HL Deb 21 July 1988 vol 499 cc1491-3

3.40 p.m.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I beg to move the Motion standing in my name on the Order Paper.

Your Lordships may recall that during the Third Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill last December the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, suggested that it might be desirable to set up a Select Committee of the House to consider the crime of and the penalty for murder and the arrangements for determining the duration of the period to be spent in custody by life prisoners. This suggestion was enthusiastically received by several other Members of your Lordships' House. On that occasion the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor undertook to draw this suggestion to my attention. I have now had an opportunity to consult the other party leaders on this matter and I am happy to say that we are all of the view that this would be a fruitful area for inquiry by a Select Committee of the House.

The orders of reference set out on the Order Paper I hope accurately reflect the sentiments expressed by those who spoke at Third Reading and I trust that the House will find them acceptable. The Committee of Selection will meet next week to propose the members of the Select Committee and those will be embodied in a Motion to be laid before the House towards the end of next week. The committee may be expected to begin its work in October and to sit for about one year. I beg to move.

Moved, That a Select Committee be appointed to consider

  1. (a) the scope and definition of the crime of murder in England and Wales and in Scotland;
  2. (b) the question whether imprisonment for life should remain a mandatory rather than a maximum penalty for murder; and
  3. (c) the working of the arrangements for reaching decisions on the release of those serving life sentences for murder;
this consideration to include such matters as the sentencing judge's power to recommend a minimum period of detention and the means by which the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Scotland take judicial advice on individual cases where a life sentence has been imposed.—(Lord Belstead.)

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, we on these Benches warmly welcome the Motion. This is something to which noble Lords throughout the House have been looking forward. We also approve the wording of the Motion, which we think is fully appropriate for the inquiry that will follow. We look forward to hearing from the noble Lord what names are proposed for the chair and the membership of the committee.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, my noble friends will certainly want to be associated with the remarks of the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. As the Lord Privy Seal said, this matter was raised by the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, during the Third Reading of the Criminal Justice Bill. A number of us supported his suggestion very firmly and I think it would be right on an occasion such as this to express our thanks to the noble Lord and indeed to the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor, who was involved in the debate on that occasion. This is highly satisfactory, and with the noble Lord, Lord Cledwyn, we look forward to seeing the names of the members of the committee.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, I congratulate my noble friend on taking this step. There are few more important questions in the criminal law than the proper definition for the future of the nature of the crime of murder and its distinction from manslaughter. There can be no doubt of the value of the life sentence as such, which is really an indeterminate sentence, and the use which is currently being made of the judge's private indication as to the appropriate length of the sentence without having it made public is a matter which cannot be justified in principle. I should like to congratulate my noble friend.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, as my name has been mentioned, perhaps I may add my voice in support of the Motion. The orders of reference reflect accurately the concerns which were expressed during the debates on the Criminal Justice Bill. I doubt whether I am alone in finding encouragement that the law on murder in Scotland and the administration of sentences of life imprisonment are to be included in the terms of reference of the Select Committee.

As my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham has just remarked, the subject matter of the proposed committee is one of profound importance in the criminal law, in sentencing practice and in public administration. At the moment there is a legal and administrative morass in which the powers of the courts, the discretionary authority of the Secretary of State, and the intentions of Parliament have become confused and obscured. There is a need for scrutiny and rationalisation, and I am pleased that it is this House which is to undertake the task.

Lord Elwyn-Jones

My Lords, I should like to express my gratitude for the decision of the Government to set up this committee to decide a matter which I know is causing great concern to courts up and down the country. I hope that we may see the outcome of it sooner rather than later in view of its importance in the criminal law.

Lord Monson

My Lords, can the Leader of the House say whether the Select Committee's terms of reference will extend to the possibility of recommending the introduction of a more rigorous form of imprisonment for those convicted of the more bestial types of murder, thereby taking much of the heat out of the widespread public demand for the reintroduction of capital punishment?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the House for the reception it has given to the Motion. I am especially grateful to the noble and learned Lords on both sides of the House for the remarks which they made. It will be for the Select Committee itself to determine its terms of reference and it will take into account the point which the noble Lord, Lord Monson, has raised. The Motion next week on composition will be moved by the Lord Chairman of Committees. I commend this Motion to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

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