HC Deb 16 December 1999 vol 341 cc397-408 12.31 pm
The Secretary of State for the Home Departmente (Mr. Jack Straw)

I should like to make a statement about the decision of the European Court of Human Rights, which announced its judgment this morning. in the case brought against the United Kingdom Government by Robert Thompson and Jon Venables. A copy of the judgment has been placed in the Library.

Those two youths were responsible for the appalling murder of James Bulger in Liverpool in February 1993. The whole House and the country have the deepest sympathy for James's parents. As Lord Reed, one of the court's judges, said in this judgment:

the grief of James Bulgers' parents, who took part in the proceedings before the Court, is inexpressible. He added that the fact that those responsible

were themselves only ten years old at the time of the murder makes it particularly disturbing". The authority of the European Court of Human Rights derives from our membership of the Council of Europe. The Council of Europe was established after the war on the initiative of the allies, especially the United Kingdom. It now has 41 nations in membership. The Council predates the European Union, and is wholly separate from it.

The European convention on human rights is a convention of the Council of Europe and the Court of Human Rights, which sits in Strasbourg, is one of its principal institutions. British jurists played a leading role in drafting the convention and the UK was the first nation to ratify it in 1951. Successive UK Governments have, ever since and consistently, abided by the decisions of the court, introducing amending legislation in this Parliament where necessary.

In the case that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables brought before the Strasbourg court, the two youths essentially argued that facing trial in a Crown court and having their tariff set by the Home Secretary were inappropriate given their ages. They claimed that those arrangements breached articles 3, 5, 6 and 14 of the convention relating to powers of detention and the right to a fair trial. The youths were 11 at the time of conviction and they are now aged 17.

The House will understand that I have had only a short time to read the judgment, which was not issued to the public or to Ministers until early this morning. However, the key findings are as follows.

First, there were no violations of the European convention on human rights in respect of article 3 and, in one regard, in respect of article 5(1). Article 3 is on the right not to be subjected to inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment and it relates to matters of both trial and of sentence. In particular, the court held as lawful the age of 10 as the age of criminal responsibility in England and Wales. It was also of the view that the particular features of the trial process did not cause,

to a significant degree, suffering going beyond that which would inevitably have been engendered by any attempt by the authorities to deal with the applicant". The court also held that there had been no violation in respect of article 5(1), the right to liberty. It held that the sentence of detention at Her Majesty's pleasure was clearly lawful under English law and was not arbitrary. However, the court did find violations in respect of article 6(1), the right to a fair trial, and, under articles 6(1) and 5(4), relating to the setting of the tariffs and their continued review.

On article 6(1), the right to a fair trial, the court found that, notwithstanding the special arrangements made to help ensure that the youths could properly participate in the trial process in the Crown Court,

it was highly unlikely that either applicant would have felt sufficiently uninhibited, in the tense court room and under public scrutiny, to have consulted with their legal representatives during the trial or, indeed, that, given their immaturity and disturbed emotional state, they would have been capable outside the court room of co-operating with their lawyers and giving them information for the purpose of their defence". It therefore followed, in the view of the court, that the applicants had been denied a fair hearing in breach of article 6(1).

On the setting of tariffs and their continued review, the court first held that there was a fundamental distinction between the sentence for murder in respect of juveniles and that for murder in respect of adults. As far as the latter—the sentence for adults—was concerned, the European Court, in an earlier judgment on the 1994 Wynne case, had accepted the lawfulness of the mandatory life sentence for adults convicted of murder. It had also accepted as lawful the arrangements for tariff-setting by the Secretary of State.

Today's judgment does not deal with the arrangements for adults who have been, or will be, convicted of murder in the courts in England and Wales. However, in this case, which involves juveniles, the European Court followed a decision by the House of Lords' Appellate Committee of the Privy Council that the setting of the tariffs for juveniles was itself a sentencing exercise. The court added that, as the Home Secretary—who set the applicants' tariffs—was clearly not independent of the Executive, there had been a breach of article 6(1) in respect of the determination of the applicants' tariffs.

On article 5(4), the court held that, because the applicants' tariffs had been decided by the Home Secretary, there had been no judicial supervision incorporated in the initial fixing of their sentences. The court therefore found a violation of article 5(4) based on the lack of any opportunity for the applicants to have the lawfulness of their detention assessed by a judicial body.

In summary, therefore, the court has found in favour of the United Kingdom Government on two important issues—that Robert Thompson and Jon Venables were never subjected to inhumane or degrading treatment by the Government, and that the sentences imposed by the court were not inconsistent with the requirements of the convention. However, it has found against the United Kingdom on issues relating to the trial process, to the way in which the tariff linked to their sentence was set, and to the failure subsequently to review the tariff.

The judgment does not overturn the verdict of murder in this case, nor does it in any way exonerate the two youths for their part in this terrible crime. The judgment does not direct their release from custody. The parole board remains responsible for deciding release in these cases.

As with any such decision of the court, the Government accept its judgment. However, the full judgment runs to 120 pages, and the House will understand that I need to study carefully the detail of what the court has said, and fully to consider the implications. I will of course report the outcome of my considerations to Parliament as soon as possible, and it will be for Parliament to agree any change that may appear to be required in the legislative framework for dealing with juvenile offenders in these circumstances.

The appalling murder of James Bulger—a two-year-old murdered by two 10-year-olds—profoundly shocked this country and continues to do so, but the real agony is felt by James's parents. It is they who have endured, and will continue to endure, the profound grief of losing their son—a fact which nothing can ever repair.

Miss Ann Widdecombe (Maidstone and The Weald)

I thank the Home Secretary for his statement and for his courtesy in giving me an early sight of it. Of course I accept that he is studying the judgment. Indeed, I would have been the first to criticise had he come to this House with ready-made decisions without studying it in more depth. Nevertheless, I will ask him to indicate his thinking on one or two matters that have been the subject of much public discussion.

Does the Home Secretary agree that a tariff must reflect what is appropriate to the crime itself, rather than take into account the various stages at which the nature of imprisonment changes? He will be aware that there has been considerable discussion about whether it is right for Thompson and Venables to enter the adult system. Does he agree that that is not germane to setting a tariff, but that a tariff must reflect the gravity and nature of the crime, rather than any consideration about the nature of the imprisonment involved?

Does the Home Secretary agree, from his knowledge of tariffs, that, had these two been adults, the tariff would probably have been in the region of 25 years and that, therefore, an appropriate and, indeed, sizeable discount was given to reflect their youth? Does he agree also that that tariff is roughly comparable to that involved in the only other roughly comparable crime committed by a child of similar age, and that the tariff of 15 years is not vastly in excess of the time served by Mary Bell, who also transferred to the adult system during the course of her imprisonment?

Will the Home Secretary confirm that it is the case that, in July 1996, our Court of Appeal upheld the Home Secretary's right to adopt the same policy for setting tariffs for young offenders as for adults, and that decision gave legitimacy to the practice? Furthermore, does he recognise that the power to increase tariffs has been used hundreds of times without challenge?

Naturally, I accept that the Home Secretary is studying the judgment. Is he in any position to indicate, even in a preliminary fashion, what options might be available? For example, does he feel absolutely compelled to change the nature of the Home Secretary's role? He has observed—the House will be grateful for this—that the judgment does not affect the verdict. Does he agree, and can he say whether, even had the trial been conducted under the juvenile rather than the adult system, it is most unlikely that anything would have happened other than that Thompson and Venables would still have been convicted and sentenced to detention at Her Majesty's pleasure?

Does the Home Secretary agree that it is in the interests not only of James Bulger's parents and the surviving relatives but of Thompson and Venables themselves that they settle down to complete their sentence without the regular glare of publicity that this case involves, and that being encouraged to look upon themselves as victims of the system rather than perpetrators of a serious crime will not help them come to terms with what they have done and to lead law-abiding lives thereafter?

Conservative Members join absolutely with the Home Secretary in renewing our sympathy for James Bulger's parents and other members of his family and expressing the horror which we all felt at that crime, at the vulnerability of the victim, and at the shockingly young age of the perpetrators. I thank him again for his statement and should be grateful for as much elucidation as he can give on the points that I have raised.

Mr. Straw

In turn, I am grateful to the right hon. Lady for the way in which she put those questions. She asked a number of specific questions about the setting, or resetting, of tariffs in these cases. I crave the indulgence of the right hon. Lady and the House if I do not go down that road. These matters require the most careful consideration; I do not believe that it would be appropriate to offer views on them, given that, like everyone else, I have only had the judgment for about three hours.

It is important for the House and the country to understand that setting a tariff sets the minimum sentence which someone convicted of these grave crimes can serve for retribution and deterrence. It is only at the end of the serving of a tariff that the issue of release arises. Then, an assessment of risk is made as to whether it is safe to release the individual, whether it is an adult convicted of murder or someone who is serving a sentence at Her Majesty's pleasure—typically, a juvenile. The assessment of, and final decision on, adult murderers is made by the Home Secretary of the day, but the decision about those detained at Her Majesty's pleasure is, as a result of a separate decision of the European Court of Human Rights, made by the parole board. However, many people convicted of murder—both adults and juveniles—serve a sentence significantly beyond their tariff because the Home Secretary of the day or the parole board judge that it is not safe to release them any earlier.

I have read the judgment as carefully as possible, as I previously read the preliminary decision of the European Commission of Human Rights. It is important to appreciate that the issue is not the guilt or innocence of the two youths—it relates instead to the circumstances in which the trial had taken place, the setting of tariffs and the allegation that there had been insufficient judicial supervision of the sentence post-tariff but before its expiry.

Mr. Kevin McNamara (Hull, North)

This was a terrible crime, and our sympathies go to the family of James Bulger, particularly his parents. Can my right hon. Friend clear up some of my confusion? If the European Court has accepted that a fair trial was denied, under article 6(1), how does the verdict stand? The trial was either fair or it was not. Can my right hon. Friend explain that contradiction, now or later?

Mr. Straw

I am afraid that the matter is not as simple as that. Our domestic courts may decide that an error had been made in the process of a trial but that it was not such as to require a guilty verdict to be overturned. I ask my hon. Friend the Member for Hull, North (Mr. McNamara) to look in detail at the judgment.

As I have already made clear, the European Court of Human Rights found in favour of the United Kingdom Government in two respects. One was with regard to a claim by the applicants that aspects of the trial process relating to the age of criminal responsibility breached their rights under article 3 not to be subject to inhuman and degrading treatment or punishment. The Court also found in favour of the United Kingdom in respect of the applicants' rights to liberty under article 5. It was in respect of aspects of article 6(1), on the right to a fair trial, and article 5, on the detention of anyone in Council of Europe countries, that the court held that there had been a violation. The court did not say, therefore, in the sense in which it is understood in common parlance in the UK, that the trial at Preston Crown court was defective and that the verdict should be overturned. That was never at issue.

Mr. Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey)

I thank the Home Secretary for his prompt, accurate, considered and welcome statement. I join him and the right hon. Member for Maidstone and The Weald (Miss Widdecombe) in saying to the family of James Bulger that the House and the country remain supportive and sympathetic. We share their belief that, when young people commit terrible crimes, they should be properly punished.

It is an instructive point of the decision that the family of the victim were represented before the hearing in the European court. Will the Home Secretary consider how we can better ensure that victims who survive or the families of victims who do not can be represented in the processes that precede decision and sentence? One of the great complaints about our system is that great attention is given to hearing the defendants, while little is given to hearing the views of those who have been victims or who have suffered bereavement, as in this terrible case.

I should make just three further points. Does the Home Secretary agree that the case does not for one moment suggest that, simply because we require fair trials for children—even if differently fair from those for adults—we should not have appropriate and severe sentences for children, just as we should for adults who offend?

Like me, the Home Secretary has had only a short while to consider the judgment, but will he reflect on the key element of the decision that we should move away from political decisions on sentencing to judicial decisions? We must all welcome that. Means exist for dealing with lenient or excessive sentences, but they should be judicial means, free of political interference. That does not necessarily mean less severe or shorter sentences, but it must mean sentences beyond a political context that might be affected by the pressure of the moment.

The Home Secretary should feel vindicated by what the case makes clear about his decision, which we strongly supported, to incorporate the European convention on human rights into British law in the Human Rights Act 1998—due to take effect next year. That decision will mean that, from next year, decisions taken in the UK will not be pronounced on from over there in Europe. Our courts will be able to take decisions on the basis of British and European human rights law. That will produce more immediate verdicts, and verdicts more likely to be right first time, rather than prolonging the terrible trauma of those who suffer from court cases such as the Bulger case.

Mr. Straw

I am grateful for the manner of the hon. Gentleman's remarks. It was extremely important to the family that they were represented at Strasbourg. I entirely accept that we must do a great deal more to ensure that the victims or, in the case of murder, their families, are able to play a more dignified role in our court process. Previous Governments considered that, and we are thinking further about it. Already, there have been developments in victims' statements. I meet many relatives of victims of murder. Anyone who has met such people knows how harrowing that experience is. One of their main complaints is that they feel as if they are spectators—at best—in the court process. They do not ask to take over prosecution, recognising that that is a proper role for the state. However, we must examine our procedures and the experiences of some other countries to see whether families could play a better and more dignified role.

The hon. Gentleman suggests that, under the current system, setting tariffs and determining release are political decisions. I do not think that that is the appropriate adjective to attach to our system. I do not want to speak about the arrangements for tariff-setting in respect of juveniles, as that is a matter which I have to consider in the light of the judgment of the European Court in Strasbourg, but the arrangements for setting the tariff and for release in respect of adults have been taken seriously by successive Home Secretaries, who have sought to exercise their judgment in a quasi-judicial way.

I can speak only personally, but I believe that I speak on behalf of others who have held this office. In every case where we are faced with such difficult decisions, we must consider the matter in a quasi-judicial way, first because that is right, and secondly because such decisions are, rightly, the subject of intense scrutiny and supervision by the courts through the process of judicial review. Moreover, the reasons that led us to make those decisions are the subject of full disclosure.

The hon. Gentleman's final point related to the incorporation of the European convention on human rights into our domestic law, which will come into force on 2 October next year. I believe that that should help the United Kingdom to ensure that that convention and the jurisprudence of the court impacts on our institutions in a way that is more attuned to our law. That was one of the reasons why the noble Lord Kingsland, the shadow Lord Chancellor, speaking on behalf of the Opposition, commended the incorporation of the convention, which has become part of the Human Rights Act 1998. Although that may reduce the number of times that the UK Government are taken to the Strasbourg court, it will not eliminate that process. There will still be occasions when applicants seek to overturn judgments made by our courts or by Parliament.

Mr. Frank Doran (Aberdeen, Central)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement, and align myself with the comments that he and other hon. Members have made expressing sympathy and continuing support for the Bulger family.

Inevitably, we will concentrate on that case and the criminal law aspects involved. Before I entered the House, I practised as a Scottish solicitor, and my specialism was child care law. When I was learning my trade 25 or so years ago, I quickly learned how poorly we deal with children in all aspects of our legal system.

I am not asking for a decision today but, when my right hon. Friend, together with other relevant Ministers, considers the full implications of this case, will he see it as an opportunity for us to undertake a proper examination of the rights of children in our society, and in particular of the way in which the legal processes deal with children?

Mr. Straw

With great respect to my hon. Friend, may I decline his invitation? It is extremely important that I carefully look at the judgment and consider its implications. I am aware that some people are concerned about the way in which our courts deal with such cases. I must tell my hon. Friend, however, that dealing with children who have committed, or who are alleged to have committed, grave crimes is difficult in any jurisdiction.

There is sometimes criticism of our system for its adversarial nature and the fact that it is more public than some people would wish, yet, when I speak to my colleagues who are European Ministers of Justice and the Interior, their concerns often come from the other direction. Their systems are sometimes seen to lack public confidence because they are perceived as wholly private.

On the general issue of juvenile delinquency, it is interesting that the French Government—in the light of recent events, the House will excuse me if I mention that country—are studying with great care our system for dealing with young offenders because of considerable public concern in France that their more welfare-based system is seen to be ineffective in dealing with young criminals and in maintaining public confidence.

Mr. Michael Howard (Folkestone and Hythe)

I thank the Home Secretary for his courtesy in giving me early sight of his statement.

I once again associate myself with those who have offered sympathy to the parents of James Bulger. I also particularly associate myself with the remarks made by the Home Secretary in answer to the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes) about the painstaking and conscientious nature of the tariff-setting process.

Does the Home Secretary agree that, if anyone had told those who signed the European convention on human rights in the immediate aftermath of the unspeakable horrors of the second world war that it would be applied to a case such as this, they would have reacted with utter disbelief?

Does the Home Secretary also agree that, if the judges at Strasbourg cannot resist the itch to intervene in such cases, their legitimacy will increasingly be called into question? Will the Home Secretary resume the efforts made by the previous Government to increase the margin of appreciation—that is, the extent to which member states of the Council of Europe are allowed to decide cases such as this in accordance with their own democratically accountable procedures and without outside interference?

Mr. Straw

I have to say to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that it is inappropriate in the current context for him to make what are partisan remarks even within his own party about our signature and application of the European convention on human rights. I cannot say what was in the mind of David Maxwell Fyfe, later a Conservative Lord Chancellor, who was one of the British jurists who played such a leading role in drafting the European convention on human rights, but what was certainly in the minds of those who drafted it was that it would set out a body of European law and jurisprudence, to which member states would voluntarily agree to comply.

I have to remind the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, during the whole period that the Conservative party has been in power, not just in the previous 18 years, but in the many years before that, he and his colleagues in his party fully accepted Britain's membership of the Council of Europe and, therefore, the obligations which went with it. In the other place on 3 November 1997, the noble Lord Kingsland, the shadow Lord Chancellor, said:

on behalf of my party, I make no apologies for what is contained in that convention; we support its terms wholeheartedly."—[0fficial Report, House of Lords, 3 November 1997; Vol. 582, c. 1235.] I would also point out to the right hon. and learned Gentleman that, during the period that he was Home Secretary, he brought proposals to the House, which were accepted, to amend our domestic law so as to make it comply with decisions of the European Court of Human Rights, as he did in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, following the case of Singh and Hussain, which led to the decision about the final release of those who are being detained at Her Majesty's pleasure being taken away from the Home Secretary and transferred to the parole board.

It is not just a fact of life but a central tenet of the rule of law that we are subject to the rule of law—in Britain that includes the law laid down by the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, to which we have voluntarily agreed to comply. An aspect of the rule of law is that those who hold political office sometimes find that decisions may be made by judges which we may or may not happily have made ourselves, but that is an important part of the separation of powers on which our democracy is founded.

Jean Corston (Bristol, East)

I thank my right hon. Friend for his prompt statement. He is right to say that the tragedy will affect members of the Bulger family for as long they live. It traumatised a generation of parents, as any sensitive person who went shopping in the wake of the case and watched parents with their children knows. They were traumatised in the same way as my generation in the wake of the Moors murders.

As I understand it, the European Court had no difficulty with 10 as the age of criminal responsibility. That must be correct: children of 10 know the difference between right and wrong. However, the difficulty was that the mode of trial offered in the juvenile courts was not appropriate to the case, and it was therefore transferred to the Crown Court. During his deliberations, will my right hon. Friend consider the operation of the juvenile court, and make it possible to give due process to children who commit what are, hopefully, rare crimes?

Mr. Straw

I entirely associate myself with my hon. Friend's comments about the way in which this terrible case—not least, the image of that two-year-old child being led away to his death—traumatised a generation of parents more than any other event in the decade. It has

had serious consequences; children are under much greater supervision and are not allowed the freedom that our generation enjoyed to explore the areas in which we lived. All of us who are parents know the anxiety that single events—thankfully, rare events—cause parents.

The European Court was right to accept that our age of criminal responsibility is lawful. As it pointed out, the age of 10 is higher than in some other member countries, including—I add this to the judgment, which omitted it—Scotland, where the age of criminal responsibility is eight, not 10.

The court made two decisions in respect of articles 3 and 6. One was in the United Kingdom Government's favour, and the other went in the applicants' favour. They must be studied with considerable care, but they have implications for the venue and form of trial. While the juvenile courts are able to deal with less serious matters—their sentencing power is about to be increased under the Detention and Training Order so that they can give sentences of two years—we would have to think long and hard about whether that venue would be appropriate for trying grave crimes. Frankly, I doubt it. We shall have to consider alternative systems for such trials.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Those of us who practise in the criminal court—and, indeed, society as a whole—have great difficulty with the judgment. I have recently completed a trial of a murder case in which I acted for a defendant of 16. Neither the forum nor the procedures prevented me from properly representing that young man. I ask the Home Secretary to remind everyone that the two persons whom we are discussing are undoubtedly guilty of murder. Has there been a recommendation for compensation? If so, how much? How does it equate with any payments that may have been made to the parents of the young boy who was killed?

I support my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and ask the Home Secretary whether the language of the convention is being strained in this case. Should he not seek ways of impressing on the court that it should be wary of disturbing the practices and institutions of courts that have been established in democratic states by democratic bodies? If it goes on doing that, it will fundamentally undermine our respect for the convention and the court.

Mr. Straw

On the right hon. and learned Gentleman's first observation, I of course accept his wide experience, as someone who practises at the criminal Bar. There are significant differences between a trial in which a 16-year-old is the defendant—[Interruption.] No, we must consider this serious point as we take account of the judgment. There is a huge difference between 10-year-olds and 15 or 16-year-olds, some of whom pass for adults and are only a year from the age at which they are treated as adults for certain purposes of the criminal law under the Police and Criminal Evidence Act 1984. Indeed, only a few years ago, they were treated as adults for all purposes. This case has been made particularly difficult at all stages because the defendants were 10 when they committed the crime and 11 when they were convicted of it. I must also place it on record, as the court did, that the trial judge and everyone else made huge efforts to ensure that, within the framework of our criminal law and process, the two defendants were able properly to understand what was going on and not gratuitously intimidated by the process.

The right hon. and learned Gentleman asked me to say whether the two youths were undoubtedly guilty of those crimes. As he knows, that was the conviction of the court. I understand that there was no appeal against that conviction at the time to the criminal division of the Court of Appeal, and it is not affected by this morning's judgment. There was no recommendation for compensation because no compensation was claimed by the applicants or their representatives. The other point that he made should be the subject of wider discussion at another time and I refer him to my answer to the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard). I would add, however, that I believe that, had we incorporated the European convention into our domestic law some decades ago—that was resisted by parties on both sides of the House for quite a period—we would have achieved in practice greater benefit than we have from the margin of appreciation.

Mr. Eric Forth (Bromley and Chislehurst)

I echo the sentiments expressed by my right hon. and learned Friends the Members for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) and for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). Does the Home Secretary accept that, from time to time in a mature democracy and a mature judicial system, we have the right to review what has been, and that what may have been appropriate 50 years ago may no longer be appropriate? Surely this case and others could show that it may be time to review altogether our relationship with the convention and the court. It may now be inappropriate for a body sitting in another country and far from here, and with perhaps a completely different outlook on life, to intervene—albeit with our voluntary consent up to now—in the proper, mature and accountable dealings of our judicial system, supported by our democracy.

Mr. Straw

If the right hon. Gentleman wants to think about whether we should remain members of the Council of Europe, that is a matter for him. We cannot cherry-pick our international obligations. We are members of the Council of Europe, which, in my judgment, has been a huge force for human good and has reduced the risk of world war. There were two such wars in a generation in Europe and millions of people were killed. Applicant countries that have emerged from Soviet control are having to bring their judicial systems up to the standards set by the Council of Europe as a result of international obligations imposed on them. It is because of the international rule of law, from which this country benefits, that other Council of Europe members have also had to accept the decisions of the court—and they do accept them.

I—and Her Majesty's Government—have no proposals for withdrawal from the Council of Europe and its obligations. If the right hon. Gentleman wants to pursue the issue, that is a matter for him, but this is an argument in which he must engage within his own party. When his party was in government, it supported the convention, and supported the Council of Europe. His own shadow Lord Chancellor supported the incorporation of the convention into our domestic law when the Bill that became the Human Rights Act 1998 was going through the other place; and I remind him that, on Third Reading here, the Opposition Front Bench supported incorporation, and did not vote against it. I am pleased about that, because it demonstrated all-party support. As I explained to the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg), incorporation will enable us to ensure, over time, that the court is more sensitive in regard to our domestic law and traditions. The answer is not withdrawal from the Council of Europe.

Mr. Desmond Swayne (New Forest, West)

I have no appetite for arguing with my own party, but the right hon. Gentleman is the Secretary of State responsible for this matter. Will he consider the proposition that a perfectly proper and proportionate response to this judgment, and to a number of others, would be to conclude that the Council of Europe may have outlived its usefulness as far as the United Kingdom is concerned? [Interruption.] Such a conclusion might not be welcomed by certain Members who have made a career of the Council of Europe, but it would resonate among members of the public.

Mr. Straw

I do not accept that view, and I remind the hon. Gentleman that it was never taken by the Conservative Governments whom he supported. I will not detain the House, but there is a long list of occasions on which the House has been asked to introduce legislation to bring our domestic arrangements in regard to one part of the law or another into line with judgments against us in the Strasbourg court. Under the last Conservative Government, that ranged from changes made with regard to the interception of communications to changes in respect of discretionary life sentences, included in the Criminal Justice Act 1991, and changes contained in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997, passed in the dying days of that Government.

Mr. Vernon Coaker (Gedling)

This case raises huge issues that go to the heart of our judicial system and, indeed, our democracy, and one tends to worry about whether people fully understand all the ins and outs of the legal system. Will the Home Secretary consider how we might continue to engage the public in a discussion of questions arising from the case? Today's statement has made a welcome start, but, given the fundamental importance of many of the issues, I feel that we should think about how best to engage the public in a discussion of them and their consequences.

Mr. Straw

It remains an unfortunate fact that the public are too detached from the way in which our judicial system operates, which in turn leads to insufficient public confidence in our court system. There are a number of ways of dealing with that. One is through a thorough review of the way in which the courts operate. I am pleased to say that, on Tuesday, my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Chancellor announced just such a review, which is being undertaken by Lord Justice Auld, and which will take account of the implications of the Human Rights Act for the court system.

However, there is also the question of how we can involve victims more in the processes of the courts. We have to do that at every stage, whether victims have suffered a minor offence, or a grave crime, as in this case.

We have improved victim support funding. We are arranging for there to be victim and witness services at every magistrates court in the land. In addition, as I have made it clear to the House, we are looking carefully at how victim representatives can be involved in grave cases such as this.

Mr. George Stevenson (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

I welcome my right hon. Friend's measured response in this tragic case. Does he agree that all hon. Members should guard against the danger of giving the public the perception that we welcome European Court of Human Rights decisions that support the United Kingdom Government, but heavily criticise those that do not? Does he agree that such a perception, which may be held by the public in the light of some of the comments in the House today, could be dangerous?

Mr. Straw

As I have said, people have different views about the judgments. In a democracy, they are fully entitled to those views. In any event, I have to consider the judgments very carefully, but I have made the point that separation of powers, which is an essential feature of democracy, means that those in the Executive sometimes have to accept decisions that they may not find welcome.