Ministers angry at European whole-life tariffs ruling

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling says the ruling makes the case for curtailing the powers of the European Court of Human Rights

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Ministers have criticised a ruling by the European Court of Human Rights that whole-life tariffs breach a prisoner's human rights.

In a case brought by murderer Jeremy Bamber and two other killers, judges said such sentences had to be reviewed at some point.

To never have any possibility of parole was inhuman or degrading, they said.

The prime minister said he "profoundly disagrees". Justice Secretary Chris Grayling also criticised the ruling.

Mr Grayling said the human rights convention's authors would be "turning in their graves".

Bamber brought the case to the court's upper chamber, along with serial killer Peter Moore and double murderer Douglas Vinter, after losing a previous appeal.

The government cannot appeal against this ruling, which applies in England and Wales, but now has six months to consider its response.

The ruling follows earlier clashes between the government and the court over the deportation of Abu Qatada and giving the vote to prisoners.

This judgement is very important legally and politically. Legally, the court ruled years ago that states can lock up dangerous killers forever.

The problem, it now says, arises if the prisoner doesn't get a chance to prove at some point that they are reformed.

The effect of the judgement is similar to one from our own Supreme Court, which said that sex offenders should be allowed to show that they are reformed and be removed from the national register.

Ministers used to have the power to review "whole lifers" after 25 years but that was abolished in 2003.

Parliament could theoretically give it to the Parole Board. But politically the judgement puts the court on a head-to-head collision course with ministers yet again and this time the row is arguably even more serious than Abu Qatada or votes for prisoners.

The prime minister said he was "very, very disappointed" at the ruling, adding that he was a "strong supporter of whole-life tariffs".

Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said: "I don't believe that the people who wrote that convention ever imagined that it would stop a judge saying to a really evil offender - 'you'll spend the rest of your life behind bars'.

"It reaffirms, to me, my own determination to bring real changes to our human rights laws and to see a real curtailing of the role of the European Court in this country."

'No chance to atone'

Home Secretary Theresa May told MPs the public would be "dismayed" by the ruling.

She has previously said she has not ruled out the UK's withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights, although this would be looked at after the next general election.

The three men are among a group of 49 people in England and Wales who are serving whole-life tariffs.

This means they cannot be released other than at the discretion of the justice secretary on compassionate grounds - for example, if they are terminally ill or seriously incapacitated.

Up until 2003, all terms could be reviewed, including whole-life tariffs after 25 years.

Jeremy Bamber (PA), Douglas Vinter and Peter Moore (PA) The appeal was brought by three killers - Jeremy Bamber (L), Douglas Vinter (C) and Peter Moore

The men claimed that being denied any prospect of release was a violation of Article 3 of the European Convention on Human Rights - which protects people from inhuman or degrading treatment.

The court found that for a life sentence to remain compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights there had to be both a possibility of release and a possibility of review.

The judges said if there was no prospect of release, there was a risk the prisoner "can never atone for his offence".

"Whatever the prisoner does in prison, however exceptional his progress towards rehabilitation, his punishment remains fixed and unreviewable."

'Warped moral compass'

The judges said it was up to the national authorities to decide when such a review should take place, but that comparisons with other countries suggested a review after 25 years, with further periodic reviews thereafter, might be appropriate.

Former Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett said his government changed the law in 2003 "so that life really meant life when sentencing those who had committed the most heinous crimes".

"Whatever the technical justification the Strasbourg court may have, it is the right of the British Parliament to determine the sentence of those who have committed such crimes," he said.

Lawyer Simon Creighton: "For my client it will give some incentive to moderate behaviour"

Tory MP Dominic Raab said the verdict was an "attack on British democracy" which showed "the warped moral compass of the Strasbourg Court".

Victims of crime have also criticised the ruling, saying it does not consider the human rights of victims and their families.

Rape victim Helen Stockford, who's waived her right to anonymity so she can campaign for a change in the justice system, said the ruling showed the court was "standing up for the offenders, i.e. the criminals, all the time".

But QC Pete Weatherby - who represented the three men in their appeal - said the UK was "completely out of kilter" with the rest of Europe on the issue.

'Get out of jail free'

And Juliet Lyon, director of the Prison Reform Trust, said re-establishing the principle of right to review would help "restore balance" to the penal system and aid rehabilitation.

"It might be better if the prime minister were a strong supporter of rehabilitation and redemption rather than the eternal punishment and damnation that is a whole-life tariff with no prospect of review," she said.

What is a whole-life tariff?

  • Offenders who receive a whole-life tariff cannot be released other than at the discretion of the justice secretary on compassionate grounds - for example, if they are terminally ill or seriously incapacitated
  • They are not eligible for a parole review or release
  • However, prisoners can have their sentence reduced on appeal
  • The sentence is reserved for offenders judged to be the most dangerous to society
  • 49 people are currently serving whole-life tariffs
  • These include the Yorkshire Ripper Peter Sutcliffe and Moors Murderer Ian Brady
  • Serial killer Rosemary West is the only woman currently serving a whole-life sentence
  • The most recent murderers to receive the sentence are Mark Bridger, who killed five-year-old April Jones, and Dale Cregan, who murdered two police officers

Bamber was jailed for the five murders in Essex in 1985.

He has always protested his innocence and claims his schizophrenic sister Sheila Caffell shot her family before turning the gun on herself.

In a statement which appeared on his blog, which is part of the Jeremy Bamber Campaign website, he said the victory was "hollow".

"Reviews and parole hearings are subject to a risk assessment to gauge dangerousness and this is influenced by the inmate's confession, remorse and rehabilitation for reintegration back into the community.

"In my case I do not fit the criteria for parole on this basis."

But Bamber's cousin David Boutflour told the BBC he was guilty.

"We've had 27 years of Jeremy coming up with some hob-nob idea that he's innocent or making waves all the time," he said. "We're never left alone.

"He's killed five people for heaven's sake, he should stay where he is."

Moore killed four gay men for his sexual gratification in north Wales in 1995.

David Boutflour: "We've had 27 years of Jeremy (Bamber) coming up with some hob-nob idea that he's innocent"

In 2008, Vinter, from Middlesbrough, admitted killing his wife Anne White. He had been released from prison in 2005 after serving nine years for murdering a colleague.

Vinter's solicitor, Simon Creighton, said the ruling could not be used as a "get out of jail free" excuse for life-term prisoners.

"It's very important that the court has recognised that no sentence should be once and for all and there should always be some right to look at some sentences again in the future," he said.

"They have not said that anyone must be released, what they have said is that it must be reviewed."

In Scotland, there is no provision for a whole-life tariff, while prisoners given such a sentence in Northern Ireland may already have their cases reviewed.

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