HC Deb 26 July 1979 vol 971 cc1099-111

2.2 a.m.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor (Nantwich)

In turning from the motor industry to matters concerning the Home Office, I wish to draw attention to the problems resulting from long prison sentences. One of the advantages of speaking at 2 o'clock in the morning is that it reduces to a bare minimum the chances of any interruption from the Opposition Benches.

The matter that I raise is of great importance. The concern felt outside the House about the fate of criminals serving long sentences, and perhaps more particularly of their victims, has not been fully expressed in this Chamber. In particular, I regret that during the debate last week when the House decided against capital punishment the feeling of the people was not represented by the vote.

It goes without saying that one of the results of that decision is that the pressures of long prison sentences are a matter for urgent review. The figures for 1957 compared with those for 1978 speak eloquently in that direction. In 1957, 22 people were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the following year the total number serving such a sentence was 176. Last year 123 people—the highest number ever recorded in this country—were sentenced to life imprisonment, and the total currently serving such sentences is 1,389. To deal with such a problem, a new approach by the Government must be needed, together with new precautions.

I draw the attention of the House to two duties which the Government have when considering sentences of this nature. The first is the need to protect the public from those who have been caught and sentenced for murders committed. I do not believe that the present sentence of life imprisonment reflects a full appreciation of that need. Of the 387 people who have been released since 1969, there is only one person who has served over 20 years and only nine who have served over 15 years. I do not believe that such a sentence properly reflects the need to defend innocent people against those who have been convicted of terrible crimes.

I am particularly concerned about the pressures building up for even earlier release of prisoners than has hitherto been the case. I draw hon. Members' attention to two instances. Lord Longford has been bringing pressure to bear on successive Government for some time, asking for the release of Myra Hindley. I have read the transcripts of the trial of that lady and I would consider it an affront to the law of the land if she were to be released again, to continue the kind of activities in which she indulged before she was caught and sentenced. There were horrific tortures which she carried out on the children she murdered, and they cannot so easily be forgotten. Nor should the consequences of her release be lightly ignored.

I wish to refer also to another case, that of Mr. James Boyle. He was tried three times for capital murder and was convicted on the third occasion. Since his conviction he has been found guilty of several assaults on prison officers. He is currently being held in a special unit at Barlinnie prison. The Friends of the Special Unit, of whom Lord Longford is one, are attempting to obtain his early release. By some extraordinary method unknown to me, he succeeded in obtaining a three-quarters of an hour interview on BBC television, Scotland, on 24 July, when he had the opportunity of expressing criticism of the management of the prison and the movement of certain personnel, and when he was given more time than the Secretary of State for Scotland and the Shadow Secretary of State have had during the course of the past year.

I cannot allow this debate to pass without mentioning my feeling of horror at the lack of discretion currently being shown by the British Broadcasting Corporation in interviewing men such as James Boyle and that Irish terrorist who was interviewed in connection with the murder of Airey Neave. Although it is not strictly relevant to the debate, such irresponsible reporting cannot for ever be tolerated by this House. Some action must be taken at some time.

The second need arising from the consequence of long-term imprisonment is that of deterrence. Any prison sentence must be sufficient to deter others from killing. I do not believe that the figures I have quoted, dealing with the release in so short a time of those convicted and sentenced to life imprisonment, create such a deterrent.

I refer to the murder of the newspaper boy on his rounds in Staffordshire last year, when he went up to a house and surprised a team of burglars. It appears that when he got to the door he recognised one of the people involved in the robbery. Those people took him inside and murdered him in cold blood, using a shotgun. It seems that under current law the series of robberies which they have already committed has laid them open to sentences in excess of any sentence which they would be likely to serve if they were caught now and convicted of murdering that child. I do not believe that the penalties imposed by the law at the moment are adequate to provide that deterrent factor.

Mr. Martin Stevens (Fulham)

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is as important to impose sentences that are actually served as it is to impose sentences that are a deterrent to criminals who now carry and use knives, guns and other weapons but who 10 or 15 years ago did not, and commit crimes short of murder? Because of their practices, many thousands of our fellow citizens are afraid to leave their homes at night. I believe that more fear and terror are caused by the non-murderers than by the relatively few murderers. Should we not consider those problems together?

Sir N. Bonsor

I entirely agree with my hon. Friend. When I practised at the Bar, at the time when capital punishment was being heavily debated, I used to ask those whom I represented in armed robbery offences whether it would have made any difference to them if capital punishment had been the penalty for murder. Almost without exception they informed me that they would not have gone armed on their forays had that penalty been available to the courts. I appreciate that is not strictly the point of the debate, but if capital punishment cannot be introduced to provide that deterrent, I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Fulham (Mr. Stevens) that it is important that harsher sentences than are currently available should be provided to the courts.

That brings me to the four points that I want to ask my hon. and learned Friend to consider. The first is that adequate provision should be made from the funds available to the prison service to cater for the growing numbers of those falling into the category of life prisoners and those serving extremely long sentences.

Secondly, I believe that 17 prisons are considered fit for life sentence prisoners, and included in that number are some open prisons—notably Leyhill. I suggest that it is not right to have open prison facilities available to those who have been sentenced for murder.

Thirdly, I ask the Minister to consider altering the law so that it is open to a judge to direct that a life sentence should mean for the rest of natural life and that there should be no review of the sentence after the normal appeal procedure against sentence or conviction. That would act both to protect the public from callous criminals who commit brutal crimes of the kind of which I spoke earlier and to deter others from following that path.

Lastly, I ask that in any case in which a life sentence does not mean for the rest of natural life it should be open to the judge, as it is now, to recommend that a minimum term be served and that, as with the full life sentence, that sentence should not be open to review. So long as it is open to review, I believe it to be natural human nature for the criminal to believe that he will not have to serve the full term of imprisonment imposed by the judge.

The figures to which I referred and other available statistics show clearly that most convicted murderers are free within 10 or 12 years. I believe that the life of the Staffordshire newspaper boy could have been saved if harsher penalties had been available to the courts. The robbers whom he identified had nothing further to lose by his murder.

2.15 am
Mr. Keith Best (Anglesey)

I am obliged to you Mr. Deputy Speaker, for calling me. I hope that the absence of hon. Members in the Chamber has not been caused by the danger that I might speak. I noticed the Minister of State's assiduity in rising a moment ago, trying to pre-empt me in my comments. I assure him and the House that I shall be brief.

I share the sentiment of my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Sir N. Bonsor) that we should concentrate on the victims, rather than on the perpetrators, of crimes. It is generally held that too little emphasis is given to care and concern for the victim. However, we are discussing what should happen to the offender, and I shall restrict my comments to that aspect.

There can be no doubting the persuasive and sincere manner in which my hon. Friend put his arguments. I know that he holds a deep-seated view that the death penalty would be a deterrent in cases of murder and other violent crimes. Now that that matter is no longer before the House, my hon. Friend holds a deep and sincere view that life sentences should indeed mean life sentences and that that would be a deterrent to criminals.

I listened to our recent long and, at times, highly emotional debate on the restoration of capital punishment as one of the waverers. I had provisionally made up my mind some days earlier, but I had not thought deeply one way or the other and I listened carefully to all the arguments. One matter that manifested itself to my satisfaction was that nothing of a conclusive evidential nature was put forward to show that the death penalty was a deterrent to murder. That is why I went through the "No" Lobby in the Division.

Excepting my hon. Friend's personal experiences at the Bar, I have heard nothing in this debate to convince me that life sentences would be a deterrent to murder and other violent crimes. I would that the answer were that simple and that we had evidence that they might be a deterrent. It would make decisions in the House much easier, but I believe that that evidence is lacking.

We have to ask why we send persons to prison. I greatly respect the view that the principal reason for sending people to prison for murder and violent crimes must be the protection of the public. Many believe that rehabilitation is a prime function of the criminal penal process, but I take the view that the principal function must be the protection of the public. That is why we incarcerate people.

We in this country also glory in a system of justice which has yet to be bettered, to my satisfaction, by other systems around the world. It is a system which essentially is one of compassion, and one which takes into account the individual factors appertaining to the offender. It is not for this country to have a tariff of penalties which are inflexible and cannot be altered at all, notwithstanding the individual and very differing characteristics of the offenders who come before the courts. It is that element which is an essential part of our penal process—the ability to review from time to time the progress of someone who has committed foul crimes which justly excite the wrath and indignation of any right-thinking person.

I am ad idem with my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich in feeling that sense of wrath and indignation, especially in regard to the principal matters to which he drew the attention of the House. Surely the important thing, however, must be to be able to review those persons in prison to see how their progression is going. If we had an inflexible system under which, irrespective of the individual characteristics of the offender, he had to spend a determinate time in prison, that would throw our penal system into disrepute, because it would no longer take account of the individual characteristics of the offender.

It is a commonly held view that if a person is incarcerated for more than about 10 years, especially in rapidly changing times, it is a very difficult, it not impossible, for him to come back into society and lead a useful life. I do not wish to pitch the matter too highly. It is a contentious point, which is open to a great deal of debate. However, I suspect that there is some veracity in that view. In a world of increasingly changing dimensions, if one accepts that at some stage a prisoner must be released, there is a great deal to be said for the view that there is a danger that if he is incarcerated for too long he will find himself in an impossible position.

My hon. Friend has had experience at the Bar. I am still having that experience. He will have seen, as I presently see, the tragedy of those who are released from prison after long periods of incarceration and whose sole desire is to go back into prison because that is the only life which they have come to understand and they find it impossible to exist outside the prison system. That may well be a comment upon the failure of the resources within the prison system to accommodate people more for the life that they will meet outside. I say nothing about that this morning. Whether or not it be true, the fact remains that that is a danger of long periods of incarceration.

If we were to have a system under which people were imprisoned for life and that meant for life, we should throw the penal system into disrepute, because undoubtedly some of those people, however horrific the crime, at some stage later in their lives would otherwise be able to come back into society and make a positive contribution to the benefit of society, if only, perhaps, in atonement for the wrong that they had done.

In addition to that, however, I am greatly concerned with the concept of long periods of incarceration making it very difficult for people to rehabilitate themselves into society again. I hope that my hon. and learned Friend the Minister and my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich will bear in mind the fact that decisions to release persons who are sentenced to life imprisonment are not taken lightly. These decisions are taken after deep consultation with all concerned and after deep deliberation. Only then is a decision made, and that is the sensible way to approach the matter. Once again that proves beyond doubt that we have a penal system which, after a comprehensive review, still has reposing in its breast a degree of compassion that enables us to say that after a certain period a person may well be capable of leading a useful life outside in society.

There are other arguments, but they may seem trite, and for that reason I have not advanced them this morning. There are considerations such as the overcrowding of the prison population and the cost of keeping a person in prison, but they might cheapen the argument and are minor points. The gravamen of my argument is that we should take into account the individual characteristics of the offender and that the system should not change.

2.26 a.m.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Leon Brittan)

I greatly welcome the fact that my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich (Sir N. Bonsor) has chosen this topic for debate. In the wake of the decision that the House took last week, it is right that the question of the treatment and handling of persons sentenced to long terms of imprisonment, particularly those sentenced to life imprisonment, should be examined in the House, and I welcome the opportunity to express a view.

My hon. Friends the Members for Nantwich and for Anglesey (Mr. Best) both mentioned consideration of the victim. I believe that the whole House would agree that it is important to pay greater attention to the victim than perhaps has been done in the past. I draw to the attention of the House the measures announced by the Government earlier this week that will generally assist the victim. I have in mind the extension of the criminal injury compensation scheme and the change in policy in relation to compensation with regard to young offenders.

The debate has been mainly concerned with the treatment of those offenders sentenced to life imprisonment. In short compass in my hon. Friends' speeches we have seen the competing considerations that rightly apply when considering how to handle such cases. I hope that I shall not be accused of seeking to please in saying that both my hon. Friends are right in selecting the factors which they suggest are relevant. The difficult question is the balance that should be drawn between those factors, and that is the task of the Home Secretary of the day.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich that the prime duty of those concerned with handling life prisoners must be to protect the public to the maximum possible extent. I also agree that in considering the treatment of such offenders it is vital to bear in mind the deterrent effect. We must take into account the fact that if sentences for the gravest offences are known, or thought to be, too short, the deterrent effect will not be as adequate as the public are entitled to expect. I take on board the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey that we do not know precisely the deterrent effect of long prison sentences any more than we really know the deterrent effect of the death penalty, although everyone has his own subjective view on these matters.

The third factor that was prayed in aid by my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey is that our penal system as a whole should have as its prime consideration the need to protect the public and that a major consideration should be the deterrent effect of any penalties imposed, but that at the same time it should be a system which considers the individual and relates to the individual, both at the time of sentence and as time passes after sentence. That is the balance that has to be drawn.

Before analysing in slightly greater detail the way in which that balance is drawn at the moment, I want to refer to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich about pressures building up for earlier release. I hope that he will forgive me if I do not deal with the particular cases that he mentioned, especially as one of them relates to Scotland—a dangerous territory for even a former devolution spokesman to intrude upon. I hope that he will forgive me also if I do not comment on the actions of the BBC. They have been commented upon, in the case of at least one of the matters to which he referred, both by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, and anything that I added would be as nothing compared with those authoritative comments.

In the context of pressures building up for early release, I know that I am speaking for my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary in saying that he certainly has no intention of succumbing to pressures of the kind referred to by my hon. Friend and will continue to exercise his independent judgment in an attempt to balance the factors I have referred to and not in response to any kind of campaign that exists or may build up in the future.

My hon. Friend asked for two points to be considered. The first is adequate provision by the prison system in catering for the number of life prisoners that we have. The pressure on the prison system is great, but, at the same time, the special needs of life prisoners are recognised, and will continue to be recognised, both by the form of prison accommodation available and in the ratio of prison officers to prisoners in the handling of life prisoners.

The number of prisons regarded as appropriate for life prisoners is 22. I welcome the opportunity of making that clear. Under the provisions of section 61 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967 the Home Secretary may order the release of a life prisoner only if he is recommended to do so by the Parole Board and after consulting the Lord Chief Justice and, if he is available, the trial judge.

When a prisoner's release is being considered, the views of the judiciary are always put to the Parole Board with a full report on the prisoner's offence, his history before committing it, his behaviour in prison, and all other relevant factors. Whenever a case is considered by the Parole Board, one of the High Court judges among its members always takes part. If the Parole Board does not recommend a prisoner's release, the Home Secretary simply has no power to release him, and it is very rare for him to do so against the advice of the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge. He is not, however, bound to accept a recommendation for release and has on occasion felt unable to do so. Similarly, he is not bound by the views of the judiciary.

Under section 1 (2) of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965, the court in sentencing any person convicted of murder may recommend a minimum period for which that person should be detained before he is released. Such a recommendation is not binding on the Home Secretary, but clearly it will carry considerable weight whenever the question of release is being considered.

Turning to the matter relating to this raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich, although the power of recommendation exists, the judges make very little use of it, presumably because they do not wish to do so. Since the provision came into force, 1,205 persons have been convicted of murder in England and Wales, but only 99 minimum recommendations have been made for periods ranging from 10 to 35 years. In those circumstances, when the judges know that they are making a recommendation, and a recommendation only, and therefore need be inhibited in no way by any anxiety about such a recommendation becoming inappropriate as time goes on, so very few are made that one is bound to have reservations about extending the present system of recommendations.

In describing the system applied in considering the release of prisoners who are sentenced to life imprisonment, I hope that the House will share the view of my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey that release takes place only after the most careful and anxious consideration not just by the Home Secretary but by a whole range of people well qualified to do so, although in the last resort the release can take place only with the Home Secretary's approval and, indeed, direction.

In this connection, perhaps my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey did less than justice to my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich, although I know that he is well capable of looking after himself. In all fairness, he did not say that in all cases "life" should mean life. He suggested that the judge should have the power to make a direction to that effect. But even if that is the case—and even in the view of my hon. Friend there are cases in which life prisoners ought to be released—it is a little difficult to say if that is accepted, as he accepts it, that there should be no use of open prisons for life prisoners.

If we are envisaging the release of a life prisoner, even after a long period of time—especially after a long period—that is a process which must be embarked upon with considerable care if it is not to lead to the dire consequences which we are all determined to avoid if remotely possible. Plainly, the transition from imprisonment in conditions of full security to the world at large is a sharp and brutal one, and the chances of such a transition abeing successful are small. If life prisoners are to be released at all, even with the most careful safeguards and after substantial periods of imprisonment, the chances of success are much greater in most cases if they serve a period in an open prison and possibly afterwards on the pre-release employment scheme in hostels, and so on.

Sir Nicholas Bonsor

I should like to make it clear that I was referring only in that part of my speech to those who were serving full life sentences. I was not attempting to imply that those who were to be released should not go through a period of rehabilitation.

Mr. Brittan

I am grateful to give my hon. Friend the opportunity to clarify that point. I am not surprised to hear what he says. There is no disagreement between us. On the whole, with rare exceptions, life prisoners are not put into open prisons unless that is to be regarded as some mark of a move towards a situation in which release can be considered, although it is in no sense a guarantee of release.

When one talks about the release of life prisoners, one must remember that a life sentence prisoner is released on a licence which remains in force for the remainder of his life and can be revoked at any time if his conduct gives cause for concern. If it does, he is recalled to prison to continue his life sentence and his release again is subject to the same conditions and procedures as the initial release of a life sentence prisoner. In the period from 1969 to 1978, 68 life licensees were recalled to prison. Even since I have come to the Home Office I have had to give anxious consideration to the recall of life prisoners. At present 31 recalled life prisoners are detained in prison, and have been so detained for periods ranging between six weeks and 24 years.

Each life sentence case is considered on its merits, as my hon. Friend the Member for Anglesey would wish. One takes into account the nature of the offence, the man's response in prison, the degree of risk to the public and the arrangements that can be made for him after he is released. The overriding consideration, as my hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich would wish, is the degree of risk, since the protection of the public, in all respects, is one of the Home Secretary's primary responsibilities. It is impossible ever to be absolutely sure that there will be no future risk, but a decision to recommend the release of a life sentence prisoner is not taken lightly by the Parole Board and no Home Secretary would release such a prisoner unless he was as satisfied as it is reasonably possible to be that the degree of risk was minimal. That is the policy which my right hon. Friend will be following.

My hon. Friend the Member for Nantwich, as I said at the outset, has done a great service to the House and the public. In the wake of last week's debate he has given the Government the opportunity to restate their policy in this area and to make clear that any suggestion that life imprisonment is some sort of soft option, gradually whittling away, is mistaken. As the period since the abolition of the death penalty has increased, the average period served by a life prisoner in prison has tended also to increase. The paramount need to protect the public will continue to be the major consideration in the handling of cases of this kind.