A good-natured Christian Socialist , Peter Archer combined humane instincts with a firm grasp on reality, his commitment to world government matched by reluctant acceptance of the nuclear deterrent. Though never a legal iconoclast, he campaigned for decades to make the system more user-friendly.
Lord Archer of Sandwell
Peter Kingsley Archer was born at Wednesbury on November 20 1926. His father, a chargehand, was a working class Tory with a clear sense of right and wrong which he passed on to his son. Peter left school at 16 to work as a Ministry of Health clerk, but in 1944 was sent down a local pit as a “Bevin boy”.
Surfacing four years later, he took degrees in Philosophy and Law at the LSE and University College London and in 1952 was called to the Bar at Gray’s Inn. He combined an active, mainly criminal practice with a wealth of voluntary youth and adult education work, finding time to produce, in 1956, The Queen’s Courts, which became essential reading for law students. Other books on legal and social issues followed.
Archer joined the Labour Party in 1947, and in 1959 fought Hendon South. He set his heart on a Black Country seat, and in 1964 took on Brierley Hill . Disappointingly for him, the Tory majority there rose despite Labour’s overall victory. The safe seat of Rowley Regis and Tipton then fell vacant, and in 1966 Archer romped home by 13,094 votes.
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From then he combined the law with a busy parliamentary life, acting from 1967 as Parliamentary private secretary to the Attorney General, Sir Elwyn Jones. As a committee member (and future chairman) of Amnesty International he took a special interest in human rights and was chosen by the Foreign Secretary, Michael Stewart, to join the social affairs sessions of the 1969 UN General Assembly.
In 1967 he was called in to mediate by students at the LSE when unrest broke out over the appointment as its director of Dr Walter Adams, former principal of the University College of Rhodesia. Archer defused the situation in talks with the outgoing director, Sir Sydney Caine.
In opposition from 1970 he devoted more time to the Bar, taking Silk the following year. He also took office with Amnesty and championed animal rights too, promoting a Bill to establish a National Wildlife Authority with powers to preserve threatened habitats .
Redistribution prior to the February 1974 election handed Archer a new seat: Warley West. When Labour unexpectedly returned to power, Sam Silkin became Attorney General, with Archer — who had been close to him in opposition — his deputy. In office he attempted on the government’s behalf to petition the High Court to ban the Crossman Diaries as a breach of collective responsibility; Nicholas Ridley spotted that Archer was trying to get the petition through Parliament on the nod, and the ensuing row led to its being dropped.
It also fell to Archer to approve an application from the Director of Public Prosecutions for the extradition from Australia on fraud charges of his West Midlands colleague John Stonehouse, who had faked suicide in Florida but been traced. When Silkin retired after Labour’s defeat in 1979, Archer was passed over as Shadow Attorney General for the former Welsh Secretary John Morris.
Elected to Michael Foot’s strife-torn Shadow Cabinet in 1981, he was promoted to chief legal spokesman, and the next year won his first “civilian” front-bench job as Shadow Trade Secretary, shadowing his short-fused fellow QC Peter Rees. The same year, 1982, he was appointed a Crown Court recorder.
Neil Kinnock enhanced Archer’s standing by making him Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary. His first test was the mass IRA breakout from the Maze prison in January 1984; once Mrs Thatcher had refused James Prior’s resignation as Northern Ireland Secretary, Archer left it to backbench Tories to undermine him. When the Hennessy Report revealed alarming security shortcomings, he concentrated his fire on the Arts Minister Lord Gowrie, who had at the time had charge of Ulster’s prisons.
By the autumn of 1986 Labour had developed its policy of reunifying Ireland “by consent” to the point where Archer had proposals to announce; early the following year he had exploratory talks with Sinn Fein, only for Kinnock to repudiate such contacts at a press conference.
Archer lost his Shadow Cabinet place after the 1987 election. From the back benches he was active in the group formed by Merlyn Rees to urge action against up to 250 alleged Nazi war criminals living in Britain, and narrowly failed to abolish the death penalty for treason.
Archer retired at the 1992 election with a life peerage, the tag “of Sandwell” reflecting a need to avoid confusion with “the other Lord Archer” and a wish to identify with the artificial borough embracing his constituency. He took on the presidency of the World Disarmament Campaign and Methodist Homes for the Aged, and oversaw the drive to enhance the Church’s showpiece Central Hall, Westminster.
He embarked on a new career as chairman of the Council on Tribunals, overseeing numerous quasi-judicial bodies handling appeals in fields ranging from child assessment to social security. In 1998 Tony Blair’s government appointed him to recommend how to deal with claims from families of Holocaust victims whose assets in Britain had been seized. His proposals were accepted that December, and he became the chairman of a £25 million compensation fund which began verifying claims the following year.
Archer headed a public inquiry in 2007 into how 1,757 haemophiliacs had been given blood infected with hepatitis C or HIV. His report two years later was highly critical of successive governments’ slowness to react.
Peter Archer married Margaret Smith in 1954; Lady Archer and their son survive him.
Lord Archer of Sandwell, born November 20 1926, died June 14 2012