MP calls for convicted peers to lose titles


By a Newsnet reporter

SNP Constitutional Affairs spokesperson Pete Wishart MP has called for peers convicted and imprisoned for serious offences to be removed from the House of Lords.

Mr Wishart’s call comes after Fred Goodwin was stripped of his knighthood for his role in the collapse of the Royal Bank of Scotland, although no criminal offence was committted.

Mr Wishart said current proposals in the draft House of Lords reform bill, which suggests that convicted peers could be suspended for an indefinite period, did not go far enough. The MP said it was time the House of Lords was brought in to line with the Commons – where any MP given a sentence of more than a year is automatically expelled.

Mr Wishart said the precedent had already been set and suggested that a 1917 law, the Deprivation of Titles Act, which was passed to remove peerages from the Duke of Cumberland and the Duke of Albany, who supported Germany in WW1, could be amended. There have been cases of members of the nobility losing their titles, for example after the Jacobite rebellion.

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.  The roll of shame includes:

Mike Watson, former Labour MSP for Glasgow Cathcart, who was charged with two counts of arson after a private reception at Edinburgh’s Prestonfield Hotel following the Scottish Politician of the Year awards in November 2004.  Watson pled guilty to the first count, and not guilty to the second.  The court accepted his not guilty plea on the second charge.

Watson was sentenced to 16 months in prison by Sheriff Kathrine Mackie, who noted that the Labour peer had offered no mitigation or explanation.  In the view of the sherrif, there was a “significant risk” that Watson would re-offend and warned him that alcohol was no excuse for his behaviour.  Watson retains the title ‘Baron Watson of Invergowrie’, and continues to attend the House of Lords regularly to take part in debates and influence legislation.

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.  He is currently serving out the remaining period of his sentence in the Federal Correctional Facility, Miami.  Black is due for release toward the end of this year.  Once released, Black will be free to take up his seat in the House of Lords.

Commenting, Mr Wishart said:

“The removal of Fred Goodwin’s knighthood has properly focused attention on standards in public life and in particular the conduct of those who have been bestowed with honours.

“It is ridiculous that peers, convicted and imprisoned for serious criminal offences can retain, not just their title, but their seat and privileges in the House of Lords. In circumstances where an MP would be disqualified and lose their seat, for Lords it really is a case of one law for them and another for the rest of us.

“Proposals within the draft Lords reform bill simply do not go far enough. It is time the House of Lords was brought in to line with the Commons – and that any peer convicted of a serious criminal offence should face expulsion and the forfeiture of their title.

“The precedence has already been set, and it may be that the 1917 Deprivation of Titles Act, which was passed to remove titles from peers who supported Germany in WW1, could be amended.

“Before David Cameron and Nick Clegg stuff the Lords with even more cronies, they should create some space by getting rid of those peers who have broken the law yet continue to make the law for the rest of us.”