MP never authorised pay increase for office manager, jury told
Jenny Lee Clarke denies charges of forgery and fraud relating to a change in her hours and pay in 2015.
The deputy leader of Welsh Labour has told a court that she never authorised a payrise for her office manager.
Carolyn Harris, MP for Swansea East, said she was not aware of a form increasing Jenny Lee Clarke’s annual pay from £37,000 to £39,000.
Clarke, 42, is alleged to have forged Mrs Harris’s signature on the form, which was submitted to the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (Ipsa), in August 2015.
Cardiff Crown Court has been told that the form also reduced Clarke’s weekly hours from 40 to 37.5.
When Ipsa sent an email to Mrs Harris confirming the change, Clarke is said to have accessed the MP’s account and replied: “Yes, this is correct.”
Mrs Harris, who gave evidence in the case for two hours on Monday afternoon, said she had never seen either email and had not spoken to Clarke about a payrise.
She told the jury of eight men and four women that she only became aware of the change when a colleague sent her the staff reports for her office in January 2016.
“It was the August payment which alerted me to it because it was such a dramatic uplift,” Mrs Harris said.
“I couldn’t understand why it was [the amount]. At that point it looked like Ms Clarke had given herself a payrise.
“I knew nothing of it. It was never discussed.”
Mrs Harris said she had previously agreed that Clarke could drop her hours from 40 to 37.5 per week, as this was in line with other staff members.
After discovering the payrise, the MP contacted Ipsa and the human resources department at the House of Commons.
The court heard the email sent from Ipsa to confirm the change of Clarke’s contract was marked: “FAO MP only” and specified that it was confidential.
South Wales Police were informed and Clarke, of Penllergaer, Swansea, was arrested in July 2016.
In police interview, she admitted signing Mrs Harris’s name on the form and sending the email from her account, but insisted both were done on the MP’s instruction.
Mrs Harris told the court she was elected as MP for Swansea East at the general election in 2015, after her predecessor Sian James stood down.
Both Mrs Harris and Clarke had worked for Mrs James before the election, with the MP describing them as “friends”.
On May 8 that year, Clarke was hired as Mrs Harris’s office manager, working 40 hours per week and earning £37,000 per year.
However, Mrs Harris said issues began to arise with Clarke’s employment.
In November 2015, she was informed by Ipsa that her parliamentary credit card was being suspended because the money reconciliation had not been done – one of Clarke’s duties.
Clarke was on annual leave at the time and had taken the office laptop and relevant paperwork to her home, the court heard.
This led to Mrs Harris effectively demoting Clarke and giving the job of managing office finances to David Lloyd, her election agent and community liaison officer for her constituency.
Mr Lloyd accessed the staff reports in January 2016 and sent them to Mrs Harris, who replied: “Looks like Jen gave herself a payrise.”
The form submitted by Clarke – signed Carolyn Harris and dated August 8 2015 – was retrieved and showed the payrise and drop in hours.
Clarke was sent a letter of dismissal in January 2016, but Mrs Harris said this was for unrelated matters.
She told jurors that she had trusted Clarke “implicitly”.
Prosecuting, Jim Davis accused Clarke of forging Mrs Harris’s signature and then “intercepting” the Ipsa email.
He said Clarke may have believed Mrs Harris was “far too busy” dealing with parliamentary business to spot the change.
Clarke, who denies forgery and fraud, told police that Mrs Harris asked her to submit a form to Ipsa to change another employee’s contract.
She said Mrs Harris told her: “While you’re at it, give yourself a couple of thousand extra” and authorised the reduction in her working hours.
The trial continues.