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House of Lords

Thursday, 4th December 1997.

The House met at three of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Guardsmen Wright and Fisher

Lord Burnham asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether the action taken by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland with regard to the cases of Guardsmen Wright and Fisher was in conformity with the advice given by the Life Sentences Review Body.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Northern Ireland Office (Lord Dubs): My Lords, I can assure the noble Lord that the Secretary of State's decision to defer these cases for a year took full account of the board's advice. It also took full account of the materials on which the board had based its advice, including the representations received regarding the cases.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his reply, which I hope provides the assurance that we seek; namely, that the decisions have been made purely on a judicial basis. Is the noble Lord aware of the effect on the morale of all military personnel in Northern Ireland, particularly those in the Scots Guards, who see this prolonged imprisonment, which is two years longer than that of Privates Clegg and Thain, as being based on political considerations? Can the Minister assure the House that this will be fully considered and that there is good reason that the imprisonment should be extended two years beyond that of Privates Clegg and Thain?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I do not believe that our procedures, including the decision of the Secretary of State, can be termed "judicial". Nevertheless, I understand the sensitivities of this particular case. The other cases to which the noble Lord referred are different in kind from these two cases.

Lord Dean of Beswick: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that there appear to be two standards of justice in Northern Ireland? There are people in Northern Ireland who have committed cold and premeditated acts of murder and remain free. Why are these guardsmen being subjected to another form of justice?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I do not believe that there are two standards of justice in Northern Ireland. The procedures we follow are intended to emphasise that there is only one standard of justice in Northern Ireland and that all individuals are judged on those terms.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree with the observation made by the present Lord

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Chancellor Lord Irvine of Lairg on the 6th November 1989, on the occasion of a debate on the Report of the Select Committee on Murder and Life Imprisonment, of which I had the privilege of being a member, that,

    "the duration of imprisonment should be decided by judges in an open process and not by the Executive behind closed doors".--[Official Report, 6/11/89; col. 522.]

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I hear what the noble and learned Lord has said. However, the procedures that we follow in this case are those of the previous government. Those procedures differ from the procedures suggested by the noble and learned Lord.

Lord Mayhew of Twysden: My Lords, does the Minister accept that the legal offence of murder covers a very broad spectrum of moral culpability? Does he agree that the present law, which requires a mandatory sentence of life imprisonment for all murders, deprives the trial judge of the normal judicial function of sentencing the offender following conviction, having heard all the evidence, in the light of the judge's own assessment of moral culpability? Is not a consequence of that that the Home Secretary, representing the Executive, must decide the crucially important question of when it is proper to release an offender on life licence, always subject to recall, and not the trial judge? The Secretary of State may do that many years later. Therefore, is it not inevitable that suspicions and bitterness will often arise, always in my experience without any justification? Would that not be avoided if the mandatory sentence was abolished and a discretionary one substituted?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord asks a question that goes well beyond Northern Ireland and covers the procedures for the United Kingdom. I note what the noble and learned Lord has said, based upon his long experience. I simply reiterate that the Government have followed the procedures of the previous government.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon: My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the treatment of Guardsmen Wright and Fisher contrasts starkly with the treatment to be given to Gerry Adams next week when he is to be the honoured guest of the Prime Minister?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, we are dealing with two guardsmen who have been convicted by a criminal court. I do not believe that it is helpful to compare them with individuals who have not been convicted by a criminal court.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, from the views expressed by the noble Lords, Lord Dean of Beswick and Lord Stoddart of Swindon, does the Minister realise that this is not a matter of legal niceties but moral attitudes? Further, does he recollect that Mr. Gerry Adams has also been convicted of terrorist offences? Does the Minister understand that it appears to many people that the standard of justice is influenced by the desire of the Government to reach a political settlement?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I entirely repudiate the suggestion of the noble Lord. We seek to achieve a

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settlement in Northern Ireland, but that is quite separate from our approach to cases such as these. These individuals are being dealt with in accordance with proper procedures. I express surprise that the noble Lord makes these comparisons.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, is the Minister aware that his Answer to this Question, of which I gave notice some time ago, comes as a welcome relief to me? One has the assurance that no extraneous factors were taken into account beyond the recommendations of the review board, and that at a time of political tension. Does the Minister think that that is a welcome and satisfactory relief?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he said. Perhaps I may make clear what happened. The Secretary of State, as I said in answer to the original Question, took full account of the advice of the Life Sentence Review Board. I cannot say whether that was the totality of the influence which led her to make her decision. On the other hand, I can assure the noble Lord that extraneous political considerations did not come into it. This decision was decided properly on the merits of those two individual cases.

The Duke of Norfolk: My Lords, will the Minister explain a simple point? These two guardsmen are being treated as if they were criminals and had murdered in cold blood, whereas it all took place in the heat of battle. That is the distinction that I want to draw, and which many of us on this side believe should be explained by the Government.

Lord Dubs: My Lords, from the information that I have about these two cases, I do not believe that the events took place in the heat of battle. I am not certain that it is helpful to go into the details. The trial judge pointed out that the events took place in daylight, on a bright morning, when the suspect was retreating at all times, and increasing the distance between himself and the soldiers who pursued him over a distance of three streets. I am not sure that "heat of battle" is the phrase that I would apply to that situation.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, with the leave of the House, is it not the case that the man concerned tore the radio out of the patrol's vehicle and was fleeing while carrying a parcel, which I admit was not found, but which could have been a bomb, and was told many times to cease running away?

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I am not certain that it is helpful for me to get into speculation about some of the details. I paraphrased what the trial judge pointed out. I confirm that the man stole the radio from one of the soldiers. I cannot confirm the rest of the details, because I do not have them before me.

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European Aerospace Industry

3.17 p.m.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to encourage the restructuring of the European aerospace industry.

The Minister of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Clinton-Davis): My Lords, Ministers and their officials are working closely with the UK aerospace industry and with other European governments to encourage the restructuring of that industry.

Lord Randall of St. Budeaux: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Is he aware that the restructuring of the British aerospace industry must now take place because of the immense changes and the competitive disadvantages that we suffer as against the American aerospace industry? Is he also aware that were we to proceed along the lines being advocated by British Aerospace, we would establish a trans-national European defence and aerospace industry? There is concern that the defence market will change and that will have an impact on our defence procurement policy. Are the Government satisfied that British defence interests will be protected if the industry's proposals go forward?

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