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Human Rights: Vinter and Others v United Kingdom

Volume 748: debated on Tuesday 29 October 2013


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take to implement the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in Vinter and Others v United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government are considering the implications of the judgment and will set out their conclusions as soon as possible.

My Lords, the noble Lord will know that there are now 51 prisoners serving whole-life sentences. He will also know that on 9 July the Grand Chamber decided by 16 votes to one that whole-life prisoners are entitled to have their sentences reviewed after 25 years, a right which they always had under English law and practice until they lost it, by an oversight it seems, as recently as 2003. It is now 16 weeks since the decision of the Grand Chamber. Why has it taken so long for the Government to reach their own decision in this matter? How can that delay be regarded as fair on the prisoners themselves, who are waiting to know the answer?

Let us be clear: the judgment gave an opinion about our law as it stands; there was no case that the outcome of such a decision should make the three prisoners concerned, or indeed any other prisoners, automatically allowable for parole or release. It was a judgment on our law and I think that we have every right to give due consideration to what we should do when we receive such a judgment. I do not think that there has been a delay. As I said in my reply, we will come forward with our response in due course.

My Lords, this judgment was supported by, among others, the English representative on the European court. Does it not show, first, that we are virtually unique in Europe, since every other European country has either no life imprisonment or the possibility of revising or reducing it? Secondly, does it not show that the United Kingdom has a far more punitive penal philosophy in these matters? This philosophy ignores the possibility of review or, perhaps, of release. It ignores the basic principle of rehabilitation and denies, in the words of the court, “the right to hope”. The Minister is a humane and progressive man. Is he not anxious about presiding over such a policy?

I am anxious about living in a time when both major parties advocate a more punitive approach to crime and punishment. I hope that the leaders of both parties will ponder a trend over the past 40 years in our society which looks more to punishment and less to rehabilitation. I should also mention the chutzpah of the Opposition because it was under their watch that this right was taken away in 2003. Whether that happened by mistake or by intention, I do not know, but it was under the previous Government that the provision covered by the ruling just made against us in Strasbourg was passed. We have had to pick up a lot of debris about human rights. The previous Government sat on the prisoner decision for five years and did nothing, so I will not take any kind of lectures from that side of the House.

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that we must comply with the Vinter decision in July, given our treaty obligations and our respect for the rule of law? Will the Government now reintroduce a review procedure for whole life cases to give prisoners serving them some hope of eventual release, other than purely on compassionate grounds, if and when their imprisonment plainly no longer serves a public purpose?

That is one possible outcome of the consideration now taking place. At the moment, we are reviewing the matter in the light of this judgment. I cannot take the House any further in that direction. Nevertheless, it is a very interesting and, if I may say so, a very liberal approach to the problem that we face.

My Lords, I respectfully urge the Minister not to regard this as a political matter at all. On 9 July, the court clearly suggested that an error had been made, quite inadvertently, when the Criminal Justice Act 2003 was passed. Prior to that period, all life sentences were reviewable after a quarter of a century. It did not mean that anybody was thereby released; it meant that the sentence was reviewed. That is the narrow point. By failing to review, we are—according to the judgment of 16 to one, including the United Kingdom judge—in breach of Article 3. We must set the situation right as soon as possible.

That is why we are considering the judgment. I will give way very quickly: I do not want to make this a party political matter, but perhaps the author of the 2003 Act can tell us whether it was a mistake or an intention.

Does the noble Lord accept that the longer we vacillate on this, the longer we appear to be in conflict with the European Court of Human Rights and the worse our reputation is becoming among the other member states of the Council of Europe? Justice in this case should not be delayed any longer. We should comply with the 16-to-one decision. Then we will have the moral authority to talk about the importance of other people abiding by the European convention.

The noble Lord knows that I agree with him that it is very important that we co-operate with the court and that we take the commanding heights in terms of defending human rights. We have throughout our history set a good example and I want us to continue to do so.