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Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I cannot answer the noble Viscount's question directly. The noble Viscount will know that at the conference the decision will be based on what each country decides. That will be the final determinator of the position. Scrutiny is certainly possible under our procedure. Whether that would enable the decision to be overturned is quite another matter. I shall be happy to write to the noble Lord with a fuller response after I have had an opportunity to give the matter mature consideration.
Lord Barnett: My Lords, whatever the powers and however emotive the issue, noble Lords on all sides of the House who want to see enlargement of the European Union must surely recognise that it would be absurd not to consider the issue of the number of Commissioners and other matters relating to qualified majority voting. Can my noble friend avoid apologising for the Government doing just that?
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, I hope I have not apologised as my noble friend indicated. I make it plain that there are areas where a move to qualified majority voting would be advantageous to the United Kingdom. Indeed, my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made this clear at Biarritz. One such area concerns the rules of procedure for the European Court, where the United Kingdom have pushed for QMV to improve the court's efficiency and to speed up access to justice. Other areas concern aspects of transport, industrial policy, appointments and financial regulations. So there are areas where we would benefit from change. The Government are determined that Britain should enjoy that benefit wherever possible.
Lord Howell of Guildford: My Lords, while the number of Commissioners is obviously important, does the noble Baroness agree that an even more important issue is the curbing of the expansionary tendencies of the Commission, its desire to involve itself in inter-governmental areas and its enormously excessive workload? The Prime Minister touched on this in his Warsaw speech, but what precise proposals will the Government take to Nice in order to meet this central issue in the name of democracy in the European Union.
Baroness Scotland of Asthal: My Lords, we have made it clear that the real issues will be dealt with by the Council and not the Commission. I know that many noble Lords have expressed concern about the ambit of the Commission's work. We have continued to examine these issues but, clearly, the Commission's role is different, and separate, from that of the Council. Although there seems to be confusion in the
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton): My Lords, the Government have no plans to change the arrangements for deciding when mandatory life sentence prisoners should be released from prison. The Home Secretary takes that decision on the recommendation of the Parole Board.
The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I have so much respect for the Minister that I am sure that he cannot be happy with that feeble reply. Is not the trouble with the Home Secretary deciding these matters that he has a duty to take account of public opinion in the widest sense, including that of the tabloid press, which may be cruel and unjust to prisoners? Secondly, is the Minister aware that leading Law Lords have expressed an opinion that is contrary to his?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Law Lords have been expressing that opinion for a very long time. The Home Secretary has made his position perfectly plain. We have no plans to change the current arrangements, with which we are entirely happy. As to the influence of the tabloid press, I cannot believe that a Labour Home Secretary would be in any way, shape or form influenced by the tabloid press. He will continue to form a balanced view, as he always has done in these matters.
Lord Ackner: My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Second Report of the Home Affairs Select Committee, published on 15th May 1996 entitled, Murder: The Mandatory Life Sentence? At paragraph 14 of the report, the committee recommended that the responsibility for setting the tariff and for taking decisions on release should be removed from the Home Secretary and should go to the judges, with the Court of Appeal as the final arbiter. Why does the Home Secretary behave like a drowning man clinging to insubstantial wreckage?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the last thing that one could accuse the Home Secretary of doing is clinging to wreckage like a drowning man. That is not at all his demeanour. I defer to the noble and learned
Lord Cope of Berkeley: My Lords, if the courts were to decide that the present law was incompatible with the human rights convention, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, recently suggested is likely, will the Government stick to their opinion?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Government, including the Home Secretary, take the view that, in terms of any action in the event of a declaration of incompatibility, it will be for government to propose and for Parliament to dispose. The matter will rest with the Government.
Lord Goodhart: My Lords, does the Minister agree that the simplest way to get rid of this problem is to abolish the mandatory life sentence? Is it not the case that murder ranges from sadistic serial killings at one end of the scale to mercy killings at the other? Would it not be appropriate for judges to be given the same kind of sentencing discretion over murder as they have over all other crimes?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord touches on an important issue. It must be remembered that, in practice, the mandatory life sentence is highly flexible. The noble Lord's question suggested that flexibility is required. The judiciary has the opportunity to take cognizance of the facts and the circumstances of, for example, mercy killings at one end of the scale and terrorist offences at the other. We believe that the flexibility is there, and we have no plans to change the mandatory life sentence.
Lord Avebury: My Lords, if a declaration of incompatibility with the Human Rights Act were to be issued by the Law Lords, is the Minister saying that the Home Secretary might nevertheless disregard that finding and continue on the present path?
Earl Ferrers: My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in granting the release of those who have received a mandatory life sentence, the Home Secretary has a responsibility to consider the public benefit and the effect that their release will have? Does he further agree that such a requirement is not necessarily present if the Law Lords have to do that, because their responsibility is towards the person concerned, and not towards the public?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the Home Secretary must take account of a broad range of views. The views of the public are important, as are those of the victims of crime. We must take careful account of
In Amendment No 1, we return to a theme that was discussed in Committee; namely, the question of the minimum size of a piece of land to be designated by the countryside agencies. In the Bill as presently drafted, there is flexibility for the Countryside Agency or an appropriate body to designate various parcels of land. However, I question whether that is cost-effective and whether there would be conformity of approach throughout the country.
If there is flexibility in that approach--which I admit has certain merits--it means that the appropriate authority will have to spend a considerable amount of time investigating every single bit of land, however small, in order to decide whether it is suitable for inclusion. The purpose of my amendment is to save time and money by imposing a minimum of two hectares.
The amendment I proposed in Committee sought a minimum of five hectares, and my noble friend on the Front Bench tabled an amendment in favour of 10 hectares. I listened to what the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, had to say on the matter. His argument that five or 10 hectares was too big had merit. I do not think that two hectares is too big. It would make the job of the appropriate authority very much easier if it could apply such a minimum. That would save a great deal of time and expense and would provide consistency throughout England and Wales. I beg to move.
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