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20 Oct 2009 : Column 204WH—continued

We need to consider whether the prisoner has family nearby who are able to take care of him. There is a simple cost issue, which I mentioned briefly earlier-keeping someone in a high-security prison is expensive-but I am not sure that releasing him from prison straight into hospital, especially if there is no family to look after him, would achieve a great deal. It is more helpful if family are available and it somewhat strengthens the case, because the family are not guilty parties, generally speaking, and they might feel that, whatever the prisoner
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has done, they would like to spend a little time with him before he dies. That is a relevant consideration and something to think about.

The issue underlying all this is the difficult question of what the justice system is for. I mention this because I am a member of the Justice Committee, and we grapple with this issue when considering alternative forms of punishment. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) said that reconciliation is an important objective. Many of our constituents believe that retribution is part of prison's purpose, and that to some extent society is entitled to believe that if someone commits a terrible crime they will face a penalty. That penalty need not be sadistic, but it should be a penalty nevertheless so that as we go through life we are aware that if we do something wrong, there will be consequences. Rehabilitation in the context that I am discussing is relatively irrelevant if the offender is about to die, although it is obviously relevant in a wider sphere.

More broadly, society's values are reflected by the judicial system. We tend to believe that whatever our current values, they are superior to any others. We express abhorrence at the practice in some countries of cutting off the hand of people who have committed theft, which slightly skates over the fact that we used to hang people for stealing horses. We should not assume that our system reflects the ideal society. One may be too misty-eyed about such matters, because we are generally dealing with people who are not deserving of great sympathy, although elements of their background may have made them what they are today. Nevertheless, there is something to be said for a judicial system that reflects a humanitarian ethos-I am not suggesting a Christian ethos, although it could include that-and that anyone may be forgiven at some point, such as at the end of their life.

The issue is difficult, and the political system does not handle it very well. I hope that my debate has encouraged sensible and non-partisan discussion that might move matters forward.

11.22 am

Pete Wishart (Perth and North Perthshire) (SNP): I congratulate the hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on raising this important issue, on his measured approach and on the questions he raised, which were relevant and pertinent.

It will probably not surprise you, Mr. Olner, that I shall deal almost exclusively with probably the biggest prisoner release decision in recent times-the Scottish Government's decision to release the Lockerbie terrorist, Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, on compassionate grounds a few short months ago. I shall try to explain some of the conditions of that release and the process that was followed in reaching it.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. That is fine, but we are discussing prisoner release decisions-the release of prisoners anywhere on compassionate grounds.

Pete Wishart: I shall try to follow your advice strictly, Mr. Olner, but I am sure that you appreciate that the decision to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi was a big one
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and has attracted a lot of attention in the past few months. I believe profoundly that my colleagues in the Scottish Government were absolutely right to release him on compassionate grounds. It was totally consistent with the principles of Scots law and Scottish values of compassion.

The hon. Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) mentioned victims, who are absolutely important when considering release, in particular compassionate release. We all identify with the suffering of the families of victims, and no family would want to endure such an experience, but I am sure that you will recognise, Mr. Olner, that the prisoner release decision related to something that happened on Scottish soil and that Scottish victims were involved. We know what it feels like to be violated by those who kill and maim indiscriminately for the darkest possible reasons.

David Taylor: Was the hon. Gentleman as dismayed as I was by the routine and opportunistic way in which Opposition parties north and south of the border jumped in with big boots with relation to the al-Megrahi decision, to gain political advantage irrespective of the case?

Pete Wishart: I am grateful for that good intervention. Yes, I was disappointed by the response from other political parties in the light of the decision. We still do not know the UK Government's view. We know the view of the Labour party in Scotland and the Liberal Democrats in Scotland, but we do not know the UK Government's view. Some of the interventions from political parties stank of the worst type of political opportunism and short-termism, which was disappointing.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice (Maria Eagle): The hon. Gentleman said that the British Government's view is not known, but we made it clear that the matter was for the Scottish Justice Minister and the Scottish Government. That is the British Government's position.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to the Minister for stating that. Of course, the Scottish Government's view is that it is their job to make such decisions. We know that. That is what this is all about, so we do not need the Minister to tell us that. What we do not know is whether the UK Government believe that the decision to release al-Megrahi was right. Everyone else has a view on that. The hon. Members for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Burrowes) and for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) have a view. I have a view. The leader of the Labour party in Scotland has a view. We just do not know what the UK Government's view is.

Maria Eagle: Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that it would be appropriate for UK Justice Ministers to express a view on a particular case that was devolved to the Scottish Justice Minister when the decision was entirely within his personal remit, as he said? Does he believe that would be an appropriate use of UK Ministers' time?

Pete Wishart: If that were consistently the case, it would be okay, but unfortunately it is not. The Foreign Secretary recently said that the Lockerbie bomber should not die in a Scottish prison. Other Cabinet Ministers have said something different. The UK Government's
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response is all over the place. If it were a matter of remaining silent and repeating and parroting the line that it is a matter for the Scottish Government, that would be okay, but there has been no consistency. If there had been consistency, that would be fine.

That big prisoner release decision probably attracted more attention than any other issue during the summer, with international ramifications and much debate. We know the Scottish Government's position, but we are still finding out the UK Government's position. My Scottish Government colleagues always knew that the decision would be painful. It was not one that any colleague in the Scottish Government sought to make, but they solemnly met their obligations and responsibilities to consider that prisoner release decision in the best interests of Scots law. I am immensely proud of how Kenny MacAskill, the Scottish Justice Secretary, made that difficult decision. He knew that it would not be popular in all quarters, and that there would be political opposition to whatever decision he took, but he defiantly defended his quasi-judicial role and was not prepared to be influenced by external political pressures-rightly so.

Dr. Palmer: In view of the pressures described by the hon. Gentleman, and the intense political controversy, does he believe that it is desirable for a politician, however honourable, to make that final decision?

Pete Wishart: I was just coming to that point. I noted that the hon. Gentleman said in his speech that such decisions should be taken out of the hands of politicians. We all have a certain sympathy with that position, but that is not where we were when the decision was made. It was solely and exclusively for the Cabinet Secretary for Justice in the Scottish Parliament, as laid down in statute. It was his decision alone, and he made it not on economic, diplomatic or trade issues, but solely in the interests of Scots law and the best values of Scottish compassion.

When an approach is made for a release on compassionate grounds, regardless of where that is in the UK and regardless of which case it is, the Justice Secretary in Scotland or the Cabinet Secretary in this House has no option but to consider that request and to make a decision based on all the available evidence presented by the statutory bodies involved. In Scotland, in the case that I have been discussing, Kenny MacAskill followed due process, including all the procedures laid down in the prisoner transfer agreement and in the Scottish Prison Service guidance on compassionate release.

Mr. Carmichael: I am interested to explore with the hon. Gentleman the question of what he calls due process. Does he not accept that this is one of those occasions on which the decision that is made is perhaps of equal importance to the way in which it is made? On reflection and in the spirit of the candid and objective analysis that we have undertaken this morning, does he not think that it was regrettable that so much of the decision-making process was carried out in the public eye? I am thinking of the visit to Barlinnie and the constant stream of briefing. That was inevitably going to result in the scenes, which everybody deplored, of Megrahi's return to Tripoli.

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Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) to respond, I remind hon. Members of the strictures that I tried to place on the debate. This is a general debate about prisoner release decisions on compassionate grounds. I would not want the whole debate to centre on something that was not the decision of the British Government.

Pete Wishart: Thank you, Mr. Olner; I obviously take your remarks very seriously.

Any Minister, when they make decisions regarding a compassionate release, whether in the UK or in Scotland, has to consider all the available evidence. The Scottish Government have to follow a particular Act, and I hope that this will answer the question asked by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, if that is allowed, Mr. Olner. The Scottish Justice Secretary has the power to make decisions on a compassionate basis because of section 3 of the Prisoners and Criminal Proceedings (Scotland) Act 1993. That Act requires that there be solid evidence that a compassionate release should be made. The grounds for compassionate release are given in the Scottish Prison Service guidance about how such releases should be made. I am sure that the situation is very much the same for UK Ministers in this House and that they must consider all the available evidence when they come to make releases on compassionate grounds.

Consideration has to be given to the recommendations from the prison governor and the Parole Board, and all the medical evidence that is provided to support any compassionate release has to be considered. In terms of the guidance in the UK but particularly in Scotland, there are no fixed time limits, but life expectancy of about three months may be considered an appropriate period. The guidance makes it clear that all prisoners, irrespective of sentence length, are eligible to be considered for compassionate release.

In all the cases in which there has been compassionate release, but particularly in the case of the most important prisoner release decision that we have had, all the necessary criteria for consideration of release were met. It is also important to say that very few appeals for compassionate release are turned down. Most are fulfilled. According to the figures that are available, since 1999-2000 all the applications for compassionate release in Scotland have been met. It would have been extraordinary, therefore-

Maria Eagle: Would the hon. Gentleman like to tell hon. Members what the figure is in England and Wales as well as the Scottish figure in that respect?

Pete Wishart: I am sorry to say to the Minister that I do not know what that figure is, but I am sure that she will tell hon. Members when she has an opportunity to do so.

Maria Eagle: Some 28 per cent. of applications for compassionate release are granted in England and Wales.

Pete Wishart: I am grateful to learn that particular fact from the Minister. In Scotland, all applications that have met the criteria have been fulfilled, so it would have been an astonishing precedent for the Scottish Secretary to refuse the application in the case that we
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have been discussing, given that the criteria were met. He could have been accused of making a political decision, given that the criteria were met on all those considerations and conditions.

The decision was taken because of the best interests of Scots law. Due process was absolutely followed in the release of Abdelbaset al-Megrahi. No political factors influenced it. No decisions about trade or whatever influenced the decision by the Scottish Justice Secretary. The other point is that it was made possible because Scots law is different from that in the rest of the UK, and it is right that it is different. Our Justice Secretary made the right decision for the right reasons to release Abdelbaset al-Megrahi, and Scotland has been shown in a good light in terms of the way in which we have been able to respond to that issue and the actions that we took.

11.35 am

John Robertson (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab): I do not intend to make a long contribution-although it seems to get longer every time I write a note. First, I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Broxtowe (Dr. Palmer) on securing this important debate. Anybody who knows me knows that in all my time in Parliament and before that, I have always tried to voice my backing for the victim of any form of injury and for the family of any victim who is killed. I was sorry that the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire (Pete Wishart) spent so long talking about the Megrahi case. Suffice it to say that I disagree with everything that he said. I feel that the 270 people who were killed on that day and their families deserve a bit more than somebody being released.

Part of the criteria-this applies on both sides of the border-is that the person who is released can receive better treatment somewhere else. I would argue that the treatment in Scotland would be a lot better than the treatment that Megrahi would receive in Libya. Therefore, under that criterion alone, he should not have been released. I had the pleasure of meeting some of the families in America and I can assure hon. Members that their feelings are completely different from those expressed by Mr. MacAskill when he made his decision.

Dr. Palmer: Does my hon. Friend agree that one difficulty about the decision was that Mr. Megrahi was released outside Scottish jurisdiction and the miraculous recovery scenario worries people? If he proves to be in better health than was thought, there will be absolutely nothing that the Scottish Government can do about that.

John Robertson: My hon. Friend is right. We are two months down the line of what was basically a three-month death sentence, according to the medical expertise. That said, the medical expertise was given before 20 August, when Megrahi was released, so we are not quite sure how far down the road we are in terms of the three months. However, whether he dies before three months have elapsed or after, that is not really the argument. I believe that he should not have been released. That is a personal belief. It is not a political belief. I have just always felt that victims and victims' families must be protected.

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Let me talk about compassionate release in general. I do have some figures and they disagree with those given by both my hon. Friend the Minister and the hon. Member for Perth and North Perthshire. According to my figures, in Scotland there have been 31 applications since 2000, from which 24 prisoners have been released on medical grounds, with seven requests denied-only one of those involved a murder. In England and Wales, 48 people have been granted permanent early release in the past five years, but there are no figures for the number of applications rejected, so I shall have to accept my hon. Friend's 28 per cent. Of those 48 people, 14 were serving life sentences, so I have to ask my hon. Friend what about their victims' families? Who was thinking of them when those people were being released?

Pete Wishart: It is fascinating that we are kicking around these figures once again, but perhaps the hon. Gentleman can tell us something for the sake of clarity. Of the seven applications that were rejected in Scotland, how many did not meet the full criteria?

John Robertson: The hon. Gentleman talks about full criteria, and of course the full criteria would apply to anybody who was released. If somebody was not released-I talked about whether somebody would receive better medical attention within the prison system or without it-he would say that they did not meet the criteria. I would be more inclined to ask whether they had the criteria to make the application. If that were the case, my figures would be right and his figures would be wrong. It is an argument that we could go to and fro with, which in the end would mean absolutely nothing.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. We will not go through that argument in the debate today.

John Robertson: I apologise, Mr. Olner, and will continue with my figures.

In Northern Ireland 248 prisoners have to date been released under the Good Friday agreement. Of those, 78 were convicted of murder, 76 received life sentences and two were detained at the pleasure of the Secretary of State. None was held solely on a discretionary life sentence, and eight were serving sentences for offences that they had committed in England. I wonder who talked to the victims' families about why those people should be released.

Could what I am concerned about happen more often? The Prison Reform Trust warns that the number of prisoners over the age of 60 tripled between 1996 and 2008, to make up about 4,000 of the 84,150 people in prison in England and Wales. The trust states that that is due to harsher sentencing, and to DNA testing enabling convictions to be obtained years after crimes. Well, well. Now we are complaining about how many people are to be sentenced for crimes. I do not have a problem with 84,150 people being in prison. If they have been convicted of crimes they should be in prison. If we must build more prisons I do not have a problem with that.

We talked about the al-Megrahi case, but I shall pass over it as I know, Mr. Olner, that you do not like us to talk about it; it does not really matter.

Mr. Bill Olner (in the Chair): Order. It is not a matter of my not wanting to hear the case discussed; I said only that it should be put in perspective. It was not in the jurisdiction of this Parliament, and the Scottish Executive made the decision.

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