By a Newsnet reporter
The Labour party has been accused of showing no regard for the electorate after it emerged a convicted arsonist has been allowed to re-join the party.
The criticism follows a report in a Scottish Sunday newspaper that revealed shamed former Labour politician Lord Mike Watson has been readmitted to the party.
Watson was jailed in 2005 after pleading guilty to “wilful fire-raising” after he deliberately set fire to curtains in an Edinburgh hotel. The Labour peer had been attending the Scottish Politician of the Year awards ceremony at the Prestonfield House Hotel in November 2004.
The resulting blaze caused thousands of pounds worth of damage and his trial heard how only the prompt action of Hotel staff prevented injury to guests and more serious damage. Watson had originally denied being the culprit, but CCTV footage emerged that clearly showed the Labour politician setting the curtains alight.
A background report concluded that there was a “significant risk” that the Labour peer would re-offend.
Responding to the news that Watson is to rejoin the party, SNP MSP James Dornan said Labour’s decision was an “insult” to those whose lives Watson had endangered, and added:
“The fact that Labour have quietly readmitted a convicted fire-raiser is an insult to all the people whose lives Mike Watson endangered, and shows how little regard Labour have for the electorate.
“We already know from figures out this year that he claimed just over £48,000 in attendance allowances and travel expenses between April 2011 and February this year during when he only contributed to five parliamentary debates and took part in a quarter of the possible votes.
“That is exactly why the House of Lords should be abolished – people are rightly angry that disgraced politicians can continue to lord it up at public expense.
“Lord Watson rightly had to leave the Scottish Parliament because of what he did – yet he is still sitting, unelected, in the House of Lords making decisions for Scotland.
“This unbelievable contempt for democracy from Labour shows exactly why polls show so few Scots trust Westminster to act in Scotland’s best interests.”
Speaking at Lord Watson’s trial, Sheriff Kathrine Mackie told the Labour peer: “Fire-raising is a most serious crime.
“By pleading guilty to this charge you have acknowledged that you intended to set on fire property at Prestonfield House Hotel whereby property was damaged and lives were endangered.
“The potential for serious injury to guests and staff within the hotel, and for very significant damage to the property, was considerable.”
In a statement after the verdict, a Labour spokesman said: “Mr Watson has been expelled from the Labour Party.
“His sentence illustrates that if you commit a serious crime in Scotland, no matter who you are, you must face the consequences. That is right.”
Despite his conviction, Watson remained a member of the House of Lords because he was a Life Peer which meant he could not be removed. As such, he was able to vote on legislation affecting law and order.
In February this year, SNP Constitutional Affairs spokesperson Pete Wishart MP called for peers convicted and imprisoned for serious offences to be removed from the House of Lords.
Lord Watson is not the only peer who has a criminal conviction. The House of Lords contains a number of so-called ‘nobles’ who have been convicted of criminal offences which would seriously prejudice their chances of continuing employment in any other professional sphere.
In 1993, while Labour MP for Cumnock and Labour’s shadow defence spokesman, George Foulkes was convicted of being drunk and disorderly and assaulting a police officer. At the time of the offence, Foulkes was on his way to take part in an important vote in the House of Commons. A witness at the trial described Foulkes as being like “Zebedee on acid”. He spent a night in police custody and was fined £1,050.
Foulkes appeared to believe that being drunk was no reason not to act as a legislator, influencing the lives of British citizens in important matters. The Labour party, despite the incident, granted Foulkes the title ‘Baron Foulkes of Cumnock’ in 2005. Foulkes is active in the House of Lords, most recently making a series of amendments to the Scotland Bill in an attempt to reduce the powers of Holyrood. Foulkes would not be forced to step down from the Lords should members of the upper house be subject to the same restrictions as MPs, as he was not sentenced to more than 12 months in prison.
Jeffrey Archer, pulp-novelist, one-time Conservative MP and former chairman of the Conservative party, was awarded the title Baron Archer of Weston-super-Mare. In 2000 Archer was convicted of perjury and perverting the course of justice for lying in court during a libel case he’d taken out against the Star newspaper. Archer was sentenced to 3 years in prison. Archer retains his title and although expelled from the party he remains influential within Conservative circles.
Conservative peer John Taylor, ‘Baron Taylor of Warwick’, was convicted of six counts of fraudulent accounting relating to his Parliamentary expenses. In May 2011 he was sentenced to 12 months in prison. Taylor is currently on home release and under a curfew order. He was suspended from the House of Lords for 12 months, but will be free to return after May 2012.
Conrad Black, former propietor of the Daily Telegraph, was awarded the title Baron Black of Crossharbour by Tony Blair in 2001. In 2007 Black was convicted in a US court for diverting company money for his own personal use, and for obstruction of justice. Black was sentenced to 78 months. He was released in July 2010, but later reimprisoned after losing an appeal against two of his original convictions. Black was released from prison earlier this year and has indicated he intends to return to the House of Lords.