A matter of honour: Clamour grows for non-dom peers to give up their titles

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Indy Politics

Lord Foster has pointed out that he is not a nom-domiciled UK resident and has never sought "non-dom" status, his letter setting out his position is here.

Five peers who resigned their seats in the House of Lords for tax reasons – but are still being allowed to continue to style themselves as Lord or Baroness – face the prospect of being formally stripped of their titles.

There was outrage yesterday that the five, who all claim "non-dom" status to protect themselves from paying UK tax on overseas earnings, can continue to use the titles, although they will never be allowed to go back as serving members of the Lords. John Mann, a Labour MP who campaigned against the misuse of MPs' expenses, plans to bring in a bill in the House of Commons which would strip the five of their titles.

He will also write to the Deputy Prime Minister, Nick Clegg, who is in charge of the Government's political reform programme, urging him to make sure there is enough parliamentary time for his Bill to be debated.

Mr Mann said: "This is outrageous. It is quite extraordinary. It is a British title, so they should be in this country, paying taxes like everyone else or begging for the title to be taken off them. If it requires legislation, let's legislate."

Lord Falconer, the former Lord Chancellor, confirmed that there was no legal precedent for stripping a peer of his title, unless he had committed treason, but added: "I cannot believe there isn't a method of doing it."

The Labour MP Paul Flynn said: "They should accept that they no longer have the right to those titles. Using them would not bring them any credit. It would bring them shame."

Although there is a growing feeling in Britain that these old aristocratic titles are out of date, there are parts of the world where they can be highly advantageous when doing business.

None of the five, all of whom have interests abroad, was forthcoming yesterday about whether they would stop using their titles. Repeated inquiries at their offices produced no clear answers.

But a spokeswoman for the architect, Norman Foster, said that he was "expected" to continue to style himself Lord Foster of Thames Bank, as he is allowed to by law. Lord Foster was awarded his peerage in 1999, formally took his seat in 2002, and last spoke in 2003.

An aide at the Monaco home of Irvine Laidlaw, one of the biggest individual donors to the Conservative Party, answered the telephone saying: "Lord Laidlaw's residence." She added that the former peer could not be contacted because "Lord Laidlaw is on holiday".

The link between having an aristocratic title and being a member of the House of Lords was originally broken when the Labour government brought in a law in 1999 which removed from all but 92 of the hereditary peers the right to vote in the Lords. It did not stop them using their inherited titles.

Lord Falconer said: "It seems to me that, if you are being invited to go to the Lords primarily as a legislator, and if you are not prepared to accept the conditions of membership, then the right thing to do is relinquish your title."

Hereditary peers – unlike life peers – can renounce their titles. The first to do so in modern times was the veteran Labour MP Tony Benn, who fought a long battle in 1950 to avoid inheriting his father's title of Viscount Stansgate.

Current law does not allow a life peer to renounce their title under any circumstances. Some have taken "leave of absence" because they either cannot or do not want to take part in the proceedings of the House of Lords – such as Cathy Ashton, Baroness Ashton of Upholland, who is the EU's foreign minister. But they are entitled to reclaim their seats when they want to.

Uniquely, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act, which took effect this week, allows peers to resign permanently as a means of avoiding being taxed in the same way as UK residents.

The law, introduced by the Labour government with Tory support, was seen as being aimed at the Deputy Chairman of the Conservative Party, Lord Ashcroft, who ended a decade of speculation about his tax status earlier this year, when he confirmed that he was a "non-dom". But he has retained his place in the Lords, which means that Inland Revenue will tax him as a UK resident in future.

A House of Lords spokesman said yesterday: "Titles are conferred by Letters Patent from the Queen, which are separate from their membership of the Lords, which comes from when they take the oath. We don't have any say in who our members are, or over Letters Patent from the Queen."

Profile: Just a solitary vote in the Lords, but no shortage of power

Never a man at ease with the political machinations which came with his seat in the House of Lords, Lord Foster – as he is still to be known – only ever participated in one vote in the upper chamber.

Lord Foster, whose upbringing in Salford was marked by what has been called a "poverty of aspiration", made his name by designing some of the nation's most striking modern structures. The "Gherkin", Wembley Stadium and the Great Court of the British Museum will be more fitting testaments to his life's work than his opinion on the Police and Justice Bill – the only time he voted.

On rare occasions Lord Foster did dip a toe into political waters, it was to address his fellow peers on the "moral imperative" of good design during a debate on design in public places. He took the opportunity also to register his criticism of Prince Charles's controversial role in interfering with the proposed redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks.

Lord Foster himself has not been immune to criticism. A backlash has built up speed since the late 1990s, when Rowan Moore, director of the Architecture Foundation, said his "style has hardened into mannerism".

Lord Foster, who has been married three times, transformed his small-scale business into Foster + Partners, a global comapny that employs over 1,000 people. From his beginnings in a terraced house in Levenshulme, Greater Manchester, the then plain Norman Foster studied architecture at Manchester University and Yale. He was awarded a peerage by the Labour government in 1999.

Kevin Rawlinson

Lord, ladies and the ennobled: the rules

Once a peer, always a peer, is roughly the custom of the land. A peer could commit murder and go to prison for life, but while he was emptying the slops in his prison uniform, he would still be Your Lordship.

After Jeffrey Archer, the millionaire novelist, was sentenced to four years in prison in 2001 for perjury, the Labour government looked at passing a law that would allow stripping someone of a peerage if they were convicted of a criminal offence that drew a long prison sentence, but did not go ahead with it because it had more ambitious plans for reforming the Lords. Even if it had passed a law, it would not have affected the five peers who have resigned their seats, because they have done nothing illegal.

There are only two legal routes open to Parliament to remove someone's peerage, neither of which apply in this case. There is a Bill of Attainder, which can be used against peers who are judged to be guilty of treason – it was last used over 200 years ago. And during the First World War, the government wanted to strip some of King George V's German relatives of their titles, so it passed the 1917 Titles Deprivation Act, which applies to "enemy" peers. If Parliament will not legislate, there is the alternative of a petition to the Queen. It was she, officially, who gave the five peers their titles, and she may have the power to take them away. It is impossible to say for certain whether she can or not, as that route has never been tried.

When Sir Joseph Kagan, a businessman, was imprisoned in the 1970s, the Queen removed his knighthood, but not his peerage, so after he came out of prison he went back to the Lords as Lord Kagan, but not as Sir Joseph.

Andy McSmith

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