HL Deb 03 November 1999 vol 606 cc879-81

3.12 p.m.

The Earl of Longford

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their response to the recommendation of the Chief Inspector of Prisons regarding the two boys convicted of the murder of James Bulger.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, none. As your Lordships will know, Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons has apologised unreservedly for speaking publicly on matters which were outside his responsibilities and specifically in relation to cases in which the Home Secretary acts in a quasi-judicial role. I remind noble Lords that there has been an injunction in force since 1993 which imposes stringent reporting restrictions on this particular case. Noble Lords will therefore understand why I cannot be drawn on the details of the case. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary proposes to consider the question of the boys' tariffs when he has reflected on the forthcoming judgment of the European Court of Human Rights in this case and other relevant information.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I wonder if I may be allowed to welcome the new Minister to his difficult task. I hope that he will never have a more difficult case to defend than this one. Is the Minister aware that the Chief Inspector's report—I admire the Home Secretary and the Chief Inspector; indeed, I admire all concerned, leaving out the personalities—is in line with the original recommendations of the trial judge? Is he further aware that the Home Secretary, no doubt on false information, increased the tariff from eight to 15 years, and that his decision was duly found unlawful by the House of Lords?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, before I respond to the Question, I should perhaps congratulate the noble Earl. I understand that it is his 68th wedding anniversary. He and his wife are to be congratulated on that long sentence of achievement.

Noble Lords

Hear, hear!

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the issue of tariffs is entirely a matter for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary, who will reflect on it carefully after he has considered the judgment of the European Court of Human Rights, which, I understand, is to be delivered in the next two to three months.

Lord Laming

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the recent publicity given to the matter has been extremely damaging for all concerned, including the parents of James Bulger? Does the Minister further agree that the matter should now be left to the proper authorities?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I entirely agree with the noble Lord. I believe that it is absolutely a matter which should be left to the proper authorities. I do indeed believe that the resultant publicity has been most unfortunate.

Lord Hooson

My Lords, does the Minister agree that whether or not the Chief Inspector of Prisons went beyond his remit in giving an off-the-cuff opinion—as he appears to have done—he nevertheless raised an important question? That is whether it is in the public interest as well as in the interest of these boys that they should be committed later to prison, which, as many of us know, is the university of crime. Is it not right for that question to have been raised in that way so that the Home Secretary will have to consider it regardless of the opinion of the European Court of Human Rights?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I have already made the point about the question of tariff. It would be wrong if I commented on that matter today. I shall simply state that Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons has been reminded that he needs to keep strictly within the remit of his job. I believe that all Members of the House will welcome the fact that the Home Secretary reminded him firmly of that yesterday.

Lord Merlyn-Rees

My Lords, I do not wish to become involved in a debate of the problem of the tariffs and the quasi-judicial functions of the Home Secretary. However, the implications of the Chief Inspector of Prisons becoming involved in this case go rather wider. He implies that the conditions in young offenders' prisons are poor, not only for these young men, but for others. What is the Home Office now going to do about picking up the Chief Inspector's words and considering carefully the young offenders' prisons, some of which are in an extremely poor state?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I quite understand and appreciate the noble Lord's comments and observations. He is very experienced in these matters. However, we have the utmost confidence in our young offender institutions. We believe that they are models and centres of excellence. That is not a matter on which Her Majesty's Chief Inspector of Prisons has a remit to comment. That is a matter for other bodies to determine.

Lord Northbourne

My Lords, does the Minster agree that, in a case such as this, the guiding consideration should not be retribution but the safety of the public and the rehabilitation of the young people concerned?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I believe that incarceration perhaps covers all three of those matters. Rehabilitation is desirable, but I believe that the public expect a degree of retribution also.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, the Minister's response to the noble Lord, Lord Merlyn-Rees, was that it was entirely inappropriate for the Chief Inspector to make the comments that appeared in the New Statesman. Does he not agree that it is entirely appropriate, however, for the Chief Inspector to comment on young offender institutions and on the state of such institutions?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Chief Inspector is entitled to do so—that is exactly the case. We read his reports with great care and great interest, as I am sure do most Members of your Lordships' House.

Lord McNally

My Lords, is the Minister aware that another aspect which arose at the time of the Mary Bell case is the irresponsibility of the British media in handling such matters? This recent example, in both the New Statesman and the Sunday Mirror, shows that the press have learned no lessons from that case and that we cannot expect any greater sense of responsibility from them unless the Government make a strong stand. I see the noble and learned Lord the Attorney-General whispering in the Minister's ear. He knows well how irresponsible the press were, and how irresponsible they will be in the future unless we get in first and stop them.

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord makes an important and telling point and observation. It is for that reason that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary and I believe that in this instance the comments of the Chief Inspector of Prisons were highly inappropriate and misdirected. There is no point in giving the media extra fuel to add to that particular fire.

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