HL Deb 19 November 1992 vol 540 cc711-4

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will take steps to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, there are no plans at present to change the existing legislation.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, does the noble Earl recall that the general case against the mandatory life sentence for murder was effectively deployed in this House last April by the noble Lords, Lord Nathan and Lord Richard, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane, among others during debate on an amendment to the Criminal Justice Bill? My reason for pressing the matter today is the growing understanding of the state of mind of women who are subject to physical and mental violence in the home. Surely it is wrong that such women should be subject to the same life sentence as vicious murderers, mass murderers or sadistic murderers. So will the noble Earl please try to persuade the Government to think again on this issue and bring another place in line with the progressive thinking of this House?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, is quite right. The committee chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, put forward a very powerful argument which was discussed in your Lordships' House. Another place did not agree. Of course these matters are enormously sensitive, but at the moment the Government take the view that the worst of crimes must receive the most condign of sentences. That remains the position.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that for a very long time murder—the taking of somebody's life—has been regarded as an especially dangerous and terrible offence? Is he also aware that many people regard it as right that there should be a special penalty exclusive to murder in order to mark the particular abhorrence of society for that offence?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter is quite right. Whatever the arguments may be, and there are powerful arguments, public opinion would take the view of my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. Therefore we do not propose to make any changes as yet.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that in the absence of any categorisation of murders it is quite impossible to lump them all together under one heading and say they are the most heinous of crimes?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is an expression which has frequently been used about murder. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, may take a different view but not everyone would go along with it.

Lord Hutchinson of Lullington

My Lords, will the noble Earl consider the recent case of the doctor who administered a lethal injection to his suffering patient? Does he appreciate that if the result of that injection had been to shorten that patient's life, by however short a time, the doctor would have been convicted not of attempted murder but of murder? Does the noble Earl agree that the doctor would have been sentenced to life imprisonment in circumstances in which the British Medical Council took the view that his act was so venial that no professional penalty was necessary? Is the Minister really happy for a law which is so discredited to continue?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I do not believe that the law is discredited. Nor do I consider it profitable to argue the pros and cons of one particular case across the Floor of the House at Question Time. The noble Lord quite rightly drew attention to a case which has serious implications but the fact is that the law should remain as it is.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, does my noble friend not agree that if I were to shoot at the Lord Chancellor sitting on the Woolsack I should be liable to the death penalty if I hit him because that would be treason? If, on the other hand, I were to shoot at anybody else in this House and hit him that would result in a mandatory life sentence, but if I missed it would not. Does not my noble friend occasionally have a flicker of doubt as to whether there is any sense in the belief that murder is a uniquely heinous crime? Does not the law of homicide need clearing up, not merely as to sentence but also as to definition?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham has the advantage of a vivid imagination, which he occasionally shares with your Lordships. I should have thought that his main concern would be not whether he shot the Lord Chancellor but whether someone else had shot the Lord Chancellor while my noble and learned friend himself held that position. In either event it would be a tragedy. However, that should not happen and has not happened.

Lord Morris of Castle Morris

My Lords, amid all the uncertainties surrounding this very serious matter, including the advice of the Select Committee of your Lordships' House, does the Minister agree that we should give the greatest and most serious weight to the opinion of the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice? Quite recently he has been quoted as saying: There may be a great deal to be said for the mandatory life sentence going".

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, we attach great and serious weight to anything said by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice, as indeed we do to the opinions of your Lordships' House. The fact is that the Government have to make decisions and at the moment they are not persuaded that the law needs to be changed.

Lord Harris of Greenwich

My Lords, I return to the example given by my noble friend Lord Hutchinson of Lullington. Does the Minister accept that it is wholly absurd that a doctor in that situation whose patient had died should be subject to precisely the same penalty as the man who blew out of the sky at Lockerbie 200 or more people? Does the Minister realise that the present law is an infernal mess and the sooner it is changed the better?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, that is a perfectly respectable view. I do not feel that it is appropriate to discuss individual cases because one must always act on the dictum that hard cases make bad law. There are so many cases that go right across the spectrum of murder and homicide that they cannot be taken individually. One has to try to make a law which covers them all. At the moment we take the view that the crime of murder is a particularly serious one.

Baroness Platt of Writtle

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that although the mandatory life sentence may be kept as a minority member of the Select Committee referred to, I agreed with its retention—at the same time, during the time after the murder and after conviction, the period of imprisonment can be adjusted according to the seriousness of the crime and the degree of repentance as well as the possible danger of that person to the public?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend Lady Platt took a very worthy line, even though she might have been in the minority. She is perfectly correct to say that the tariff applied and the length of time a person spends in prison can be altered and adjusted. Indeed, there is one person who is still in prison after 40 years.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, does the Minister take into account the fact that the contrary view was expressed by your Lordships' House, a House of which he is a Member? Its overwhelming opinion was that the mandatory sentence should go. Does he agree that this is a case where your Lordships' House has a right to reassert its view that the mandatory sentence, as recommended, should be abolished?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the noble Baroness is perfectly correct. Your Lordships did come to that conclusion. The other place came to a contrary conclusion.

The Earl of Onslow

My Lords, will my noble friend answer the question put by my noble and learned friend Lord Hailsham? Is it not the case that the law of homicide is in a mess and something should be done about it?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the law of homicide is kept perpetually under review.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether the Government believe that public relations or justice is the most important issue?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, one cannot encapsulate a complex problem such as this into a choice of two sentences.

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Wakeham)

My Lords, I wonder whether we may now move on. We have had a very good go at this Question.

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