HL Deb 14 March 1961 vol 229 cc757-9

2.35 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what are the factors which govern the release of prisoners serving a "life" sentence; and on whose advice and authority is it that remissions are earned and releases effected.]


My Lords, my right honourable friends the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland have powers, under Section 27 of the Prison Act, 1952, and Section 21 of the Prisons (Scotland) Act, 1952, to release on licence at any time a prisoner sentenced to life imprisonment. Any person so released may be recalled to prison at any time.

In considering how long it is necessary to detain a prisoner serving a sentence of life imprisonment, my right honourable friends take into account all the circumstances of the offence, the age and character of the offender and his development in detention, and the need to protect the public from any prisoner who might be a danger if released. The actual period of detention varies widely, according to the circumstances of the case, from a year, Or even less, if there are strong compassionate grounds for early release, to twenty years or more in exceptional cases.


My Lords, may I thank my noble friend for his reply, and may I be allowed to take the oppor- tunity of offering to him my warm felicitations on the interesting event recorded in yesterday's newspapers.



My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl this question? Observing that in many cases the actual period of imprisonment appears to bear no relation whatever to the sentence passed of "life" imprisonment—in other words, that the term "life imprisonment" no longer means what it says—is it not time that this misnomer was discontinued, and some such term as "detained during Her Majesty's pleasure," substituted.


My Lords, I do not know whether the first part of my noble friend's supplementary is strictly in order. But I suppose that it is not often that one can stand at the Despatch Box and welcome such a supplementary. I thank my noble friend for his kind expression, as well as the expression of your Lordships. The suggestion that my noble friend has made runs along the lines of part of a recommendation of the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment. It is open to objection, however, because "detained during Her Majesty's pleasure" is a term applicable to certain classes of Broadmoor patients, and persons who are under the age of eighteen who have been convicted of murder—the sort of cases I mentioned in an answer to a Question the other day. So it would be confusing to extend this term into a different field as my noble friend would like.

There is the further point, my Lords, that as the scope of capital punishment has been greatly reduced by the Homicide Act it is desirable to retain such deterrent effect as the teen "imprisonment for life" has in its wording. The term "imprisonment for life" really does mean, as I indicated in my first Answer to the noble Lord, that a prisoner may be detained for life.


My Lords, can the noble Earl explain why the extended use of this term would be confusing? It is already applied to persons of unsound mind and to persons who are under the age of eighteen. It seems to me to have already a considerable range of interpretation. Would it be unreasonable to apply a similar expression, "detained during Her Majesty's pleasure", to adults over the age of eighteen?


My Lords, the difficulty—and I am sure the noble Lady will appreciate it—is that if we extend the term, we should have to extend it to all cases, and I do not think that would be in line with what my right honourable friend would consider appropriate.


My Lords, would the noble Earl consider this point in respect of the supplementary question asked by my noble friend? Under the present system it is easily possible for a man to be liable to two life sentences, and that is rather an absurdity in one human life.


My Lords, I note the point my noble friend bas raised, and I am sure my right honourable friend appreciates it. Nevertheless, there is this threat that the sentence might be "life imprisonment", which might mean imprisonment for the rest of his life.


My Lords, would the noble Earl agree that although the use of the term for all cases of life imprisonment might not be in keeping with what his right honourable friend thinks, it is clearly in keeping with what his right honourable friend does?


My Lords, I note the point that the noble Lady makes.


My Lords, may I ask whether there have been any cases during, say, this century of actual life imprisonment?


I cannot say how many there have been, but I do know that there have been prisoners who have died in prison of a natural cause.

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