Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Fire-raiser Lord Watson told to do the honourable thing - Don't claim for lighters?

THE disgraced Labour politician Mike Watson yesterday faced calls to quit the House of Lords, as moves to expel convicted peers from parliament gathered pace.
The Liberal Democrats said Lord Watson, sentenced to 16 months in jail after he admitted wilful fire-raising at an Edinburgh hotel, should step aside with honour and no longer attend debates in the upper House.They plan to table amendments to imminent government proposals to tighten the rules on membership of the Lords in the wake of the "cash for amendments" scandal. Nine peers are now under suspicion, either for allegedly offering to change new laws in return for money, or in connection with jobs outside the Lords.David Heath, the Lib Dem MP who shadows the leader of the Commons, said he wanted a retrospective ban on convicted peers – such as Lord Watson, Jeffrey Archer and Conrad Black – retaining their seats.The call came as it emerged that Lord Watson, an independent Labour peer, had claimed thousands of pounds in allowances after being released early from prison.He was freed on 23 May, 2006, and attended the Lords on 102 days that financial year, claiming £37,538. Since 2001, he has claimed £128,589 – £385 a day for 334 days in the chamber.In a Commons debate about making parliament more accountable, Mr Heath said: "We have as members of the House of Lords a convicted perjurer, a convicted fraudster and a convicted fire-raiser. What a rum crew we have making laws for this country."Mr Heath told The Scotsman yesterday: "There is a counter-argument that you can't make these things retrospective. In my view, the idea that somebody has broken the law and been imprisoned, but would have taken a different course of action had they known they would be suspended, is a pretty specious argument."I know that there are some legal opinions that suggest you can't make it retrospective, but for the Commons, that is as it is at the moment. If you have been convicted, then you are not eligible to take your seat. If you had been convicted previously, you would be disqualified."Asked if Lord Watson should not be free to continue his political career after serving his sentence, Mr Heath said: "There is rehabilitation and there is putting someone into parliament. I think there is rather a leap between the two. We have very clear rules with regard to the House of Commons. There is no clear reason why they shouldn't apply to the Lords as well."Labour back-bencher Ian Davidson, the MP for Glasgow South West, declined to comment directly on Lord Watson's case but said he backed the automatic exclusion of peers with a criminal record – regardless of when their crime had been committed. Alistair Carmichael, MP, the Lib Dems' Scottish affairs spokesman, said Lord Watson would have been unable to retake his MSP seat at Holyrood as rules ban people sentenced to a year or more in prison. He went on: "He started turning up here (in Westminster] because he had nowhere else to go. The House of Lords is the last refuge of the wilful fire-raiser. It rather highlights the inadequacies of the present set-up."He added: "If he had to face the electorate to get into the House of Lords, he wouldn't be sitting where he is today."The Ministry of Justice said it had yet to decide on rules to suspend or expel peers guilty of misconduct. But a spokesman said the government was looking at whether convicted peers could be suspended retrospectively. £384 allowances per day for shamed peerLORD Watson of Invergowrie became a peer in 1997, after eight years as a Labour MP.His Lords attendance only really took off after his release from prison. Before then, he also served as an MSP, and at times a Scottish Executive minister, between 1999 and 2005.He attended the Lords 334 times from April 2001 to March 2008, claiming £128,589 in allowances – an average of £384 per attendance. No receipts are required for claims. Some 231 of those visits followed his release from jail. He has made 17 speeches since then and voted on 246 occasions – about average for peers.