Cameron backs 'life means life' sentences for murderers

prison European judges have said whole-life tariffs are unlawful as all sentences should be subject to review

Related Stories

David Cameron has said "life should mean life" as the government considers US-style 100-year prison sentences for murderers and serious offenders.

The prime minister's comments come as the Conservatives consider alternatives to "whole-life" sentences.

The government is looking at the plan after a European court ruled in 2013 that such sentences breached the European Convention on Human Rights.

The 100-year terms would allow sentence reviews, satisfying the court.

'Restore respectability'

The proposed change in sentencing regulations for England and Wales comes as Conservative ministers prepare to publish reforms to the UK's human rights laws.


The European Court of Human Rights has nothing to do with the European Union and nothing to do with Brussels.

It is based in Strasbourg in France and is part of the Council of Europe, an organisation with 47 countries as members.

This planned response was forced upon the UK government because of the court's ruling in summer 2013.

But the instinct among many Conservatives to be muscularly Eurosceptic means many want to go further.

Ideas are being kicked around in private, some of which will feature in the Conservative election manifesto in 2015.

Some 64 years on from the adoption of the European Convention on Human Rights, there is a feeling the court is now overreaching itself.

But dreaming up solutions both now and for the future is tricky - both politically and legally.

They want Britain's Supreme Court to have the final say in cases relating to human rights, rather than the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) in Strasbourg.

The ECHR ruled in July that whole-life sentences - allowed under English law - breached the European Convention on Human Rights because they did not include the possibility of a "right to review".

The government was given six months to respond to the decision, which Mr Cameron has said he "profoundly disagreed" with.

He told the BBC on Thursday: "There are some people who commit such dreadful crimes that they should be sent to prison.

"Life should mean life and whatever the European Court has said we must put in place arrangements to make sure that can continue."

One option now being considered by the government is a plan to allow judges to impose jail terms of hundreds of years, which would potentially allow offenders to have their sentences reviewed and reduced.

Policing minister Damian Green, who leads the committee responsible for drawing up reforms to limit the influence of the Strasbourg court on British life, told The Daily Telegraph: "British laws must be made in Britain. I want to restore the respectability of human rights."

The Prison Reform Trust's Juliet Lyon said the government was trying to "dodge complying with the Human Rights Act".

"It sounds like a dangerous nonsense," she said. "What it risks is further inflation in sentencing. People serving life sentences are serving three years longer than they did 10 years ago."

Human rights barrister Geoffrey Robertson QC said that sentencing people to hundreds of years of imprisonment was a "cruel and unusual punishment", and was contrary to the English Bill of Rights of 1689.

"There is a place for mercy," he added.

The government's move comes as the killers of murdered British soldier Lee Rigby, who was hacked to death outside Woolwich barracks in south-east London in May last year, await sentencing.

Mr Justice Sweeney said he would pass sentence on Michael Adebolajo, 29, and Michael Adebowale, 22, after a key Appeal Court ruling on the use of whole life terms later in January.

There are currently 52 criminals in England and Wales serving whole-life prison terms.

Juliet Lyon, Prison Reform Trust, said the plan "makes for a good new year headline, but it probably would make for a very bad law"

Elsewhere, Mark Bridger, 47, who was sentenced to life in prison in May for the murder of five-year-old Welsh schoolgirl April Jones, has lodged an application to appeal against his sentence.

His initial hearing at the Court of Appeal is scheduled for early 2014.

'Unduly lenient'

Ian McLoughlin, 55, who admitted killing Good Samaritan Graham Buck, 66, in Hertfordshire, while on prison day-release, was given a 40-year sentence in October.

Mr Justice Sweeney, who sentenced McLoughlin at the Old Bailey, said he was barred from passing a whole-life tariff because of the European judgment.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve is due to appeal against his sentence, describing it as "unduly lenient".

UK sentencing for murder

Guidelines according to schedule 21 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003:

  • A whole life order for "exceptionally" serious offences
  • 30 years for the murder of a police or prison officer on duty - and murders involving firearms or explosives; for gain; to obstruct or interfere with the course of justice; involving two or more persons; involving sexual or sadistic conduct; or aggravated by race, religion or sexual orientation
  • 25 years where the offender took a knife or other weapon to the scene
  • 15 years for all other offences

On the day of McLoughlin's sentencing, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling said whole-life tariffs should be available for "the most serious offenders".

"That is the position clearly stated in our law, and what the public expects. The domestic law on this has not changed."

Lawyers at the Ministry of Justice have confirmed they are looking at whether the law needs to be changed to allow judges to hand down more severe sentences.

Under the US system, very long prison sentences are often imposed by states as an alternative to the death penalty.

In August last year, Ariel Castro, who abducted three women and held them captive for more than a decade, was sentenced to life imprisonment without the possibility of parole, plus 1,000 years.

He was found hanged in his cell in Ohio in September.


More on This Story


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 918.

    As someone who has had a relative murdered, I'm personally disgusted by anybody who ever suggests the death penalty. An eye for an eye really doesn't work and in all honesty, unless someone is evil beyond measure, I wouldn't put most criminals past the chance of rehabilitation. Although I would not be against extra precautions taken against former-convicts like additional monitoring.

  • rate this

    Comment number 916.

    I agree with the possibility of US style convictions being implemented here. Too many in our prisons are repeat offenders and a lot of the sentencing is bloody pathetic when multiple sentences are run concurrently and not consecutively. If you want crime to be cut then you have to make the punishment fearsome. As for Human Rights, if you break the law you can't expect it to save you too.

  • rate this

    Comment number 843.

    While they're reforming things, they should also stop releasing people early for good behaviour. Instead, sentences should be lengthened for bad behaviour. Good behaviour should be expected and hence not rewarded, but bad behaviour punished by extending sentences. Although this might not change overall sentencing, I believe there's an important psychological distinction here.

  • rate this

    Comment number 681.

    For multiple offences, simply make the sentences consecutive instead of the pathetic notion of concurrent sentences. No need to change anything else.

  • rate this

    Comment number 279.

    For those saying that the current sentencing is not great enough for the families of the victims... Nothing will ever be enough.... It will not return their loved one...


Comments 5 of 11


More UK stories



Copyright © 2016 BBC. The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.