The MPs expenses scandal is set to drag on into the next election and well beyond, after three Labour MPs and a Tory peer were charged under the theft act over charges of false accounting.

Elliot Morley, the Scunthorpe MP and former agriculture minister, Bury North MP David Chaytor, and Livingston’s Jim Devine, as well as Conservative peer Lord Hanningfield, will appear at Westminster Magistrates Court on March 11.

But this will mark the start of long and drawn out proceedings which could take more than a year to conclude.

It means hopes that the expenses scandal could be dealt with before the election campaign, which is expected to begin in early April, have been dashed.

And the case could be drawn out even longer because the politicians have apparently claimed they their cases should be dealt with by the Parliamentary watchdog - not the courts.

Gordon Brown and other party leaders hoped the publication this week of a report by auditor Sir Thomas Legg ordering MPs to repay unjustified claims, and the election of a new Parliament, would allow them to begin the task of rebuilding trust in politics.

Mr Morley is alleged to have dishonestly claimed a total of £30,428 more than he was entitled to in second home expenses on a house in Winterton, near Scunthorpe, between 2004 and 2007 - including 18 months after the mortgage on the property was paid off.

Mr Chaytor faces charges that he claimed almost £13,000 in rent in 2005 and 2006 on a London flat which he owned, as well as £5,425 to rent a property in Lancashire owned by his mother. He is also alleged to have dishonestly claimed £1,950 for IT services using false invoices in May 2006.

Mr Devine is alleged to have claimed £3,240 for cleaning services and £5,505 for stationery using false invoices in 2008 and 2009.

And Lord Hanningfield faces six charges of false accounting, relating to claims for overnight allowances from the House of Lords between March 2006 and May 2009, when records allegedly show he was in fact driven to his home near Chelmsford.

In a joint statement, the three Labour MPs said: “We totally refute any charges that we have committed an offence and we will defend our position robustly.”

The MPs said they believed their cases should have been dealt with by the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner, adding: “We are confident of our position and have been advised by eminent QCs.”

Lord Hanningfield said: “I totally refute the charges and will vigorously defend myself against them. I have never claimed more in expenses than I have spent in the course of my duties.”

He said he was standing down as Tory business spokesman to avoid any “embarrassment or distraction” to the party.

The charges follow a nine-month investigation which saw police hand files over on six parliamentarians shortly before Christmas.

Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, said: “Lawyers representing those who have been charged have raised with us the question of parliamentary privilege.

“We have considered that question and concluded that the applicability and extent of any parliamentary privilege claimed should be tested in court.”

Mr Starmer said the Crown Prosecution Service was continuing to consider one further case, while insufficient evidence had been found to bring charges against Labour peer Lord Clarke of Hampstead.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he was “very angry”, as he arrived in Exeter for a regional Cabinet meeting.

He said: “All criminal allegations have got to be investigated. It’s a matter now for the courts. We have got to get rid of that old politics, it cannot be part of the new system.”