Penal reformer Lord Longford dies, aged 95

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Lord Longford, the Labour peer and prisoners' rights campaigner who was ridiculed for championing causes such as the release of Moors murderer Myra Hindley, died last night, aged 95.

The seventh Earl of Longford, born Francis Aungier Pakenham, who was the oldest sitting member of the House of Lords, had continued to campaign zealously for Hindley and others despite his age.

While known mostly for those campaigns and for an anti-pornography crusade in the 1970s, he had a ministerial career that spanned 20 years, starting as a member of the 1945 Labour government.

Yesterday, his wife and family issued a statement through Chelsea and Westminster hospital, London where he died. It said: "It was a great life and he was a great man."

The second son of the 5th Earl of Longford and the great-grandson of Sir Robert Peel, he was born and brought up Conservative, Protestant and Unionist, but finished his life socialist, Catholic and an Irish Nationalist.

At Oxford University he shared digs with the future Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell, but was himself seen as one of the Conservative Party's future stars. While working at Conservative Central Office he met Elizabeth Harman, a prolific writer, whom he married in 1931. The couple had eight children but were struck by tragedy when their daughter Catherine was killed in a car crash, aged 23. Another daughter is Lady Antonia Fraser, the historical biographer.

Lord Longford converted to Labour after witnessing their supporters beaten by Oswald Mosley's followers in 1936. He changed his religion four years later after being invalided out of the Territorial Army. He failed to win a seat when he stood for Labour in the 1945 election but was made a peer and held several ministerial posts, including First Lord of the Admiralty. When Labour returned to power in 1964 he was made Leader of the Lords and helped to prepare a penal reform programme, including the abolition of capital punishment. He resigned in 1968 over the Government's refusal to raise the school-leaving age.

He was made a Knight of the Garter in 1972, the same year that his controversial Pornography Report – which challenged the prevailing liberal view that pornography was not damaging – was published. The report earned him the unwanted label Lord Porn, but it was his calls for parole for Hindley that earned him ridicule and condemnation.

The Prime Minister, who heard of Lord Longford's death while in Mexico, led the tributes last night. Mr Blair said: "He was a great man, a man of passionate integrity and humanity and a great reformer committed to modernising the law. I will miss him deeply."

The leader of Roman Catholics in England and Wales, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, the Archbishop of Westminster, said: "I remember Lord Longford as a great friend and a man not afraid to be different. He was an outstanding Christian witness. May he rest in peace."

The former Labour MP Tony Benn, who served in Harold Wilson's government with Lord Longford, said his support for Hindley should not be allowed to overshadow memories of his pre-war opposition to the appeasement of Hitler, and his work on the Beveridge reforms that led to the welfare state.

Juliet Lyon, the director of the Prison Reform Trust, said that Lord Longford had been a "remarkable" man who had not been afraid to stand up for his beliefs. "Lord Longford did cause controversy but that was because of his rooted belief in standing up for people he felt could not stand up for themselves," she said.

Of the peer's association with the Moors murderers and other criminals, she added: "He was able to distance people from the acts they had committed and still see them as part of the human race."

A funeral will be held at 11am on Friday, 10 August at Westminster Cathedral.

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