Shameless MPs try to dodge trial using 1689 law which protects them from prosecution

Three MPs charged with expenses fraud were last night hoping to use arcane laws from the 17th century to prevent their trials going ahead.

The Labour trio - along with a Tory peer - were charged under the Theft Act over allegations that they dishonestly pocketed thousands of pounds in second homes expenses. If convicted they face up to seven years in jail.

But, in an extraordinary twist, it emerged that the three MPs hope to use the 1689 Bill of Rights to wriggle out of prosecution. Legal experts have advised them that, under the ancient law, the Commons rulebook on expenses is covered by Parliamentary privilege.

This, they argue, means the book cannot be subject to scrutiny by the courts and should protect them from prosecution. They say that they can be judged only by a committee of MPs.

The four politicians were told early yesterday that they are to be prosecuted for theft by false accounting.

The police probe alone has already cost taxpayers £486,000 and has involved up to 13 Scotland Yard detectives.


Last night, in a speech to the Oxford Union, Commons Speaker John Bercow acknowledged that the expenses scandal had done huge damage to Parliament and made it look as if MPs 'inhabited a parallel universe'.

But Mr Bercow, who had to repay £978 in expenses, warned against imposing too severe a crackdown on MPs' expenses, saying it could put people off standing for Parliament.

The shamed trio - Elliot Morley of Scunthorpe, David Chaytor of Bury North and Livingston's Jim Devine - all denied the fraud accusations, as did Tory peer Lord Hanningfield, who faces six charges relating to his claims for House of Lords allowances.

But even before the charges were announced live on TV by Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer, QC, battle lines had been drawn by their lawyers who believe the 321-year-old Bill of Rights could help get the MPs off the hook.

In the run-up to yesterday's decision, the MPs' lawyers sent submissions to prosecutors outlining their possible defence strategy.

Mr Starmer said: 'Lawyers representing those who have been charged have raised with us the question of Parliamentary privilege. We have concluded that the applicability and extent of any Parliamentary privilege claimed should be tested in court.'

LibDem Parliamentary spokesman David Heath said: 'We do not have immunity from prosecution for parliamentarians in this country. Parliamentary privilege exists purely to ensure we can do our job properly, not to protect us from the law.'

Yesterday's charges followed Thursday's verdict on MPs' expenses by Sir Thomas Legg, who conducted an audit of all claims made in recent years and condemned the system as 'deeply flawed'.
Hundreds of MPs were ordered to repay a total of £1.12million.

The decision to press charges against three MPs ensures that the expenses scandal will run right through the General Election campaign.


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