HC Deb 09 February 1995 vol 254 cc442-3
4. Mr. Riddick

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department what powers he has to release prisoners who have been convicted of murder.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Mr. Michael Forsyth)

My right hon. and learned Friend has the power to release on licence a prisoner convicted of murder provided that the parole board has recommended release, and after consulting the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge, if available.

My right hon. and learned Friend also has the power, in exceptional circumstances, to release a life sentence prisoner on compassionate grounds and may recommend the exercise of prerogative powers in respect of any convicted prisoner.

Mr. Riddick

Will the Home Secretary use the powers at his disposal to free Private Lee Clegg at the earliest opportunity? Is he aware that I have received many more letters about the plight of Private Clegg than I have received, for example, about veal crates, because my constituents are outraged at the fact that that British soldier is serving a life sentence for murder, having become entangled in that terrible situation simply because he was doing his duty?

Mr. Forsyth

Questions relating to the detention or release of Private Clegg are a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Mr. Bermingham

Is it not a fact that if the Home Secretary relinquished his powers to interfere in judicial decisions and got rid of mandatory life sentences, the problem concerning Private Clegg would never have arisen, because the judge would have been able to sentence him appropriately?

Mr. Forsyth

As I have already said, the issue of Private Clegg is a matter for my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

I am sure that the hon. Gentleman is aware that the mandatory life sentence enables my right hon. and learned Friend, on an individual basis, to decide on the basis of risk whether a life prisoner may be released and on the basis of appropriate retribution and deterrence the length of sentence that should be set as a minimum as part of the tariff-setting procedure.

Sir Ivan Lawrence

Does my right hon. Friend share the view that the public expect that the most heinous of all crimes should be visited by the most serious of all punishments; that life imprisonment is the substitute for capital punishment, which the House gave to the country in 1965; and that, if that is right, those who seek to require that judges decide how long a prisoner shall serve for the crime of murder have a difficult case to prove?

Mr. Forsyth

I entirely agree with everything that my hon. and learned Friend has just said.

Obviously, it was part of the arrangements made following the abolition of the death penalty for murder that the Home Secretary should have a role in deciding the length of sentence that would be served as part of the tariff-setting procedure. It is important that that ability to set a tariff, on the advice of the judiciary, and to assess whether a prisoner will be released on licence, should take account of risk to the whole community, and that that power should rest with the Home Secretary.