Ex-MP Jim Devine loses bid to keep expenses case out of court

THREE former Labour MPs accused of fiddling their expenses today lost their final bid to avoid criminal trials.

Former Livingston MP Jim Devine, David Chaytor and Elliot Morley, who deny theft by false accounting, took their cases to the highest court in the land, claiming any investigation into their expenses claims and the imposition of any sanctions "should lie within the hands of Parliament".

The Supreme Court ruled they were not protected by Parliamentary privilege.

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They will now face separate trials at London's Southwark Crown Court - the first is due to begin on November 22.

Nine justices gave their decisions today to avoid clashing with the criminal proceedings and will give their reasons for the ruling at a later date.

Nigel Pleming QC, representing Devine and Chaytor, told a hearing at the Supreme Court in October that the parliamentary expenses scheme was part of proceedings in the House, so the men should be protected by parliamentary privilege.

He added: "I also wish to emphasise as firmly as I can on behalf of these former MPs that this is not, and never has been, an attempt to take them above or outside the law."

He said the House had "the power to punish, and to recover any monies wrongly claimed, and is well capable of investigating allegations, including allegations of dishonesty, made against its members".

Mr Pleming said it had been recognised in the courts below that the case raised important issues of principle and was without direct precedent.

"So far as we are aware these are the first criminal prosecutions of Members of the House of Commons - in relation either to a statement made in or to Parliament or its delegates, or based on a member's dealings with Parliament - for over 300 years.

"These proceedings have been brought, and conducted, against an extremely adverse, even hostile, media and political background."

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The Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge, heading a panel of three Court of Appeal judges, earlier this year upheld a ruling by a judge at Southwark Crown Court in central London that the ex-MPs were not protected by privilege.

Former Bury North MP Chaytor, 61, of Todmorden, West Yorkshire; ex-Scunthorpe MP Morley, 58, of Winterton, north Lincolnshire; and Devine, 57, of Bathgate, West Lothian, are all on unconditional bail and due to face separate trials.

The three are claiming the criminal charges against them involve questioning or impugning proceedings in Parliament not because the statements and claims made by them are themselves proceedings but because they were made in the course of parliamentary proceedings.

Mr Pleming said the expenses scheme was created and is administered by Parliament for parliamentarians. It was essential to the running of Parliament.

"The administration of the scheme is also entirely a matter for the House of Commons - this extends not only to its creation but to its regulation and enforcement."