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Whole-life Sentences

Volume 747: debated on Wednesday 17 July 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what is their response to the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Bamber and others v United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government are disappointed with the court’s ruling. We are making a full analysis of the judgment and will provide our considered response in due course.

My Lords, the noble Lord will be aware that the Grand Chamber of the European Court of Human Rights recently decided by 16 votes to one that the 49 prisoners currently serving whole-life sentences in the United Kingdom are entitled to a review after 25 years. A review does not mean that they will necessarily be released. Can he confirm that whole-life prisoners had always been entitled under our law to a review after 25 years until they lost that right in 2003, it seems almost as a result of an oversight? Will he therefore ensure that the right to a review after 25 years is restored to all our whole-life prisoners as soon as possible in accordance with the court’s decision?

My Lords, first, I am grateful to the noble and learned Lord for setting out the chronology very accurately. The right to review was there until 2003. Whether its removal was by an oversight, I do not know, but removed it was. All that I can say about the court’s judgment I said in my Answer—we are analysing it and will provide a considered response in due course.

Are the Government aware that the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, was part of the judgment of the British member of the court, Judge Mahoney, who unreservedly subscribed to the conclusions and reasoning of that judgment? Ought not the Government give extra weight to the views of the British judge in that regard?

My Lords, I am not sure whether in an international court one would take cognisance of one judge over another—I am not sure of the protocol of such courts. I do know that it was a considered judgment that merits careful study by the Government, which is exactly what we are doing.

My Lords, does not this judgment raise the very important legal principle of rehabilitation? It does not say that whole-life prisoners should be released or that the British Government should take any action, but it does suggest that they retain what the court called the right to hope, the possibility of atonement and the possibility of a review, as in many other countries. Is this not a very serious issue of penal philosophy that should be considered as such?

My Lords, I fully agree with the noble Lord, and I think that both interventions have helped to clarify something that is not necessarily clear in coverage by the media. This judgment did not say that anybody should be released immediately or that whole-life tariffs may not be imposed, but it did say that we should look at such sentences in the light of what was described as penological purpose—punishment, rehabilitation and prevention. The court held that the system in England and Wales, which provides only for compassionate release, was not sufficient.

My Lords, can my noble friend perhaps read out a list of the names, nationalities and legal qualifications of the judges who interfered in our affairs?

I think the best thing that I can do is place a list in the Library. Over the years, the court has held against Britain in about 3% of cases. During that period, we have had the great benefit of being part of a continent-wide concept of upholding human rights, of which we should be proud.

Does the Minister accept that implementing faithfully a decision of the European court is not a peripheral luxury but something that binds us in law and in honour, and that the greatest architect of this institution was in fact Sir Winston Churchill?

There are a number of architects; Sir David Maxwell Fife was a notable originator. However, what the noble Lord said is absolutely right. That is precisely why, given the importance of this judgment, we intend to give it a full analysis and will provide our considered response in due course.

Does the Minister agree that we do incredible damage to our international reputation for upholding the rule of law when, every time we get a judgment from the European Court of Human Rights, there is a knee-jerk reaction from Members in another place, calling for us to abrogate our responsibilities under the European convention?

My Lords, that is why my Answer to this House is that we are making a full analysis of the judgment and will provide our considered response in due course.