Page last updated at 13:44 GMT, Friday, 16 May 2008 14:44 UK

Torture payout bill moves forward

Former Labour Solicitor General Lord Peter Archer led the second reading debate

A new law which would allow victims of torture to sue torturers in UK courts is being considered by Parliament.

The Torture (Damages) Bill would bring in an exception to the 30-year-old State Immunity Act which gives foreign states immunity from prosecution.

Bill supporter, former Lord Chief Justice Lord Woolf, said the UK needed to show it took torture seriously.

The bill was given a second reading in the House of Lords but as a private member's bill is unlikely to be passed.

The act makes it virtually impossible for someone to take even civil action for damages against a state which tortures that person.

If the bill became law, it would extend the exceptions made for certain situations in the act.

'Blanket protection'

Lord Woolf said more than 1,000 people could be affected.

He said: "The trouble with our law at the present is not only does it make a blanket protection for foreign states, it also provides blanket protection for a very wide definition of what is state action.

Any attempt to seize the property or assets of a state would be particularly controversial and would be liable to lead to potential retaliatory action against UK interests
Lord Hunt
Justice minister

"Often torture is committed by fairly junior officials of the country concerned.

"In my view it is very important that we send a message that this country really is against that sort of conduct.

"What this [the bill] does show is that this country does take torture seriously and all too often we are preventing justice being done in cases where the citizen would think it should be done."

In the House of Lords debate, Lord Woolf described the backbench measure as an "excellent initiative".

But junior justice minister Lord Hunt warned: "Any attempt to seize the property or assets of a state would be particularly controversial and would be liable to lead to potential retaliatory action against UK interests."

The minister went on: "A unilateral action, in the manner proposed in this Bill, might also be significantly damaging to the international relations of the UK."

The bill is being introduced by former Labour Solicitor General Lord Peter Archer, and other supporters include former Chief Inspector of Prisons Lord Ramsbotham.

BBC News political correspondent Iain Watson says the bill is primarily going to be seen as a campaigning tool for anti-torture protesters.

He added that it was unlikely the government would give up Parliamentary time for the bill because it would be tricky if someone wanted to sue a foreign state which was an ally of the UK.


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