Minister refuses to share stage with 'prison reformer' Archer

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You have to hand it to Jeffrey Archer. Just weeks after being released from prison, the disgraced peer, convicted perjurer and serial adulterer is to top the bill at a conference about ... prison reform.

The Howard League for Penal Reform believes that Lord Archer will have a useful contribution to make on the subjects of drug abuse and illiteracy in prisons as a speaker at its conference next month. Paul Goggins, minister for prisons and probation, evidently does not share this view of the noble lord's chutzpah. He has suddenly found himself otherwise engaged and has backed out of sharing a platform with the millionaire.

Lord Archer's credibility as a serious prison reformer would have been enhanced by appearing on the same stage as the minister. But the Home Office confirmed last week that Mr Goggins was no longer able to attend the two-day event, called "After Crime", at New College, Oxford, because of parliamentary commitments.

"Mr Goggins did initially accept the request but he can't attend now because he is required at the committee stage of the Sex Offences Bill on which he is lead minister," said a spokesman.

The Howard League confirmed they had received a last-minute letter from Mr Goggins apologising for not being able to attend. They said they had not asked the Home Office to supply a replacement at the conference, where speakers include top lawyers, police officers, academics and prison reformers.

"We received a note saying he was very sorry," said a spokeswoman. "I hope this is not because of Jeffrey Archer - that would be childish and I would like to think ministers are more grown up than that. Anyway, we still have lots of interesting people coming."

Lord Archer was released from prison last month after serving two years of a four-year sentence for perjury arising out of a 1987 libel action against the Daily Star in which he won £500,000.