Lord Hanningfield hoping for a return to political life
LORD Hanningfield has paid his debts to the House of Lords, says he is ready to make a return to public life and believes the new expenses system is "idiot proof".
The 71-year-old returns to national politics next month after spending nine weeks in jail last summer and is desperate to put his two years of "hell" behind him.
Still sporting a beard, the former head of Essex County Council sat in the glorious Chelmsford sunshine and said he is hopeful he can ditch the title of "disgraced peer" following his conviction for fiddling his parliamentary expenses.
"I hope people do not judge me by one mistake, but my previous record," said Lord Hanningfield, jailed for nine months after being found guilty at the end of a ten-day trial in May for fraudulently claiming nearly £14,000.
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The former pig farmer charged for hotel stays in London when he was in fact chauffer-driven home to his bungalow in West Hanningfield.
"I don't want to be called 'disgraced' any more. I just want to get back to having a normal life. Even Jeffrey Archer is not 'disgraced' any longer."
But he must first face up to his colleagues on his return to the House of Lords after repaying his £28,000 debt.
"I'm not nervous, but I'm wondering how it will work out," said Lord Hanningfield.
"It will be somewhat similar to becoming a peer again.
"It was very daunting back then. When I first became a Lord in 1998 I didn't have an induction, I was thrown straight in at the deep end."
And such was his first-day anxiety that the one-time Conservative stalwart sat on benches usually reserved for Labour politicians.
Lord Hanningfield, who was born Paul White, said: "Someone shouted out, 'Paul you're on the wrong side'. And then someone else said, 'he's always been on the wrong side'. It was all very embarrassing. I won't be doing that this time, but I will be wondering how people, particularly people who don't know me, will react.
"I think people who know me know I made a mistake and know I'm not a master criminal. Anyone would have thought I committed two murders with the amount of publicity I got."
He insists he will not start "saying outrageous things" but will instead "take his time" and find a topic he thinks he can add value to.
"I shall find a debate that I can speak in and not rush in. I will be very conspicuous because everyone at the House knows what happened to me."
He will either get involved in international development or, more likely, penal reform, a topic close to his heart after spending nine weeks at a minimum security prison in Kent.
He is adamant he can make a difference to the lives of young inmates and still keeps in contact with his old cellmate, Dell, a petty crook caught with a boot full of cannabis in Maidstone, and plans to meet up with him in the near future.
"Some people in prison would be better served in their communities – it won't cost so much money and would help them with their rehabilitation. There are so many people in their 20s who need a lot of help with the rest of their lives," he said.
"It will be difficult for me to start with but I think I will enjoy it in due course.
"There are so many issues that I didn't have time to take up before that I will try and take up now."
And while a return to the political front line is unlikely, and despite a hectic daily schedule at his home in West Hanningfield involving two dog walks and looking after his rare-breed chickens, he believes a senior role on a committee in the House of Lords is a possibility.
He said: "I can see why when people retire they say they don't have time to do anything – but I'm ready to do a bit more.
"I've always worked hard my entire life and to end up chairman of a committee after what I've been through would be a nice outcome.
"It's one thing at a time at the moment, but I just want to start doing something again."
Fortunately for him the expenses system at the House of Lords has changed.
"You can't mess it up," he grinned. "It's completely idiot-proof."