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28 Oct 2002 : Column 604—continued

Beverley Hughes: No, I do not acknowledge that that is the logical conclusion.

In a democracy, such as that in the United Kingdom, human rights are not an absolutely rigid set of standards to which every other aspect of social and political life must bow. Our intention in incorporating the ECHR through the Human Rights Act was to provide a framework within which important and inevitable dilemmas would be debated.

Individual rights have to be set alongside the public interest. One person's rights can infringe on the freedoms of others, and Governments have the responsibility of balancing the rights of the individual citizen to freedom with the rights of the people as a whole, for example, to security and protection. Public protection from terrorists, dangerous offenders and others is the prime duty of Parliament; it is the Government's priority too. For individuals, rights are not absolute and unfettered: they have to be balanced with responsibilities.

Today, the Opposition have shown, yet again, that they are not able to grasp some of those issues. They are looking backwards, not forwards. They are out of touch and that, I fear, is why they are still out of government. The Labour Government have brought the framework of human rights into British law—a framework that now allows our courts to help us to strike the balances in the best possible way, as we develop a stronger sense of mutuality between individuals and between people and Government and, in so doing, develop a stronger, more cohesive society in which our international obligations are to the fore. The Labour Government understand that. We are committed to human rights, parliamentary sovereignty and democracy, and we have had the courage to bring those things together in a new settlement that fits us for the 21st century, and does not take us back in the 18th century, where the Opposition would like us to be.

8.21 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): Although I need not formally declare the interest, I am a lawyer and I both trained and worked at the Council of Europe dealing with human rights matters, before entering Parliament.

I welcome the debate because it is on an important issue, although I share the Government's surprise that the subject has been chosen at this time by the Conservative party. There are all sorts of reason for that surprise, including those enunciated by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera Baird). I understand the position stated by the right hon. Member for West Dorset (Mr. Letwin), that one does not have to have a view before testing the view of the Government, but it strikes me that the Conservatives have not answered the fundamental question in the motion, which is whether we in the House, and the parties in the country, think that sentencing ought to be done by judges, or that in some cases the power ought to be reserved to Ministers. On that issue, I have not heard a clear statement of position from a Conservative Front Bencher, and the Government have voiced apparently contradictory positions. I shall happily return later to the Liberal Democrats' position, because this is one of those debates—it does not always happen—in which I can in all honesty tell the House that, on all the issues relevant to the debate, Liberal Democrats as a party have a clear position and has had one for some time.

Other reasons, not enunciated by the hon. and learned Member for Redcar, for my sense of slight surprise at the motion on today's Order Paper are first, that I had always assumed that the Conservative party supports the rule of law—I hope that it still does—and secondly, that I have recently and increasingly often heard its leader voice the view that the Tory party must look after the interests of the vulnerable, which is a new approach that I laud and welcome, although we have yet to see whether it would be carried out in practice.

If one believes in the rule of law and in supporting the vulnerable, who are often minorities of some sort, it must logically follow first, that one accepts the ultimate supremacy of the European convention on human rights, to which we have subscribed for 50 years—indeed, we were the first signatory to it as well as, in large part, its author—and secondly, that one accepts that sometimes the courts will have to stand up for the minority, which Parliament has sometimes failed to do. I am therefore concerned about the implication of the position stated in the Conservatives' motion, which is worded as follows:

The one example given is the Home Secretary's sentencing power. Unless I have misunderstood the English, noting Xwith concern" the convention's impact on that power suggests that the Conservatives are not happy about it, which in turn suggests a degree of inconsistency with an acceptance that the European convention is right.

On the substantive issue, it is important that the House—however difficult it sometimes is to do so in the face of public opinion in part, and tabloid newspaper opinion in particular—stands up for the position that it should be judges who decide sentences and Parliament which sets the law within which those sentences are set. For me, that means that the individual sentence has to fit the individual crime, and for me and my party, it means that there should be no mandatory sentences—none, including for murder. It should always be up to the court to decide the sentence, within the upper limit fixed by Parliament. Taking the example of murder, the reason why it is wrong to have a mandatory sentence is that there is all the difference in the world between a person who premeditatedly plans the most gruesome killing of an innocent victim, and a person who after 30 years of taunting and domestic violence reacts, on the spur of the moment, by killing their spouse. It seems to me wrong to treat both in the same way.

The other principle that the Liberal Democrats have enunciated clearly—we did so when the Venables case, which came to court after the killing of James Bulger, was reviewed—is that it is logical and right that matters of how long a sentence should be, and then, when a case is reviewed, of whether it is safe for someone to be released, should be determined by a judge, either the original judge or a judge who takes their place. It is wrong that someone's sentence should be decided by a politician, who cannot help but be tainted by his political function. That decision should not be influenced by politics

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): The hon. Gentleman has, to some extent, covered the point I intended to make. He knows that I have a great deal of sympathy with the view that judges should determine sentences and that there should be determinant sentences for homicide. However, there is a problem to which he alluded, namely, the public safety. There is some merit in a life sentence that enables the Home Secretary to act if he were persuaded that, at determination of the tariff, the person remained a public threat. That is the one advantage of the life sentence.

Simon Hughes: I absolutely understand that point, about which the public are rightly concerned and would want us to be concerned. My view is that the matter should come back to the court and the court should determine, on the evidence, whether it is safe to release the person in question. I agree that a safeguard is needed. One cannot know when one is sentencing a person whether it will be safe to release him in 10, 15 or 20 years.

I wish to give the reasons why all sentences, including life sentences, should be set by judges and not by politicians. First, life sentences—established about 100 years ago—were never intended to be life long; they were intended to be very long sentences that were subject to review. Secondly, the royal commission on capital punishment in 1953—soon after the European convention was signed by the United Kingdom—said that judges should determine the length of sentences, so the argument for change goes back to the beginning of the convention. Thirdly, when that proposal was rejected by Parliament—and we first abolished the death penalty on a trial basis—the Home Secretary was given the power to continue to decide on these matters; not to give him additional powers to extend sentences, but to prevent overlong or unnecessary detention, so the Government could allow for rehabilitation.

Mr. Grieve: The hon. Gentleman is right, as one can see from reading the debates. Yet he will acknowledge that Sir Frank Soskice, the then Home Secretary, made clear the reverse argument: that there were some circumstances—because of the behaviour in prison, the character, or the assessment of the person who had been sentenced to imprisonment—in which he might find himself constrained to decide that the person should continue to be detained.

Simon Hughes: Indeed, the then Labour Home Secretary was very careful and was much respected for his balanced view on these subjects.

Mr. Garnier : Surely the real reason is the unspoken one, which is that a deal was done. As most members of the public wanted the death penalty to continue, the public had to be assuaged—or, at least, Members of this House who supported the retention of the death penalty had to be persuaded that the Home Secretary would, if necessary, keep people in prison for ever. It was just a dirty political deal.

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