Does David Chaytor’s punishment fit the crime?

Image courtesy of TheyWorkForYou

It came as no surprise when David Chaytor received his criminal conviction yesterday, having already pleaded guilty to charges of false accounting under section 17 of the Theft Act. The former MP for Bury North – the first parliamentarian to be jailed as a result of the expenses scandal of 2009 – was found guilty of faking 13 documents over a 26-month period, as a result of which he gained £18,350 in expenses. What was surprising was the sentence he received – an 18-month custodial term, with the possibility of being eligible for home curfew after 4½ months – and it does raise the question to what extent it is right to make a harsh example of someone who is in the public eye.

When details of the scandal first broke, Chaytor had vehemently protested his innocence, saying it was all just “a mistake”. Last week, in desperation – or, alternatively, a breathtaking display of arrogance – he even claimed he should be immune from prosecution in accordance with MPs’ rights of parliamentary privilege. The Court of Appeal, rightly, threw his claim out.

A mistake? I don’t think so, and neither did the court. In addition to attempting to claim expenses for voluntary work, his 13 faked documents included a falsified tenancy agreement. Such things do not occur as a result of a mere oversight, any more than ramming a bulldozer into your local branch of Barclays can be mitigated to driving without undue care and attention.

Speaking on his behalf in a plea for clemency, James Sturman, QC, said:

He accepts he has brought shame on himself, he has brought shame on his family and he has brought shame on Parliament. Please can you let him off with 500 lines and an itty-bitty slap on the wrist?

Okay, I may have made that last bit up. And I appreciate that Chaytor himself has been deeply affected by the scandal which has engulfed him, lapsing into depression, losing weight and retreating into heavy drinking. But, although I would not wish that on anybody, they are merely the consequences of his own deliberate actions. It was all little more than empty words; a final attempt at mitigation, throwing himself on the mercy of the court. But the horse had long since bolted. And now the door of a prison cell will be bolted behind him.

I don’t think the metaphor requires any explanation, do you? (image courtesy of Rose Davies)

I have no doubt that Chaytor deserved his conviction – and I do not for one minute pretend to be a legal expert – but as an interested bystander I can’t help but wonder whether Mr Justice Saunders‘ rationale for dealing such a long sentence really holds up under scrutiny. I can agree with this:

These false claims were made in breach of the high degree of trust placed in MPs to only make legitimate claims. The whole expenses scandal has shaken public confidence in our legislature. It has angered the public.

The basic premise of people in the public eye bearing a greater responsibility, particularly when claiming public money, is valid to my eye. But Saunders also talked about MPs not having the same mitigation of benefits fraudsters as justification for the 18-month custodial term.

That doesn’t sit well with me.

For starters, not all benefits fraudsters, to use the judge’s words, “have limited means and are short of money”. That would suggest the romantic notion that all such individuals are like some kind of real-life Bob Cratchit, the impoverished employee of Ebenezer Scrooge in A Christmas Carol – people desperate to buy basic commodities, or purchase clothes and textbooks for their kids as an altruistic act of aspirational self-improvement. I have no doubt there are some like this, but equally there are many benefits cheats who fit the Daily Mail caricature of ne’er-do-wells who sponge off the state in order to fund their Sky Sports subscription or their drug habit, or who may be part of organised crime syndicates who systematically and cynically grab everything they can. Are these people of “limited means” and worthy of a patronising slap on the wrist, while Chaytor goes to jail (where he will further add to the drain on public resources)?

Also – and I find this equally disturbing – since when was the severity of a crime measured through the lens of means-testing? Greed is a basic human instinct – it is one of the Seven Deadly Sins, after all – and I’m not sure why we should be surprised that even the wealthy inevitably lust for more. If a benefits cheat receives a suspended sentence and an MP gets 18 months, what is the appropriate level of punishment for, say, an embezzling multimillionaire banker? Public execution?

Now, of course, I’m not arguing that Chaytor did not deserve a criminal conviction. (He certainly did.) I am not even saying he should have escaped a custodial sentence. (I buy that, just, on the “public trust” argument.) But should he have received an 18-month custodial term when Joe Public would, in all likelihood, have received a suspended sentence? I’m not so sure.

David Chaytor represents a landmark first conviction as a result of the expenses scandal. He is unlikely to be the last. Over the next three months, three current or former MPs – Eric Illsley, Jim Devine and Elliot Morley – and Lord Taylor of Warwick will face trial, with Lord Hanningfield, a former Tory front-bencher, also due to be scheduled. It will be interesting to see whether they receive similarly hefty convictions, particularly Illsley and Morley, who claimed similarly large sums to Chaytor.

Interesting times. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m just off to double-check my latest expenses claim.