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Friday, November 05, 2010




Friday November 5,2010
By Ross Clark, Political Commentator

John Hirst is a demonstration why prisoners should be denied the vote

ANYONE tempted to sympathise with the European Court of Human Rights in its judgment that Britain must grant prisoners the vote must surely have been brought sharply back to earth with Wednesday’s appearance on the BBC Daily Politics show by John Hirst, the killer who brought the case against the Government.

As the details of his crime were read out – in 1979 he bludgeoned his landlady to death with an axe before making himself a coffee and waiting for her to die – he sniggered. After being allowed a triumphant tour of several other BBC studios he returned home and made a video of himself celebrating with a glass of champagne and a cannabis joint.

Hirst, jailed for life after admitting manslaughter due to diminished responsibility, is a demonstration not just of why prisoners should be denied the vote but of why life should mean life. Even after 25 years in jail he shows no remorse for what he did. He shows no sign of any sympathy for the family of Bronia Burton, the woman he bludgeoned to death, just a whining regard for his own rights. It is possible that Hirst may well soon be back in prison: Humberside police are investigating his claim to have smoked a joint in the YouTube video.

Evidence of having broken the law would be sufficient for the courts to revoke the licence under which he was released, leading to him being recalled to jail. But to send Hirst back inside would be only a small victory for common sense. It would do nothing to put right the terrible trick that has been played on the British public over the past half century.

WHEN the Commons voted for permanent abolition of the death penalty in 1969 after a five-year trial the then Labour government didn’t actually promise that “life will mean life” but that is what many people believed.

How were ordinary people not trained in legal language supposed to know that a “life” sentence was little more than a judicial joke? It soon transpired that “life” prisoners were serving an average of just nine years in jail. Jack Straw, home secretary during Tony Blair’s government, quietly boasted that sentencing policy was a “benign deception” of the public.

Of more than 10,900 prisoners serving life sentences in British jails just 35 have been given “whole life tariffs”, meaning that they really will die in jail. Jack Straw was right about the deception but wrong about it being benign. There is nothing harmless about the sight of a man who killed a defenceless woman popping up in TV studios 30 years later and smirking about her fate. It is a disgusting spectacle.

Few listening to the debate over the abolition of the death penalty on December 16 1969 would have imagined it would end up this way. The then home secretary Jim Callaghan reassured MPs that no one serving a life sentence could ever be released without the Home Secretary consulting the trial judge, the Lord Chancellor and a Parole Board made up of three High Court judges, all of whom had to agree that the prisoner had been rehabilitated and was highly unlikely ever to reoffend. How then have we ended up with a lifer being released when still so clearly unable to comprehend the gravity of what he did?

I am not sure that even the few whole life tariffs will survive for much longer: their abolition is the next great project for liberal lawyers. In July Peter Sutcliffe, the Yorkshire Ripper, lost a High Court challenge in which he demanded to be given a chance of seeking parole. He has now gone to the Court of Appeal and it won’t be a surprise if his case too ends up before the European Court of Human Rights.

Once more we face the prospect of sentencing policy for British prisoners being decided not by the people whom we elect but by a body of appointed judges in Strasbourg. The court has 47 judges, one for each member state, who take it in turns to sit on individual cases. Not all these countries, which include Russia and Turkey, show an obvious commitment to human rights. We could end up with the future of British penal policy decided entirely by judges trained in countries such as Bulgaria and Serbia where until quite recently governments were routinely murdering their political opponents.

DAVID Cameron says it makes him “physically ill” to have to give prisoners the vote but says Britain has no choice. Yes we do. In opposition he pledged to dump the Human Rights Act in favour of a British Bill of Rights, which would mean withdrawing from the European Court of Human Rights. It is one of several promises which went out of the window with the coalition agreement – the Lib Dems being keen supporters of the court.

The appearance of a jubilant Hirst on TV boasting of a judgment imposed on Britain from Strasbourg has caused such outrage that the Prime Minister simply must revisit this issue.

We have one of the oldest and most stable democracies and a legal system based on liberties going back 800 years. We have one of the best records on human rights of any country, being the first to abolish slavery and having liberated Europe from Nazism.

It is a disgrace that we have allowed the concept of human rights to become so debased that it leads to a killer such as Hirst raising a bottle of champagne to European judges.

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