The leader of Essex County Council has called on his disgraced predecessor, Lord Hanningfield, to “do the right thing” and pay back expenses the authority says he owes Essex taxpayers.
Cllr David Finch said that he had accepted the recommendation of the council’s audit committee, which met on Monday, not to pursue legal action to recover nearly £51,000.
The committee, acting on advice from independent lawyers and County Hall’s external auditors, said that the chances of success were uncertain and the cost of pursuing the case would be significant.
In November 2012, an investigation revealed the 73-year-old pig-farming peer – who three years ago was jailed for fiddling his Parliamentary expenses – racked up credit card spending during his nine years as leader totalling £286,000.
Cllr Finch said: “This is about doing the right thing. It is about choosing to spend money on providing care, education and roads instead of spending it lining the pockets of expensive lawyers.
“I’ve made sure this situation can never happen again and our governance is now second to none. But I am still as angry and frustrated about this situation as Essex taxpayers are. So I am calling again on Lord Hanningfield to do the right thing and repay the money he owes.”
In July 2011, Hanningfield was jailed for nine months – the shortest prison sentence handed down on anyone convicted of dishonesty in the Parliamentary expenses scandal – after being convicted of six counts of false accounting under the Theft Act 1968. He denied all the charges.
The judge and jury at his trial at Chelmsford Crown Court heard that he claimed for overnight stays in London when he had in fact returned to his home in West Hanningfield, near Chelmsford. On one occasion he was on a plane to India.
His appeal against his conviction was rejected by the Court of Appeal.
In September 2011, Hanningfield was released from prison on home detention curfew after serving just a quarter of his nine-month sentence.
The following month, he began legal action against Essex Police for wrongful arrest on suspicion of fraudulent use of a county council credit card, a few days after he had been released from jailed. He sought £6,500 for unlawful arrest and detention, trespass and costs. In February last year he was awarded £3,500 damages.
In April 2012 Hanningfield was allowed to return to the Lords after repaying £30,000 in fraudulently claimed expenses. Five moths later he was ordered to repay a further £37,000 covering a six-year period, under the Proceeds of Crime Act.
Born and educated in Chelmsford as Paul White, he was first elected to Essex County Council in 1970 and served for 41 years, including chairman from 1989 to 1992 and leader from 2001 to 2010. He resigned as leader on the day it was announced he would be charged over his Parliamentary expenses claims. He also resigned as Opposition spokesman in the House of Lords for communities, local government and transport.
In 1998 he was given a peerage in recognition of his work in helping to establish the Local Government Association of England and Wales, of which he was deputy chair. He is also a former leader of the Association of County Councils.