Archer's fall: A prisoner who faces the loss of his peerage

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The Independent Online

It can safely be assumed that the view from Lord Archer's prison cell on Thursday night was not as impressive as that offered by his apartment overlooking the Thames.

Belmarsh prison, the disgraced peer's temporary new home in south-east London, is one of Britain's most intimidating, not to mention highest-security jails.

Archer may be reassured to find that shepherd's pie is on the Belmarsh menu for later this week. But there will be no more glasses of his favourite Krug champagne to accompany it.

He will have to make do with five £2 phone cards per week and one 135-minute visit from Lady Archer. The novelist will be given access to writing materials and may take out books from the prison library.

He will also be expected to work. His fellow Conservative perjurer, Jonathan Aitken, who graced Belmarsh's landings last June, was employed to put roofing screws on washers at one penny a time.

On arrival at the jail yesterday, Archer was strip-searched for drugs and contraband before being photographed and assigned a prison number. It is believed he has been given a single cell, with a lavatory and wash basin, in the healthcare unit or vulnerable prisoners' wing. Prison officials will be aware that during Mr Aitken's seven months in jail he was the target of a blackmail plot by inmates who planned to drug and strip him, and was assaulted by a prisoner for perceived preferential treatment.

Archer will remain at Belmarsh only for as long as it takes to give him a security classification and find a space at a suitable alternative prison. In the case of Mr Aitken this took three weeks, before he was dispatched to Standford Hill open prison in Kent, where he enjoyed a more relaxed regime.

Lord Archer, who faces four years in prison, has been given a longer sentence than Mr Aitken's 18 months, but his lack of previous convictions suggests that he too will be assigned to open conditions.

He can then expect to spend 14 hours a day outside of his cell, although his existence may not be as dignified as he would wish. Mr Aitken became Standford Hill's most famous lavatory attendant, boasting that he received "90p extra for keeping the cleanest bogs in the gaff".

There is also the question of Lord Archer's peerage. In theory, he will hold on to the honour. Indeed the only impediment to Archer taking part in a vote in the Lords tomorrow is the fact that the Prison Service is unlikely to arrange for his special visit to the Palace of Westminster. There is no law that prohibits peers from exercising their peerage rights from prison.

It would take an Act of Parliament to revoke the honour, which was bestowed upon him in 1992 by John Major as Prime Minister. "The peerage was awarded under the 1958 Life Peers Act and could only be taken away by an Act of Parliament," a spokesman for the Cabinet Office said yesterday.

The last time there was an attempt to strip peers of their honours it took a world war to prompt Parliament to act. The year was 1917 and the Title Deprivation Act was passed to deprive hereditary peers who had fought against Britain in the First World War.

Any decision to strip Archer of his title would therefore need the approval of the House of Commons.

Given the pressure on the legislative timetable, a special Bill to remove his peerage would be unlikely although moves did appear to be afoot last night to change matters. There is no precedent, within living memory, of a life peer losing his title in this way.