No grounds to pursue peer over council expenses

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LORD Hanningfield was not pursued over his Essex County Council expenses because there were ’no clear grounds’ to ask for the money back.

County Hall made the admission this month under Freedom of Information laws, in response to questions from a resident. A document published on the council’s website said officers spent almost £30,000 on lawyers trying to recoup £50,689.24 expenses, even though the council believed the peer had ’no intention to commit a fraud’ and ’neither was there clear grounds for a civil action to recover a debt’. The chances of winning court cases were therefore considered to be ’very low’. The council admitted there was no legal basis to demand the money back, after a resident asked in writing why Hanningfield had not been taken to court. It had previously suggested it would sue the former council leader to recoup his expenses, spending £28,043.50 on legal advice. Current leader David Finch (Con) then publicly called on the peer to repay the money of his own volition. The new document conceded that the peer had not broken any of the council’s rules. It said: "The decision not to undertake legal proceedings against Lord Hanningfield was made by the leader of the council, having received advice from both our internal and external auditors as well as legal advice from our own lawyers and counsel. "The advice from counsel was that there was no intention to commit a fraud and neither was there clear grounds for a civil action to recover a debt. "Furthermore, should Essex Council have considered taking such action, the chances of success were considered to be very low and the legal costs could be between £100,000 and £120,000." City of London Police carried out a year-long investigation into Hanningfield’s council expenses, and in November 2012 found no wrongdoing. However, documents published by Essex Council in June showed the council had still ’instructed leading counsel to advise on potential legal action’ in March 2013. Council officers decided that £50,689 was ’potentially recoverable’ and sent Hanningfield an invoice for the amount in June 2013, along with a letter asking him to pay within 28 days. The peer maintained he had done nothing wrong and refused to pay. Documents showed council chairman Kay Twitchen (Con) was then sent to meet the peer ’informally’ and try to convince him to settle, but he still insisted the expenses had been legitimate.