HL Deb 27 January 1993 vol 541 cc1261-3

2.51 p.m.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:

Why convict Jeffs, serving a life sentence for the murder of a police officer, is to be released after serving 20 years of his sentence; and whether the release accords with recent practice of treating life sentences for the murder of police officers as sentences to be served for life.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)

My Lords, a life sentence is a sentence for life of which part is spent in custody. The murder of a police officer requires a minimum of 20 years to be spent in custody. The decision in principle to release Mr. Jeffs after 21 years in custody was taken in accordance with the normal policy for the release of mandatory life sentence prisoners.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is my noble friend aware, as I am sure he is, that the police realise that, in view of the nature of their work, they are particularly dependent on the effective application of the criminal law when they are attacked? In those circumstances, is it not a little depressing for them, as perhaps it is for the public, that this gentleman should be released after serving 21 years on two life sentences: one for killing a police officer in the execution of his duty and the other for seriously injuring another? Does my noble friend understand that the fact that this man can be released in middle age after such a record must have a very depressing effect on the police force?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, of course I understand the anxiety which the police force have about murderers who have murdered policemen. The whole of society condemns that and is anxious about it. My noble friend said that the police depend upon the proper application of the criminal law. I can assure him that the proper application is undertaken. As I explained, a life sentence is a sentence for life. It is the current policy that those prisoners who have murdered policemen should serve a minimum of 20 years. That policy was stated by Mr. Brittan when he was Home Secretary in 1983. After their release, their liberty is restricted for life by the life sentence.

Lord Renton

My Lords, can my noble friend say whether when a prisoner is released after 20 years the responsibility for the decision taken is that of the Parole Board or of the Secretary of State?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, in a mandatory life sentence the Home Secretary decides whether to release a person. The Home Secretary considers the tariff, and in this case the judge chose 20 years. He also has to consider both the risk and wider considerations.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, was any recommendation made when sentence was passed at the trial?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the recommendation was that he should serve at least 20 years in prison. He has served 21 years.

Lord Bethell

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there is particularly strong feeling among members of the Police Federation on this point owing to the cold-blooded attitude of Anthony Jeffs towards the police force, and in particular that he was found to have the initials ACAB—standing for "All coppers are bastards"—tattooed on his knuckles? In this connection, does he agree that in the case of a cold-blooded murder of a policeman such as this, a tariff of more than 20 years would in the present circumstances be more appropriate?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I can only repeat that I quite understand any policeman feeling deeply aggrieved when a person who has murdered a colleague is released. That is a perfectly natural understanding. But the law has to operate in the correct way that it does. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has taken the advice of the Parole Board and has consulted the Lord Chief Justice. All the letters that my noble friend said were tattooed on the gentleman are a matter of his personal concern. But they cannot affect the running of the law. The policy has been that the murder of a policeman should require at least 20 years in prison. That is what has been done.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, since doubt is being cast on the wisdom of the 20 years' policy, which, as the Minister rightly says, was first introduced by Mr. Leon Brittan, will he confirm that the policy was reconfirmed as recently as 1990 by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who was not the softest of Home Secretaries?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, the policy has continued just the same ever since it was announced by Mr. Brittan.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, will my noble friend bear in mind the concern of the police force, which I do not think he can dispute, over the knowledge that, when they are performing their duties, if one of their number is murdered the murderer will be released after 20 years? Does he realise what a bad effect this appreciation of the situation must have on the morale of the police? Will he undertake to speak to the Home Secretary about it and ask him to give it the most serious consideration?

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, I quite understand the concern which is felt by the police. I can also understand the concern which some people feel that those who have committed murder should suffer capital punishment. I know that that happens to be one of my noble friend's views. Many people think that. But the law has to be operated in the way in which it is. My right honourable friend has responsibility and has consulted widely. The Parole Board considers that there is no risk. It recommended Mr. Jeffs's release. He has been a model prisoner and has shown remorse. When one thinks of the condition of the prisoner as well as the condition of those whom he has affected, it is appropriate that all matters should be considered. They were. But I understand my noble friend's concern.

Lord Carr of Hadley

My Lords, as someone who once had to exercise that responsibility and knows how carefully these matters are looked into, I ask my noble friend whether he will make quite clear something which I believe is the case but could get overlooked; namely, that the prisoner does not have to be released after 20 years. It is possible to release him after 20 years, but only after the most careful inquiries in depth and recommendations from many sources.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The sentence was for life, with a recommendation that he should spend at least 20 years in prison. My right honourable friend takes advice particularly from the Parole Board as to the condition of that person and as to the likelihood of his reoffending. As to the risk which would be attached to him being released and other public interest matters, these matters are considered very carefully. It is not just decided on the whim of my right honourable friend. I am glad that my noble friend drew that matter to the attention of your Lordships.

Baroness Strange

My Lords, would my noble friend not agree that if somebody is sentenced to life and that in fact means 20 years, the word "life" is rather misleading?

Earl Ferrers

No, my Lords. I can understand my noble friend's concern. The sentence is for life. The imprisonment is for a part of that time. When released, that person is still out on licence, to be recalled if ever he or she reoffends.