HL Deb 03 July 1991 vol 530 cc991-6

1 After Clause 22, insert the following new clause:

Sentence for murder

(" . No court shall be required to sentence a person convicted of murder to imprisonment for life.")

The Commons disagreed to this amendment for the following reason:

1A because the mandatory life sentence is necessary to mark the uniquely heinous crime of murder.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 1A.

In asking your Lordships to accede to the wishes of another place in regard to the mandatory life sentence, I am conscious that I am asking your Lordships not to press a proposal which came from a most distinguished Select Committee of the House. I can assure the House that it was only after the most careful consideration of your Lordships' views that the Government decided that they could not recommend to another place that the mandatory life sentence should go. No purpose would be served by my merely repeating the arguments I advanced before. But the debate, has moved on somewhat because of the decision in another place.

I am certainly not saying baldly to your Lordships that another place has spoken and your Lordships must agree. I am well aware of how often your Lordships have helped shape public opinion and attitudes, and I would not be surprised if at some future date policy on this matter changes as a result of a change in public opinion which this House influenced. I am simply saying that I wonder whether the time for change is now.

The criminal law has always reflected public attitudes. After all we were all rather proud when the law reflected changed public attitudes to the treatment of women and rape in marriage. I believe that the public in general feel that a mandatory life sentence is appropriate to mark out the heinous crime of murder from all other crimes and that public opinion has to be listened to. What I personally believe is not important in itself, but I wonder whether this is not an area where the undoubted experience and expertise of your Lordships can necessarily have the last word.

I hope with all due deference that your Lordships will accept that the feeling in another place has to be given due weight. After all, Members of another place face public opinion every day and I would argue that it is for them to take the burden of deciding what should happen in this area at present having, as they have, taken full account of your Lordships' view, because it is on them that the weight of public disapproval can and will fall if they have got it wrong.

Moved, That the House do not insist on their Amendment No. 1 to which the Commons have disagreed for the reason numbered 1A.—(Lord Waddington.)

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, this grouping of amendments revolves around Lords Amendment No. 1 and Commons disagreement numbered 1A. Lords Amendment No. 2, relating to a court's duty on passing sentence of life imprisonment, falls within the next grouping and was originally cast as an adjunct to Lords Amendment No. 1. This amendment could also stand independently if your Lordships were not to accept the Commons disagreement. What is to be done? It is suggested in The Times newspaper today that we should insist on our Amendments Nos. 1 and 2 and return them to another place; that the issue is constitutional—politicians versus the judges; that financial privilege is not involved; and that there is no manifesto commitment to involve the self-denying ordinance of the Salisbury convention. Even so, to what end shall we stir the embers of this Parliament to provoke a lost Bill knowing that when those amendments are returned to us, as is inevitable, it is unlikely that we shall yet again insist, at all events, on Amendment No. 1?

It is one thing to play ping-pong but quite another to call a bluff hand at the poker table. This Bill, as revised by your Lordships and accepted by another place, is an excellent reform Bill of monumental value and importance. Unless there is agreement between the Houses by the end of this Session it will be lost as another place has not ensured its entitlement to the Bill under the Parliament Acts.

The Government have not ensured its entitlement to this Bill. The Government cannot have their Bill without our assent. On a Bill of this order, in the circumstances which now obtain, unless restraint is exercised the responsibility for a lost Bill will be laid at the door of your Lordships' House. I entertain no doubt that the reason for disagreement to Lords Amendment No. 1 is simply not reasoned, having regard to the speeches in your Lordships' House and in particular to the speech of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane. No reason whatever is given for disagreement to Lords Amendment No. 2. It is suggested in The Times that the real reason is that the Government do not trust the judges. I find that difficult to accept even in the wake of conflict generated during the proceedings on the Courts and Legal Services Bill. As to the suggestion in The Times today that we should be braver, there are perhaps times when discretion is the better part of valour. Speaking for myself, it is with sad reluctance that, as a matter of judgment to save the Bill and contrary to my own settled conviction on the merits of these amendments, I propose to exercise restraint. Together with my noble friend the Leader of the House I believe that in time the dissensions of today shall dissolve in some amicable resolution.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, lest it be thought that, sub silentio, I was necessarily agreeing with my noble friend the Leader of the House, I wish to say very briefly why I agree with the speech that has just fallen from the lips of my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway.

The reason given by the Commons is frankly, and intellectually, ridiculous. It can only be described in that way. Murder is not the most heinous offence in the calendar. It is an offence because it has to be successfully carried out for quite a variety of different motives. If, for instance, as the Lord Chancellor entered the Chamber I took a pistol and shot at him, hit him and killed him, I should be guilty of treason—under the Treason Act 1351. That might be said to be a uniquely heinous crime. If I missed him and hit his attendant I should be guilty of murder, rather a serious murder. If either of them survived for a year and two days it would be neither murder nor treason, so far as I can say. This is nonsense, and let us record nonsense by its proper name. However, I wholly agree with my noble friend Lord Campbell of Alloway that we should be wrong if we sought to follow the advice given us by the leading article in The Times today. There is the danger that the Bill might be torpedoed over what is, after all, relatively speaking a side issue. Next, there is the fact that what we are really asked to do if we pass the Motion proposed by the Leader of the House is to keep the status quo. One day people will see sense, even in another place, and the hairy heel of populism which they have followed will ultimately disappear. In the meantime, there is no grave crisis if the status quo is preserved. We should allow the other place to have its silly way for once and not try to follow the perfectly rational view we took over the War Crimes Bill.

There is another reason; that is, there are amendments on the Marshalled List which would not really be useful if we were to insist on our original amendment. Some of them will do more good than harm. I hope for that reason alone we shall not insist upon our view, though we may retain our opinions.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I agree with the conclusion of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham. For a number of reasons I do not intend to repeat the speech I made on the last occasion, most of the points having been made by the noble and learned Lord. I regard the Commons reason as absurd. Most of us who took part in the last debate recognise that it is an absurdity. The fact of the matter is that there are other amendments on the Marshalled List which deal with very important aspects of this situation. It would be more profitable for the House to move on from this particular issue to those amendments in order to deal with a number of matters of public policy which otherwise might not be dealt with satisfactorily.

Lord Richard

My Lords, I really cannot let this matter trickle by without saying something on behalf of these Benches. I entirely agree with the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, that the reasons that have been given by the House of Commons for rejecting this amendment are, frankly, nonsense. We know it is nonsense and I suspect most Members of the other place know it is nonsense. Therefore, one has to ask oneself the question: "Why on earth are we in this position?". I do not want to be overtly political because if ever there was an issue which should not be the subject of party politics it seems to me that this is one of them. This is one of those issues in the life of the country where governments should listen to informed opinion. Opinion on this issue has been more informed in this House than it conceivably could have been in another place. There it is. I very much regret that we are not persisting in our previous view. It was right that we took the view that we did. Indeed I think it would be right today were we to take that view. It is not very often that I find myself in agreement with the leading article in The Times but I am bound to say that I felt a certain sympathy with the thrust of it today.

I cannot avoid commenting on the speech of the noble Lord the Leader of the House. He used three arguments. First, he said that what we have proposed will come at some stage. I suppose that that is a confession that Parliament's position is that we should wait until the time is ripe, whatever that means, or until the time is appropriate, whatever that means. I suspect that what will happen is that the European Court will deliver another judgment in the not too distant future. Then the Government, if indeed the same Government are still in power, will say, "We don't like what the European Court has said. It is all these terrible people in Europe. Nevertheless, we have to do it".

The second argument used by the Leader of the House was that the law must reflect public attitudes. Of course it must, but it must also on occasions lead public attitudes. I am not convinced for a moment that public attitudes on this issue are necessarily the attitudes of the Government. Most of the people I have spoken to on this issue regard as arrant nonsense the present position where a domestic murder is treated in exactly the same way as what would be the most heinous of crimes—a deliberate intentional killing—and think that the law which treats those crimes as being wholly similar is somewhat of an ass. We have heard the argument that on this issue the law must reflect public attitudes. With great respect to the Leader of the House, I believe that public attitudes at the moment are somewhat in advance of the Government's position.

The third argument used by the noble Lord was that feeling in another place has to be given due weight. Of course it does. I entirely accept that. However, I am bound to say to the Leader of the House that if the half loaf brigade, if I may respectfully call them that, had not entirely had their way today, I should have been perfectly prepared for feeling in this House to be given its due weight and for the House of Commons to be told so.

Lord Monson

My Lords, following on from the noble Lord, Lord Richard, I find it depressing that so many Members of another place evidently grossly underestimate the intelligence of those who voted them into office. I would guess that at a very minimum 80 per cent.—perhaps nearer 90 per cent.—of the electorate are very well aware that life hardly ever means life; therefore your Lordships' amendment would not mean that those guilty of the most heinous forms of murder spent a shorter time behind bars than would be the case under the law as it stands at present. On the contrary, the reverse might very well be the case. However, I am sure that we must follow the wise advice given by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, and others.

Baroness Phillips

My Lords, I shall have the temerity to disagree with my own side—it is getting used to that—and with the noble and learned Lord. I do so for a simple reason—it is the reason the Commons have put forward: because the mandatory life sentence is necessary to mark the uniquely heinous crime of murder". We have already heard about the domestic crime of murder. The person is dead. How easy it is to plead that the dead man or woman has caused someone to commit murder. If someone is dead he cannot speak in his own defence. It is easy to say that we are moving into different times. Sadly, yes, we are moving into times of more, not less, crime. One must ask oneself why. Is it because we are too easy in the courts? If one destroys another human being's life one has to give a reason why. We have the charge of manslaughter and other charges are often used. We all know that the life sentence does not mean anything anyway. Someone will be in prison for only 10 years. Everyone will then be sorry for him. All kinds of things will be arranged for him. He will not have to worry. However, the innocent, the victims and the average person who will never commit a crime feel differently.

Noble Lords have referred to the people to whom they have spoken. The people I talk to do not take the same view. They are anxious about the life sentences imposed. I speak on behalf of the victims. I should like to say that on this occasion we agree with the Commons. What I have had to say will obviously not be very popular in some parts of your Lordships' House but that does not worry me in the least. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Campbell, that if he wants the Labour Party to get rid of the Lords, he is handing it reasons every time. It did not like our attitude on the War Crimes Bill. I found that totally illogical. I find the attitude on this matter equally illogical. I think that the Commons have it right and that we would be very sensible for once to agree with them.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, the noble Baroness mentioned my name. The distinction is quite simple. In relation to the War Crimes Bill there was no question of a lost Bill. The House of Commons had ensured its entitlement to the Bill by invoking the Parliament Act. In this case there is every prospect of a lost Bill; and it is a Bill of monumental value and importance. That is the distinction.

Lord Nathan

My Lords, I had the privilege of proposing the amendments which are the subject of this discussion. I also have the honour to be the chairman of the Select Committee on whose report the proposals were based. I thought it might be right for me to say that I do not think that we should press this amendment. There is no purpose at this stage in reviewing all the arguments which were so amply put forward in your Lordships' House and so overwhelmingly agreed in it. I believe that that would be unwise for the following reason.

I very much welcome the fact that the Commons amendments have come forward and I hope to put before your Lordships reasoned amendments to improve the Commons amendments. I very much hope that those amendments will commend themselves to the House and will receive the consideration, as I know they will, of another place. If we start by getting into a state of confrontation with another place on the matter raised by the noble Lord the Leader of the House, I believe that the atmosphere in which these Commons amendments, which I regard as a constructive proposition, are discussed will be quite hopeless. I have read the leading article in The Times which is headed "Mr Major's Lapdog". It was suggested to me that I was the lapdog and that the Prime Minister's health was in grave danger.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, I think that it is the wish of the House to move on and therefore I shall be very brief indeed. I respect greatly the views expressed by noble Lords. In the subsequent debate we shall be able to discuss the implications of the decision of the European Court of Human Rights in the case of Thynne and Others. I need not deal with that now.

I said that Parliament has to take account of public attitudes and that the law has to reflect public attitudes. The matter was weighed up by another place. It came to a conclusion which is apparently different from the conclusion reached by certain noble Lords. But there is no doubt that another place reached that conclusion. I agree with the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips. I believe that the crime of murder is unique. It is unique because of its appalling finality. I seem to remember that those who disagreed with me and were so violently opposed to capital punishment were usually violently opposed to capital punishment because they could see the awful finality of the judicial killing. If that was their view on the matter of capital punishment I think that there is an awful finality in the crime of murder, as is recognised by most people. Therefore, I urge your Lordships to agree with another place in its amendment.

On Question, Motion agreed to.