HL Deb 26 March 1980 vol 407 cc899-946

8.5 p.m.

The Earl of LONGFORD rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether they have studied Life-sentence prisoners (Home Office Research Study No. 51); and whether they recognise the need to formulate a new approach to the problem of life-sentence prisoners. The noble Earl said: My Lords, my first task is to lay before the House the dramatic increase in recent years in the number of prisoners undergoing life imprisonment. In 1957, there were 133. In the valuable report produced by the Home Office Research Unit the last figure given is 1,322. But the latest figure available to me, obtained from the Minister, is 1,481. In other words, the number of "lifers" has increased elevenfold since the first prison debate which we held here in 1955. In vital respects, this is a new situation.

A short while ago, I visited a prisoner who is serving a life sentence and for whom a judge has recommended a minimum of 30 years in prison. I asked the prison officer at the gate how that prisoner was. He replied "Oh, well, his only chance of getting out of here is to come out by the front gate". I said, "What do you mean by ' the front gate''? "He said, By taking a hostage ". I said, "What sort of hostage have you in mind?" He said, "Well, he might take you, for a start". So, when I saw the prisoner I said, "I understand that you had it in mind to try to take me hostage?" Being a bit of a wag, he replied, "Oh, that would be no use to me at all; The Home Office would be only too pleased to be rid of you!" I hope that that is not always true. I do not mind if it is true occasionally, but I hope that it is not always true. I hope that tonight at any rate the Minister will feel that I am performing a small service in raising this topic, if only because it gives him and other experts a chance to deal with it in its new form.

Except where there has been a miscarriage of justice, life prisoners—they are nearly always men, although there are, I believe, 50 women—will all have been involved in serious crimes. Whatever the outside world may say on occasions, I hope and believe that this House at least will acquit me of any lack of interest in their victims, in view of the efforts that I and others have made recently in the House.

What are the reasons for the large and continuing escalation? Obviously, the abolition of capital punishment has been a primary factor. The abolition of hanging will, in my eyes, remain one of the most creditable, though long overdue, reforms of the present century. The names of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, in particular, and also the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, will be associated with it, as will be the names of other noble Lords. But, right or wrong—and I am more than ever convinced that the abolition of capital punishment was profoundly right—it has inevitably augmented the number of prisoners serving life sentence imprisonment.

The crucial date—if we follow the Home Office report—is 1957, when a Bill was passed much limiting the scope of capital punishment, although not abolishing it. In the previous year, 1956, 28 people were executed. In 1958, a year after the halfway measure, the number had fallen to nine; in 1964, it was seven; and after that, of course, zero with the coming of abolition. One does not need to be a statistician to recognise that if the pre-1957 laws were still in operation, many persons now serving life sentences would have been executed. In fact, many more would have been executed than previously, because since 1957 the number of those convicted of murder has risen sharply, although—and I must emphasise this to avoid any misunderstanding—not quite so sharply as the number of those convicted of other serious forms of violence. In addition, there has been a significant increase in the proportion of those condemned to life imprisonment who have not been convicted of murder.

In 1977, the last year dealt with in the Home Office report, 154 life sentences were passed in England and Wales, and of those, 105—that is to say, two-thirds—were for murder, the remaining 49 being convictions for various other crimes. In some non-capital cases known to me or which I have read about, the life sentence seems quite extraordinary. Recently a judge gave a life sentence because apparently it was impossible to find a suitable mental institution for the prisoner. That sentence was overturned on appeal when the appropriate institution was duly discovered. I personally know a promising young student who was convicted of a non-capital offence during what appears to have been a mental breakdown. He was given a life sentence apparently because nobody knew what else to do with him. He has no idea whether he will be released in the near future or will be incarcerated for many years.

It seems beyond dispute that on average life prisoners are serving significantly longer sentences than they have in the past. Admittedly, this is due in part to the inclusion in their ranks of a good many who would presumably previously have been executed. They would be regarded as the more dangerous cases and, therefore, would be likely to step up the average length of sentence served. However, that is not the whole explanation. There is no doubt that many others serving life sentences—for example, murderers who would previously have been reprieved in any case—are also serving longer sentences today than they would have in earlier years. This is so despite the criticisms of the undue length of British sentences which have been expressed in one Government report after another, and which have often been laboured in this House. Those are the facts, with a minimum of interpretation.

The first question I put to the noble Lord is whether the Government agree that a new look at existing policies and machinery is called for. Obviously, there is much in common between the problem of long sentences generally and the problem of life prisoners. For example, in Maidstone prison, which I visit quite often, living together in one wing there are 85 life prisoners and 70 other long-term prisoners. If today I confine myself, for reasons of time, to life prisoners, it is not because I underestimate the deadening and destructive effects of long sentences generally on human beings. The time has gone by when it was thought, by some at least—though, as far as I can recall, never by me or by most others here—that a man would actually become a better man the longer he spent in prison; that he will, what is called, benefit from treatment. That was always nonsense and is now known to be so.

The opposite is almost universally recognised to be true. Recent Home Office research has also discredited the idea that the longer the sentence, the greater the deterrent effect on others. No doubt in this House we shall return again and again to the general question of the need for shorter sentences. But today, I must concentrate on the special affliction of the life prisoner and the special problem that he constitutes for the authorities.

The distinguishing feature of the life prisoner, is, of course, the indeterminacy of the sentence. In the case of life prisoners, the indeterminacy casts a spell of peculiar horror, because the life prisoner has no definite assurance that he or she will ever come out, or come out before being hopelessly enfeebled. It is true that the length of sentence actually served by a life prisoner, according to this report, is just under 10 years after sentence. In practice that would mean about 11 years from the time of arrest. But even the prisoners who have some chance of coming out within that period, serve their sentences in a state of desperate uncertainty.

As the Home Office research document points out, life prisoners compared with other prisoners are "at the mercy of the system"—a good phrase—showing that anyone who doubts the existence of a heart inside the Home Office is clearly maligning them. In their eyes they are at the whim of the authorities in whose sense of justice their confidence is, to say the least, extremely limited. As more than one life prisoner said to me the other day when we were having a group discussion in a nearby prison, "If only we could meet the people who decide our fate without giving any reasons for their decision".

Every life prisoner is haunted by the question already referred to: "Shall I ever come out?" As I said, I was talking to a group of life prisoners recently. There was a general wish—and this point I know has been endorsed by other research —that life sentences should be abolished in favour of fixed, determinate sentences, though it was recognised that in many cases these would be of formidable length. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and perhaps other speakers, will be dealing with that aspect. I shall certainly support the noble Lord in any efforts that he is making to reduce to the minimum the proportion of life sentences imposed. Personally, I would gladly see them abolished altogether.

While life sentences continue to be imposed as now, how can we somehow introduce an element of hopefulness? I am sure that a compassionate man like the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, would agree that if prisoners are denied hope, the best-laid plans for their character improvement—difficult enough in any case to implement in a prison context—are nullified and, indeed, rendered absurd from the beginning.

At this point I should like to offer one or two general observations about life prisoners with which I think most prison governors and others closest to them would agree. The cool, dispassionate, non-judgmental authors of the Home Office report call our attention to the fact that lifers tend to have fewer previous convictions than prisoners as a whole, and that almost half of them have not served a previous custodial sentence. In my experience, prison governors go further and tell us that life prisoners have usually, although not always, committed their offences in the heat of the moment. Most of them would not repeat their crime if released.

What is the object of prolonged imprisonment? As I have just said, the arguments for deterrence and reform are not now entertained very seriously. When it is said that a particular prisoner must remain in prison for many years, it is usually argued that it is necessary for the protection of the public. I am not for a moment suggesting that that argument is to be taken in any way lightly. But confining myself to life prisoners, I submit that there is, indeed, a small minority of men who must be regarded—though, of course, we can never be sure of this—as potentially dangerous on release. I recognise that inevitably they will be retained in prison a long time. But I submit that it is a total illusion to suppose that the great majority of lifers are specially dangerous. Yet today we treat them as though they are specially dangerous and, as an additional agony, we throw in the element of hopelessness.

We must ask how we can hold out more hope than is offered at present. In spite of all its weaknesses, I am an unrepentent supporter of the parole system. It could be much improved in many ways, which have often been proposed in this House, particularly if reasons were given for refusing parole. However, at least our parole system is a great deal better than nothing. For life prisoners it holds out some prospect of independent review. The internal reviews conducted by the Home Office, frequently without prisoners being aware that they are being conducted at all and certainly not knowing the results, not surprisingly seem to mean nothing to a prisoner. I do not think that these internal reviews would mean much to us if we were in their place. But taking up parole as a beneficial factor in itself, I must point out that life prisoners have no absolute assurance of access to the parole system.

In the summer of 1977 Lord Gardiner, Lord Carr, Lord Hunt and I called on the Home Secretary of the day and asked him to ensure that after 10 years at the outside every prisoner should at least be allowed to enter, so to speak, the croquet lawn and allowed a shot at the first hoop. We were not saying that every prisoner must be given parole, but be allowed to enter the parole scrutiny. Today there is a small but increasing number of prisoners who have served more than 10 years in prison without being allowed even to go before a local review board. I know of more than one of them who has been 14 years in prison. I know of one of whom the recent chairman of the Parole Board, Sir Louis Petch, has said, "This prisoner is not dangerous ", and yet access is denied even to the parole system

My first proposal then is to give some kind of assurance to life prisoners that at least they have some promise of quasi-independent consideration after a definite number of years. I repeat the plea made to the Home Secretary in 1977 by Lord Gardiner, Lord Carr, Lord Hunt and I. It may be before long that this issue will be tested before the European Commission of Human Rights. I expect that to happen. Certainly it is impossible in my eyes to square the terms of the convention with the refusal to allow prisoners automatically to be considered for parole when they have been incarcerated for 10 or many more years.

I hope that in this respect the present Home Secretary, to whom I wish everything good, will give a lead in penal policy rather than being dragged along willy-nilly by the chariot of European justice. This modest and minimal proposal would affect directly a very limited number of prisoners, although the reassurance offered would be widespread. Something bolder and more far-reaching is urgently necessary. I bring before the House the proposal that after a certain number of years every life sentence prisoner should be entitled to come before a tribunal who would consider his case for release.

A rough analogy in my mind—I do not want to make too precise a comparison. —is provided by the tribunals which are available to the patient in Broadmoor, for example. I have a friend, a Mr. Peter Thompson, who was a patient in Broadmoor for several years. At the end of that time the authorities still wished to retain him in the institution. But he appeared before the Mental Health Review Tribunal, stated his case and was duly released. That was 10 years ago. He has since written two books, which are far from unfavourable to Broadmoor, and he has done a tremendous amount for the understanding of mental health generally.

Turning back to prisoners, I am arguing for a wider opportunity than exists under parole. I am certainly not wanting to whittle down or diminish the parole system in any way, but I am arguing for a wider opportunity than exists under parole where the prisoner has no opportunity of appearing even before the local tribunal although he is interviewed by a member of it. I am submitting that at a certain point in his career a prisoner should be allowed to appear in person, assuming he applies to do so, before a board which actually determines his fate.

I may well he asked whether the board or tribunal would have the executive power to liberate a prisoner, or would its recommendations only have an advisory force; that is, be subject to the confirmation of the Home Secretary. The friend I mentioned earlier, Mr. Thompson, was confined under Section 60 of the Mental Health Act. It was therefore open to the review tribunal to reach an executive decision in his case and to liberate him themselves, which in fact they did. I would certainly prefer that arrangement to operate in the case of the review tribunal that I am suggesting. I understand that most of those confined in special hospitals come under other sections, and in their cases the findings of the tribunal at present are no more than advisory. I understand further however that this limitation of the tribunals to an advisory role is at present being strongly challenged in front of the European Commission, and is deplored by responsible bodies in the field of mental health.

I would feel it wrong to whittle down the functions of the proposed tribunal. I am asking therefore that their decisions should have executive force. I am suggesting, after talking to an eminent judge who is by no means unsympathetic to a proposal of a tribunal of some kind, that the chairman should at least be legally qualified. It is imperative that the prisoner should have the right to be legally represented, with legal aid if necessary. I do not wish to be dogmatic about the precise number of years that a prisoner should serve before coming before the tribunal, but I would urge that a prisoner should certainly have a right to have his case heard within 10 years of his arrest, and that after five years he could apply for such a tribunal which may, or may not, be immediately granted. There is nothing magical about these figures of five years or 10 years, but was encouraged to find that at least one judge of great elevation, who I mentioned earlier, and one prison governor of exceptional insight, were, to say the least, friendly to what I was proposing in principle.

There is one further point I would stress within the broad context. When capital punishment was abolished for an experimental period in 1965, judges were given the right to recommend minimum periods of life imprisonment. Whether there was a recommendation or not, the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge, if available, must be consulted. Recommendations have been used very inconsistently, with a few judges being responsible for a disproportionate number. It is particularly deplorable that any judge should recommend that the person should never be released. It is impossible for any human being, even a judge, to foresee which people may completely change their attitude in the course of a long sentence of imprisonment. I believe that the power to make recommendations of this kind serves only to prolong some sentences unnecessarily and should be withdrawn.

The European Committee on crime problems of the Council of Europe in 1977 made 15 recommendations. I can only deal with two of them now. They recommend, for example, that Government should ensure that the cases of all prisoners will be examined as early as possible to determine whether or not a conditional release can be granted. They say that the review just mentioned should take place, if not carried out before, between eight and 14 years after detention. They do not say what form that review should take, but they do say that the prisoner should be given a right to a review, which does not at the present time legally exist at all.

The same body deals with the treatment of life prisoners in prison, which would lead me to rival the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, if I pursued that topic very far, and I shall say very little on that subject. I believe that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, will be speaking about the Barlinnie special unit, which I have visited and found very inspiring. I am not saying that we should try to imitate it slavishly. I am saying that we should try to produce our own model which is at least as good as Barlinnie, and if possible better.

Nearly 20 years ago I wrote a small book on The Idea of Punishment, in which I frankly faced, as I do tonight, the duty of the community to inflict the pain of punishment. Punishment, after all, without mental pain has no meaning in quite a large number of cases. I am sure all of us agree that in inflicting legitimate pain on people, who in the eyes of God may or may not be worse than we ourselves, there comes a point at which a civilised society must draw the line. In these days we draw the line, thank heaven, at hanging; and we draw it at physical torture. But is it an exaggeration to describe imprisonment for life, with no prospect of real release, as mental torture—if it is ever justified? Are we satisfied that our 1,481 prisoners are being treated today in a way that will enable us to face with confidence our own future, when in due course we ourselves require to be forgiven?

8.30 p.m.


My Lords, there is certainly no doubt in my mind that my noble friend Lord Longford should be acquitted of any charge of lack of interest in the victims of crime; indeed, if I may say so, there should be no question of even charging him with such an offence in the first place, let alone of his having to be put on trial and acquitted of it, because it was only on 3rd July that we had the Second Reading of the Criminal Injuries (Compensation) Bill, which my noble friend introduced, and that was far from being the first occasion on which he had shown his concern for the victims of crime, especially those who have suffered personal injury at the hands of the criminal. Of course, he has established himself too over many years as a campaigner for penal reform and for the rights of prisoners. I believe also that he has chosen the right moment to raise this subject, and I would like to thank him for doing so, because I believe we are fast approaching the moment when some decisions will be necessary on our policies for dealing with life sentences and prisoners serving them.

It seems to me that there are two main aspects of this problem of life sentence prisoners. One is the question of the life sentences themselves and whether any changes should be made in our sentencing policy. The other is related to the problems of life sentence prisoners, an aspect that my noble friend, understandably and justifiably, has chosen mainly to concentrate on today, although he has also touched upon the first aspect.

One reason why I think this is the right time to consider this re-assessment is that to come to firm decisions we now have a great deal—hut not all, as I will suggest in a moment—of the material we need on life sentence prisoners and life sentences. First, there is the document mentioned in my noble friend's Question, a most thorough and valuable piece of research. Certainly that indicates the size of the problem. My noble friend has referred to some of the figures and, in particular, the figure of some 1,500 life sentence prisoners who are now in our prisons. He has told us about some of the other statistics as well.

Of those who were there in 1957—that is to say, the 133 men in the life sentence prison population, excluding men released on licence and subsequently recalled —all but seven of the 133 have been convicted of murder. Of those who were there when the research was carried out, nearly a quarter were not convicted murderers and well over a tenth did not have any sort of conviction for homicide at all. As the Home Office document says, at page 23: The abolition of capital punishment is partly responsible for the increase, but in addition there has been a growth in murder receptions and in the use of life sentence for crimes other than homocide, and also of the creation of a new offence, diminished responsibility manslaughter, by the Homicide Act 1957". And, as it adds at page 33: Crimes other than homicide accounted for about 14 per cent. of the lifer population on 1st January 1977". I think it is also significant, as the Home Office document points out at page 12, that the number of life sentence men now represent one-quarter of the male longterm prison population, those sentenced to more than four years; and it mentions, too, at page 20 that: The Prison Department has to cope with more than 150 new cases every year". I think, therefore, there can be no doubt that this problem is a sizeable one and, as the researchers point out at page 7 of the booklet: A rapid expansion of any section of the prison population presents problems for the prison service, but the expansion of the life-sentence population is of particular concern because of the indeterminate nature of their sentences and the violence of their offences". I mention those factors to add to those that my noble friend has mentioned as well, because if we are trying to tackle the problems of the prisons, we cannot ignore this sizeable and apparently growing proportion of the prison population. One should be in no doubt about the magnitude of this part of the problem.

Before coming to the more general problems concerning the conditions of life sentence prisoners of the kind that my noble friend has raised, there are just two other passages that I would mention, one in the Home Office document first of all. That says at page 35: The increase in the non-homicide population since 1957 accounts for 15 per cent. of the increase in the total lifer population … The causes of the increase are not known. There has been no significant change in age or victim-type over time. A part of the increase is due to the sudden appearance of life sentences for arson in 1964, but this is only a part; there are also substantial increases in the number of offenders sentenced to life imprisonment for sexual crimes or violence against the person. It seems highly probable that some change in the overall policy of the courts must be responsible, but no conclusive evidence has yet come to light". There is a related passage to which I wanted to refer in the Report of the Advisory Council on the Penal System on Sentences of Imprisonment, A Review of Maximum Penalties, published in 1978. Whatever view one takes of the Council's report as a whole —and it was greeted, if I may say so, with a good deal of misguided hysteria in some quarters on some aspects of the report —it rehearses many of the arguments on these matters in a valuable way and contains a great deal of useful, including factual, material. It says this at page 103, in paragraph 231: We ultimately concluded that there must have been a shift in judicial policy towards the use of the life sentence that had the consequence of putting the total numbers up so sharply. Accordingly we looked at the decisions of the Court of Appeal over the last 30 years to discern the policy of the courts over that period, and discover whether there has been some policy change in the last 10 years … Our conclusion is that there has indeed been a distinct shift in policy as declared by some divisions of the Court of Appeal. Until the late 1960s, the principle was that if the criminal events that gave rise to the conviction of a life-carrying offence were not in the first rank of seriousness then a life sentence was always inappropriate, even though the offender disclosed to the court a propensity to dangerousness. The relaxation of an essential criterion, that the offence must be of the grave kind, has undoubtedly led the courts to resort to life imprisonment where in earlier days they would not have countenanced it. There has also been a tendency to broaden the other criterion for using the life sentence. Until recent years, the courts have said that it was necessary to show that the offender was suffering from a mental disorder that indicated he should not be released before successful psychiatric treatment had been undertaken; and that this required decisions from the doctors which would be assisted by the indeterminacy of the life sentence. That criterion has been extended to cover not only the offender who may be suffering from some recognisable, treatable mental condition but also the offender whose unstable character indicates a likely repetition of his offence". The report goes on to say at paragraph 234 that the Council prefers the earlier jurisprudence.

Therefore, whatever is done about life prisoners once they have been sentenced, we also have to consider what to do about the life sentences themselves; whether, as the Advisory Council suggested. life sentences should no longer be mandatory for murder, but should be the maximum penalty, and I confess I would need a certain amount of persuading that that was the right policy; and whether there should be some change in the policies of the courts and in the way in which the mentally abnormal offender is treated. All that needs to be seen too, I think, in the light of the report of the Committee of Inquiry into the United Kingdom prison services under Mr. Justice May, on which decisions also have to be taken soon, and whether in fact there is any scope —I am not sure whether there is, but we certainly need to consider this —for reducing the prison population as a result of the way in which life sentences are dealt with.

Not all the material is available yet for considering sentencing policy —this was the point I was referring to earlier —for there is also the review of the penalty for murder being carried out by the Criminal Law Revision Committee as part of its review of offences against the person, which I gather is due out soon. And there is the reassessment of parole, to which my noble friend referred, and to which I will come back shortly. We have also already to hand the 15th Report of the Expenditure Committee of another place on the reduction of pressure on the prison system published in July 1978. I therefore agree with my noble friend Lord Longford that, as he suggested in his first question, this is the right time to look at existing policies and machinery.

My noble friend has understandably been most concerned tonight with, above all, the arrangements for considering the release of the life prisoner. I think it is important to distinguish between parole and release on licence, for the differences are important and are not widely understood, at least outside Parliament, and I hope noble Lords will forgive me if I spell out some of the details first, because I should like to comment on them briefly afterwards. As we know, parole applies only to those who have been given a determinate sentence, and a prisoner has a right to be considered for parole after completing one-third of his sentence.

In the case of the life sentence prisoner, when he is released he is released on licence and is subject to recall and the licence remains in being for the rest of his life. The life prisoner has no right to be considered for release on licence, though in practice he is considered for release on licence at some point, and I shall return to that shortly. I would, however, mention in passing that in relation to parole it has sometimes been suggested that a prisoner should have a right to parole. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, who speaks with great authority and experience, as the first chairman of the Parole Board, when it came into being in 1968, and who I think served for seven years and to whom we owe a great debt, said in our debate on parole on 22nd March of last year that he was against an automatic right to parole, and I wholly agree with that view. And, of course, there could never be any question, I feel, of a right to release on licence. Quite apart from other factors to be taken into account when considering parole and release on licence with the life prisoner considerations, there are considerations about the safety of the public which inevitably loom larger, and that I believe must always be the paramount consideration.

I return to the question of the machinery for considering release on licence and the procedure for reviewing the cases of life sentence prisoners. I do not think sufficient is generally known about this. Indeed, one sometimes gets the impression from what is said about it that many people do not even realise that there is in fact a systematic approach to this matter. There is, in the first place, the basic point that under the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act 1967, the Home Secretary cannot order the release of the life sentence prisoner unless the Parole Board recommends him to do so. He must also consult the Lord Chief Justice and, if available, the trial judge, though the Home Secretary does not have to accept a recommendation for release, nor is he bound by the advice of the Judiciary.

Although the procedure for reviewing life prisoners' cases is similar in many ways to the system for considering parole for other prisoners, serving determinate sentences, there are some major differences. With both categories, the first stage is consideration by the local review committee at the prison where the prisoner is detained. The committee's recommendation then goes to the Home Office for consideration and then to the Parole Board, and there the case goes before a panel which may recommend either giving the prisoner a provisional date for release, normally about a year ahead, or referring it back to the local review committee again as the first stage in another formal review after a specified period.

The first important difference between life prisoners and others is that there is no fixed time, as there is with others, when the case of a life sentence prisoner must be referred to the local review committee; it is for the Home Secretary to decide on the timing, and I understand that is done in consultation with the board. For several years it was the practice for all life sentence cases to be reviewed after seven years, but that proved unsatisfactory because it often raised prisoners' hopes falsely. The Home Office then actually suggested classifying prisoners according to the nature of their particular offences and other factors and fixing a latest date for the reviews of all cases in each class, and I feel that proposal had its attractions, but the board felt that was not an acceptable way of doing things.

I understand it was agreed eventually that the cases of all prisoners who had been detained for about four years should be considered by a joint committee of representatives of the Parole Board and the Home Office, and this period has been reduced gradually to three years. That committee either fixes a date for the case to be considered by the local review committee or, if it is clear that he could not be released for several years or if it is not clear when he might be released, it asks for the case to be referred to the joint committee again after a specified time. Those cases are kept under review so that they can be referred back to the joint committee earlier, if justified. I understand, too, that there is a provision for exceptional cases to come before the Home Secretary for reference to the board earlier than three years after the prisoner was first detained. And as we know and have seen —for example, from the Home Office document itself —there has been in appropriate cases very early release indeed, including one case cited there of a release only six months after sentence.

In practice, for the majority of cases the joint committee has recommended, I understand, that they should be referred to the local review committee after between seven and 10 years. So, in a sense, all life sentence prisoners are considered, to some extent at any rate, for release after they have been detained for three years, and there is flexibility so that exceptional cases can be dealt with sooner than that.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, the noble Lord will no doubt wish to make it plain to those who do not know the subject as well as he does that all this review he is talking about is something that takes place on paper; it is conducted in the last resort by officials who, in the vast majority of cases, would know nothing about the prisoner.


My Lords, I would not go along with my noble friend on the last point he made, but certainly what he said at the beginning of his remarks I would not dissent from. We are assured that prisoners are informed of the procedure. I wonder, however —and the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, when he replies might wish to comment on this —how fully the procedure is explained to them, and when that is done; how fully they are kept informed and whether more should in fact be done in this direction. I wonder, too, whether there is scope for speeding up the reviewing procedure itself once it is under way. I am not necessarily suggesting that we should shorten the time before prisoners' cases come up for review. Rather, I am wondering whether there is any scope for speeding up the process itself, perhaps considering the sort of steps which the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, suggested last year in relation to the parole system itself. There is also the question of the appearance before the local review committee of the prisoner himself, to which my noble friend referred.

What I believe is of immense importance is that a prisoner should be kept as fully informed as possible about his future and it is essential that the lines of communication be kept as open as possible. I should like to have gone into the question of whether or not reasons should be given to the prisoner —this point was also mentioned by my noble friend —for deciding not to release him on licence, but I will make only a couple of passing references to that because of the time. We con- sidered this last year in relation to parole and I confess that I still have the same misgivings about giving reasons as I had then.

I should like to add just two points on this matter now. First, if it were decided to give reasons in the case of refusal of parole, then I think that they would have to be given in the case of life sentence prisoners, too. The second point is in relation to the Paper that the Government are preparing, giving a reassessment of the parole system, following its first 10 years, and which the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, announced on 2nd July last year in answer to a Question in your Lordships' House. I very much hope that it will include reference to life sentence prisoners. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said on 2nd July that it would include discussion of the feasibility of giving reasons for refusing parole, although he added that the Government felt, on the evidence then available, that the giving of reasons would be incompatible with the present parole scheme and would make unacceptable demands on resources. Even so, I hope very much that the discussion of reasons in the Paper will include details of the experiments on giving reasons that have been carried out, so far as that is possible and is commensurate with maintaining confidentiality on the particular cases concerned.

The case against giving reasons is, I believe, quite strong. But if it is, it is unlikely to be damaged by the evidence; and if the evidence weakens the case against reasons, we should know about it. We are always happy to be confirmed in our prejudices by the evidence, no doubt, but I hope that we are also sufficiently unprejudiced to be willing, given enough evidence, to be confirmed in other people's prejudices. I would certainly go along with what my noble friend had to say —and I am sorry not to be able to go into it further tonight —with regard to learning from the Barlinnie experience. In conclusion, I believe that my noble friend was right to suggest that the problems of life sentence prisoners need to be looked at again, and I hope that we shall be open-minded enough to improve the system for dealing with them, if the evidence warrants this.


My Lords, I, too, should like to thank the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for drawing attention to this important matter and, if it does not sound as if I am patronizing, him, to compliment him upon his courage and persistence in continuing to draw attention to matters arising from our penal policy, and in particular the effects of that policy on the state of our penal institutions. I am stating the obvious when I suggest that this is not a popular subject.

I intend no adverse reflection upon any Members of your Lordships' House when I draw attention to the fact that we have moved from the popular subject of forestry to the unpopular subject of life sentence prisoners. Perhaps if I have any reflection at all it is of a much more general nature: the general attitude inside this House, and outside —certainly outside —of not wanting to know about those who are incarcerated in our prisons. In my view, it is very sad to go on to conjecture or surmise that had the subject been capital punishment —which of course would not have been a Question put forward by the noble Earl--there would have been a much larger attendance in your Lordships' House, despite the hour, to debate reasons on both sides of that very contentious argument.

Like the noble Earl, Lord Longford, I, too, have met many lifers, and I have heard from prison governors and prison staffs about the very special problems, to which the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, has drawn attention, which lifers present to the staff in prisons. I have heard, too, about the difficulties for the lifers themselves, with growing estrangement from the outside world, and with the total uncertainty about a very long, indeterminate sentence, to which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has movingly referred. The purely practical aspects of this situation were well described in a Home Office report entitled Prisons and the Prisoner, published in 1977. A very long period of uncertainty —to which the noble Earl referred —especially for the more intelligent and the least criminally minded, is a kind of living death. There are some people who say that that is a very proper situation, but I should like to place on record the fact that I am not one of them.

It is worth noting that an opinion poll among life prisoners conducted at Wakefield Prison in 1976 showed, not surprisingly perhaps, that 96 per cent. would have felt less despairing, or, in another sense, felt less desperate, had they been given a determinate sentence, however long. There would have been a known end to the road, a prospect of remission, and a possibility of parole at some stage.

I am in no wise condoning or diminishing the gravity of murder when I say that in the course of reviewing thousands of parole dossiers of men and women serving substantial determinate sentences, and hundreds of life cases, it was borne home to my colleagues and myself that the crimes of some offenders serving long, fixed-term sentences contained more callous, calculated brutality than those of some of the murderers —among them people whose real punishment came at an early stage after their offence from the remorse that they suffered for what they had done. In contrast, some of those guilty of those heinous offences knew from the very beginning of their sentences the latest probable dates for release.

It is worth noting that in contrast with the total of 1,500 men and women serving life sentences in our prisons, in Holland there are only three, two of whom are serving life sentences for war crimes, having been in prison ever since they were convicted shortly after the war. As we know, the population of Holland is about one-third of that of the United Kingdom, and in relation to the two populations —someone has done this calculation for me —Holland's total of lifers is a tiny fraction, 0. 07 per cent., of ours. The reason is that in Holland the sentence for wilfully planned murders ranges from 15 years to life — a maximum of life.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, I, too, wonder whether we ought not to look again without prejudice at the proposal of the Butler Committee on Mentally Abnormal Offenders, in 1975, which was considered by the Criminal Law Revision Committee in, I think, 1976, to substitute a single generic sentence of homicide for the two crimes of murder and manslaughter. I recall that in my time as chairman of the Parole Board several judges who were my colleagues were in favour of that proposal. It is worth considering that if this sentence of life imprisonment, instead of being mandatory, were a maximum penalty, it would have been applied probably to relatively few of those who are now serving life sentences. Many of them would doubtless he serving substantial determinate sentences, but there would be others serving relatively short sentences, where the circumstances of the offence were extenuating and where the offender had no record of previous violence or mental abnormality which might make him or her dangerous.

The Parole Board Report for 1978 shows that the joint committee of the board and the Home Office, in their informal review of 100 life prisoners, recommended that one prisoner should he formally reviewed by the Local Review Committee after serving only three years, four prisoners after four years, 12 after five years, 28 after six years, 23 after seven years, and 12 after eight years. This makes a total of 85 out of those 100 cases whose prospects of release fell between about four and nine years. Most, if not all, could probably have been dealt with more humanely by determinate sentences of between six and 12 years, with prospects of release, after remission, between four and eight years.

The Criminal Law Revision Committee did not recommend a single crime of homicide, albeit I believe with regret, and, to quote from the book Crime and Penal Policy, by the noble Baroness, Lady Wootton of Abinger, the reason was as follows: This might reduce the impressive gravity which a mandatory sentence attaches to the crime of murder in the public mind". Those are weighty words, but the main consideration appeared to have been, not justice or humanity but "the public mind".

I doubt that murder is taken more lightly in Holland than it is in our country. What is more, in Holland murder statistics are relatively lower than ours in relation to our two populations. According to the statistics which I have, published in 1976, there were 28 murders in Holland and 106 in our country. I regret very much the decision to abolish the Advisory Council on the Penal System. That council —I believe it was its last recommendation —endorsed the proposal for a single offence of homicide in its review of maximum penalties in 1978. The Home Secretary has told me that, in its place, he intends to set up working groups to deal with particular problems from time to time. In view of the large number of lifers in our prisons—the growing number, as it appears to me—of the problems of their containment and, not least, of their own individual problems, I should like to ask the Minister, Lord Belstead, to tell us when he comes to reply: Would the Home Secretary consider setting up a group to study this matter now?

On the premise that there were a single crime of homicide with life imprisonment reserved as the maximum penalty for the most heinous cases of killing, I would be inclined to modify the case which was set out by Lord Carr, Lord Gardiner, Lord Longford and myself to Mr. Merlyn Rees a year or two ago, that lifers should have a right to a formal review after 10 years. If life were the maximum, not a mandatory sentence, they would eventually be much fewer in numbers; their crimes of the very gravest nature; their personalities such that they would probably present the greatest danger if they were released earlier. For this small minority of homicide cases, it might well he wise to defer that formal review to perhaps 12 or even 15 years; but I still maintain the principle of such a right on humanitarian grounds.

Finally, I return to those 1,500 men and women now serving life sentences in our prisons, and their problems. Most of them need, even more than others serving long, determinate sentences, special help with the passing of years to keep some kind of link with the outside world as their marriages break up and as their social contacts cease. I believe that prison and probation staffs could perhaps be doing even more than they are at present to recruit more prison visitors and more voluntary workers, especially women workers, to provide those human links with the outside world. Quite recently, I was at Maidstone Prison, which I think is well known to the noble Lord, and I was tremendously impressed at the example they are setting there with the contacts which quite a number of women are willing to make with life-sentence prisoners in that establishment.

The Howard League, which does such a fine job for prisoners and for penal reform, tells me that in Sweden and Holland, with populations much smaller than our own and with prison populations and life-sentence numbers far fewer than our own, they have 8,000 and 10,000 voluntary workers, respectively, which is, of course, far more, bearing in mind our comparative populations, than is the case in this country. According to the 1976 statistics given to me, there were at that time something of the order of 6,000 voluntary workers in all working with the probation service in and outside prisons. My last question to the Minister is: would he give the House the latest figures on volunteers working in support of prison welfare staff, and say how many of them are women?

9.5 p.m.


My Lords, on Thursday evening we were discussing the immigration rules when the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, said, Something told me that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, is not perhaps as partial as he might be towards the Home Office".—[Official Report, 20/3/80, col. 424.] The noble Lord is always so courteous and so polite that I feel sure that, if he had put it into plain words, what he would have said is, "You are always criticising the Home Office If so, I think I should plead guilty to that; but I should like to make it plain, first, that this is not because of any personal difference I have had with any Home Secretary, and that when I have been privileged, as I have been, to work with many officials in the Home Office, I have always found them to be men of the highest intellect and, I suspect, even more overworked than I think most civil servants are. Nor has it been due to what is sometimes supposed to be an historic collision between the Lord Chancellor and the Home Secretary as to who does what, because that is all now rather old stuff.

It is simply due to the fact that, rightly or wrongly, all my life I have had what Quakers call a concern for the conditions which have existed in our prisons. As a young and fairly briefless barrister I joined the Howard League for Penal Reform, which is an organisation which its name well describes; I was later on its council, and then the most unsuccessful honorary treasurer they have ever had—because I have never been any good at raising money for anything—and I am now its president. I followed exactly the same course over the same period of time with the Institute for the Study and Treatment of Delinquency, of which for many years I have been a vice-president. I am, therefore, still very concerned with the conditions in our prisons, which cannot be said to have improved. Indeed, I remember my noble friend Lord Harris, when he was Minister of State responsible for prisons, saying in this House that the conditions of some of our prisons was a disgrace to any civilised country.

One of the Home Office branches which I have always admired is the Home Office Research Unit, ever since it was started by the noble Lord, Lord Butler. We have had to thank them for many of their research studies, and now we have to thank them for this on "Life-sentence prisoners". The first thing which surprised me in the facts which it states—and I do not doubt its accuracy—is that about a quarter of life sentence prisoners are not there for murder but for lesser offences, and that this tendency is increasing. I do not think I have found in the report any reason for that; and, if the noble Lord could help us on this point, it would, I think, be of interest to the House to know why, at a time when our prisons are as overcrowded as they are, there should be this apparently steady increase in the number of life sentences passed for crimes which are lesser crimes than murder.

The other unhappy feature is the fact that the average period of detention is increasing just as bodies like the advisory council have said that the average period of prison sentences ought to be decreased. I do not dissent from, and I agree with most of, the proposals which have been made by my noble friend Lord Longford and by the noble Lord, Lord Hunt. I am sure that the Home Secretary will be told what they have said and that, as far as he can, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, will comment on them.

Like the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, I greatly deplore the abolition of the Advisory Council on the Penal System, which had built up a splendid general knowledge of the whole field and which I think is unlikely to be covered by ad hoc working parties; and, without casting any aspersions on anyone, I am a little apprehensive of any Government department which sets up ad hoc working parties to which they alone appoint the members, who may be members that they think are likely to agree with the department's views. I am not going to say anything about the advisory council's report, Sentences of Itnprisonment, or the comments made by NACRO and others on it, because there are two other matters to which I wish to come.

The first is the splendid news which I expect we all read in the newspapers on Saturday. We all know that the main problem of our prisons today is the appalling overcrowding. We all know that this is nearly as hard, if not just as hard, on the prison officers as on the prisoners; and everybody concerned with prisons for years has commented on this which exacerbates every other bad feature of prison life. The May Committee was appointed because there was a real crisis in the prison system because of the overcrowding. Prison officers were declining to carry out their duties; too many prisoners—and this applies to life sentence prisoners—were being locked up in their cells for 23 hours out of 24; and it was the main burden of the May Committee report that something must be done to alleviate the overcrowding.

On Saturday, we read in the newspapers that the previous day at a Conservative Party conference at Bournemouth the Home Secretary had said that he was going to take men out of the prisons. I do not know anyone—and I am a member of the All-Party Penal Affairs Group—who has seen anything of prison governors lately, who does not know that the first thing the prison governor always says is that one-third (or some say"a half ") of those who are in prison ought not to be there at all. This is what so many have said for so long. The Home Secretary has said that in the next four years he is going to take out 4,000–1,000 a year—drunks, mentally-subnormal and inadequate offenders (who are no real threat to anyone except possibly to themselves) and to fine defaulters, including prostitutes.

This is the sort of news which one might have expected to be announced in Parliament; but there is some process known as "trying it out on the dog", and there may be something to be said for that. I observed that, according to the Daily Telegraph, the news had what it called "a subdued reception" It is splendid that at long last we have a Home Secretary who is undertaking the burden of beginning to get out of the prisons those who ought never to have been there. I am not sure which Home Secretary was the first to say—I know that the noble Lord, Lord Carr of Hadley, said it; and it may go back to Mr. Jenkins; but more than one Home Secretary has said it—that the prisons should be reserved for those who are a danger to society; instead of which they have been cluttered up with people who are just a nuisance. This news is splendid news. I have no doubt that there are those who hope that in time he may go further. It is, I suppose, a possible view that, as the forecast seems to show, the prison population is still growing at the rate of about 1.000 a year and in four years' time there will be an additional 4,000 prisoners, so it may be said that we shall be in much the same position.

There are others who may say that if the Home Secretary increased remission from a third to a half, 3,000 could leave tomorrow. Nothing can alter the fact that for the first time the Home Secretary declared that he is going to carry out the recommendations of the May Committee. They very much stressed that the first and kernel problem is to take out of the prisons many of those who ought never to have been there at all. I hope that we shall all agree to congratulate the Home Secretary on his statement and resolve to support him in every possible way that we can to carry it out and, if possible, extend it.

There is only one more thing I want to say, and it will take a little time. In an absolutely mad moment I promised my noble friend Lord Longford that I would describe and comment upon the special unit at Barlinnie Prison. This is of interest to everybody concerned with prisons. As far as I know, I do not think that it has ever been referred to in detail in this House before. It was in May 1978, at my own expense, that I went to Glasgow and spent an evening and practically all the next day talking with the governor and prisoners individually and collectively, and prisoners and prison officers both individually and collectively.

One of the difficulties of that unit has always been the hostile attitude to it which from the start was adopted by what I might call the Right-wing Press. They have very much concentrated on one prisoner whom they describe—possibly rightly—as Scotland's most dangerous criminal. He is a man called Jimmy Boyle. So perhaps I might start with him.

Jimmy Boyle was born in the slums of the Gorbals when they were slums, before they were all burned to the ground and high-rise flats erected in place of them. Whether they are very much better is not for me to say. They were recognised at the time as being the worst slums in Europe. His father, who had at least on one occasion been in prison, died when Jimmy was five. His mother—a woman of impeccable character—was left with four boys and of course had to go out to work. Occasionally there was not enough money to pay the electric light bill and there were conditions of some poverty. In the Gorbals he was influenced by his school mates; and at least three out of the small number of his classroom have since served life imprisonment.

He took to stealing with other boys in gangs at a fairly early age. His history is that first he was given probation and then detention. At 14 he was given detention again. At 15 he was sent to an approved school, and then Borstal. At 18 he went to prison. He has written a book, A Sense of Freedom, describing—I believe with complete honesty—his life as a boy and as a young man. He joined a gang at a time of fierce gang warfare among adolescents. He was the leader of a gang—maybe the most dangerous gang—and he seems to have had no pity for the injuries which he imposed on other people. One might have said—though one would have been wrong—that he was obviously a psychopath. He was certainly one who, if and when convicted of murder, might in former times have been hanged.

The only code he recognised was that of violence. When in prison if there were fights between prisoners and prison officers he was always with the prisoners. He was eventually—rightly or wrongly—convicted of murder and given a life sentence. Finally, he was put in one of the cages in Inverness prison where he was stripped naked and fed through the bars and had nothing to do but smear the walls with his own excrement. Even on one of those occasions he managed to conceal a razor blade in his mouth.

He is 36 now and since he was 14 the longest period that he has ever not been in custody was nine months. He has been in and out of prison for a period of about 20 years. It was when he was in the cage that the Secretary of State in Mr. Heath's Government decided upon an experiment—what was to be a therapeutic community at Barlinnie Prison.

Barlinnie Prison is one with the latest electronic devices and it was completely secure, so security was no problem. The unit was to be housed in a separate block of cells with its own prison officers and its own governor. Jimmy Boyle, with others, was taken out of the cage and dressed not in prison uniform but in civilian clothes. The prison officers also wore civilian clothes. When he arrived he was met by the chief officer who said to him:"Hello, Jimmy: come and have a cup of coffee ", and then walked away and turned his back on him. No sensible prison officer for years had turned his back on Jimmy Boyle. This therapeutic community was governed, subject of course to the governor, by decisions taken at weekly meetings between all the prisoners and the prison officers—half a dozen prisoners and rather more officers, because they had to work in shifts.

Whatever the relations were to start with, in time the men got to know one another and to treat one another not as prisoners and officers but as the unique human being which each one of them was, and they learned to trust one another. If you were in the "hot seat" at the weekly conference you might be criticised and you might be a prisoner or a prison officer. They soon found that in arguments they no longer allied themselves into groups of prisoners and of officers but were merely some 14 human beings. They made their own rules, based always on this degree of trust which was established between the prisoners and the prison officers. They abolished all censorship of mail, both incoming and outgoing. Then it was agreed that the prisoners could use the telephone. They drew their own rations from the kitchens and cooked their own food. Then they decided they would not have any restrictions at all on visits. There was a punishment cell but they then decided to abolish it. They took off the door and, if my recollection is right, it became a workshop—a workshop full of heavy hammers, chisels and every known offensive weapon. I was told that one prison governor who visited the workshop put his hands to his head, said, "Oh my God!" and went away.

That was, as I say, in 1973. They have decorated the place as they like and their work is left to them. One life-sentence prisoner I spoke to has a passion for gardening. There is a minute piece of land with which I think he has done wonders. Jimmy Boyle himself became a student of the Open University, studying psychology. One day a teacher who had come to talk to the men about design, left behind a lump of clay and he started playing with it. He has now had a one-man exhibition in Glasgow and some of his work has been exhibited in London. Only last week I was talking to a friend who is a well-known professional sculptor. He has seen some of his work and has said that it is absolutely first-class.

It has not been 100 per cent. successful, in the sense that they have had one failure: a man who I should have thought was never suitable for it, because he was a drug addict. He got hold of some drugs and gave himself an overdose. I believe that one out of the number who had been released has subsequently been convicted of some rather minor offence. It appears to have had a considerable effect on the degree of conflict in the Scottish prisons, because at the time it was instituted the average number of assaults by prisoners on officers was 40 a year, and that very soon fell to five. I believe it has increased slightly since; but it was a dramatic fall.

They have had some difficulties throughout with the Press, which for some reason has always been against the unit. There is some difficulty at present because whenever Jimmy Boyle leaves the prison he is followed by reporters. It tends to show that if human beings are treated as animals they tend to behave as animals, whereas if they are treated as human beings most of them will end by behaving as human beings.

We now have a new Government. The previous Government appeared to me not to have been perhaps as favourably dis- posed to the unit as was Mr. Heath's Government. I do not suppose that was due to the fact that it was, so to speak, an invention of Mr. Heath's Government, but I believe that the Secretary of State was a little apprehensive about the fact that something adverse may have appeared in the Press.

What was odd was the fact that no Secretary of State ever went to see the unit. People have come from Israel, New Zealand and many other parts of the world to inspect the unit and to report upon it. However, the Secretary of State never visited it, nor did the Comptroller of Scottish Prisons. Indeed, until the annual report for 1977 not a word appeared about it in previous annual reports, except for the fact that there were six dangerous criminals in a Special Unit in Barlinnie, but there has been no appraisal of it at all. However, in the 1977 report Prisons in Scotland, published in 1978, the Secretary of State referred to some allegations which had been made in the Press, and he said: This unit was set up in 1973 for prisoners who posed exceptional problems of management, and its basic concept is a flexible and relaxed regime within a secure perimeter, involving a substantial degree of trust between staff and inmates. The review extended beyond the end of the year. However, it is established that many of the allegations"— that is a reference to allegations made in the Press— could not be substantiated, though there were some weaknesses of procedure. Some changes in operational procedure have been introduced, but the basic concept of the unit will be maintained. A sensible Secretary of State may well have sent Jimmy Boyle round to borstals by now to tell the young men from his own area that crime is a stupidity and that violence is not the answer, as Jimmy Boyle used to think it was. But that has not happened yet.

There are a few lessons to be drawn and I should like the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, to give me an assurance that the Home Secretary will at some time consider the history of the Special Unit at Barlinnie Prison and see whether from it our prison services may have a good deal to learn.

9.28 p.m.


My Lords, following the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, as a former Home Office official I rise with some diffidence to make a brief contribution to this debate, particularly as I realise that my knowledge is increasingly getting out of date.

I welcome the opportunity which the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has given the House to discuss these important matters. My only regret is that we have not had a full day's debate because, as the earlier speeches have shown, the Home Office research report raises a whole range of problems and issues to which it is difficult to do justice in a debate of this kind. As the noble Earl said in opening the debate, there are many misconceptions about life imprisonment. He referred to the trial judge who recommended a minimum period of detention of 30 years. Many of the people I have come across regard such a recommendation as being equivalent to a recommendation of a sentence of 30 years, when it is nothing of the kind.

Then there is the popular belief, which persists whatever one says, that "life" means nine years. The research report that we have been discussing, when it records that the lifers released in 1977 had served an average of nine years eight months, is very careful to explain that that figure is most misleading, since it takes no account of the lifers who were still in prison having already served more than nine years. The noble Lord, Lord Belstead, was good enough to give me some figures, in reply to a Question the other day, which bear on our debate. His reply showed that at the end of last year there were 305 persons who had already served more than nine years, and that of these 52 had already served more than 14 years. One of them, I know, has been there for over a quarter of a century. Out of the total number of lifers that we have been discussing, these are not negligible figures.

But there is another common misconception to which the noble Lord, Lord Boston, has already called attention, and which is that lifers, when released, are released on parole. As he has explained, they are not. As has been happening since long before parole was ever thought of, they are released on licence from which they are never free. I know that the noble Earl is inclined to regard this as a somewhat pedantic distinction, but I think it is very much more than that. Indeed, the roles of the Home Secretary and the Parole Board are here basically different from their roles in relation to the fixed-term prisoner. He, if he wishes, can opt out of the parole system, and when he has finished his sentence he comes out without any restrictions. But the lifer cannot opt out, and the Home Secretary cannot escape the ultimate responsibility of coming to a decision about release.

As I recall, when the Bill setting up the parole system was first introduced, it made no provision at all for life sentence cases to go to the Parole Board. Looking at my noble friend Lord Hunt sitting there, I am not for a moment suggesting that we should go back to that position, but I am suggesting that the arrangements have to meet certain rather special criteria. For one thing, I myself do not see how the final responsibility can be taken away from the Home Secretary. He has the recommendation of the Parole Board and he must consult the judiciary. But, finally, it is up to him to weigh all the considerations—the risks, the expectations of society in regard to retribution, the need for reasonable consistency with other cases and all the rest.

Then, as a matter of practical administration, the arrangements for keeping the cases under review and bringing them to the point of decision must not be allowed to become too complicated, too lengthy and too much weighed down by procedures. It seems to me that the present arrangements, if I understand them aright, must go very near the boundary of what is tolerable in this context. Certainly, no one would claim that the present arrangements are ideal and commend themselves to all concerned. Although I thought a good deal about what the noble Earl has said, and shall certainly study his speech with great care, I am not really persuaded that so far he has found the answer.

His more revolutionary suggestion is to put the effective decision in the hands of a tribunal which can reach that decision, if I have understood what he said, irrespective of the views of the Home Secretary, the Parole Board, the trial judge, who may have recommended a minimum period of detention, or of the Lord Chief Justice. I am afraid I can only say that this course does not really go anywhere near meeting the basic criteria which I regard as important, although I do have a good deal of sympathy with the comments the noble Earl made about the existing law under which a trial judge may make a recommendation about a minimum period of detention.

I must say I was relieved that this House the other day had the good sense to remove from the Criminal Justice (Scotland) Bill a requirement that such a recommendation be made mandatory in all Scottish cases. But whether there would be general acceptance of a change in the law which deprived the judge, if he wished, of taking an opportunity to mark the community's abhorrence of a particularly heinous crime, I am not at all sure. Nor, I am bound to say, do I think that the analogy with the mental health review tribunals is quite in point. These tribunals address themselves to the question whether a hospital patient still requires hospital care. This is not, as I said, really in parallel with a decision on imprisonment.

The noble Earl's other rather less drastic proposal was that a lifer should always have his case reviewed after a certain period—perhaps 10 years, perhaps a little longer in the rather changed circumstances envisaged by my noble friend Lord Hunt—and reviewed in a way which meant that the individual was able to put in his own representations. The figures I quoted suggest that this could arise in quite a sizable number of cases, all of them grave cases.

The arguments which the noble Earl put so eloquently certainly have force, and I am very conscious of the possible effect of continued uncertainty on the mind of the prisoner, a problem which also arises, if slightly less acutely, in the parole system itself. I can see clearly enough the humanitarian argument. On the other hand, one does wonder whether it is quite so clearly an humanitarian course to raise hopes in a prisoner, whose crime was of such a nature, or who presents such a potential risk to society, that there can be no possible chance at a 10-year review of fixing a date for release or in any other way removing uncertainty, when one consequence of having such a review might well be a recrudescence of Press interest if the crime happened to be one, as it well might, which achieved wide publicity I at the time. It is just possible, I suppose, that Strasbourg may solve it for us in the end, but from some research which the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, and I were concerned with in a rather different context, we could not help noting that the Human Rights Commission and the Human Rights Court seemed to view with equanimity aspects of deprivation of liberty in other countries which we here would not regard as tolerable. For the moment on this general issue, however, all I can say is that I shall listen with an open mind to what the Minister has to tell us.

Before I sit down I should like very briefly to raise two points affecting the number of lifers in prison. First, again in reply to a Question, the noble Lord, Lord Belstead, told me that at the end of last year some 65 persons who had been sentenced to life imprisonment were now detained in special hospitals, and the question I want to put is whether the problems which we all know about in regard to the special hospitals, which I hope the Home Secretary is now going to solve, mean that there are substantially more than the 65 who really ought to be in special hospitals but are still in prison and putting a particularly heavy burden on the prison staff.

Secondly, the Home Office research paper said that about a third of life sentence prisoners deemed suitable for open conditions were in Leyhill, but as it recorded that Leyhill was the only prison where lifers were then detained it implied that there must have been two-thirds who were suitable for open conditions but were still in secure conditions. My question is whether the use of Sudbury, which I think post-dates this research, as well as Leyhill, has substantially improved the position, or whether it is still the case that there are lifers who are suitable for an open prison but who nevertheless are unable to be sent to one.

One final brief comment. I read with some interest the astonishing discovery recorded by the research workers on page 22 of the Home Office report, that the analysis of earlier cases showed that reprieve was a selective process and not a random one. Had it been otherwise, my Lords, I should have thought that some of the hardest working years of my life had been wasted.

9.33 p.m.


My Lords, many in your Lordships' House, and myself in particular, are obliged, regularly and frequently, to the noble Earl for introducing topics of this nature, to which I am irresistibly attracted. If I say something about my own reaction to lifers, that reaction is compounded of the number of convictions and confirmations which have come to me as a result of being a prison chaplain in Pentonville prison for some long time. I will briefly list them. It was my experience that many of these people who attracted life sentences were very bad men. Therefore, I attach no sentimental attitude that is bereft of a recognition that, although I do not believe any one of them was totally depraved, I am sure that many of them were indeed very wicked. That did not in any way inhibit my conviction that by the grace of God they could be improved, but it did require the answer to a second immediate question: Was that improvement likely to be undertaken by the provisions of the Prison Service? I believe that the Prison Service is irremediable as an institution endeavouring to provide the opportunity for wicked people to improve.

In particular, I noticed—and though it is not set out in this research paper with the clarity I should have desired, I am pretty certain I am right—that long sentences over a period of (shall we say?) six years or more deadened and hardened those who suffered them. Although they may not have shown immediate signs of mental decrepitude, yet they became conditioned, not perhaps in the more obvious sense but unable to respond to the kind of world to which they would return sooner or later. Part of that decrepitude was directly caused by the indeterminacy of their prospects and was to a large extent due to the fact that what had been taken away from them was hope. Whatever else you take away from a man, however bad he is, I do not believe you are ever justified in taking away hope. In 1842 when Pentonville was built, or rather in 1843, when it was being built, Elizabeth Fry complained seriously to the Prison Commissioners that many of the prisoners in Pentonville would not be able to see the sky. It is still true. There is nothing artificial about the claim that a prisoner who can see the sky is more likely to entertain hope than one who cannot. These are convictions which have been burned into my experience.

I am well aware of the fact that to think in terms of great revolutionary changes at this moment is to think in a Cloud-Cuckoo-land, but I believe that the value of this particular discussion lies in what proposals have already been made, and I will comment upon one or two of them, so as to provide at least, within the framework of a system which I believe sooner or later must give place to a better one, such opportunities as will diminish the evils that prison sentences do and will tend to recover, at least to a certain extent, those who suffer the penalties of life imprisonment. Nothing, as I said a moment ago, seems to me so dangerous and so impermissible as to give a prisoner no star to which he can hitch his wagon. I for one do not necessarily believe that the first star of hope should be in some kind of review at a period of four or five or six years. I think it would in many cases depend on the character and the nature of the offence and the offender. But I believe the set stages in a prison experience are absolutely required, in two ways.

Supposing a prisoner is felt to be unable to resume his place in the world with a suitable penalty having been exacted from him and a suitable opportunity been given to him, if that should be delayed for more than six years I believe it is imperative that there should be a change in the kind of régime to which he has been submitted. This will cost money, I dare say, but let it cost what it will it is infinitely more costly to persist with a system which perpetuates the criminal's activities rather than endeavours to change them. Secondly, I believe that a prisoner should be entitled to know something of the nature of the reasons for which he is either encouraged to hope for another and perhaps more proximate opportunity of securing something like a release, that he should know something of those reasons for which he is either refused or is agreed with. I believe it is for the Home Office to work out details in fields in which expertise is not necessarily at my command, and a great deal of experience of which I know nothing should be brought to bear on this issue.

Before I sit down, I want to call attention to two elements in the actual review. I am not addicted to teetotalism, but I am very much concerned with alcohol, and therefore I am a little disturbed when I find on page 18 of this review, two statements. The first is this: consumption of alcohol only rarely leads to homicide". At the bottom of the page it says: Half the men had been consuming alcohol shortly before committing the current offence". Bearing in mind the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, it is nevertheless reasonable to suppose that the approximate consumption of alcohol before committing an offence might indeed have something radical to do with the commission of the offence, particularly when one considers the type of offences listed on the next page, where it says: Two-thirds had attacked people related or known to them: in all they had killed 50 women, 44 men and 16 children". I would bet my cassock that in many of these cases of sudden violence and the use of knives, had those who committed the offences been sober they would not have committed them.

I do not yield to anybody in my conviction that alcohol, and the repeated and almost continuous access to it through supermarkets as well as pubs and in other ways, has had a very great deal to do with the incidence of many homicides. The interesting comment that follows is that in many respects some of those who have committed the worst of crimes are not the worst of criminals.

The other point to which I would refer before I sit down was suggested by my noble friend Lord Hunt. While the prisoners are lifers, while this system persists, then surely it is the responsibility of any civilised society to provide assistance, voluntary help and communication with the real world to which sooner or later they will perhaps return. There is nothing so artificial as life within a prison, nothing so deadening, and there is a vast opportunity—as regards which I would invite the noble Lord, when he replies, to make some comment—for voluntary services in this regard.

However, one matter astonishes me almost beyond belief. Here, in the report, we have a statistically immaculate description of "lifers" and we also have a not so sophisticated and not so complete attempt to understand why and what to do about them. From the first to the last page of this document there is no reference whatever to the religious convictions, religious habits, religious background or religious opportunities of those of whom we are thinking when we specify "lifers". I shall not attempt to provide some kind of statistical reason—I do not know the condition of many of these people. But I believe and it would be totally improper for me not to say this—that the opportunities of religious improvement consequent upon an attachment to new moral principles and an attitude of belief in something that is superior to mere self-interest; and indeed to appeal to that latent sense even of guilt which I believe is not separable from our broken humanity, seems to me to he an area in which the voluntary worker who comes in friendship can be supported and energised by the competent Christian who comes in with a faith. I am referring not only to the Christian, but to the Buddist and the Moslem.

We have two opportunities, two responsibilities. The first is to put an end to a system in which hope disappears from a man's view, whatever his condition. The second is that, while he remains incarcerated in prison for long sentences, which will no doubt continue, everything should be done to promote in him the kind of response which, when he does leave prison, may indeed give him the opportunity of living a decent life and paying something back to the community from which he may have taken so much.

9.55 p.m.

Viscount INGLEBY

My Lords, my only interest in prisons springs from a book which many of your Lordships will know, Born Again by Charles Colson. It echoes, I think, some of the things which the noble Lord, Lord Soper, has just been saying. Indeed, Mr. Colson is shortly to publish his second book in this country, appropriately called Life Sentence. I was very moved by his first book and I am about halfway through his second. I would encourage any Members of the House or of the Home Office who are interested in this subject to read both volumes when they get the chance. I try to see myself in the shoes of a lifer, and I would simply echo what the noble Lord, Lord Soper, has just said about hope. Hope is the last thing that one should take away from anyone. I should find 10 years a very long time in which to keep my hope going; in fact, I think that five might be as many as I could manage.

When I heard from the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that someone is still in prison after 14 years, although the ex-chairman of the Parole Board says, "This prisoner is not dangerous ", I must admit that I find that very difficult to understand. That is all I wish to say.

9.57 p.m.


My Lords, the Question of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, this evening has moved your Lordships' to speak at this late hour from different points of view. A former Lord Chancellor, a former Minister in the Home Office and a former Permanent Secretary—noble Lords who are experienced in working with people who are in prison establishments—have spoken. However, if I may say so, you all quite clearly have one thing in common; your Lordships really do care about the subject which we are discussing.

The noble Earl's Question, of course, refers to the Home Office Research Study No. 51, which consists of three studies undertaken by the Home Office over a period of about 10 years. We are indebted to the authors for a great deal of careful and thorough work, which enables the formulation of policy and decisions about individual life sentence prisoners to be grounded in as much reliable know- ledge as possible. The noble Earl asks—and I should like to thank him for giving me notice of the questions he was going to put this evening—whether the Government recognise the need to formulate a new approach to the problem of life sentence prisoners. As the noble Earl said, the problem is mainly that there is an increasing number of such prisoners—now almost 1,500. The noble Earl's contention that on average life prisoners are serving significantly longer sentences than in the past is not the case. In each of the last four years, the average has gone down. But as the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, said, these figures can be misleading and it is, of course, the case that more individual prisoners are being detained for longer periods of time.

I think that it is fair to say that your Lordships' have propounded two main solutions this evening—to reduce the numbers of life sentences imposed by the courts and to change the procedure for considering the release of these prisoners so that more will be released sooner. There are difficulties about both solutions. The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, spoke of the desirability of replacing the life sentence by a determinate sentence. The difficult question, whether life imprisonment should be the mandatory or the maximum sentence for murder, has been considered in depth by the Advisory Council on the Penal System and the Criminal Law Revision Committee, whose report on Offences Against the Person is shortly to be published. Although both those bodies consider the issues arising from a mandatory life sentence, it is fair to remind the House that neither has suggested that the sentence as such should be abolished. The noble Earl in his speech admitted that if the life sentence were to be replaced by determinate sentences, the effect would be that some offenders would spend longer in prison than they would have done had they been sentenced to life imprisonment.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt. To be absolutely frank about that, that was a thought in my mind when I spoke to the noble Lord about it at an earlier point, but I did not say that in my speech today. That is not my present attitude.


My Lords, I apologise. I understood the noble Earl to say that this evening. It is almost certainly the case if one looks at the figures. However, I would add to that that it is equally true—and I see this as a drawback also of replacing life sentences by determinate sentences—that at the end of their sentences such offenders would have to be released even if those involved with them considered that there was a real risk of their offending again, with no possibility of recall, as there is now, because they would have served their sentence. This was a point to which the noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbeydale, drew our attention.

I must make the position of the Government clear. The Government really do not believe that this level of protection would be sufficient in those cases where there is a real risk to public safety. While I agree with the noble Earl that by no means all persons sentenced to life imprisonment are likely to constitute such a risk, a great many of them are. I am therefore convinced that the life sentence should be retained, although whether it should continue to be mandatory in cases of murder is something which is of course still open to debate.

In this, as in many other matters, the Advisory Council on the Penal System has made a valuable and lasting contribution to penal policy, and both the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, expressed their regret that the advisory council had not been reappointed. The advisory council, which had been in abeyance for nearly two years, gave independent advice on particular issues of penal policy, and the Government, like any other, are going to need from time to time such advice. This the Home Secretary will ask for from ad hoc committees, which will be asked to undertake specific tasks and not have to assume indefinite commitments. In this way the Government will ensure that they receive, but under a slightly different arrangement, the kind of advice which the advisory council so ably provided. I shall certainly draw my right honourable friend's attention to what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked in this respect.

May I now turn to what the noble Earl said about the release of life sentence prisoners. Of course, the life sentence population is made up of people who have been given that sentence in widely differing circumstances and who are of widely differing characteristics: murderers ranging from terrorists, or men who have deliberately murdered police officers, to those who have killed perhaps wives or children for the saddest of compassionate reasons.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, asked whether I could help by revealing why the figures show more lifers who are not murderers. Just as the Government are not in a position to dictate to the judiciary, so the Government cannot necessarily interpret all judicial decisions, but undoubtedly there are lifers who have been convicted of other offences ranging, from brutal and repeated sexual assaults to offences, for example, of arson, which have demonstrated that for the present the offender may he a danger to the public. It follows from this that a life sentence, as well as being indeterminate, really has to be flexible so that full account can be taken of all the factors relevant to the question when the offender should be released.

As your Lordships know, the Home Secretary cannot now order release unless he is recommended to do so by the Parole Board. Noble Lords this evening have explained how the system works. But the point I should like to repeat is that Parliament has recognised that there are factors which, at the end of the day, the Home Secretary must assess, such as the protection of the public, which the noble Lord, Lord Boston, called the paramount consideration, on the question of public confidence in the penal system. But if the Home Secretary is to be able to act with maximum flexibility, then surely the arrangements for considering the placing of individual prisoners have also got to be as flexible as possible. I think the present procedure, which has evolved in the light of experience, achieves that.

Briefly—because the noble Lord, Lord Boston, spoke about it in his speech—seven years ago it was agreed that the cases of all prisoners who had been detained—now, for three years—should be considered by a joint committee of representatives of the Parole Board and of the Home Office who, in the light of all the circumstances, and of reports on the prisoners' progress so far, either recommend a date for first review or ask for the case to be referred to them again after the specified interval. This procedure enables cases to be identi- fied in which unusually early reviews are justified and avoids reviews where there are no realistic prospects of release.

My Lords, although I realise that nothing is perfect—anything but—none the less this was worked out after a very great deal of anxious consideration when the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was chairman of the Parole Board, and it was introduced in 1973 by my noble friend Lord Carr, when he was the Home Secretary. What the noble Earl, Lord Longford, is proposing is that every life sentence prisoner should have the right to have his case reviewed by another body, a tribunal.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I am offering two options.


By the board or by the tribunal?

The Earl of LONGFORD

Or both.


Or by both, indeed, after a fixed period. I say "indeed", because I am a little perplexed by that proposal. It seems to me that that really would prolong matters even further than they are prolonged at the present time.

The problem that I want to fasten on to here is that such automatic reviews would, I think, limit the flexibility implicit in the life sentence, which was the main reason why both the Parole Board and the Home Office found reviews after a fixed period of seven years, which was tried for a time, unsatisfactory. There are of course two other main objections to automatic reviews. I think they were both mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Allan. The first is that it is not compassionate to raise hopes that clearly cannot be fulfilled, although that would not be in any way the intention of this proposal. I take issue with the noble Earl when he says that all life sentence prisoners wonder whether they will ever be released, and that it is necessary to introduce an element of hopefulness into the procedure. All but a very few life prisoners expect to be released sooner or later, and the problem really is not to raise hope unrealistically and unnecessarily.

The other main objection, I think, to the noble Earl's suggestion is that if a prisoner's case were to be the subject of an unrealistically early review, it would inevitably become known and would be interpreted to mean that the Parole Board and the Home Secretary thought that the prisoner might soon be released, and no amount of explanation or denial would remove that suspicion. That would not only cause alarm, but would undermine confidence in the law and the working relationships between its various agencies.

If I may give a specific example of what I mean, if it were thought that a man who had murdered a police officer, and who the trial judge had recommended should be detained for not less than 30 years, was being considered for release after 10 years, what would be the reaction of the police? The judiciary would be rightly critical of the implication that the minimum recommendation was being ignored, and there would be a general—if only temporary—loss of confidence in the arrangements for releasing life sentence prisoners.

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I am afraid that the noble Lord's argument would not apply if it were an automatic appearance before a board because there would be no presumption that he was going to be released. He would just be making use of an automatic right. It is quite different from the situation now, where there is a discretionary decision to bring him before the board. If it were automatic there would not be any alarm; there could not be.


I accept that, my Lords; but the automatic right then suffers from the first problem I tried to point out, namely, that it would be in danger time and again of raising the hopes of prisoners only to dash them to the ground. I will try at this late hour quickly to answer some of the points raised by noble Lords in the debate. The noble Earl referred to the resolution passed in 1977 by the Committee of Ministers of the Council of Europe. That resolution recognised there were great differences in the existing practice of Member States due to tradition, divergence of public opinion and differing social conditions. I want to take this opportunity to say that the Government have accepted the principles contained in the resolution but consider that the procedure I have been describing, for reviewing the cases of life sentence prisoners, meets the spirit of the committee's recommendations.

The noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham, asked whether life sentence prisoners were informed about the procedure for reviewing their cases. I assure him they are. It is fully explained in a booklet which is given to all such prisoners and in information cards in their cells, and the staff explain it to them. The booklet makes it clear—this answers another point raised by the noble Lord—that because of the very full consideration given to these cases and the need to consult many people, reviews necessarily take some time to complete and that a decision should not be expected until at least six months after a review begins.

The noble Lord, Lord Hunt, asked about figures for volunteers working in prisons. I am afraid I cannot improve on the figures he gave to the House. The noble Lord, Lord Soper, put to me that the Government should take this aspect of prison work with the greatest of seriousness. I attach great importance to this and I try not to forget that, in addition to prison visitors, we are also talking about boards of visitors and people helping in other ways, such as visitors at reception centres at prisons, which I have seen in the last 10 months and which do so much to help the families of those who are in prison. In addition to that, I bear in mind that a healthy Probation Service in itself attracts to it probation volunteers and people who will help in that way, and the Government are genuinely trying to underpin the work of the Probation Service in this country. I will write to the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, with any up-to-date figures as soon as I can procure them.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, spoke about the Barlinnie Special Unit, and I was grateful to him for telling me a lot of things I did not know. Partly for that reason I will not follow the noble and learned Lord, nor will I follow him in his speech because some senior officials from the Home Office are due to visit Barlinnie very shortly and my right honourable friend will be awaiting their report with great interest. However, I should like to respond to what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, said about regimes for life sentence prisoners.

Noble Lords who have spoken in the debate tonight know that life sentence prisoners are moved to different establishments during their sentences, taking many considerations into account—the views of the prisoner, the appropriate level of security, the need for medical services, accessibility for visits and availability of education and work; and there is one such prison, Kingston at Portsmouth, entirely for lifers, principally men who have committed crimes within the circle of the family or in circumstances unlikely to be repeated. Although I do not have anything like the experience of the noble Earl, I visited Kingston recently and was impressed by the sensitive way in which—in closed conditions, yes, but none the less—positive efforts were being made to try to assist those men.

The noble Lord, Lord Allen of Abbey-dale, referred to the number of life sentence prisoners now in prison who would qualify for transfer to hospital under Section 72 of the Mental Health Act 1959. If the noble Lord will allow me, I should like to write to him on that point, but may I follow him in his mention of the problem of allocating life sentence prisoners to open prisons. At present we are not short of such places, and as the noble Lord said, life prisoners have for many years gone to Leyhill, and, since 1976, to Sudbury.

The noble Lord touched on the difficulty of filling all these places in open prisons; and that is right. I cannot this evening give to the noble Lord details of the numbers of prisoners who are suitable for open conditions but who remain in closed conditions. The noble Lord asked me about that. However, let us remember that these prisoners can go to an establishment of that kind only when fairly close to release, and care must be taken in these decisions, as it must be when the final stages of a life sentence are spent on the pre-release employment scheme or in a hostel, when oversight continues to be maintained, and any reservations are quickly communicated to the Home Office, so that a return to prison is considered, if it has to be considered.

Finally, may I answer the point that was certainly put to me by the noble Earl, and, I think, by other noble Lords, about the comparison between mental patients and life sentence prisoners. With respect to the noble Earl, I do not think that this is comparing like with like. Mental health review tribunals are primarily concerned with the question of whether a patient still warrants detention in hospital for treatment. It is true that the decision to discharge a patient subject to a restriction order rests with the Home Secretary, and that restricted patients can require their cases to be referred to a tribunal, but in those cases the tribunals do no more than offer advice to my right honourable friend. This position is quite different from that of life sentence prisoners, whom the Home Secretary can release only if the Parole Board so recommends. Given that issues such as retribution are irrelevant to the treatment of hospital patients, I think that it is in no way surprising that the system of review for restricted patients is different from the system of review for life sentence prisoners.

The noble Earl has indeed done the House a service this evening by asking this Question. However, I must make it clear that the Government do not feel it right to accept the noble Earl's argument that the cases of all life sentence prisoners should automatically be reviewed after not more than 10 years; nor do we accept that there should be a right of access to an additional review body. May I make it clear that I say this because cases are considered jointly by the Parole Board and the Home Office from three years after a prisoner is first detained. At all stages there is the possibility of advancing consideration of a case—which was a point that was particularly made by the noble Lord, Lord Boston of Faversham—and, in addition to that, there is the right to have an interview with a member of the local review committee and for representations to be made at any time regarding the case of a life prisoner—

The Earl of LONGFORD

My Lords, I am afraid that I do not quite follow the noble Lord in what he says. He says that there is a right to have an interview with a member of the local review board, but that is not so for the life prisoner who has not even been allowed access to the board.


My Lords, the noble Earl is going around the argument yet again. He is going back to the same point: that there ought to be an automatic moment when every case is considered. No one is more compassionate than the noble Earl, but I believe that such a proposal would be less than compassionate, because it would be a way to raise the hopes of a prisoner only to dash them to the ground.

During the last few days my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has shown his concern that inadequate and trivial offenders who are no threat to anyone should not find their way into prison, except in compelling circumstances. My right honourable friend is also concerned that sentences should be no longer than necessary, but that concern must never replace what the noble Lord, Lord Allen, called the Home Secretary's in-escapable responsibility for the safety of the public and for maintaining the confidence of the public in our penal system. My Lords, it is because the Government believe that the noble Earl's suggestions would not improve the prospects for life sentence prisoners, and could in some cases not protect the safety of the general public, that I cannot accept the proposals which the noble Earl has put forward this evening.