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Tuesday, 28 May, 2002, 14:57 GMT 15:57 UK
Blunkett vows 'life will mean life'
Dennis Stafford
Stafford's case will pave the way for other challenges
Home Secretary David Blunkett has vowed to ensure that murderers sentenced to "whole life" prison tariffs will not be freed.

The European Court of Human Rights on Tuesday overruled the power of his office to keep life inmates in jail after they had served their minimum sentence.

This prompted speculation that murderers such as Myra Hindley could use the ruling to attempt to end their prison sentences.

But Mr Blunkett said he would use all domestic legislation to "enshrine the power of Parliament to provide adequate punishment for the guilty - including life meaning life".

Michael Caine in Get Carter
Michael Caine starred in the film based on Stafford's life

He added: "We will study today's judgment in detail. My overarching priority will remain protecting the public from dangerous offenders, while doing everything we can to assist and support victims and their families.

"It is crucial that jurisprudence does not interfere with this basic right on behalf of the elected government."

The judges in Strasbourg ruled that former home secretary Jack Straw breached the human rights of convicted murderer Dennis Stafford by keeping him in jail longer than recommended by the Parole Board.

They said the power of a government minister to overrule the Board was used illegally.

Impact of devolution

Mr Stafford, from County Durham, was awarded nearly 10,500 damages and 17,865 in legal costs and expenses.

The barrister who took the case to Strasbourg is Edward Fitzgerald QC, who also represents other life inmates including Myra Hindley - she has been told she will never be freed.

Tuesday's unanimous ruling will force a review of the UK's Criminal Justice Act of 1991, under which Mr Straw decided to extend Mr Stafford's prison term.

Sentencing

Under current terms, when a prisoner serving the mandatory life sentence has served their minimum term, or tariff, the Parole Board recommends whether or not they should be released.

In England, Wales and Northern Ireland, the home secretary has had the power to overrule this recommendation.

However, the law in Scotland had already been changed so that Scottish ministers no longer have a say in sentencing.

The Scottish courts have been carrying out a review of the sentences of 500 murderers, dealing with about 10 cases a week.

Under the new legislation, judges give each convicted lifer a punishment period.

It is then up to the parole board to decide whether offenders are released at the end of that period, or whether they are still a risk to public safety.

Ruling 'disgusting'

Independent Labour peer Lord Stoddart described the European court ruling as "outrageous" and Norman Brennan, from the Victims of Crime Trust, told BBC News 24 it was "disgusting".

Mr Brennan said: "Let's look at this individual - he is a murderer and he has served 12 years... and got more money in compensation than any of our relatives of, or victims of, crimes.

"If somebody is a danger or poses a danger it should not a weak, liberal parole board letting them go free."

Stafford, 69, was freed on licence in 1979, after serving 12 years of a life term for murder.

He and his friend Michael Luvaglio were jailed for life in 1967 for the Newcastle clubland killing that inspired a book and the film Get Carter, starring Michael Caine.

Luvaglio's solicitor, Sir David Napley, went to his grave convinced that the conviction was a gross miscarriage of justice.

Refused

In his memoirs he picked large holes in the prosecution's case and highlighted errors by the judges in the three subsequent appeals, all of which were unsuccessful.

Stafford was detained again in 1989 for breach of conditions and released again in 1990.

In July 1994, he was convicted of cheque fraud and sentenced to six years imprisonment.

When the Parole Board said it was safe to release him again, Jack Straw, refused to do so.

But the European Court of Human Rights ruled the decision should have been made at a legal hearing, rather than by a politician.

Lawyers for Stafford brought the case under Article 5 and 1 - the right to liberty and security - of the Convention.

Shadow home secretary Oliver Letwin said the Tories want the home secretary to retain the right to overrule the Parole Board in specific cases involving murderers.

He added that his party believed "it would be wrong for the European Court to prevent the home secretary from making such a judgment".

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 ON THIS STORY
The BBC's Margaret Gilmore
"The ruling means convicted killers... could be released"
Prisoners' Rights solicitor Simon Crighton
"The real impact of this case is on procedures"
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