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When Members of Parliament Fall Foul of the Laws They Make

Wormwood Scrubs Prison: For Corrupt MPs? - David Hawgood
Speaking of laws that MPs make .., the January 2011 jailing for 18 months of former MP David Chaytor for fiddling expenses, raised interest in how many others have served time over the years and who have been caught by the laws they themselves made.

MPs have high levels of theoretical probity. In the Chamber, all are called ‘Honourable’ or ‘Right Honourable’. However, temptation to steal/lie/cheat/betray and generally break laws are as high in politics as the rest of humanity. It appears, at least in the past 30 years, the numbers of jailed MPs is less than the average in the population as a whole.

The House of Commons’ Library published a paper in 2008 in response to a Freedom of Information request, explaining the rules: ‘In cases in which Members of either House are arrested on criminal charges, the House must be informed of the cause for which they are detained from their service to Parliament’.

The cause of detention is usually conveyed after arrest, and it includes custody for trial by naval or military courts-martial, or committal to prison from a court or magistrate. The Commons’ Speaker normally announces the fact to the House, and the letter is ‘laid upon the table’. If a Member is convicted but released on bail pending appeal, the magistrate is not required to inform The Speaker.

The Oxygen of Publicity

While MPs crave publicity, most wish that the media frenzy unleashed by their arrests/convictions was not so vociferous. A few have sought imprisonment as a form of ‘martyrdom’ to make some political point. They are aware of the rule that an MP convicted and sentenced for more than a year must resign his/her seat, or anybody who is serving time at an election, cannot stand for Parliament.

Between 1987 and 1991, eleven MPs were jailed between 7 – 60 days. Ten were from Ulster, some served more than once and Peter Robinson (Belfast East) was given four sentences. They had refused to pay fines after taking part in banned public processions or failed to pay fines after motoring offences, as part of political protest.

In Northern Ireland, Bobby Sands was imprisoned, but not sentenced, for terrorist activities when he, along with other IRA members, went on hunger strike. His supporters nominated him as ‘political prisoner’ candidate in a Parliamentary by-election in Fermanagh and South Tyrone in April 1981. He was elected, but died shortly afterwards. Nine others followed his example in dying.

Labour MP Terry Fields (Liverpool, Broadgreen) went down for non-payment of his ‘community charge’ in 1991, again as a political protest stunt. From the same party, John Stonehouse (Walsall North) was in a different league. The BBC reported in 1974: ‘Drowned’ Stonehouse found alive. Former UK minister John Stonehouse has been found living under a false name in Australia after apparently faking his own death’.

Stonehouse pretended to drown on a business trip to Miami Beach in November 1973, leaving behind a pile of clothes, before travelling to Singapore, Denmark, Lebanon and Hawaii and entering Australia on a forged passport in the name of a deceased constituent, to start a new life with his former secretary. Deported to London, he was jailed for 7 years on 18 counts of theft, fraud and deception. He did 3 years.

Conservatives, Too

Captain Peter Baker became MP for South Norfolk in 1950, as the then youngest member. When his business interests ran into trouble, he took to forging signatures to guarantee debts. When discovered, he was sentenced to seven years under fraud laws, and was actually expelled from Parliament by MPs on 16 December 1954.

In 1969 Jeffrey Archer also became the then youngest MP, at 29, for Louth. He climbed the Parliamentary and political greasepole, but in 1974 was ‘the casualty of a fraudulent investment scheme’. He resigned and reinvented himself as a novelist, all round bon viveur and Conservative Party Deputy Chairman. After allegations about paying off a prostitute and suing various British papers for libel, he was accused of insider dealing.

Finally, in 2001 he was found guilty of perjury and perverting the course of justice and sent down for 4 years. True, he was not an MP at the time, but he was a member of the House of Lords. Another former MP to do bird was Jonathan Aitken (Thanet East; Thanet South). He told the media he would ‘cut out the cancer of bent and twisted journalism with the simple sword of truth and the trusty shield of fair play’.

Newspapers had alleged improprieties involving the Ritz Hotel in Paris and arms deals, but in the slander trial, lies and inconsistencies involving his wife and daughter emerged. In 1995 he was found guilty, sentenced to 18 months and was forced to resign membership of the Privy Council, an honour given as a member of the Cabinet.

The Right People in Prison?

Nobody feels sorry about ex-MPs. Yet more may end in prison over the abuse of expenses scandal of 2009, and people hold differing views about whether others should be in prison too. In their book Crap MPs (2009) Bendor Grosvenor and Geoffrey Hicks listed 40 of ‘the worst all-time MPs’ for poor judgements about alcohol, money, murder, forgery, drugs, sex; for having dodgy friends; running off or bone idleness, and the public will have their own favourites.

The hours most MPs put in doing their honest, almost impossible work, the fact that sometimes laws are not right or have unintended consequences, means that when something goes wrong, it’s easy to condemn. After all, they chose the stage spotlight. It’s just that sometimes, it’s impossible to make fun of people who lampoon themselves so well.

First published at Suite 101, 9 January 2011, although should be updated with more recent cases of broken laws, from fraud in office to even motoring offences!

Photo: Wormwood Scrubs Prison: For Corrupt MPs? – David Hawgood

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