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Council of Europe: Death Penalty

Volume 828: debated on Monday 20 March 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government whether they remain (1) opposed to the use of the death penalty, and (2) committed to the United Kingdom’s membership of the Council of Europe.

My Lords, it is a long-standing policy of the UK Government to oppose the death penalty in all circumstances as a matter of principle, and we have no plans to reintroduce it. The United Kingdom is committed to its membership of the Council of Europe, which remains an important forum for our human rights and foreign policy agenda.

I am grateful, as always, to the Minister for his Answer. Noble Lords will appreciate that I tabled this Question some weeks ago in direct response to comments by the Prime Minister’s appointee as deputy chair of the Conservative Party about the death penalty, but also because of consistent comments on and off the record by Justice and Home Affairs Secretaries at the other end of the Corridor. By contrast, the Minister is a strenuous advocate for rights, freedoms and the international rule of law. Is this contradiction at the heart of government sustainable, let alone helpful?

My Lords, what I can say to the noble Baroness is that when I speak from this Dispatch Box, I speak for the Government and I emphasise and stress what the Government’s policy is, and that will continue to be the case.

My Lords, the European Convention on Human Rights is a core part of the Council of Europe—indeed, some would say the raison d’etre—yet there are persistent voices in the Conservative Party calling to leave the convention, fearing some blockage in the policy relating to boat people. Do the Government agree that if we were to leave, by design or inadvertence, that would in effect mean leaving the Council of Europe?

My Lords, during the Second World War and, indeed, just after it, Sir Winston Churchill was one of the key architects of the Council of Europe and that remains the case. I can do no better than to quote the current chief executive of the Government, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister, who said on 27 February that “the United Kingdom is a member of the European Convention on Human Rights and will remain a member of the ECHR”.

My Lords, having a policy is one thing, but there is also a requirement to be a strong advocate. As the noble Lord knows, I questioned him last week about the situation in Saudi Arabia, a country that last year executed a huge number of people—81 in one day. Can he reassure me that on future occasions when someone’s life is under threat, not only he but the Foreign Secretary and the Prime Minister will stand up for this policy and urge Saudi Arabia not to execute people?

My Lords, as I assured the noble Lord last week when we discussed the tragic execution of Mr al-Kheir, we remain absolutely vigilant in respect of imminent executions such as those that took place. This was a tragic event and totally against our policy. I assure the noble Lord of my good offices and indeed others across government in making the case that, as I said in answering the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, the United Kingdom has opposed, still opposes and will continue to oppose the death penalty in all respects.

My Lords, I accept the good faith of the Minister, and I try to avoid on these occasions autobiography in your Lordships’ House, but as Crown counsel successfully and defence counsel unsuccessfully, I have participated in cases where the accused would have hanged but for the abolition of the death penalty. Nothing in that experience ever persuaded me that capital punishment should be restored, which makes it all the more astonishing that his party should have appointed someone to a senior position who believes that it should.

My Lords, I of course equally respect the noble Lord, and I listened very carefully to his question. I have quoted the Prime Minister, and let me assure the noble Lord that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has also articulated her view that the current sentencing is sufficient to deal with crimes of all different natures, including the most severe. She herself has voiced her opposition to the introduction of capital punishment.

My Lords, in view of the comments to which the noble Baroness, Lady Chakrabarti, has drawn attention, does the Minister agree that there is something deeply ironic about a society condemning the taking of a person’s life, and in order to demonstrate exactly how strongly it does so, doing exactly that through a judicial killing?

My Lords, I am not quite clear as to the premise of the right reverend Prelate’s question. However, I do agree with him that when we articulate policies from the Dispatch Box in your Lordships’ House or the other place, we should articulate what those views are and what the law is. Let me say once again for clarity that the Government have no plans to introduce capital punishment domestically, and we will continue to oppose the death penalty internationally.

My Lords, the Minister mentioned his responses as of last Thursday, when we discussed the killing of Hussein Abo al-Kheir. We know that Saudi Arabia resumed the death penalty in November 2022 and that it murdered 11 people in March alone through those means. We also know that it has restituted its law whereby you can be executed for drug smuggling and narcotics offences—which, in some terms, are not as serious as you might expect, even in a country like Saudi Arabia. How many times has he called in the Saudi ambassador since the death penalty was reinstated in November?

My Lords, if the noble Baroness was present last week, she will know that I recounted I think at least eight or nine occasions on which I have been in touch and had direct discussions with His Excellency the ambassador for the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. Indeed, on the evening before the sad execution of Mr al-Kheir, I was in touch with the Human Rights Commission of, the Foreign Minister of, and, indeed, the ambassador of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

My Lords, given that the rights adumbrated in the ECHR are anticipated—predated, sometimes, by centuries—by the laws of this country, what does my noble friend the Minister fear would be the right we would lose if we were to abrogate the convention?

I think we have heard one of the points from the other side of the House. It is extremely important that the United Kingdom is a guardian of the rule of law internationally. We also make the case very strongly that as we ourselves have evolved, we hope that other countries have evolved. In 1965, I believe, we abolished the death penalty. We worked constructively with other countries towards achieving that aim. Of course, the conventions that we set up and create need to adapt and evolve, but the convention to stand against capital punishment and the death penalty is, I believe, the right one, and long may it continue.

My Lords, I declare, as a possible conflict of interest, that I am a member of the Council of Europe and this Parliament’s delegation to Strasbourg. Last week, I was in Paris for a meeting of the migration committee. I am delighted to hear the noble Lord’s reassurance of a total commitment, but it does not feel like that from the point of view of the other parliamentarians I meet. Their comments about last year’s Nationality and Borders Act and our current Illegal Migration Bill suggest huge scepticism from them and the UNHCR about the commitment of this Parliament to the conventions of the Council of Europe. Can the Minister give me a little ammunition, since there are no Conservative Members on the migration committee? I am the only defender of British policy—can your Lordships believe that? Is there any way in which he can help us to rebut, qualify or put in a different perspective the current thinking, which is very radical, of the Council of Europe towards us?

Of course, I would be delighted to. First and foremost, in terms of an immediate response, I have already quoted my right honourable friend the Prime Minister. I would be happy, as I always am, to meet with the Council of Europe and its members in advance of their next meeting to ensure that they are fully equipped with the lines they need about our defence of the ECHR and our membership of the Council of Europe.

My Lords, the United Kingdom is a member of the UN Human Rights Council. Does the Minister anticipate bringing these matters before the council? Why, in his view, do countries continue with the death penalty, and does it in any way act as a deterrent against the very acts these people are being murdered for in any case?

My Lords, I assure the noble Viscount that we consistently bring up the issue of the death penalty. Indeed, as he may be aware, in the universal periodic review that takes place in respect of each country, including the United Kingdom, we look very carefully at what the issues are and which ones we should raise, and we hold countries accountable. Many countries with perhaps quite challenging human rights records aspire to be members of the Human Rights Council. When you are there, you need to stand up for its values and standards.