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Whole-life Tariffs

Volume 575: debated on Tuesday 4 February 2014

4. What recent discussions he has had with judges on the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights on whole-life tariffs. (902376)

I have had no recent discussions with the judiciary about the Strasbourg Court judgment in Vinter and others about whole-life orders. The reason for that is that the Government have been arguing in the Court of Appeal that whole-life tariffs are wholly justified in the most heinous cases. That process is continuing and we await the Court’s decision with interest.

Mr Justice Sweeney has already refused to give a whole-life tariff to a murderer due to a ruling from the European Court of Human Rights, and he has deferred the sentencing for the murderers of Drummer Lee Rigby, who most right-thinking people think should get a whole-life tariff. When are we going to withdraw from the European convention on human rights and the increasingly barmy European Court of Human Rights, so that we can ensure that a life sentence means a life sentence for the murderers of Lee Rigby?

I agree with my hon. Friend’s sentiments. We have gone to the Court of Appeal to ensure we can continue to give whole-life tariffs in this country. My view is that this should always be a matter for Parliament, but as he knows, while we have good collaborative relationships across the coalition and while we agree on many things, there are some things we do not agree on, and this is one of them, so I am afraid that wholesale change to our relationship with the European Court of Human Rights, which I personally think is urgently needed, will have to await the election of a majority Conservative Government.

Will the Justice Secretary think about what he just said? He might agree or disagree with an individual decision of the ECHR, but does he not recognise that having a Europe-wide convention which protects the human rights of everybody in every country that is a signatory to it is good for all of us, including victims of irrational justice decisions in other jurisdictions? Will he not declare that we support the idea of a European convention on human rights and that we will not withdraw from it?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman and I take a different view on this matter. I simply refer him to the recent comments by Lord Judge, the previous Lord Chief Justice and distinguished judicial figure who commands respect around the country. He said he believed the Court had overstepped the mark, and I agree with him. It is a tragedy, given the Court’s history, but it is the reality, and it has to be dealt with.

Does the Justice Secretary think it helps those of us campaigning for LGBT+ rights in Russia, for example, or trying to persuade Belarus to behave more like a responsible country for this country to be so negative about the European convention on human rights and the European Court? These are our standards, and we should be trying to export them, not pull away from them ourselves.

Fundamentally, in my opinion, the problem is that the Court is interpreting the convention as an unfettered jurisprudence that allows it to move into areas never envisaged by the people who wrote the convention. My clear view is that the Court is moving into areas that are matters for national Parliaments and which do not belong within the remit of an international court. It is a matter of disagreement between the coalition parties—we are open and honest about that—but we will leave it to the electorate in 14 months to decide which of our approaches they prefer.

Would the Secretary of State care to reflect on the role of the European Court of Human Rights in protecting fundamental freedoms in this country that he would support? For example, it was due to the Court that journalists were not forced to reveal their sources and that people were allowed to go on wearing crucifixes when they had been told not to wear them. These are essential and fundamental freedoms that I know he agrees with. Would he care to comment on that?

Where I differ is that I do not believe it is necessary to have an international court deciding things that should be a matter for this Parliament and our courts. That is what needs to change.

I strongly support my right hon. Friend’s stand on this matter. Does he agree that just one example of how far the European Court of Human Rights has moved from its original foundations is that the British Government and the lawyers who were instrumental in setting it up were also responsible for the largest programme of judicial executions—of Nazis at Nuremburg—in modern British history?

It is certainly the case that the jurisprudence of the Court has moved a long way from where it started, and some things have clearly changed for the better, but I would argue now that the decisions coming out of the Court are matters that should be addressed in this and other Parliaments. Of course, this is an area where there are divisions between all the parties in the House, and I have no doubt that it will be an area of lively debate as we approach the general election, when the people will decide.