Elliot Morley jailed for 16 months
Former Labour minister guilty of 'blatant dishonesty' for claiming more than £30,000 in bogus mortgage payments.
Elliot Morley has become the highest-profile parliamentarian to be jailed over the expenses scandal after he was sentenced to 16 months' imprisonment for claiming more than £30,000 in false mortgage payments.
The 58-year-old former MP for Scunthorpe, who had admitted two charges of false accounting, was told he was guilty of "blatant dishonesty" and had "thrown away his good name and good character" in a fraud which ended "a distinguished political career" that spanned more than 20 years.
Sentencing him at Southwark crown court, Mr Justice Saunders described Morley's public downfall as "tragic".
Morley, who is diabetic and suffers from depression, had earlier wiped away tears as the court heard he had made a "grotesque error of judgment". He could be released on licence in four months.
"He had given honourable service to the public, not just to constituents but to the country as whole," said Jim Sturman, QC, defending. He had "discharged onerous ministerial duties for almost a decade". But now he faced "a bleak and very uncertain future, especially at his age".
He had also been stripped of a £64,000 resettlement grant he would normally receive on leaving parliament.
Peter Wright, for the prosecution, said Morley had "engaged in the wholesale abuse of the expenses system".
The court was told that, between May 2004 and November 2007, Morley had "on no fewer than 40 occasions" falsely claimed £800 a month. Parliamentary rules entitled him to claim only mortgage payment interest on his second home. But while his interest varied from £52 per month in 2004 to £5.85 in February 2006, he continued to claim £800 a month.
He sought £15,200 in mortgage claims, when he was only entitled to £1,572. Between March 2006 and November 2007, after his mortgage had been repaid, he continued to submit the £800 monthly, claiming £16,800 towards a mortgage that did not exist.
He failed to respond to requests for further information from the Fees Office and "evaded giving answers in the knowledge that to give truthful answers would reveal the fraud", said Saunders.
When he was eventually challenged, he described it as an "embarrassing and inadvertent oversight" and immediately repaid the money.
Morley, who lost his post as environment minister in 2006, stood in the dock as the judge told him that in common with other MPs convicted over expenses, he was guilty of a "serious breach of trust". It was " arguably worse" in his case because he was a minister.
The judge was satisfied the "excessive claims were made deliberately and are not explicable even in part by oversight".
He allowed a 25% discount of the sentence because of the "courage" it had taken for Morley to enter a guilty plea. He avoided a longer sentence, despite claiming more money than other MPs convicted, because "the degree of sophistication" involved in the fraud was less.
The judge also made "some small further reduction" in sentence in light of Morley's public service. He had read "a truly remarkable series of testimonials" from many distinguished people describing him as a "positive force for good"
IN SOUTHWARK CROWN COURT
R -V- ELLIOT MORLEY
SENTENCING REMARKS OF MR JUSTICE SAUNDERS
20TH MAY 2011
I am satisfied from the nature of the mortgage transactions and the
correspondence that the excessive claims were made deliberately and are
not explicable even in part by oversight. The continuation of the claim for
£800 a month after the mortgage had been redeemed can properly be
described as blatant dishonesty. When the fees office asked for further
information, Mr. Morley evaded giving answers in the knowledge that to
give truthful answers would reveal the fraud. When it was discovered,
Mr. Morley's answers to the inquiries that were made were lies.
What is common to all the MPs cases is that what they did represented a
serious breach of trust by those who were elected to govern us. Arguably
it is worse in Mr. Morley's case because he was a Minister for most of the
time that the fraud was being perpetrated.
The media in general has failed to observe the close link between this minister and the policy he was first appointed to enforce. During the foot and mouth epidemic in 2001, prime minister Tony Blair intervened to take personal control of the developing crisis. He sacked the minister for agriculture Nick Brown and closed his department, replacing MAFF with DEFRA and appointing Elliot Morley to enforce a novel and untested control policy recommended by the government chief scientist, David King. A central element of this new policy was the contiguous cull, which was illegal under existing UK law and EU regulation. Morley's role was specifically to deceive the farming community and general public into accepting that the policy was both effective and legal, when it was demonstrably neither; and once the crisis was over, to drive through parliament changes to the law that would legalise the policy in future.
Morley discharged this role with considerable vigour as a swaggering, strong-arm enforcer backed by a large parliamentary majority. His public pronouncements during the foot and mouth epidemic were frequently challenged by those with knowledge of the situation, but Morley brushed these contemptuously aside, while the media in general conspicuously failed to give balanced coverage of the issues and thus provided a false image of authority to his blandishments. To give just one example among many: Morley's statements to the press on the disease status of sheep being slaughtered on the Brecon Beacons were factually incorrect and misleading. When I wrote to the Times newspaper challenging their report of what he had said, the letters editor telephoned me to check through the scientific references supporting my points, one by one and in some detail, to satisfy himself that my criticism was accurate and evidence based. I had no problem with that, but when I enquired whether Elliot Morley's remarks were subject to the same scrutiny, he replied that a minister could say anything he liked and it was up to members of the public to hold them to account, not the reporting newspaper. This conveniently ignores the fact that a letter printed several days later on an inside page has virtually no impact against the banner headline that it contradicts.
So Morley swaggered onwards, doing the job he'd been appointed for, virtually unopposed. I think it was Nick Green of Cumbria who coined the nickname 'Elliot More-lies' that was fully justified at the time for anyone who cared to look. It can only have been a short step from a ministerial role of this nature to making false claims about personal expenses - what else could be expected of someone appointed for those very qualities?
Unlike the judge who sentenced him to prison, I hold no sympathy for Morley, but I also recognise that blame for his predicament is equally shared by a government that positively encouraged such behaviour, and by a media that passively promoted his deceptions. While Morley languishes in jail, the system that produced and rewarded him remains unpunished and unchanged.