Today former Labour Member of Parliament David Chaytor was sentenced to a custodial sentence of 18 months at Southwark Crown Court in relation to three charges relating to the 2009 MPs expenses scandal.
I’m sure it is not hard for us to remind ourselves of the background to these cases for they caused such a level of public outcry, anger and condemnation that politicians today are still feeling the effects of the scandal.
The journey to this point has been a long and convoluted one involving several attempts by those charged with offences relating to the scandal to take their cases outside the courts by arguing that Parliament alone had the jurisdiction to deal with these matters. However, the justices at the Supreme Court held otherwise and now due process in criminal courts can take place.
Mr Chaytor has been dealt with much more swiftly than the other individuals as he changed his plea to guilty to three charges of false accounting. The charges related to claims totalling £22,650 however only £18,350 as the claim for an invoice for technical support was refused on grounds other than deception. The claims were made over a period of just over two years. Counsel for Mr Chaytor, James Sturman QC, advised the court that £13,000 of this had already been repaid by Mr Chaytor.
In his sentencing statement the judge, Mr Justice Saunders, said:
“The public are entitled to expect that people who legislate for the public will themselves be honest in their dealings with the State and in particular with their use of public funds which are paid for out of taxation. The whole expenses scandal has shaken public confidence in our legislature. It has angered the public. Mr. Chaytor only bears a small part of the responsibility for that erosion of confidence and public anger, but it was an important part because, as he has accepted, his conduct was dishonest.”
(Mr Justice Saunders, R v David Chaytor)
There is a great deal of trust placed in our elected politicians at all levels and where they break this trust by committing criminal acts then it is only right that they feel the full force of the Law. In his sentencing statement Mr Justice Saunders made it clear that he increased the starting point of the sentence on the basis of the level of trust involved in this case and rightly so: the greater the level of trust involved in such a case the more serious the offence committed has been.
Mr Justice Saunders drew a comparison between MPs who make false claims for expenses and those who claim for state benefits to which they are not entitled. Mt Chaytor is no better or worse than someone who has wilfully and fraudulently claimed state benefits to which they are not entitled and let’s be clear here, Mr Chaytor’s offences were not accidental transgressions by submitting invoices incorrectly, but rather a clear attempt to get money from the public purse to which he was not entitled: he submitted an invoice never issued to him and created a tenancy agreement for a home he paid no rent on.
The eighteen month sentence handed down by Mr Justice Saunders today was following a 25% discount for a guilty plea. The full discount of one third was not offered as, in the opinion of Mr Justice Saunders, Mr Chaytor had not plead guilty at the earliest opportunity (which he considered to be the decision of the Supreme Court referred to above). This sentence should be a warning to our politicians not to steal from the public finances as a lengthy custodial sentence is probable.
The cases of the other individuals charged with offences relating to the 2009 expenses scandal will go to trial later this year and if convicted are likely to face tougher sentences for having been found guilty rather than admitting their guilt. Of course, under our fine legal system they are innocent until found guilty, either by the court or by way of their own admission.