HL Deb 06 March 2000 vol 610 cc794-6

2.44 p.m.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester asked Her Majesty's Government:

What efforts they have made to secure the worldwide abolition of the death penalty.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Scotland of Asthal)

My Lords, the Government oppose the death penalty in all circumstances. EU guidelines on death penalty démarches in third countries were agreed under our presidency, allowing us to raise both individual cases and capital punishment more generally. We have established a panel of independent experts to advise on practical steps to promote abolition. And we have led the EU efforts for a successful death penalty resolution at the UN Commission on Human Rights.

Lord Faulkner of Worcester

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that encouraging reply. In the light of her welcome commitment to support the European Union policy towards third countries which states that the death penalty, has no legitimate place in the penal system of modern civilised societies", will the Government intensify their efforts to secure its abolition throughout the Commonwealth? Is my noble friend aware that up to last Thursday no fewer than 19 people have been put to death in the United States this year—three of them juvenile offenders and one of them a 62 year-old great grandmother who had suffered a lifetime of sexual, physical and emotional abuse and whose other misfortune was to live in the state of Texas where the governor is a candidate for the presidency of the United States?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I can certainly reassure my noble friend that the Government are doing all that they can to raise the issue internationally. Noble Lords will know that 108 countries have now effectively abolished capital punishment and only 87 now retain it. As regards the United States, we have joined our EU partners on a number of recent démarches in relation to specific cases at state and federal level. We are particularly concerned about executions of those under the age of 18 at the time of the offence, executions of those who are mentally incapable and executions of foreign nationals. It is a matter which we are pursuing with great vigour with all our partners and with some success.

The Lord Bishop of Wakefield

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the consistent support which the majority of church leaders in this country have given to the Government's policy for the worldwide abolition of the death penalty? Does she share the concern of these Benches about the alliance of politics and religion which, in the southern part of the United States of America, so grotesquely perpetuates the use of the death penalty? In the light of the Government's earlier representations made to the US State Department in March 1999 and the ratification of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, will she say what other ways the Government have in mind to exert pressure on that religious and political alliance?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, first, perhaps I may say how grateful Her Majesty's Government are for the wholehearted support we have received from our Churches here. That has been extremely welcome. They have been a supportive element as opposed to a distraction. That is a benefit which not all legislators have enjoyed. I warmly thank the right reverend Prelate for raising that point.

We have done a great deal in the past two years to address the issue. Many noble Lords will know about the death penalty panel which brings together a number of academics. Regrettably, the noble Baroness, Lady Stern, is not in her place because she has participated in that work. The panel is looking very creatively at making recommendations to assist the Government to see how they can most advantageously exert pressure and encourage countries to come away from the use of the death penalty. We are extremely grateful for all the work that has been undertaken by that panel.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, now that our relationship with Iran has improved considerably and the Iranian elections have produced a Majlis far more inclined towards human rights, will the Minister and her colleagues in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office make fresh representations to the Iranian Government that they should not execute the three students convicted of offences in connection with the student disorders at the university last July?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I assure the noble Lord that we shall continue to raise human rights issues with Iran. Issues relating to human rights and the death penalty cause us a great deal of concern. We shall continue to pursue them wherever they arise.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, is the Minister aware that last year executions in the United States reached a 48-year high, rising by nearly 50 per cent from the previous year? Are the Government entirely satisfied with that state of affairs, bearing in mind that according to a Written Answer of 16th April last year, The Foreign Secretary's Death Penalty Panel"— to which the Minister referred— has … targeted the United States for action, and we are constantly reviewing the best way to tackle the US authorities over the death penalty"?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, I have said already that the matter causes us concern.

Considerable effort is going into the initiative. The noble Earl will know that it has been in existence since 1998. We have welcomed some recent improvements. For example, there is a moratorium in Illinois which highlights the practical problems associated with capital punishment. We welcome also the increased debate in the United States. Public awareness of the issues will be central to any change in policy. We are engaging in those matters. I do not hesitate to compliment the panel again because its work is incredibly valuable. We are taking its recommendations extremely seriously.

Lord Archer of Sandwell

My Lords, since the abolitionist resolution before the third committee was sabotaged last year, will we be seeking other methods of bringing the matter before the General Assembly?

Baroness Scotland of Asthal

My Lords, as I said earlier, we shall be engaging with our partners to try to ensure greater success than we have had in the past. We are extremely proud that, on the last occasion, the number of countries which joined with us in that endeavour rose significantly. We wish to pursue it and we shall continue to do so with great vigour.