HC Deb 22 April 1970 vol 800 cc393-5
3. Mr. Gordon Campbell

asked the Secretary of State for Scotland whether he will now institute a review of the law relating to sentences for murder in Scotland, following the representations made to him by the hon. Member for Moray and Nairn.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. William Ross)

I have considered this matter in the light of the hon. Gentleman's representations and of the abolition of the death penalty, but I am not persuaded of the need for an examination by a committee of inquiry.

Mr. Campbell

Since the law on this matter is the same in Scotland as in England, as the Secretary of State recently confirmed in a Parliamentary reply, thus contradicting a wild statement made by one of his Under-Secretaries, why is the right hon. Gentleman not taking similar action to that of the Home Secretary, whom I see here? Has he noted the remarks by eminent members of the judiciary that judges ought to have power to give longer sentences instead of being restricted to the mandatory sentence for murder?

Mr. Ross

Yes, I have noted references by eminent authorities on English law to, I presume, English practice. But the hon. Member is wrong when he refers to the Home Secretary's committee. This is a standing committee, of which we have no equivalent in Scotland. It is going into the whole question of offences against the person, including definitions. The hon. Member should be the first to realise that the definition of murder in Scotland is much more satisfactory than is the definition of murder in England. It would be quite wrong for me, on the basis of problems in England, to set up such a committee in Scotland.

Mr. Dewar

Would my right hon. Friend accept that the circumstances in English law are very different in this case and that there is no need to " bandwagon " in the blatant way that hon. Members opposite are doing? Would he accept that there are, inevitably and properly, enormous variations in the time served under life sentences and that the only answer must be to have a mandatory life sentence, to mark the unique seriousness of the crime, combined with maximum flexibility to allow the authorities to take account of changing circumstances?

Mr. Ross

I constantly have Scots law under review. I am not deaf to any reasonable appeals which may be made to me, but I would ask hon. Gentlemen to appreciate that the procedures in Scottish courts, the verdicts in Scottish courts, and how these are reached, are all different. Let us not just trail on the heels of England.

Mr. Wylie

Does the right hon. Gentleman not accept, recognising that there are differences, that these are marginal in their effect and that the problem facing the criminal law in Scotland following the abolition of the death penalty is essentially the same as the problem in England?

Mr. Ross

The hon. and learned Gentleman should know that the problem has been there for some time—

Mr. Wylie

Since the abolition of the death penalty?

Mr. Ross

No. The problem has been there for some time. There have been no suggestions that we should have recourse to variable determinate sentences. If hon. Gentlemen opposite would examine it they will find that there are tremendous difficulties which may lead to public concern if, within this variation and taking into account the circumstances of a particular crime, we were to get four or five cases of murder in which the sentence could be two, three or four years' imprisonment.