Ex-Tory peer Lord Taylor of Warwick has become the first parliamentarian to be found guilty by a jury of making false parliamentary expenses claims. He now faces sentencing. Given the recent case of former MP David Chaytor, it seems unlikely that he will escape jail.
A jury at Southwark Crown Court found Taylor guilty of six counts of false accounting under section 17 of the Theft Act 1968, by a majority of 11 to 1. The expense at issue totalled £11,277. Mr Justice Saunders, who also sentenced Chaytor, presided over the trial.
Taylor will be sentenced at a later date, and although the outcome is difficult to predict, it is useful to consider the recent case of former-MP David Chaytor, who was sentenced to 18 months imprisonment by the same judge after pleading guilty to 3 charges of false accounting in relation to his Parliamentary expenses.
Unlike Taylor, whose case went to trial, Chaytor pleaded guilty to the charges relating to £22,660 claimed and £18,350 received.
In his sentencing remarks, Mr Justice Saunders said that Chaytor could not attract sympathy for having limited means, an argument Taylor also used during his trial, as such offences are difficult to detect and amounted to a serious breach of public trust of parliamentarians:
MPs are trusted by Parliament to make honest claims and the rules make that abundantly clear. The foreword by the Speaker to the Green Book which sets out the Rules says that ‘Members are responsible for ensuring that their use of allowances is beyond reproach’. It is right that MPs should be trusted. They hold an important position in our constitution. These false claims were made in my judgment in breach of a high degree of trust placed in MPs to only make legitimate claims.
Moreover, 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“.
Although Taylor’s false accounting related to less money in total than Chaytor’s, it will be a relevant factor that Taylor maintained that he was innocent. As such, no discount on sentence will be available for an early guilty plea. Chaytor received a 25% discount.
In Chaytor’s case, Mr Justice Saunders considered the Sentencing Guidelines Council guidance, and used as a starting point the punishment suggested for offences of confidence fraud involving sums under £20,000 which is 18 months imprisonment. This guideline may also be relevant to Taylor. The judge accepted that was “increased significantly” due to the aggravating factors of breach of trust involved in the offences and the effect they have on the public’s confidence in the legislature.
Mr Justice Saunders also took into account Chaytor’s good character and the fact that he had “devoted a considerable period of his life to public service and he has been a considerable force for good“, and that he had repaid all the money he had received from the false claims.
Despite his formerly good character, Chaytor has been jailed for 1 1/2 years. Given that Taylor’s case has similar features, notably the breach of public trust element, it seems unlikely that he will escape a similar fate.
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