HL Deb 01 July 1982 vol 432 cc333-7

3.34 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Elton)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now again resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now again resolve itself into Committee.—(Lord Elton.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

The Earl of Longford moved Amendment No. 62:

After Clause 28, insert the following new clause:

("Reference of cases of prisoners serving life sentences to local review committee. S.I. 1967 No. 1462. Parole for prisoners serving life sentences.

.—(1) The Local Review Committee Rules 1967 shall have effect subject to the following amendments.

(2) In Rule 6, the following paragraphs shall be inserted after paragraph (3)— (3A) Subject to the provisions of this Rule, the local review committee shall review the case of a prisoner serving a sentence of imprisonment for life at some time before the end of the period specified in paragraph (3B) below and subsequently at intervals of not less than 10 months or more than 14 months from the last review. (3B) The period referred to in paragraph (3A) above is the period of ten years from the date on which the prisoner was sentenced, less any period by which, if he had been sentenced to a determinate sentence, the length of that sentence would have been treated as reduced under section 67 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967.".

(3) In Rule 7—

  1. (a) the words", other than a prisoner sentenced to detention during Her Majesty's pleasure or for life," shall be omitted; and
  2. (b) the following paragraph shall be inserted after paragraph (b}—
(ba) for the reference in paragraph (3A) of that Rule to a prisoner serving a sentence of imprisonment for life there shall be substituted a reference to a prisoner sentenced to detention during Her Majesty's pleasure or for life;".")

The noble Earl said: I rise to move an amendment which would in effect provide that after no more than 10 years a prisoner would have access to the parole system. That of course does not mean that such a prisoner would be immediately granted parole. I am fortified in moving this amendment by the fact that it is supported by the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, who did so much work with me when we belonged to the same party, by Lord Hunt, and by the noble Baroness, Lady Birk, who is leading for my party this afternoon.

Lord Hunt is unable to be here, but he has written to say this—I hope I shall not be in any trouble if I quote him: I do support your proposition that an application may be made when that period of nine years has passed without a review having been ordered by the Joint Committee. It is then that despair of ever being considered for eventual release or having been overlooked and forgotten is apt to begin. There is an unanswerable case on grounds of Christian compassion for keeping hope alive. The alternative is to impose a form of living death which equates with inhumanity. That is what Lord Hunt says, and, as we know, he is a former chairman of the Parole Board. Although he has mentioned nine years, which is rather shorter than my 10 years, I think I can fairly say that he is supporting this proposition in his absence. In fact five years ago the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Gardiner, a former Lord Chancellor, and the noble Lord, Lord Carr, a former Home Secretary, went along with me and argued a proposition of this kind with the Home Secretary for days. So I think that one cannot say that this is a sudden aberration on the part of any of us.

Everybody who has spoken so far—and many have spoken with great eloquence, particularly from the Back-Bench, Front Bench, however we describe the Bench of the SDP—and indeed everybody who has moved an amendment, has clearly thought his the most important amendment in the world. I am no exception. I regard this amendment as being one of the utmost importance.

The Bill before us describes itself as making various changes "in the sentencing and treatment of young and adult offenders". That is the phrasing of the title. But few would claim—I am sure the highly intelligent noble Lord, Lord Elton, if I may say that without patronising him, will not claim—that the Bill does much, if anything, to affect the lives of long-term prisoners, or anything at all to affect the lives of those life prisoners whose numbers have increased so dramatically several times over in recent years. If any of us had a friend or relative in prison, we would, of course, be aware of the degrading conditions under which he was probably living if he was doing, as our friend or relative might be doing, a really short sentence. But, in fact, if any of us had a friend who was doing a longer sentence, undergoing long-term imprisonment, we would know, though there is no particular overcrowding among long-term prisoners, that the whole fact of long-term imprisonment is much more degrading to the human spirit.

If we take the alleged reasons for inflicting very long sentences on our fellow humans, I will quote Prison Rule No.1: The purpose of the treatment and training of convicted prisoners shall be to encourage and assist them to lead a good and useful life. That is Prison Rule No. 1, but I do not think anybody in the Committee, certainly none of the sophisticated noble Lords who speak on these matters, regard that as anything but a sick joke. And yet I would not wish that particular Rule No. 1 to be eliminated. I think as long as it is there it sets a kind of standard which devoted staffs try to live up to. The justification for really long sentences are surely only two: first, they deter potential criminals from committing similar offences; and, secondly, they prevent the earlier release of criminals who would constitute a danger to the public.

The notion that long sentences are more of a deterrent than short ones is now, as a result of Home Office research, about as discredited as the idea that prison is a reforming agency. So it comes down to this. The only justification for keeping one of our fellow human beings incarcerated for many years, for more that 10 years, for example, is that if released he would constitute a menace to society. I am not dealing with mental offenders, who I think should be discussed at great length here, but not on this occasion.

How do we deal with the release of long-sentence prisoners? We know that under our parole system— which I still applaud although I criticise its operation and have criticised it many times—prisoners who are serving a determinate sentence are eligible for parole and are considered for parole after a third. So if by some evil chance they find themselves—-as did the original train robbers—serving 30 years, they would be considered after 10 years. But prisoners who have no determinate sentence and who, nearly all of them, are life prisoners in the official sense, cannot look forward to any definite date when they will be considered for parole. They have no certainity, no hope to build on for the future. Life prisoners are denied any such certainty, any such genuine hope.

Life prisoners, who are the immediate subject for examination at the moment, are "at the mercy of the executive"—to quote a phrase from an official publication. Their whole future depends on a group of individuals" wrapped in impenetrable mystery"—to quote a phrase from the rules of a well known club— who can decide their destiny. The gentlemen who decide their destiny are all quite inaccessible to the prisoners or to their representatives. The decision as to when, if at all, the prisoner will be allowed on to the croquet lawn, if I may use that expression, and allowed a shot at the first hoop, will depend entirely on the decision of the Home Secretary acting on the recommendations of this small internal committee. The committee consists of two Home Office officials and three members of the Parole Board.

As all the many experts in the Committee will be aware, but some others may not, when a prisoner comes before a local review committee, he will at least be interviewed by a member of that committee. If not adequate, it is at least something. But this hidden, tucked away committee which deals with life prisoners sees none of the prisoners at first hand. When the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, was chairman of the Parole Board, he got to know many prisoners personally, but that desirable habit has long since been discontinued. I hope that under the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, it will be reactivated.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

If the noble Earl will forgive me for interrupting, I hope that it will be too. Indeed, as the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, is now, as chairman of the Parole Board, not really capable of answering for himself, let me just say that what the noble Earl is saying here really has absolutely no basis in reality whatever. Members of the Parole Board regularly visit prisons and regularly talk to inmates.

The Earl of Longford

I cannot accept that as a general statement. I visited prisons for many years during the stewardship—I did not want to allude to this—-of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich, and I never met a prisoner who had had any interview with him alone. I am only telling your Lordships: the Committee must judge between us. But I know that the noble Lord, Lord Harris, has the idea that visiting a prison means seeing a group of prisoners collectively. That is not what the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, did. I am only saying that I prefer the methods of the noble Lord, Lord Hunt, to the methods of the noble Lord, Lord Harris of Greenwich. I did not want to go into that matter, but, since I have been challenged, I must put it plainly on the record of the Committee.

Let us return to calmer topics. I am sorry to say that I think that this is a lamentable procedure. The Committee does not like strong language because it always assumes that whoever produces it is really thinking of the press, but I have talked about these matters too often and I am too old to mind whether that imputation is lodged against me. I am bound to say that the present procedure in my opinion stinks of natural injustice. Under my amendment, a prisoner after 10 years—I would prefer a shorter period, but I am trying to be moderate—would be allowed the right of access to the parole system. It would begin with the local review committee after not more than 10 years. That is not—to repeat what I said at the beginning—by any manner of means saying that after 10 years all life prisoners will be released. They will still have to go through the three hoops: the local review committee; the central board; and the Secretary of State. Even when parole is granted, a further period is likely to elapse—sometimes it is a year or even more—before he is actually released.

I am ready to argue with a devil's advocate who might say that, under my plan, we should be releasing on the public certain dangerous criminals. I would reply by pointing once again to the three safeguards: the local review committee; the Parole Board; and the Secretary of State. If all those concerned cannot decide who is and who is not dangerous, then they are not the kind of people most of us believe them to be.

I must not take up more time. I believe that the parole system has great merits. I suppose that in a small indirect way I was connected with its original establishment. But what I personally value most of all about the parole system, although I believe on balance that it does help to reduce the numbers in prison, is the special motivation that it gives to prisoners. I still believe that it provides an inducement to prisoners to try to reform their characters with some hope of release. Therefore, I am at one with the noble Lord, Lord Hunt—and after all he must know more about it than any of us here—when I say that if this amendment is carried we shall be doing something to diminish despair. I beg to move.

Lord Sandys

I think that it may be for the convenience of your Lordships if we now resume the House and take the Statement on the European Council. I beg to move that the House be now resumed.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.