Everyone deserves justice – even Ian Huntley

The one thing missing from all the coverage of the prison attack on the Soham murderer is sympathy.

"He will be living in a nightmare." This was how a former prison governor, speaking on Sky News this afternoon, described the kind of life that Ian Huntley will be leading in jail. The serious attack on the Soham murderer -- his throat was slashed by a fellow inmate at Frankland Jail on Sunday -- has attracted plenty of coverage, none of it (as far as I can see) tinged by the tiniest bit of sympathy for him.

As this Telegraph recap of his trial explains, "the latest attack on Ian Huntley recalls the revulsion" felt about him and his accomplice, Maxine Carr. "In the witness box he told a tissue of lies, meaning even at the end of the 30-day trial, he remained the only person to know why he committed the brutal murders."

No wonder, perhaps, that he has now been subjected to nine attacks, and has attempted suicide three times.

That Huntley should face the severest penalties the courts can impose is unarguable. It may be that many feel he would have got no more than he deserved if the cut had been fatal. But we do not have the death penalty in this country. We content ourselves with the idea that the deprivation of liberty, of choice, of contact with friends and loved ones, of the ability to have any control over most of one's actions, is sufficient punishment.

No one expects that this experience should be particularly enjoyable, which is why there are periodic rumpuses about prisoners being granted access to such luxuries as televisions, or being fed food that is considered too good for them.

However, as Peter Wilby writes in the current issue of the New Statesman, doing so with reference to the understandable desire for revenge of Denise Fergus, the mother of Jamie Bulger: "That is why we have a justice system that balances the retribution demanded by victims against mercy, the hope of redemption and a large dose of common sense."

Kudos for kicking an underdog

In a prison such as Frankland, the former governor explained this afternoon, Huntley will be at the very bottom of the pile. Other prisoners, such as armed robbers, granted the most "respect" by their peers, will gain further kudos from perpetrating attacks on one of these lowest of the low.

Hence the "living nightmare" he will be enduring. And I wonder how this can possibly be right.

The sentences the courts hand down are for periods of years, and the penal system allocates the category of prison appropriate for different convicts. I know of no clauses that suggest that part of the punishment for certain prisoners is that they should have to experience a particularly frightening time in jail, or that they should have to spend much of it in fear of their lives.

The crimes that Ian Huntley committed are so heinous that I cannot begin to understand how anyone could choose to do such things. It is indeed very hard to feel sympathy for such a man. But it is for the courts to pass judgment on men like him, and to set his punishment.

Unless we are happy for criminals to decide who then deserves further punishment -- and spending years in "a living nightmare" must surely constitute a cruel and unusual one -- we have to recognise that Ian Huntley has been the victim of a near-mortal attack, and that there is something very wrong with a prison system incapable of protecting him from that.

Any who reject this idea, or who just don't care what happens to him, have reached a conclusion that I find deeply chilling: that there are some people who no longer deserve justice, mercy and the chance of redemption. But if justice means anything, shouldn't it mean justice and equal protection under the law for all -- even Ian Huntley? Or have we quietly decided that when it comes to some of our fellow citizens, revenge and barbarity are perfectly acceptable?

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
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The 11 things we know after the Brexit plan debate

Labour may just have fallen into a trap. 

On Wednesday, both Labour and Tory MPs filed out of the Commons together to back a motion calling on the Prime Minister to commit to publish the government’s Brexit plan before Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. 

The motion was proposed by Labour, but the government agreed to back it after inserting its own amendment calling on MPs to “respect the wishes of the United Kingdom” and adhere to the original timetable. 

With questions on everything from the customs union to the Northern Irish border, it is clear that the Brexit minister David Davis will have a busy Christmas. Meanwhile, his declared intention to stay schtum about the meat of Brexit negotiations for now means the nation has been hanging off every titbit of news, including a snapped memo reading “have cake and eat it”. 

So, with confusion abounding, here is what we know from the Brexit plan debate: 

1. The government will set out a Brexit plan before triggering Article 50

The Brexit minister David Davis said that Parliament will get to hear the government’s “strategic plans” ahead of triggering Article 50, but that this will not include anything that will “jeopardise our negotiating position”. 

While this is something of a victory for the Remain MPs and the Opposition, the devil is in the detail. For example, this could still mean anything from a white paper to a brief description released days before the March deadline.

2. Parliament will get a say on converting EU law into UK law

Davis repeated that the Great Repeal Bill, which scraps the European Communities Act 1972, will be presented to the Commons during the two-year period following Article 50.

He said: “After that there will be a series of consequential legislative measures, some primary, some secondary, and on every measure the House will have a vote and say.”

In other words, MPs will get to debate how existing EU law is converted to UK law. But, crucially, that isn’t the same as getting to debate the trade negotiations. And the crucial trade-off between access to the single market versus freedom of movement is likely to be decided there. 

3. Parliament is almost sure to get a final vote on the Brexit deal

The European Parliament is expected to vote on the final Brexit deal, which means the government accepts it also needs parliamentary approval. Davis said: “It is inconceivable to me that if the European Parliament has a vote, this House does not.”

Davis also pledged to keep MPs as well-informed as MEPs will be.

However, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer pointed out to The New Statesman, this could still leave MPs facing the choice of passing a Brexit deal they disagree with or plunging into a post-EU abyss. 

4. The government still plans to trigger Article 50 in March

With German and French elections planned for 2017, Labour MP Geraint Davies asked if there was any point triggering Article 50 before the autumn. 

But Davis said there were 15 elections scheduled during the negotiation process, so such kind of delay was “simply not possible”. 

5. Themed debates are a clue to Brexit priorities

One way to get a measure of the government’s priorities is the themed debates it is holding on various areas covered by EU law, including two already held on workers’ rights and transport.  

Davis mentioned themed debates as a key way his department would be held to account. 

It's not exactly disclosure, but it is one step better than relying on a camera man papping advisers as they walk into No.10 with their notes on show. 

6. The immigration policy is likely to focus on unskilled migrants

At the Tory party conference, Theresa May hinted at a draconian immigration policy that had little time for “citizens of the world”, while Davis said the “clear message” from the Brexit vote was “control immigration”.

He struck a softer tone in the debate, saying: “Free movement of people cannot continue as it is now, but this will not mean pulling up the drawbridge.”

The government would try to win “the global battle for talent”, he added. If the government intends to stick to its migration target and, as this suggests, will keep the criteria for skilled immigrants flexible, the main target for a clampdown is clearly unskilled labour.  

7. The government is still trying to stay in the customs union

Pressed about the customs union by Anna Soubry, the outspoken Tory backbencher, Davis said the government is looking at “several options”. This includes Norway, which is in the single market but not the customs union, and Switzerland, which is in neither but has a customs agreement. 

(For what it's worth, the EU describes this as "a series of bilateral agreements where Switzerland has agreed to take on certain aspects of EU legislation in exchange for accessing the EU's single market". It also notes that Swiss exports to the EU are focused on a few sectors, like chemicals, machinery and, yes, watches.)

8. The government wants the status quo on security

Davis said that on security and law enforcement “our aim is to preserve the current relationship as best we can”. 

He said there is a “clear mutual interest in continued co-operation” and signalled a willingness for the UK to pitch in to ensure Europe is secure across borders. 

One of the big tests for this commitment will be if the government opts into Europol legislation which comes into force next year.

9. The Chancellor is wooing industries

Robin Walker, the under-secretary for Brexit, said Philip Hammond and Brexit ministers were meeting organisations in the City, and had also met representatives from the aerospace, energy, farming, chemicals, car manufacturing and tourism industries. 

However, Labour has already attacked the government for playing favourites with its secretive Nissan deal. Brexit ministers have a fine line to walk between diplomacy and what looks like a bribe. 

10. Devolved administrations are causing trouble

A meeting with leaders of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland ended badly, with the First Minister of Scotland Nicola Sturgeon publicly declaring it “deeply frustrating”. The Scottish government has since ramped up its attempts to block Brexit in the courts. 

Walker took a more conciliatory tone, saying that the PM was “committed to full engagement with the devolved administrations” and said he undertook the task of “listening to the concerns” of their representatives. 

11. Remain MPs may have just voted for a trap

Those MPs backing Remain were divided on whether to back the debate with the government’s amendment, with the Green co-leader Caroline Lucas calling it “the Tories’ trap”.

She argued that it meant signing up to invoking Article 50 by March, and imposing a “tight timetable” and “arbitrary deadline”, all for a vaguely-worded Brexit plan. In the end, Lucas was one of the Remainers who voted against the motion, along with the SNP. 

George agrees – you can read his analysis of the Brexit trap here

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.