July regarding the court’s ability to consider what constitutes the definition of parliamentary work, a decision was made to offer no evidence.”
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