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28 Oct 2009 : Column 83WH—continued

10.27 am

Greg Mulholland (Leeds, North-West) (LD): I will keep to the time that you have set, Mr. Benton. I add my appreciation for the work and leadership of my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on this issue.

Within 18 months of being elected to this place, I dealt with the family of a constituent who faced the death penalty in Pakistan. I pay tribute to colleagues from all parties who have been vocal on this issue. However, only a few of us have dealt with a constituency case of this nature. I have always been a vocal opponent of the death penalty, but it is something else to sit with the family of somebody who faces the death penalty and to look into the eyes of people who face the prospect of a state deciding to use its might, authority and legal system to kill in cold blood. Mirza Tahir Hussain was a dual citizen, so Pakistan would have been killing one of its citizens as well as ours. It was a strange case because he had not been in this country for 18 years by the time he was finally released.

I again pay tribute to Amnesty International, Reprieve and Fair Trials Abroad for their support in that case. I also thank the Prince of Wales for his support and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office for the work that it did behind the scenes. However long or short my political career, I will always remember the moment when I met my new constituent, Mirza Tahir Hussain, for the first time at Heathrow airport after his release, when justice was done. He was not guilty, yet he languished for 18 years with the death penalty hanging over his head.

I could not possibly mention that case without mentioning the heroic contribution of his brother, Amjad Hussain. Since then, he has not disappeared into the
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shadows, but taken up the case of the global moratorium. He campaigns on Muslim nations in particular. My question for the Minister is therefore whether he can update us on discussions with Pakistan and other Muslim nations. There has been a change of Government in Pakistan and there is an opportunity to move this issue forward.

Finally, I must disagree profoundly with the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell). I have seen the effect of the death penalty on an individual and a family. It brutalises society and dehumanises the justice system. In the case of Northern Ireland, even if we had had the death penalty-understandable as it may be for the people who have suffered the horrific crimes carried out there to want it-would it really have taken the Good Friday peace process forward, which I think we all agree has been a good thing?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman when he says that we must have real justice and clear life without parole for the worst offenders-there is no question about that and we must make that clear-but how many innocent people would have to die if we had a so-called perfect system where we could kill the worst offenders? It just does not make sense. It is simply wrong for any state to kill its citizens in cold blood in the name of justice. I hope that Amnesty's continued campaign is a great success.

10.30 am

Jo Swinson (East Dunbartonshire) (LD): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on getting the debate on to the agenda and on the way in which he opened it. He is hugely knowledgeable on the subject and has a strong record of campaigning on the issue around the world. I know that partly because he is my colleague and we have discussed these issues, and partly because, like him, I am a member of Amnesty International. When Amnesty's magazine comes through the letter box every few months, although I often find it difficult to read because of the horrors within, from time to time, there is a piece about his work on these important issues.

I reiterate and add my voice to my hon. Friend's congratulation of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and the Government on their work on the issue. As he mentioned, it is rare for most of us to be in agreement in this House, but I think this is one of those matters on which the vast majority of hon. Members come to the same conclusion. It is good to know that our Government take forward these issues on the international stage.

This is a timely debate because it comes so soon after the world day against the death penalty. Sadly, it is also timely because, last Tuesday, we had the news about the three Tibetans executed in Lhasa. News of such executions punctuate our news media regularly. In some ways, it can be said that we are making progress on the international campaign to achieve global abolition. Although there are worrying trends in some states, in 2008, 106 countries voted in favour of a worldwide moratorium on executions and 46 voted against in the UN General Assembly. That was clearly progress on what happened in 2007, when 104 voted in favour, with 54 against. We should take some comfort and inspiration from that.

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Although global abolition must remain our ultimate goal, in the meantime, we should do all we can to seek a reduction in the number of executions that happen in countries around the world. That is partly why the work of the many organisations campaigning against the death penalty is so important, particularly those that take up cases to stop individual executions. Even reducing the number of executions by one in an individual country has a huge value, and I pay tribute to the work that is done. My hon. Friend the Member for Leeds, North-West (Greg Mulholland) set out well the impact that such work can have on an individual basis. I congratulate him, his constituent, his constituent's family and all who were involved in that successful case, which happily ultimately had a good outcome.

I disagree with the argument of the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) that the death penalty is an appropriate action for the state in some cases. I have found no evidence in the research that the death penalty acts as a deterrent and makes us safer. In fact, countries that have the death penalty, such as the United States, have incredibly high homicide rates and a correlation can often be seen in relation to that. In any case, the worst serial killers and murderers do not commit such crimes rationally and often do not think through the consequences.

I accept that there are some serial killers and horrific cases in relation to which there is very little or no possibility of redemption, but I put it to the hon. Gentleman that it does not follow that the only solution is the death penalty. True lifetime imprisonment could also keep society safe and, indeed, in various cases in the UK-for example, that of Ian Brady-that was ultimately the decision made.

Mr. Gregory Campbell: I have a simple question. If we have lifetime imprisonment but a person who is guilty of committing murder breaks out and commits it again, what then?

Jo Swinson: We have incredibly high security in the places in which these people are held, and that is not something that happens. A tiny minority of cases would fall under the category that the hon. Gentleman is outlining but, given the extreme security we have, we are effectively talking hypothetically about that scenario.

Mark Durkan (Foyle) (SDLP): The hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) has described a scenario, but he has not given us any actual examples of notorious serial killers who have either been released and killed other people, or escaped. He is giving us Hollywood fantasy scripts; he has given us no concrete examples.

Jo Swinson: I concur with the hon. Gentleman. I am certainly confident that, in those tiny minority of cases, the state has secure institutions available to ensure that the public are kept safe, without resorting to state-sponsored murder or compromising our humanity in that way.

Some countries carry out a huge number of executions, and 93 per cent. of all known executions last year took place in just five countries: USA, China, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. In an eloquent contribution, the hon. Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry) mentioned
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the situation in China. I agree with him on the importance of working collectively through organisations such as the EU, so that we can have greater influence on the issue. Where there is agreement across the EU, by speaking together we can often have a stronger and louder voice.

As I mentioned, the case of the Tibetans who were executed is of great concern. I welcome the visit of the Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the hon. Member for Bury, South (Mr. Lewis), to Tibet last month. I hope that he will have spoken to Chinese officials about those Tibetans and others who have been executed-indeed, some people are still facing execution. My hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland raised the case of Mr. Akmal Shaikh. I echo his concerns and I hope that the Government are doing absolutely everything they can to raise the issue at the highest levels within China.

Despite the place of the US on the global stage and the fact that it argues for human rights in many circumstances, those efforts are entirely undermined by having the death penalty. Some 52 people have been executed in the US since this time last year. I would like to raise the horrific recent case of Romell Broom, who is a man from Ohio who spent two hours waiting to die as technicians looked for a suitable vein through which to administer a lethal injection. He helped them to try to find the vein and in the end the execution could not happen and he was taken away. We need only consider such cases to find a clear reason why the death penalty should be abolished in its entirety.

Of course, there is also always the prospect of executing an innocent person. In America, there was a recent report about the case of Cameron Tod Willingham, who was put to death in 2004 for apparently murdering his three daughters in a house fire. At the time, it was said to be arson, but a recent report published in August by nine investigators has shown that the prosecution of the case was fatally flawed. We can see that such events and innocent cases still happen in all such countries. As mentioned, if the US stopped the death penalty, it would act as a beacon for other countries to stop hiding behind the excuse that because the US does it, they can too.

The hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) made a powerful speech about Iranian executions for homosexuality. Since 1979, more than 4,000 people were killed just for being gay. Although we have generally had a fairly consensual debate, I shall introduce a small note of discord by saying to the Minister that the UK Government need to consider again their policy of deporting gay Iranians despite the fact that they risk imprisonment and potential execution at home. There may not be a good or bad death, but in Iran the methods of execution are particularly harsh and death by stoning still takes place.

In summary, there are myriad reasons why the death penalty is wrong: there is the moral case, the human rights case and the absolutely unanswerable case that mistakes will be made. People are human and mistakes happen in our criminal justice system. Therefore, the state will murder innocent people if there is a death penalty.

The UK Government must be a passionate advocate of ending the death penalty around the world. I appreciate that in many ways we are preaching to the converted
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because the Minister is in agreement and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office has a strong record on this issue. However, I hope that today's excellent debate will act as further encouragement to the Minister by reinforcing that the FCO's work on raising this issue with Governments around the world is important.

10.40 am

Mr. David Lidington (Aylesbury) (Con): I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing the debate and on the fluent and learned way in which he introduced the subject. I was also impressed by the passion with which the hon. Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) spoke.

I had better declare my credentials. Like my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Tony Baldry), I have voted for the abolition of capital punishment in this country. I have also, like him, argued that case in front of Conservative party meetings and even Conservative party selection committees when that was not the most fashionable or popular cause to adopt. However, I was glad that the hon. Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) spoke, because it is important when we debate capital punishment that we do not give the impression of having got together into a political class that is dismissive of what is still a majority view among the British public. The most recent opinion research that I have seen shows that a majority of the public-fewer than 50 per cent., but still a majority-favour the restoration of the death penalty in this country. That should put us on our guard when we debate how to engage with other sovereign nations that have decided, for reasons of their own, to retain the death penalty.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury said when he talked about China, there is little to be gained from the ceremonial recitation of opposing lines if no real discussion, engagement or persuasion takes place. I suggest that the Government should focus on three specific ways of seeking to influence countries that retain the death penalty. The first way is to persuade them to reduce the range of offences that are subject to the capital penalty. As others have said, it is obscene that countries such as Iran still have the death penalty for apostasy and for consensual sexual intercourse between adults.

Secondly, I hope that the Government will focus strongly on securing due process where it is absent. It is plainly wrong for capital trials to be held when the accused person is unable to understand the charges against them, or for such trials to be held in secret or without independent observers. Hon. Members have discussed the execution of juveniles in Iran and elsewhere. One might talk about the barbarism of methods of execution such as stoning that are still used in some countries. An important theme to pursue in discussions with China is that it should live up to its declared policy of having all capital cases reviewed by the Supreme Court, but it is far from clear whether that was done in the case that the hon. Member for East Dunbartonshire (Jo Swinson) mentioned that involved the three Tibetans.

Thirdly, I hope that the Government will focus on the argument that Governments who retain the death penalty should have regard to mitigating circumstances, particularly to the concept of mental illness being a mitigating
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factor. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland talked about the Akmal Shaikh case, which my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition raised directly with State Councillor Dai Bingguo at their recent meeting. Let me also mention Japan. As recently as 2008, the Japanese executed a man who had been receiving psychiatric treatment in custody for more than a decade. I hope that the Government will pursue those themes both bilaterally and through international forums such as the United Nations Human Rights Council. I look forward to the Minister's response.

10.45 am

The Minister for Europe (Chris Bryant): I am grateful to be serving under your chairmanship, Mr. Benton.

It is ironic that we are having this debate in Westminster Hall, which was for many centuries the place where state trials were held. I believe that the first execution ordered from just outside this Chamber was in 1295, when Thomas de Turberville was sent off to be executed, oddly for spying against the French-I do not know why we were concerned about that. Ten years later, William Wallace was executed, as I am sure our Scottish colleagues would be more than keen to point out. Charles I was executed following his trial in Westminster Hall, and after that, Oliver Cromwell's head stood on a pike outside this building for some 35 years. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North (Stephen Pound) would remind us, Thomas More's trial took place just outside this Chamber, as did Cardinal Fisher's and Edmund Campion's. All of them were executed, as were many others.

Stephen Pound: Saint Thomas More.

Chris Bryant: Sir Thomas More. I am still an Anglican, even though the blandishments of the Bishop of Rome are tempting to others who do not want women bishops. I, however, am very happy to have women bishops.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Carmichael) on securing this important debate. Given the history of Westminster Hall, perhaps we should have an annual debate in the hall itself on the death penalty around the world. I intend to write to the Speaker and to the Leader of the House to suggest that we should do so on the day that is set aside by many organisations such as Amnesty International-of which, I, too, am a member-so that we can showcase our work on this issue. The Government are passionately against the death penalty around the world. Indeed, I think that view is shared by most political parties, if not all.

My arguments against the death penalty are very simple. First, all too often, sentences are wrong. We have heard about such cases today, and tribute has been paid to Ludovic Kennedy. We have heard about people in British cases who were sentenced to death and executed, whom we now know could not possibly have committed the crimes for which they were sentenced. That has happened even in this country, which has a robust judicial system, but the numbers are much higher in countries in which many people do not have access to a fair trial and due process.

Secondly, the death penalty undervalues life. I am a Christian. I know that not all Members of the House are, but I believe that God gave us life so that we should respect it, not so that we should take it away. There is
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absolutely no evidence that the death penalty has a deterrent effect. As several hon. Members have already pointed out, states in the United States of America that have the death penalty often have a higher murder rate than states that do not. The same is often true of countries around the world. The Bible is quite clear. "Vengeance is mine" does not mean mine as a Minister, the state or humanity; it means that vengeance is God's, and we should not use the justice system to perpetrate vengeance.

I also believe that human rights are a seamless garment. I am sorry to keep using all this biblical language. We cannot say that we will stand up for women's rights in Iran, but that we will not stand against the death penalty. We cannot say that it is wrong for people in Britain to be murdered for their sexuality, but that it is not wrong for people in Iran to be executed for their sexuality. It is particularly poignant that in the past couple of weeks, a man-Ian Baynham-was murdered about 300 yards up the road in Trafalgar square for being gay and that only last weekend a police community support officer was attacked in Liverpool because of his sexuality.

Both I and this Government believe that human rights are a seamless garment, and we will always take up these issues, wherever they apply, in every country in the world. That is a passionate campaign for us politically, because 2,390 people were executed in 25 countries in 2008-a shocking figure, even if it was in only 25 countries-and 8,864 people were sentenced to death in 52 states. As we have heard today in several hon. Members' passionate speeches, the whole process of being on death row and waiting for a sentence that might or might not be executed and of people being taken to the moment of execution and then taken back is barbaric.

When women are stoned to death in places in Iran, the pit is dug deep enough that they cannot raise their arms to protect themselves so their deaths will be swifter, but the pit is dug relatively shallow for men so that they will try to protect themselves and the execution will take longer. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, North said, in Iran people can be strung up to the back of a lorry that suddenly moves away, and that takes place in main squares with everyone watching, cheering and jeering. One could talk about the methods of execution used in the United States of America, as sometimes it is impossible to find a suitable vein and the execution cannot proceed. Whatever type of execution one looks at, the whole process of being on death row is inhumane and every bit as wrong as the death penalty itself.

We fight politically on that issue around the world, but we will also take up representation wherever we possibly can, case by case, and I pay tribute to the consular staff who work in our embassies around the world, because they are absolutely unstinting in that work. Of course, we must always be intelligent, clever, sage and wise in the precise way that we deploy our diplomatic activity on behalf of an individual, as steaming in with the British diplomatic cavalry will not necessarily achieve our objectives in particular cases. Those consular staff work hard and deal with many complex cases, from child abduction to British people being sentenced to death, so I pay tribute to them.

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