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The Earl of Longford: My Lords, I share the profound sympathy for the parents of a murdered boy and the horror we must all feel at the crime. Is the Minister aware that, according to the best evidence, these two boys have made excellent progress? Sir David Ramsbotham, Chief Inspector of Prisons, whose opinion is about the best we could come across, spoke of one of the two boys. I have very good evidence about the other. Is the Minister aware that they have both made excellent progress?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Earl raises a useful consideration. It may well be the case that they have made good progress. Clearly, that is a matter that the Parole Board will have to consider. No doubt it will be taken carefully into account. However, that does not alter the fact that they were responsible for the appalling murder of a very small child. I do not think that anybody would wish to forget that fact.
Lord Kirkhill: My Lords, would I be right in assuming that the judgment emanates from a chamber of the Court? If I am right in that assumption, can the Minister tell me the names of the judges involved and the countries they represented?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, as I am sure the noble Lord will appreciate, I am not able to reel off the names. However, they are all in the judgment which, as I have indicated, will be placed in the Library of the House.
Lord Dholakia: My Lords, as noble Lords have said, no one under-estimates the seriousness of the crime. Our sympathy must obviously go to the family. I agree with the Minister that today is a day of reflection and thoughts. However, does he not agree that such thought process should take into account that it is of paramount importance that sentences should be set by judicial process and not by politicians? Does he not
Finally, does the Minister not agree with the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that we should have clear criteria to determine how we treat young prisoners when they have shown significant alteration in maturity?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble Lord has done no more than reiterate points in the judgment and points I made in response. We need to be clear that the Court did not say that it is inappropriate for these matters to be considered in a Crown Court. It did not make that comment. It did, however, pass comment on the process. Obviously, that is a matter which we shall have to consider further. We must take on board the very real concerns expressed. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, raised the issue of the way in which people behave while undergoing a sentence of this nature. That will be considered by the Parole Board when it properly comes to consider how and when these two boys might be released.
Lord Ackner: My Lords, I associate myself with the expressions of sympathy to the family which have been appropriately expressed in this House. I do not wish to comment or ask questions on the trial process, which is an important subject. The finding that we have denied two young boys a fair trial means that we must consider the matter in depth.
However, I want to raise questions about the sentencing exercise. Her Majesty's Government will no doubt readily accept that cases involving discretionary life sentences--for instance a sentence imposed on someone who has killed somebody but in doing so was suffering from diminished responsibility; someone who has killed somebody but has done so by reason of provocation; and manslaughter--are often far more serious than the domestic murder case. Her Majesty's Government will no doubt recall that some years ago the Home Secretary had removed from him by process of judicial decision any part for the Home Secretary to play in the sentencing exercise in relation to the discretionary life sentence.
Her Majesty's Government will now have to accept that the sentencing exercise in relation to children who have been detained during Her Majesty's pleasure is equally a case in which a politician has no function to perform.
Finally, Her Majesty's Government will no doubt remember the observation made by the Home Affairs Select Committee about two years ago when it considered the mandatory life sentence. The committee concluded that the mandatory life sentence should stay where it is at present but that the amount of time the defendant should stay in prison was to be the subject matter of a judicial discretion and not a
In the light of what I have asked the Minister to recall, does he not accept that it is high time that the Home Secretary conceded that in any sentencing exercise he has no part to play and should not strive to act in a judicial capacity? Does he also accept that this is one of the subjects which should receive consideration by Lord Justice Auld who was recently appointed to chair a commission on a wide-ranging series of subjects connected with the criminal trial process?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord speaks with far greater knowledge and wisdom on these matters than I can ever expect to match. We shall obviously take careful account of his comments. Of course we shall wish to consider these matters as carefully and as quickly as we possibly can. No doubt my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will wish to consult with Lord Justice Auld, as has been suggested. But these are complex matters. They require time for reflection. The role of politicians in the setting of sentences is clearly one for debate and further consideration. That is probably the best place to leave the matter.
Lord Richard: My Lords, perhaps I can raise a practical point. I wish to associate myself with everything that has been said about the crime, about those who committed it and indeed about the parents. But what happens now to the length of time the young men spend in prison? Does the sentence go back to the eight years the trial judge thought was appropriate? Does it revert to the 10 years the Court of Appeal felt was appropriate? Or does it stay at 15 years, which the Court of Human Rights declared to be illegal?
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, that is precisely why we need to study the judgment carefully. Of course the Home Secretary will have to review the matter. That much is clear from what has been said and understood so far from the judgment.
Lord Mackay of Drumadoon: My Lords, perhaps I can raise a point on the issue of reporting this decision which was raised by the noble Lord, Lord McNally. Before coming into the Chamber this afternoon I had a look at the tapes. They report one of the solicitors for one of the defendants saying that he was "pleased" with the decision. He went on to say,
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord makes an important point. Clearly the Government cannot direct lawyers representing their clients as to what they may or may not say. However, I fully sympathise with the point being made. Today is a day for mature reflection. Everything people say publicly about this matter should be carefully thought through. Our thoughts and sympathies should rest with the Bulger family. We, as politicians, need to go away, collect our thoughts, carefully study the judgment and then come back with practical, reasonable and pragmatic solutions for what is clearly a difficult set of issues.
Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, perhaps I can ask a question arising from the question put to the Minister by his noble friend Lord Richard. Does he agree that it is important to obtain a clear statement as soon as possible as to what the length of the sentence will now be in relation to these two young men? We cannot leave this matter for months. Which sentence now applies? It may be helpful if a clear statement could be made in that regard soon after the Christmas Recess.
Lord Bassam of Brighton: My Lords, we will want to conclude this matter as quickly as we can. The noble Lord puts his finger back on the precise point raised by my noble friend Lord Richard. It is an issue to which we shall have to return as quickly as we can. It is in no one's interest that these matters are left hanging over.
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