"You could get your hair cut for a Mars Bar..."
In July last year Lord Hanningfield was jailed after being convicted of fiddling his House of Lords expenses. In an exclusive interview, he speaks to Charles Thomson about his time in prison and his plans for the future.
Weds 18th Jan 2012, Yellow Advertiser
LORD Hanningfield is almost unrecognisable as the one-time leader of Essex County Council. His hair, formerly combed into a side-parting, is curly and unkempt. Once clean-shaven, he now sports a beard.
His fall from grace has been well-documented. In July he was sentenced to nine months in prison. Days after his September release, Essex Police arrested him – this time over an investigation into Essex County Council expenses. There have been no charges and he strenuously denies any wrongdoing.
When we meet at the Barge Inn, Battlesbridge, he orders a cappuccino and nestles into a large, red leather armchair.
I hand him a copy of the latest YA. Our front page is about changes to Essex Council’s rules on expenses. New rules say councillors can claim for third party hospitality under ‘exceptional circumstances’, such as ‘buying lunch for the purpose of maintaining the reputation of the council’.
Perusing the article, he says Essex Police has dropped its investigation into his council expenses and speaks candidly about the authority.
“There were no particular rules when I was leader and it was no secret,” he says. “Everything went in and they paid it.
“There was one chap who had puppies at home. He’d drive to a meeting, drive home to check in on the puppies, drive to county hall, drive home to feed the puppies… then claim for the mileage.”
I ask him whether he feels the new rules are too vague.
“Yes. How do you decide what is for the council’s benefit?” he ponders, before adding. “I didn’t ever do anything that wasn’t for the council’s benefit.
“You don’t really want to entertain. You have to. It’s part of your job. Should that be at your expense, if it’s part of the job? It’s horrible, having to go and meet people from the health service or somewhere.”
He argues that most entertaining ultimately saves the council money on business deals.
“My whole life was spent trying to save money for the public,” he contends.
In July a jury disagreed, finding Hanningfield guilty of making fraudulent House of Lords expense claims. He insists the conviction was unfair.
“It’s rather off, being sent to prison because of the media.
“I’m going to write a book. I’ve got a lot to say about parliamentary expenses and prison. I didn’t think I was doing anything wrong.”
Throughout his trial he maintained that he was only doing what hundreds of others were doing. He says he was prosecuted to appease public anger over duck houses and moat cleaning.
“They needed someone to be made an example of,” he says.
In prison he says he found comfort in Jeffrey Archer’s book about prison life and played a lot of Monopoly.
“Mars bars were the best currency. Everyone was hooked on chocolate. There was no alcohol in there and the food wasn’t very nice, so Mars bars were the thing to have. You had your hair cut for a Mars bar.”
I recall him saying on TV that people in prison were nicer than people on the outside. He smiles.
“Yes. You all live in a community. It was a bit like being in a prisoner of war camp. It was like you were all comrades.”
Hanningfield says the lead-up to his trial was far worse than the jail spell.
“Those two years were terribly traumatic. I suffered severe bouts of depression. That time was a real nightmare for me. I’m starting to pull myself together again now.”
He claims he’s had ‘perhaps one’ derogatory letter but hundreds from supporters. I say this doesn’t tally with his comment about prisoners being nicer than civilians. He pauses.
“People in life are a bit petty about things,” he says. “Nobody ever complained about anything in prison.”
As our interview winds up, I return to the subject of expenses. I suggest to Hanningfield that if rules on expenses were stricter – more black and white – then it would have been almost impossible for anyone to get it wrong, either intentionally or accidentally. Had the rules been clearer, he might not be sat here now reflecting on a prison spell.
He says: “I think there should be strict rules but as far as the leader is concerned, what’s the point of having a leader if they can’t make some judgements about what’s in the best interests of the public? That should be left to the leader, not a junior officer.”
He receives a phonecall from his sister, who has picked up a box of council papers for him.
“She’s worried about me,” he says as he hangs up. “She thinks I might get upset.”
I call him a few days later, having discovered that the Essex Police investigation has not been dropped as he thought. It has simply been transferred to another police force.
He seems nonplussed. “Well, Essex Police didn’t find anything in the three months they were investigating,” he says. “I doubt it’ll come to anything.”
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