Call me Mr Phillips

Lord Phillips of Sudbury, Chancellor of the University of Essex and East Anglia's best known Liberal Democrat politician, is quitting the House of Lords - but as he tells Political Editor Graham Dines, he can't renounce his life peerage.

By Graham Dines

Lord Phillips of Sudbury, Chancellor of the University of Essex and East Anglia's best known Liberal Democrat politician, is quitting the House of Lords - but as he tells Political Editor Graham Dines, he can't renounce his life peerage.

THANKS to Tony Benn, hereditary peers can abandon their titles and become plain misters. But there is no such option for life peers - 'till death us do part is the only way those appointed to the House of Lords can give up their titles.

For Lord Phillips of Sudbury, it posed a dilemma. He's been a prominent member of the upper house and Liberal Democrat front bench spokesman for home affairs, but at the age of 67, he wanted to call it a day and retire from active politics to pursue other interests and spend more time with his wife Penelope.


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But there is no provision in the law enacted by Harold Macmillan for a life peer to give up his title. There's no precedent for lifers to retire from the Lords. Once ennobled, you're saddled with being a baron or baroness.

But Lord Phillips would have none of it. He wrote to the Prime Minister telling Tony Blair he was off, and what was he going to do about it? In particular, he wanted an assurance that the Liberal Democrats would not be disadvantaged by one of their number stepping down.

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It put the Prime Minister on the spot. With men and women falling over themselves to don the ermine and take on fancy titles, here was one person, only a peer for eight years, wanting to quit.

A solution has been worked out. Lord Phillips has taken permanent leave of absence, which means he can no longer speak or vote in the Lords, but is allowed to use all its facilities. He keeps the title, but will no longer answer to it.

From now on, it's “call me Mr Phillips”.

“I have neutered myself as a working peer,” he says. “I can reverse it by giving one month's notice, but it is not my intention to do so.”

Andrew Phillips says he has found his time in the Lords “absorbing”. There is no overriding reason for quitting - “just an amalgam of the personal and political, selfish and dutiful”.

Life in the Lords has been frustrating for him, although he has achieved prominence and recognition for leading cross party attempts to change the controversial identity cards legislation, which led to a number of Government defeats.

“I confess to finding it frustrating having to labour to achieve marginal improvements to cascades of legislation which are collectively counter-productive.

“Standing down will mean that I can see much more of my wife, family and friends, give more time to charities which I started, and do more in Suffolk.

“I also want to try writing two or three tomes which have been bugging me for years and which need main time to be done well.”

On Tuesday, in his last act as a working peer, Lord Phillips introduced the Life Peerages Disclaimer Bill aimed at “making resignation from the Lords for life peers a straight forward business, as it is with hereditaries. It would also create the right for the party of the resigning peer to fill the vacancy and I think an awful lot of people would call it a day.

“It could lead to an influx of new blood, which the House needs. I would be surprised if it did not get tremendous cross-party support.”

That presupposes that the Government does not reform the upper chamber as an all-elected body, or one which is overwhelmingly comprised of elected peers. He believes those who back an entirely elected Lords do not understand that it would be entitled to equality of legitimacy with the Commons.

“I am not turning my back on politics,” says Lord Phillips, who is the most distinguished Liberal Democrat politician in the East of England and who is Chancellor of the University of Essex at Colchester

A one time Labour Party parliamentary candidate, he is now president of Suffolk South Liberal Democrats. Over the years, he has fought a number of elections - all unsuccessfully.

He contested Harwich for Labour in 1970, but was expelled from the party in 1973 after having been selected to fight Norfolk North. For the Liberal Democrats, he contested the 1977 by-election and 1979 General Election in Saffron Walden, the 1979 European election in North-East Essex.

After the Gang of Four defected from Labour to form the Social Democrats, he fought Gainsborough in Lincolnshire for the Liberal/Alliance.

“Having sat in the House of Lords for these past eight years and having observed the Commons from close quarters, I am in some way relieved not to have won because it's a dog's life as an MP in an age of machine politics, given the majorities for governing parties which our electoral system throws up.”

Andrew Phillips, after qualifying as a solicitor at his father's practice in Sudbury, founded his own law business in London in 1970, retiring as an active partner just before joining the Lords in 1998, but remains a consultant to the firm for one day a week.

“I have nothing but respect for country town solicitors but to have remained in Sudbury would have been so unchallenging for me,” he reflects as we spoke at his law firm's new offices overlooking St Paul's Cathedral in the city of London.

If the name Andrew Phillips sounds familiar, it's because he spent 25 years as the Legal Eagle on BBC Radio 2's Jimmy Young Programme, giving advice to listeners' who had written in with sometime quite complicated legal problems.

But now he's retiring to his beloved Sudbury and Suffolk and will spend much of his time writing in his house which overlooks the water meadows into Essex. “I shall certainly visit the Lords occasionally and don't want to lose touch. But I've no regrets about leaving.”

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