HL Deb 27 June 1985 vol 465 cc835-45

3.24 p.m.

Lord Rodney

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

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

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair]

Clause 1 [Life imprisonment for Class A drug offences.]:

Lord Monson moved Amendment No.1: Page 1, line 10, leave out ("Life") and insert ("35 years")

The noble Lord said: It may be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak at the same time to Amendment No. 2, which, for all practical purposes, is consequential. Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 17, leave out ("life") and insert ("a term not exceeding 35 years") By a most curious coincidence I find myself moving two sets of amendments on the same day on two quite different Bills, both sets attempting to alter the maximum sentence of life imprisonment to a determinate one. The arguments are not quite identical in each case, so, unfortunately, I shall not be able to use the same speech twice.

When the House was in Committee on the Sexual Offences Bill six days ago a great many noble Lords expressed the view that a Private Member's Bill is not really the right vehicle for imposing a dramatic increase in maximum sentence. This argument is a little weaker where this Bill is concerned. This is partly because the increase in the proposed maximum is somewhat less steep than in the Sexual Offences Bill, and partly because the Short Title indicates that the increased maximum sentence is the sole purpose of this Bill—nobody is left in any doubt—whereas many noble Lords considered that the much higher maximum was being slipped into the other Bill almost as an afterthought.

But the other argument voiced last Friday remains as valid today as it did then. I pointed out on that occasion that murder used to be considered a unique and terrible crime, which was met by the unique and terrible penalty. Twenty years ago the penalty became a good deal less terrible, but it remained more or less unique. Latterly this state of affairs has been changing, to the extent that there are now about 20 crimes for which life imprisonment can be imposed, many of them a good deal less heinous than murder, by anybody's reckoning. The dangerous consequence of this is that the public perception of murder as a unique and terrible crime has greatly diminished. In a sense it has almost become trivialised. It becomes just a crime of violence like many others—a little worse, but not much more than that. These amendments are designed so as to prevent that trend continuing, but, less paradoxically than it may seem, they are also designed to strengthen the Bill and to make it even more effective as a deterrent.

How would these amendments fulfil the requirements of sentencing policy? From the punishment angle they would make virtually no difference. Anyone who was sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment would have to serve at least 23 years and four months, assuming that he earned full remission. It is difficult to imagine any drug pedlar, who had not at the same time been convicted of any other crimes, such as possession of firearms, and who was sentenced to life imprisonment, actually serving in practice more than 20 or, perhaps, 22 years. From the angle of keeping the dangerous criminal out of circulation it also, I would contend, makes no difference.

Dr. Thomas, in his book Principles of Sentencing, pointed out that the sentence of life imprisonment was not created legislatively as a special measure for dangerous offences. He went on to say that the sentence is reserved for persons who have committed offences of substantial gravity, and who appear to be suffering from some disorder of personality or instability of character which makes them likely to commit grave offences in future, if left at large or released from a fixed term of imprisonment. I do not think that drug dealers come into that category: they are cold-blooded individuals rather than hot-blooded ones.

From the point of view of rehabilitation, I believe that this amendment would to some extent improve the Bill. It is always better surely for the prisoner to have a goal to work towards, some ray of light at the end of the tunnel, which a determinate sentence would ensure. From the point of view of deterrence, I am convinced that these amendments would improve matters. A sentence of life will normally rate in the press no more than two or three, or perhaps four, column inches on an inside page. In contrast, if the same offender is given for the same crime a determinate sentence of 35 years, 30 years, 27 years or even 24 years, it will be blazoned all over the front pages. This is partly because the public are aware that a life sentence rarely if ever actually means life, and partly because life sentences are so common nowadays; whereas long deterrent sentences are rare enough to provoke comment and discussion. One needs only to look at the impact of the 30-year sentences imposed upon the Great Train Robbers.

I have no doubt that the Government will argue that release on licence means that the life prisoner is never totally free and that he can in theory be recalled to prison at any time. Of course, this is technically true but in general he would have to behave pretty badly to be recalled. No lifer is going to be hauled back to prison as a result of having parked on a double yellow line. Let me repeat that these amendments are in no sense intended to weaken the Bill. As I hope I have shown, they should greatly strengthen its deterrent features. I beg to move.

Lord Mishcon

In dealing with this amendment, I have only a few brief observations to make. First, those who are convicted of this crime and who are the heads of one of the wickedest trades that one could ever conceive, deserve to be faced with precisely the same punishment as we accord to those who are guilty of murder. There may on some occasions be some excuse for murder. There is no excuse for those who carry on this trade, who are the heads of it and who make millions out of it. They traffic in murder for gain. Whatever else be the arguments, they ought to be faced with precisely the same maximum sentence as is accorded to those guilty of murder.

Lord Denning

I also oppose this amendment. It seems to me that to introduce 35 years would be something new in our law. Surely the right way to condemn these heinous crimes—there is a whole list of them now—of murder and the like is 10 let the sentence be for life. That is the most impressive sentence that can be given. I would therefore ask your Lordships' Committee not to accept the amendment.

Baroness Macleod of Borve

I should like briefly to add my few remarks to those of the two noble Lords. As a former member of the Parole Board, I should like to correct, if I may, a statement made by the noble Lord, Lord Monson. He implied that it might be possible to keep a prisoner in prison for quite a long time if he were given 35 years. In actual fact, the earliest date of release is after one-third of the sentence has been served. If he comes up in front of the Parole Board and asks for release at EDR, that in my calculation would be 11 years.

The deterrent of life imprisonment is the fact that not only is a prisoner faced with life but also—I feel this is very important—every sentence for life is, following the Parole Board's recommendation, sent to the Home Secretary himself. Every life prisoner's sentence is adjudicated upon in the long run by the Home Secretary. I feel that a Home Secretary of any political party would weigh this very seriously indeed. I entirely agree with the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon. This crime is increasing. It kills as much as murder does. For that reason, I agree that we should not accept this amendment.

Lord Shaughnessy

Perhaps I may suggest, in opposing this amendment, that it is more than likely that anyone sentenced on conviction to life imprisonment is guilty of multiple murder, at least indirectly.

Baroness Cox

Perhaps I may say briefly that the Government cannot support the proposed amendment to the Bill of the noble Lord. Lord Monson. We believe that the courts must have the widest possible sentencing discretion. We also believe that nothing less than a maximum sentence of life imprisonment would adequately express society's abhorrence of the despicable people who exploit and who profit handsomely from the misery of drug addiction. We therefore wish this Bill a speedy and unamended progress onto the statute book.

Lord Rodney

I am not absolutely clear whether the noble Lord, Lord Monson, was speaking to both the amendments, but I should like, if I may, to speak to them both because I believe that they are virtually synonymous. As I explained at the Second Reading of the Bill, it is clear and concise and its objective is to increase the maximum penalty for major trafficking in Class A drugs from 14 years to life imprisonment. It is not aimed at the small-time pushers but at cynical profiteers who are in for the big money.

It may interest your Lordships to know that earlier this month a major trafficker was convicted of smuggling £600,000-worth of cocaine and was given 24 years at the Central Criminal Court. These were in fact two consecutive terms of 12 years. This is particularly interesting because at the moment the maximum sentence is 14 years. This points, I submit, to the strong desire of the judiciary for the widest possible discretionary powers to be given to them.

The drug problem is world wide and is growing at a terrible rate. When we catch these major operators, be they British or foreign—a lot of them are foreign—the courts should have the widest possible discretion. This means that, if it is considered appropriate, they should be able to hand out any sentence up to life imprisonment. It is unlikely that they would avail themselves very often of this possibility but this maximum sentence would, I believe, reflect the revulsion society has for these parasites who trade in human misery and who by many people are classed alongside murderers and rapists. As the noble Lord, Lord Shaughnessy, has suggested, a number of these drug addicts are indirectly killed by these people.

When I introduced the Bill I expressed the hope that it would receive the same enthusiastic support in your Lordships' House as it did in another place, where incidentally it passed without amendment. I was not disappointed the other evening when it received unqualified support from all sides of the House. However, I cannot hide my disappointment that this amendment has been put down today, although I must say I respect the motives of the noble Lord. Lord Monson. I understand, as he has just said, that he supports the Bill in principle although he has certain reservations on detail. With all due respect to him, I have to say that I cannot quite follow his reasoning. As the noble Lord himself said, the proliferation of life sentences is already taking place.

I have a list of some 40 crimes which attract such a maximum sentence. I class major drug trafficking with murder and rape, and way above such crimes as piracy, placing an obstruction on the railway line or counterfeiting, serious as they may be, which carry a maximum sentence of life imprisonment. I will not read to your Lordships the list that I have here of 40 offences which qualify, but some are quite amazing.

I respectfully suggest to the noble Lord, Lord Monson, that if he feels so strongly about life sentences he should start a campaign to have the list of offences which attract that penalty reviewed, rather than object to this particular application of a life sentence. I submit that even if that list is reviewed and the number of offences is reduced, the maximum sentence of life imprisonment for drug trafficking should be put on that list and should remain on it.

The noble Lord mentioned also that to impose a penalty of 35 years' imprisonment rather than life imprisonment would be to strengthen the Bill. I appreciate the noble Lord's wish to assist me in this matter, but I cannot follow his reasoning. If somebody is sentenced to life imprisonment—and the noble Lord gave as an example a sentence of 35 years' imprisonment being publicised in the press—then, if anything, "life imprisonment" as a headline carries more weight than a sentence of 35 years, although I accept that that is a matter of personal opinion.

We have heard once again from all sides of the Committee that the original Bill proposing a maximum sentence of life imprisonment had the support of all sides of the Committee—as, indeed, it had the support of the House on Second Reading—and I sincerely hope that the noble Lord can see his way clear to withdrawing his amendment.

Lord Shepherd

Perhaps I may intervene to ask the Minister, or the mover, a question. I fully support the proposals in the Bill. I have some doubts about the severity of the penalty, when one considers that in certain countries in South-East Asia they have an automatic mandatory death penalty but that still does not seem to stop the dreadful business of trafficking in drugs.

The question I wish to put to the Minister is this. In the case of a life sentence for murder, the judge, in considering the circumstances of the case, can say that in his view there should be no consideration of release before 25 years. Would the same apply in this particular case, were the judge to impose life imprisonment? Could the judge say, "In my view, considering the nature of the case, I think that this offender should not be considered for release before 25 years", or whatever the term may be? I hope that the answer will be in the affirmative. If it is, then much of what the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is trying to achieve probably will be achieved.

Lord Rodney

With so many noble and learned Lords around me, I feel somewhat diffident about replying, but I am sure that I will be corrected if I am wrong in what I say. I believe that it is the case that a judge can recommend a minimum sentence. Another point which may reassure the noble Lord, Lord Monson, is that in the case of somebody who is sentenced for murder, life imprisonment is a mandatory sentence; that is to say, if one is convicted of murder, one has to be sentenced to life imprisonment. That is not to say that one will have to stay in prison for life. Again, if any noble Lord would like to correct me on that point, I should be most grateful. But I believe that the answer to the question of the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, is, yes.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

We appear to be increasing piecemeal the number of offences that will be subject to a life sentence. Later this afternoon we shall be considering a clause in the Sexual Offences Bill which has nothing whatever to do with the main purpose of that Bill, which is to legislate against kerb crawling, but it appears in the Bill because the Government are seeking a suitable vehicle for implementing a recommendation of the Law Revision Commission.

It seems to me that one decision to increase a sentence to life imprisonment follows another. This is a form of punishment we are being asked to adopt progressively in order to express the revulsion of society against one crime after another. If life imprisonment is to be regarded as a new, standard form of expressing extreme revulsion on the part of the public towards a particular type of crime, we ought to examine whether that form of sentence is inhumane, or whether it is realistic, or whether it should be reviewed.

3.45 p.m.

Personally—and I speak very personally in this matter—I believe that it is better and kinder to execute people rather than to keep them in prison for life with no hope of escape. That form of existence—involving the imposition of the restriction of freedom and the deprivation of all rights except that to exist—is not, in my opinion, a form of punishment that the public ought continually to pursue, and certainly ought not to accept.

I feel very strongly about this matter, and a great many people do. We do not know what we are doing with our prison system. We do not know whether we are punishing people correctly, whether we are reforming the system, whether we are responding to public opinion, or whether we are simply looking at the headlines in the gutter press to see whether or not the public will stand for something. In my humble submission, that is not the way we should be pursuing this particular matter. I shall be saying something equally strong when we come to deal with the Sexual Offences Bill later this afternoon.

Lord Somers

I sincerely hope that the Committee will not listen to the opinion that has just been voiced. This is not a question of education. Those who are trafficking in drugs are perfectly aware of what they are doing. Young people are seriously in need of protection against such persons, and I sincerely hope that the Committee will pay more attention to the description of this crime given by the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon.

Lord Rodney

With respect to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, we are not actually discussing capital punishment in this connection: we might or we might not agree with him. The comparison he drew with the Sexual Offences Bill is not quite fair. Although I have not read Hansard, I understand that the noble Lord made more or less the same suggestion in connection with that Bill, but the two cases are not the same. This Bill is dealing with one specific point; that is, increasing the maximum punishment for this offence from 14 years to life imprisonment. The Sexual Offences Bill, as I understand it, is primarily concerned with the nuisance caused by kerb crawling, and the other part of the Bill was inserted as being supplementary.

So far as concerns adding piecemeal to the list of offences, I will not trouble your Lordships with the list I have, but some of the offences which qualify are quite incredible and date back to 1863 and 1883. So we have been adding to that list for some time now. In my earlier speech I suggested that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, might like to campaign for a review of that list of offences. He may care to take that suggestion more seriously.

None of that detracts from the seriousness of the particular crime of drug trafficking and our desire and willingness to be able to warn offenders, "If you are caught, you risk receiving a life sentence". I repeat that my hope is that the noble Lord, Lord Monson, will withdraw his amendment.

Lord Monson

I have listened with the greatest interest to the comments of noble Lords in all parts of the Committee. I will first pick up the very interesting point made by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, when he referred to the provision whereby judges can recommend that persons sentenced to life imprisonment for murder should serve a minimum term of imprisonment. The trouble with such a provision from the point of view of public relations and its impact upon the public at large is that the minimum recommended sentence—the period of time involved—is expressed in "net of remission" terms rather than "gross of remission" terms. Therefore, it does not have the same impact.

People hear that there has been a recommendation that someone should serve 20 years, and they say, "How terrible. The great train robbers, were sentenced to 30 years, which is 50 per cent. longer". In actual fact it is not 50 per cent. longer, but that is the way it seems to the public. Rather than sentencing someone to life imprisonment with a recommendation of a minimum of 20 years it would be better if the judges sentenced him to between 30 and 99 years, subject only to one-third remission, as happens in the United States. It comes to exactly the same thing, but is far more impressive from the point of view of the public at large.

I should like also to pick up a point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Macleod, who expressed the view that anyone sentenced to 35 years' imprisonment could be released on parole after 11 years—I think it is actually 11 years and eight months that she had in mind—but I am sure this is not the case. I do not believe that a drug dealer would be released on parole. I am certain that, in practice, provided they were eligible for remission for good behaviour, they would spend 23 years and four months in prison. As I tried to point out, I do not think that that is any longer, in practice, than someone given a life sentence would serve.

I am sorry that some noble Lords seem to have the impression that I am trying to weaken the Bill. I am very definitely not trying to do that. The noble Baroness, Lady Cox, spoke of the need to express society's abhorrence. Indeed: the point I was trying to make is that, knowing how public opinion works, a long determinate sentence is far more awe-inspiring these days to the man in the street than is a life sentence. That is the only point I was trying to make. However, in the absence of any general support I can only beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 2 not moved.]

On Question, Whether Clause 1 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I should like to ask my noble friend Lord Rodney, whose initiative on this Bill all of us welcome enormously, a question on the intention, purpose and effect of subsection (2) of Clause 1 That subsection includes, as your Lordships will see, not only the penalties of imprisonment which your Lordships have just been debating but also a penalty of any amount.

I recall that in this Chamber—I think it was about 18 months ago—no less a person than the present Lord Chief Justice of England, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane, expressed the view that drug traffickers, on conviction, should, apart from any other penalty imposed on them, have their goods and property confiscated. It is well known that many people make a great deal of money out of this ghastly trade. If they keep that money it is there waiting for them when they are released from prison. It must be a considerable consolation to them to know that when they are released they can retire to a villa on the Costa de Sol or some other salubrious resort or a less salubrious resort where they will live in luxury for the rest of their lives.

Therefore I wonder whether my noble friend, in putting in this penalty of any amount, had in mind the idea that the penalty should be calculated, as best as possible, to amount to the totality of the means and property of the convicted man; and whether indeed powers should not be obtained, if they are not already there, to secure full information as to his means on conviction. I am quite sure that, from a practical point of view, in addition to whatever term of imprisonment these people suffer, if one could really take away the whole of what one must call their ill-gotten gains one would add greatly to the deterrent effect and also give some satisfaction to the justifiable indignation of society. I hope that my noble friend will be able to help us on that point.

Lord Denning

May I say just a word or two on this. I should have thought that the penalty of any amount would cover the total of the ill-gotten gains. However, there is a point here. Do not wait until the sentence of the court is given, because by that time the accused person will have taken all the proceeds away and put them in a numbered account in Switzerland, or somewhere else where they cannot be reached. Therefore let us stop them earlier and have the procedure in our courts where, immediately the person has been charged, the courts can grant an injunction to prevent him moving those assets. If necessary they should be sequestrated until the time comes for the sentence. I made that suggestion on a previous occasion, and I believe Her Majesty's Government were intending to look into the matter.

Lord Mishcon

I am sure the Committee will be most grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, for raising a point that has been before your Lordships on other occasions and is of great importance: namely, that these people should not be allowed to get away with their ill-gotten gains.

If I remember correctly—and I am only rising to my feet because I want to emphasise a point I ventured to make on Second Reading—we were then told that the Government were preparing legislation to give these specific powers: namely, to impound what was in various bank accounts and various assets. I think many of us pleaded that that legislation should be brought forward as soon as possible because, in my judgment, that is as big a deterrent as the matters we have been dealing with in the amendment moved by the noble Lord, Lord Monson.

At that time I pleaded that it is all very well, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Denning, hinted, to talk in terms of powers to impound. The fact is that we are dealing with scoundrels who will be subtle enough so to have arranged their financial affairs that their assets and bank accounts will not be readily available. Therefore I hoped that powers would be in the Bill directed to various banks so that they have to give information—perhaps on a charge being preferred (we must be careful about this) but certainly on any conviction—to the authorities if they hold any assets or moneys for the account of the people concerned or those people who are connected with them. I believe that on occasions like this members of the family prove to be rather useful and become rather more affectionately engaged to the person concerned than they ever were before.

Therefore I rise only to remind the Committee, as I am sure the noble Lord the Minister would, of what was discussed at Second Reading. I hope that the point I tried to make then will be borne in mind.

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

I do not want to be tiresome and I shall not detain the Committee for more than a moment. What my noble friend has just said emphasises the point I made earlier about tackling this serious matter piecemeal. Here we have a little Bill, dealing with substantially one matter, to increase a penalty for a certain type of very grave offence. Later on we shall have a clause in another Bill to do the same thing.

This problem of drug trafficking is a grievous problem throughout the world and this country is beginning to suffer from it very gravely indeed. If we are to consider how it is to be stamped out or how it is at least to be curbed—we shall probably never stamp it out—and how we are to reduce the risk of this traffic doing serious harm in this country, we ought really to be looking at the comprehensive picture. We should be looking at what we can do to stop it, what penalties can be inflicted which may be effective—imprisonment is not always an effective deterrent but other means might be—and the administration problems which we shall confront in trying to detect the traffic, stop it and deal with it. This is a comprehensive problem. It is an unsatisfactory way of doing serious business that a Bill like this comes from the House of Commons—I suspect it was another Private Member's Bill—in order to deal with one aspect of a very large problem.

I finish by saying that whether we like it or not, alcohol and tobacco traffic have done far more damage in this country than ever drugs are likely to do, and yet we license premises to sell them. We do not send people to prison for encouraging excessive consumption of two other products which are a very serious threat to the health of the nation.

4 p.m.

Lord Mishcon

I apologise for rising to my feet again. My comments will be very short. The House and the Committee will always respect the noble Lord, Lord Houghton of Sowerby, my noble friend, but noble Lords will not necessarily follow his views. I rise immediately to say this. First, he is quite right: if one looks at this problem comprehensively, there are matters of administration, of powers over banks, of secrecy of banks, and so on, that have to be considered. My anxiety standing here dealing with a Private Member's Bill and therefore merely expressing my own opinion—

Lord Houghton of Sowerby

Will my noble friend permit me? Perhaps I may respectfully say to him that after paying him a compliment I do not expect to have to listen to a lecture from him.

Lord Mishcon

My noble friend is in the habit of not listening to what he does not wish to hear. Therefore he has of course the liberty of not listening to me.

I was saying that quite obviously this is a comprehensive problem. It may take some time. It is my personal view that dealing with this increasing and terribly heinous crime this House together with another place speak as quickly as possible in regard to one matter and one matter only at this moment, and that is to say that we equate this with murder. Let the world know it, and in particular let this trade know it.

Lord Rodney

I do not want to present myself as a peacemaker between noble Lords opposite. Perhaps I may first express my appreciation to my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter for the nice things that he said about my presentation of the Bill. I am also a little worried that I shall be drawn into legal matters with all the expert and learned Lords around me. But the question of the penalty of any amount is designed so that a big fine can be imposed either separately from or, one hopes, as well as a prison sentence.

On the Second Reading of the Bill, for which unfortunately many noble Lords were not able to be present because it came forward very late, we dealt with this question in some detail. It has been categorically confirmed by Her Majesty's Government that they will be bringing forward legislation to enable the sequestration of drug traffickers' assets. That is not as easy as all that. I think that when the Minister was in America he went into this. They have something similar in the United States, but it is not a simple matter to undertake. That is one of the reasons why we are going step by step. With due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Houghton, it is only a small step but it is a step; and I brought that forward at Second Reading. In conjunction with the other sequestration which one hopes will come through shortly, we shall be starting to develop a really strong deterrent against these Mafia-type drug traffickers. We are not talking about the small pushers. But even though, as I understand it, the second step is technically rather complicated, I do not feel that that is any reason why we should not take this step now. Surely a little is better than nothing. I hope that I have been able to answer some of the questions raised and to reassure your Lordships' Committee.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

I am much indebted to my noble friend. If I may say so respectfully, I think that he has this just about right. By putting in the fine of any amount he paves the way for taking over the assets of these people. I am sure that he is wise not to include in a Private Member's Bill the awful technicalities of sequestration which I think will try to the utmost even the resources of a Government department, even, dare I say it, those of the noble Baroness on the Front Bench. So I think, with respect, that my noble friend has this about right and I hope that your Lordships will support him in it.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment: Report received.