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3.42 pm

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald): I thank the Home Secretary for that statement and for his usual courtesy in letting me have an early sight of it. I am less pleased that much of it--although not all--appeared to be widely trailed in the press and media yesterday. In a case of such seriousness, it would have been more appropriate if the statement had come first.

I join the Home Secretary in extending to the relatives of Jamie Bulger the sympathy that all hon. Members feel for them. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman that the continual reopening of the case must have made their suffering worse. I understand that Jamie Bulger would have celebrated his 10th birthday this week. This further reopening of the case must be causing his relatives considerable distress yet again.

I also welcome the Home Secretary's statement that, in future, more account will be taken of the views of victims and their relatives.

As regards the detail of some of the right hon. Gentleman's other announcements, we will reserve our position pending further examination, but we accept that he could not have defied the ruling that he received. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman had no alternative but to comply with it.

However, that said, I am sure that the ruling will cause great disappointment and offence to many people in this country. I personally believe that 15 years was an appropriate tariff, given the severity of the crime, and that this ruling is a most unwarranted interference in a system that was working well.

The Home Secretary said that he would review tariffs, and that he would set them at the level recommended by the Lord Chief Justice. Has the right hon. Gentleman made an estimate--if not, perhaps he will write to me--of the number of cases in which that could involve a lower tariff? What would be the greatest reduction involved?

The Home Secretary said that, when the recommendation of the Lord Chief Justice would mean that the tariff had expired, he would refer the cases to the parole board immediately. Will there be any consequences for people being detained who, under the new system, should not be detained, in terms of any legal action that might be taken, or any suits that might be made for compensation? Again, if the Home Secretary cannot give me the details now I shall be happy for him to write to me.

Will the Home Secretary now answer the questions that I asked him following his statement on 16 December, which--quite properly, given that he had reached no conclusions about his response to the judgment--he was reluctant to answer then?

Should not a tariff reflect simply the circumstances of the crime, and the penalty that is appropriate for retribution and deterrence? Does the Home Secretary agree that, in the setting of a tariff, account should not be taken of whether individuals will transfer to other parts of the prison system during their sentences? There has been considerable speculation that it was because Thompson and Venables would have to transfer into the adult system that a lower tariff was recommended to avoid their having

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to do so. Does the Home Secretary agree that that should not be a relevant consideration? Does he agree that, in the setting of a tariff, the only considerations should be reflecting the circumstances of the crime, and setting a suitable time to be served to satisfy the requirements for retribution and deterrence?

Will the Home Secretary confirm that, in 1996, the Court of Appeal upheld the Home Secretary's right to adopt the same policy for young offenders as for adults, and that the power to increase tariffs has been used hundreds of times without challenge? Will he also confirm that, notwithstanding the verdict of the Court that a fair trial was not received, it is still the case that the original verdict of guilt is unassailable, and that, even if the trial had been conducted under the new arrangements that he seeks to introduce, the result would have been the same?

Finally, may I ask the Home Secretary this? Does he not consider it an essential part of rehabilitation to accept the consequences of what one has done? Does he not agree that it is not in the interests of the perpetrators for them to regard themselves as victims of the system, and that, instead, they should regard themselves as perpetrators of an unthinkable crime? Is it not that with which they should come to terms, rather than their being encouraged to think that they have received unfair treatment?

Mr. Straw: I share the right hon. Lady's regret about the fact that the matter was widely trailed in the media. I do not suggest in any way that this was the source, but we felt it necessary to warn the representatives of the families a week ago--the family of the victim, and, of course, the legal representatives of Thompson and Venables--that a statement was likely to be made some time this week. We also warned them on Friday that the statement would probably be made today. I think it will be well understood that it would have been unconscionable to make a statement without warning the Bulger parents. I hope the House will also acknowledge that I try very hard to ensure that the House learns first of any decisions that are made.

I am glad the right hon. Lady accepts that, given the European Court's ruling, we cannot defy that ruling. She said, however, that the European Court's decision represented an unwarranted interference. What she described as an unwarranted interference arises from an entirely voluntary decision--made successively over the past 50 years, by her party as much as by mine--to accept the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, and also from her party's endorsement of the Human Rights Act 1998, which incorporated the European convention on human rights in British domestic law. That being so, there will be occasions when the European Court makes decisions which, individually, we do not like. I have made no secret of the fact that I did not wish the Court to make the decision in this case. It was precisely because I believed that the previous system was correct that I ensured that the United Kingdom Government vigorously defended the action that had begun under the previous Administration. However, the decision of the Court was made, and certain consequences have followed from it.

The right hon. Lady asked me about the number of people who are detained who could expect a lower tariff. I am told that there are 12 detainees with unexpired tariffs

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whose recommendation from the Lord Chief Justice was higher than the tariff set by Ministers. She asked whether a court action could follow for some of those who are tariff-expired at a tariff set by the Lord Chief Justice. I do not believe that there are any grounds for claims for compensation, which I think is what the right hon. Lady had in mind. It is perfectly possible, given the ingenuity of English lawyers, that one or two may try that, and it is a matter for the courts whether they are accepted.

The right hon. Lady asked me about the way in which the tariff should be set. We shall be able to discuss that in greater detail during the passage of the Criminal Justice and Court Services Bill. I understand her point, but in setting a tariff for juveniles, account has been taken not only of the crime and its circumstances but of the relative age of the offenders.

The right hon. Lady's last point concerned the victims of the system. Of course I accept that we should take full account, always, of the interests of the victims of crime. That is what we have been seeking to do, and I intend to bring forward proposals on that in due course.

Mr. Robin Corbett (Birmingham, Erdington): Does my right hon. Friend share my view that it will reflect no credit on anyone, either in this House or among the red-top tabloids, if they seek to turn the case of Thompson and Venables into the same kind of vendetta that is being pursued against Myra Hindley? Will he none the less make it clear, and repeat, that when the time comes for Venables and Thompson to be considered for parole, that is all that that means, and there is no automatic entitlement to release? Will he also make it clear that if and when they are released, they can be called back to prison if they reoffend or show any signs of doing so?

Mr. Straw: I am glad to have the opportunity to put that point on record. It may provide some reassurance for members of the public as well as Members of the House to know that in respect of adult lifers, whose release dates I have to determine, the majority of the cases that I consider are those of people whose tariff has expired at least a year before, and in some cases many years before. The criteria for determining release for juvenile offenders, as for adults, has to be whether it is safe to release such individuals once they have served their minimum term. Once they are released, they remain on life licence should they attempt to reoffend.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): May I first associate Liberal Democrat Members with the sentiments of the Home Secretary that no right-minded person could think other than that this was the most shocking crime? We continue to want to show the family of James Bulger sympathy and solidarity. One way in which we can respect their wishes is to join with the Home Secretary, across parties, to ensure that in future the law takes more account, as the right hon. Gentleman intends that it should, of victims before and after trial. We are happy to assist him in seeking to formulate a way that meets to the maximum the demand for that to happen.

The right hon. Gentleman was quite right to accept the judgment. The judgment was quite right that there should be a system for trying young people that is seen to do justice to everybody, and that the setting of minimum sentence--the tariff--should be separated from political decisions and handed over to judges. That must be right, and we are happy to support that proposition.

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To reinforce the point made by the hon. Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Corbett), may I ask that the minimum sentence should remain a minimum? Can the Home Secretary confirm whether defendants who have been convicted as juveniles but who are now adults will, in addition to the assessment of risk when the tariff period runs out and as part of the process, have to accept and understand the reality of what they have done, and, as it were, apologise for it? That would be right for all juveniles who are convicted, however serious their crime, because it is proper to give them the chance of a new start.

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