§ Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. MacKay.]7.40 pm
§ Mr. Nigel Waterson (Eastbourne)
I am grateful for the opportunity to have this debate. It is a particular pleasure that the Minister of State will answer the debate, as, by a strange quirk of fate, he answered the debate in which I made my maiden speech a couple of years ago when he was in a previous incarnation.
As Members of the House, we are all used to holding regular surgeries. We deal with a variety of problems for our constituents; some serious, some less so. But in my two years as a Member of Parliament, I have not had such a depressing interview as that which took place in my surgery earlier this year.
I received a visit from Mr. and Mrs. Vaill, the father and stepmother of Alex Vaill. They told me of his tragic and early death. Alex was 23 when he died, and was much loved by his family. He enjoyed all types of sport including tennis, football and cricket. He excelled at school, and went on to read mathematics at Durham university. He was studying for his exams as an actuary when he was killed. He was due to get engaged.
In short, he was a talented, hard-working and responsible young man with his whole life stretching before him. Then, tragedy struck. On Friday 9 April last year, which happened to be Good Friday, Alex had been out for a couple of beers with a friend in Sutton, where he lived at that time. They left a pub in Sutton High street and dropped into a nearby McDonalds to buy some takeaway food.
Further down the street, they were accosted by a man called Graham Langley. He had obviously been drinking, and demanded that Alex Vaill give him one of his chips. This demand was politely declined, but that was not enough for Langley. Three eye-witnesses agreed that he was spoiling for some sort of incident. Alex and his friend began to walk away, and they were followed by shouted insults from Langley. He then attacked Alex and his friend, punching both of them to the ground.
Alex's skull was fractured and he was rushed to hospital. Four days later, he died peacefully after his family had agreed to turn off his life-support machine when doctors told them that there was no hope of his recovering. A young and blameless life had been snuffed out.
What of Alex's attacker? The contrast could not have been greater. Langley had a string of previous convictions, a number of them for violence. I understand that he was out of prison on licence at the time of this attack. Both in and outside prison, he was a keen body-builder and, as a result, is very powerfully built. People who have known him over the years in Sutton have contacted me to talk of his viciousness from an early age. You might ask yourself, Mr. Deputy Speaker, what he was doing roaming our streets at all.
I cannot do much better than to quote from Langley's own defence counsel, who said:Mr. Vaill in his short life was a better man than the defendant has ever been or was ever likely to be.I think that we can agree with that sentiment.
Langley was duly charged with the murder of Alex Vaill, and with inflicting grievous bodily harm on his companion. That seemed to be the appropriate charge. In 81 the ordinary way, one would have expected the imposition of a life sentence, although I shall have more to say about the effect of that later.
However, this was not to be. In due course, the Crown Prosecution Service accepted a guilty plea to the lesser offence of manslaughter. On Friday 25 February this year, Langley was sentenced at the Old Bailey to five years in prison. My understanding is that he is likely to serve only 30 months and, as he has been held in custody since April 1993, we may expect his return to our streets in September 1995.
There have been other recent cases that have raised this sort of issue. One will recall in particular the case of Jonathan Roberts, where a shoplifter killed his pursuer. My hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Streeter) has asked me to associate him with my remarks this evening.
I need hardly dwell on the effect of all this on Alex's family. In Alex's father's words,the effect on our lives has been devastating. We are ordinary people, yet Alex was special.He is sorely missed by his father, mother, stepmother, brother and sister. In short, the lives of his family and friends will never be the same again. Nor is this simply because of the natural process of grieving. They are also outraged and uncomprehending at the lightness of the sentence on Alex's killer.
The case raises a number of important questions about the workings of the criminal justice system. The first is whether the system of releasing prisoners on licence is being operated properly. Langley had a long record of violence and I should be interested to know what signs of remorse or of a change of character he showed which were sufficient to justify his release on licence. I am sure that the Minister will realise that if Langley had finished his full term, Alex Vaill would still be alive today. Recently, we saw that a number of convicted killers who were released from jail have gone on to commit 72 murders in this country in the past 30 years.
The second major question is the extent to which plea bargaining in such serious cases should be encouraged or permitted. The third question is the appropriateness of the sentence itself.
One of the first things that I did when I was made aware of this tragic case was to contact the Attorney-General to see whether there was any prospect of appealing against the sentence. The House will be aware that this Government introduced the possibility of the prosecution appealing against over-lenient sentences.
The matter was duly considered by my hon. and learned Friend the Solicitor-General, who duly wrote to me on 29 March this year. He said:It would only be in the most exceptional cases that it could be proved beyond reasonable doubt that in throwing a single punch the defendant intended to kill or cause really serious harm.Pausing there, it is interesting that an intent to cause "really serious harm" could be enough. In the event, Langley was sentenced also to two years to run concurrently for causing grievous bodily harm to Mr. Vaill's companion. I wonder whether this should have been a factor. The Minister may be able to enlighten me on that aspect also.
The Solicitor-General went on to say:A prosecution can only continue if there is a realistic prospect of conviction. There was no realistic prospect of convicting Langley of murder.My hon. and learned Friend went on to talk about the advice of senior lawyers involved in criminal law, and said 82 that the Criminal Justice Act 1988 gives the Attorney-General the power, in certain cases, to appeal against over-lenient sentences.
He concluded:After very careful consideration, and in the light of the guidance given by the Court of Appeal for offences of this kind, I am unable to say that the sentence was so lenient that it fell outside the range of sentence available to the judge.Subject to anything that my hon. Friend might say, it seems that I must accept the judgment of those more practised than myself in criminal law that it was appropriate to accept the plea of manslaughter.
The Solicitor-General went on to refer to the power under the Criminal Justice Act 1988 and reached the conclusion that I have quoted. That was obviously a considerable disappointment both to me and to the Vaill family.
As I understand the position, what we are talking about is the so-called tariff for a particular crime. The Court of Appeal lays down guidelines for sentences appropriate for crimes based on their seriousness. A glance at Thomas's "Current Sentencing Practice" is informative. While it points out that the maximum sentence for involuntary manslaughter is life imprisonment, it sets out several cases similar to the Vaill case in which sentences range from seven years down to 12 months. On that basis, one has to accept that the sentence on Langley was well within the tariff range. But the question then arises whether the current tariff is appropriate.
I am told that one of the difficulties is that so-called life sentences nowadays mean an average of only 12 years incarceration. One can readily see the problem. The whole range of sentences is pushed downwards as a result. My hon. Friend the Minister knows my view that capital punishment should be reintroduced in certain circumstances. That is not the issue this evening. However, I believe that there is a growing case for making a life sentence mean what it says. That, in turn, would allow the range of lesser sentences for lesser offences to be pulled generally upwards.
Perhaps the truth is that we need to review our attitude to punishment. In the case of Regina v. Sargeant in 1974, the Court of Appeal laid down four principles to be applied in sentencing: retribution, deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation.
Deterrence is naturally an important factor in any punishment. It is designed not only to deter the offender in future but to be an example to others who might be similarly tempted. Prevention must also be important so that the punishment can assist in protecting the public. At its simplest, locking away a persistently violent offender will at least ensure that he commits no further offence while inside.
I shall not dwell in detail on rehabilitation. In a sense, some of our problems stem from an over-emphasis on that aspect of punishment in recent years. Retribution is not simply a repetition of the old lex talionis, "An eye for an eye; a tooth for a tooth". It means that the punishment should be proportionate to the harm done. The historical basis is the replacement of the self-help system in primitive societies, for example the vendetta, by systems of state-administered justice. In other words, the state can rely on the support of its citizens for its criminal justice system only if it imposes sentences that take account of the natural desire of those citizens for retribution.
83 An extreme example of a case that cried out for the highest penalty was the moors murders. As Lord Justice Denning, as he then was, said in 1953:The punishment inflicted for grave crimes should adequately reflect the revulsion felt by the great majority of citizens for them. It is a mistake to consider the objects of punishment as being deterrent or reformative or preventive and nothing else … the ultimate justification of any punishment is not that it is a deterrent, but that it is the emphatic denunciation by the community of a crime".Another quotation is from Justice Cardozo in his "Selected Writings". He said:The thirst for vengeance is a very real, even if it be a hideous thing; and states may not ignore it until humanity has been raised to greater heights than any that have yet been scaled in all the long ages of struggle and ascent".Whatever the reasons for it, I have little doubt that the sentence of five years for the unprovoked killing of Alex Vaill is inadequate. Nothing will persuade me to the contrary. There is something rotten in the state of British justice when sentences of this absurd leniency are meted out by judges for the crime of snuffing out innocent life. There is a natural sense of outrage felt by individual citizens when they read of such cases. For them, justice has not been seen to be done.
The Government have rightly pledged themselves to redress the balance of the scales of justice away from the criminal back towards the victim. Patently, in cases like this, we have not yet fully succeeded. We must give judges the powers that they need so that tough sentences are seen to be the norm for vicious acts of extreme violence. Society needs to know that the punishment will fit the crime, and when a life sentence is imposed, it must mean exactly what it says. I fear that if we do not tackle these serious issues soon, the support of the ordinary citizens of Britain for the law will ebb away.
§ The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. David Maclean)
I should like to start, if I may, by offering my condolences to Mr. Vaill's family. Nothing that I can say here will compensate for their tragic loss or for the suffering that they have endured. They have my deepest sympathy and, I am sure, that of every Member of the House. As my hon. Friend will appreciate, as a Minister of the Crown, I cannot comment on the decisions taken by the various parties involved in this case, or on the sentence passed by the court.
What I can attempt to do tonight is to explain the way in which the law works in homicide cases and to assure the House and those outside that the Government are determined to do what they can to ensure that those whose action leads to another's death are dealt with appropriately.
As my hon. Friend will know, under our law there are two distinct homicide offences—murder and manslaughter. Both offences cover actions that result in the unlawful death of another person. The purpose of having two separate offences is to cover different degrees of culpability. Murder is, in our view, a unique offence and it carries a mandatory life sentence as a result. My hon. Friend knows my view; I approve of capital punishment for those found guilty of murder.
The law requires that for a conviction for murder, there must be an intention to kill or to do serious bodily harm. That is a high threshold of intention, and rightly so. I can 84 well understand the strength of feeling of those who have lost loved ones through the actions of another; where the action has been deliberately taken with the intention to kill or seriously injure, the perpetrator is rightly called a murderer and, in the absence of capital punishment, that murderer could spend many years or, indeed, the rest of his life in prison.
But many deaths are not legally murder and cannot be charged as such. If murder is not the appropriate offence, the law on manslaughter becomes relevant. There are two broad categories of manslaughter. The first covers cases where there was an intention to kill or do serious harm, but the culpability of the act is reduced on grounds of provocation or diminished responsibility. In such cases, a conviction for manslaughter is possible and the sentence is left entirely in the hands of the trial judge.
The second category covers cases in which death follows a person's actions, but there was no intention to kill or do serious harm. For a conviction of manslaughter within this category, it is necessary to prove that death is the result of an unlawful act which a reasonable person would think would put the victim at the risk of some harm—not necessarily serious harm—or it must be the result of an act of gross negligence.
Where a person commits an assault, without intending to kill or do serious bodily harm, and his victim dies as a result, it is clear in law that manslaughter, not murder, is the offence for which he is liable. I am sure that that is a sensible path for the law to tread. It is not that the law excuses assaults or undervalues the innocent victim's life. However, it would be impossible to justify treating as murder cases in which death was an unforeseen and, on any reasonable and objective view, an improbable consequence.
Taking that as a sensible starting point for the definition of the offence is not to imply that some manslaughter cases will not still involve a high degree of culpability on the defendant's part and deserve long custodial sentences. The loss of any life is always serious. It is simply that the unintended consequences of an unlawful act cannot be the only measure of seriousness. Indeed, as a matter of natural justice, they should not be the principal measure.
It is worth studying the matter from another perspective and considering an example. Let us take an example of a person luckily escaping a deliberate attempt on his or her life—the bullet just misses its target, or the assault occurs only minutes away from a major hospital, which saves the victim's life. That is still attempted murder and the perpetrator should not be treated with leniency as a result. Of course not. We are rightly concerned that the sentence should reflect the evil of what the perpetrator intended to do.
The same principle applies when the consequences of an unlawful act go far beyond their intention or a reasonably foreseeable outcome. The recent Scarlet case involved a licensee who pushed a drunk out of his pub. The drunk fell, cracked his head and died. The licensee had no intention of killing and nor could he reasonably foresee that a push would result in death. He was rightly not charged with murder.
The penalty passed by a court for manslaughter depends on a wide variety of circumstances. The maximum penalty, which reflects the seriousness of the worst cases, is life imprisonment, but there is no mandatory sentence and nor—quite properly—is there any certainty of imprisonment in every case. The courts will consider carefully the 85 circumstances of the case when deciding the right sentence. They should consider the defendant's intentions and what he could reasonably have foreseen, as well as the consequences of his actions.
I stress to my hon. Friend and to the House that sentencing in each case is entirely a matter for the courts, within the limits set by Parliament and the common law. It is not for me, any other Minister or the Executive. It is not the Government's business to comment on what the courts do in that respect. Clearly, it is important that sentencing is consistent and informed by a reasonable and defensible philosophy. The courts, including the Court of Appeal, over time have naturally established a range of precedents and guidelines for types of cases, attempting to apply just such a consistent approach.
Of course, the courts must be responsive to public opinion and, from time to time, their approach will change as a result. If we were seriously asking them to forgo a fundamental reliance on intention as a prime measure of seriousness, it would be a matter for Parliament to decide. We are not saying that, and nor did my hon. Friend intend to ask for it. The Government do not intend to make that sort of change.
We must recognise that judges are not infallible either. Where an unduly lenient sentence is passed in a serious case, we have provided a power—to which my hon. Friend referred—for the Attorney-General to refer the matter to the Court of Appeal. In such cases, that court may quash the original sentence and substitute a higher one. Many hon. Members will be aware of cases in which that power has been used to the satisfaction and reassurance of the public.
Whether to refer a case to the Court of Appeal is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General. He must take into account the guidance laid down by the Court of Appeal in similar cases. Only if he is able to conclude that the sentence is unduly lenient—that is, that it falls outside the range of sentences that a judge could reasonably consider appropriate in all the circumstances—can he apply for leave to refer the case to the Court of Appeal. My hon. Friend referred to that in his speech and rightly pointed out that my right hon. and learned Friend had concluded that the sentence was not outside that range of guidance.
There is a good deal of information, much of it recent, about the courts' attitude to manslaughter. Seven such cases have been referred to the Court of Appeal in England and Wales and one in Northern Ireland. In five cases, the sentences were increased, in two they remained the same and one case is outstanding.
However, it is not for the Executive to take over the Court of Appeal's role in establishing the proper levels of sentencing within a legal maximum. I listened carefully to what my hon. Friend said and believe that judges would be well advised to listen to his wise words and take more notice of public concern. People want to see justice done and they want the sentence to fit the crime.
Above all, the public agree with my hon. Friend and the Court of Appeal that every sentence should have an element of retribution, deterrence, prevention and rehabilitation. We can now enable the court to consider 86 cases that would have been barred from going to it. The opportunities for the Court of Appeal to act as a regulating body have increased considerably as a result, to the benefit of the system.
Finally, my hon. Friend sought my views on several issues. First, he was concerned about the system for releasing prisoners on licence. I understand that Mr. Vaill's attacker had been released at the end of a previous sentence —not as a result of a decision to release him early—which had been passed before the Criminal Justice Act 1991 came into force. Since that Act, any person serving more than 12 months is required to undergo a period of supervision on release. They can also be required to serve the remainder of their original sentence in prison if they commit a further crime before it has expired. If they are sentenced to four years or more, their release can be delayed until the two thirds point of their sentence, if the parole board so decides. For prisoners serving seven years or more, that decision rests with the Home Secretary. Again, they are supervised on release until the three quarters point of sentence and the remainder can be reactivated in the event of further offending.
The Prison Service cannot detain a person beyond the authority that a sentence passed by the court confers, but the 1991 Act allows the court to pass a custodial sentence in a sexual or violent case purely on the basis that it is necessary for the protection of the public and, on the same ground, to pass a longer sentence than the seriousness of the offence requires.
My hon. Friend was also concerned about what he referred to as "plea bargaining". The Crown can properly accept a plea on the basis of the available evidence, thus sparing victims and witnesses the ordeal of a trial, but that is not plea bargaining and the Crown Prosecution Service will, as a matter of policy, prosecute the most serious offence that the evidence will support.
Finally, my hon. Friend mentioned Langley's simultaneous conviction for an assault on Mr. Vaill's companion. I can tell him that the charge in question did not require an intent to do grievous bodily harm, but only an intent to do some harm and that really serious injury resulted. The maximum penalty for such an offence is five years' imprisonment.
To sum up, we should not expect murder convictions every time a person is killed by an assault. That is not the law of Britain and we have no plans to make it such. Sentencing in manslaughter cases is quite properly a matter for the courts and the full range of punishments, up to life imprisonment, are available to them. The courts face difficult issues in cases of this kind and their judgments will inevitably be a source of disappointment to some people. No relatives who have lost a loved one can ever be satisfied, understandably, with the sentence on the attacker.
Taking those tough decisions, which we ask the courts to do, is a task for the courts alone, within the framework that Parliament and the common law provide. We have no plans to change that general situation.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Adjourned accordingly at nine minutes past Eight o'clock.