UK Politics

Broke MPs and peers remembered

John Tribe
Image caption John Tribe offers stern reminders not to let one's finances go

John Tribe's office is full of the macabre reminders of judicial history.

A noose hangs menacingly behind his desk. A set of wooden pillories is placed in front of it. A sign warning debtors they are entering Newgate jail welcomes visitors.

For good measure, there are even some fake "hacked-off" ears in a jar - symbolic of the punishment once awaiting those who refused to give the authorities the details needed to deal with their bankruptcy cases.

Things are a lot more civilised today, of course. But there is still a price to pay for bankruptcy, particularly among politicians - public ignominy and, sometimes, a ban from Parliament.

Mr Tribe, a law lecturer at Kingston University, is setting up an archive of documents about this most arcane of subjects.

Among his collection is a handwritten ledger, compiled by the Royal Courts of Justice, of all MPs and peers declared bankrupt between 1902 and 2001.

'Dirty law'

The first entry refers to Lord Alfred Douglas, best known as the lover of Oscar Wilde; the last is that for former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton.

Image caption Lord Alfred Douglas, right, is the first name to appear

Mr Tribe is looking to tell the stories behind the sometimes dry-as-dust entries.

He said: "Until recently bankruptcy was seen as a rather 'dirty' area of law. It was regarded as something to be dealt with by accountants, with lawyers only taking the occasional interest.

"But it is fascinating. Gradually people are looking at it more and more and this record of MPs and peers is part of that."

Bankruptcy in England and Wales is defined by the government as the process of becoming free from "overwhelming debts so you can make a fresh start, subject to some restrictions". It also means "assets are shared out fairly" among impatient creditors.

The law has evolved over several centuries and there have been some gruesome developments along the way.

'Naughty'

From the early 1600s, those refusing to talk to the authorities about their assets were put into pillories, onto which their ears were nailed, eventually being cut off.

In the 1700s, hanging was introduced for the same offence.

Image caption Lord Lucan was assumed to have fled to avoid his creditors - rather than a murder charge

While this punishment gradually fell out of favour, parliamentarians whose financial affairs declined into an unmanageable mess faced special sanctions.

From the late 19th Century they were banned from the Palace of Westminster if they could not get their affairs back in order within six months.

In recent years, the law has changed so that only MPs and peers placed under bankruptcy restrictions orders - applying to those deemed to have been negligent or foolish in getting into that situation - are excluded.

Mr Tribe said: "It means only the more 'naughty' bankrupts can be barred from being in Parliament nowadays. We are talking about people like gamblers or reckless speculators."

Looking through the ledger shows far more peers than MPs have been declared bankrupt.

'Fleeing the realm'

Arguably the most famous on the list is Lord Lucan, a renowned society figure and gambler.

An entry in 1975 notes: "That with intent to defeat or delay his creditors, he departed out of England on or about 8 November 1974 and being out of England, remaining out of England with like intent, or alternatively has with like intent departed from his dwelling house, or otherwise absented himself with like intent to the date hereof".

So the assumption is that Lord Lucan ran away for financial reasons, rather than to escape trial for allegedly killing his children's nanny, with which most people associate his name.

It has never been proved that the peer left the country, although his abandoned car was discovered at the cross-Channel port of Newhaven, in East Sussex.

Image caption Former Conservative MP Neil Hamilton completes the ledger

Mr Tribe said: "Prior to 1986 there were a lot of other tests to say whether someone was bankrupt. One was not occupying a house, ignoring the door. Another was fleeing the realm.

"Many people assume that Lucan did this. The court must have thought that there was a compelling case to say that Lucan had fled to avoid his creditors. The creditors themselves must have been fairly sure that he had fled the realm ."

Next to Lucan on the ledger is Labour MP John Stonehouse, the only person to appear twice in its pages.

He faked his own death in Miami in 1974, fled to Australia, but was captured, found guilty of fraud, and extradited to the UK.

Stonehouse was declared bankrupt in 1975 and again in 1976.

'Negativity'

The qualifications for appearing on the ledger are a little hazy at times.

One of the figures included is Arthur Maundy Gregory, the man convicted in 1933 of selling honours for cash. Neither a peer nor an MP, his brush with the bankruptcy courts in 1934 is chronicled.

As for Mr Hamilton, who famously lost his Tatton seat in the 1997 election to independent candidate Martin Bell, he only merits a single line.

It gives the very basic details of his bankruptcy, declared in 2001, after his expensive court case against Harrods owner Mohammed al-Fayed.

This was four years after he had left Parliament and had no role in ending his political career, raising a question as to why it is included.

Mr Tribe argues that much of the record-keeping is left to the discretion of officials, some being more keen to fill in details than others.

Recently the law has focused more on rehabilitating, rather than stigmatising, those made bankrupt.

Mr Tribe hopes that politicians - except the "naughtiest" among their ranks - can gain a little more understanding from the public, perhaps a tough request at a time of economic austerity and in the wake of the revelations about MPs' expenses.

He said: "We've had 500 years of negativity attached to the word 'bankrupt'. There's still going to be a perception among voters that someone who's got into such difficulties might not be the best person to represent them in Parliament, that they bear a good deal of the responsibility."

At least the noose or the pillory no longer awaits them.

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