HL Deb 09 March 1993 vol 543 cc923-6

3.6 p.m.

Lord Hesketh

My Lords, at a convenient moment after 3.30 p.m. my noble and learned friend Lord Fraser of Carmyllie will, with the leave of the House, repeat a Statement that is to be made in another place on the Scottish Office White Paper. It may be for the convenience of the House to know that the Committee stage of the Housing and Urban Development Bill will be adjourned at about 7.30 p.m. for about one hour and that during this adjournment the Third Reading of the British Railways Bill and the Redundancy Payments (Local Government) (Modification) (Amendment) Order will be taken.

Penalty for Murder Bill [H.L.]

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I understand that a noble Lord has indicated a wish to speak in Committee. Therefore 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 Ashley of Stoke.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Penalty for Murder]:

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

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

With due respect to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, it seemed to me that this matter was too important to be allowed to go through on the nod, as he proposed. Therefore, I ventured to give him notice that I thought it should be debated at this stage. The penalty for murder is a unique one. Some of us believe that that is right. Certainly, many of us believe that in present circumstances it would be dangerously unwise to modify it and to inform the public—particularly those who are concerned to commit the crime of murder —that it is no longer to be regarded as a uniquely serious offence.

I do not know, because he has not told us, what the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, has in mind in proposing the Bill at this stage. I suggest that he could hardly have chosen a worse time. Murder is far too frequent in one form or another in this country, including murder by terrorists, and consideration must be given to the position of the police. The Committee will be aware that the police are obviously more exposed to personal danger and to the risk of being killed on duty than any other section of society. The police are not only conscious of that but also extremely disturbed at the idea of any modification of the law in the way proposed or, indeed, at all.

I am aware—and if I do not say it no doubt the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, will—that nowadays it is rare for the full life sentence imposed on a murderer to be served. Some of us have grounds for criticism of the developing practice of the Home Office, acting on somewhat irresponsible advice, to release people convicted of serious crimes of murder after 20 years. However, even when that happens, the sentence still stands. If the individual gives cause for concern or becomes a danger to others, he can be recalled to goal. If he is no longer sentenced to life and sentenced only to a specific number of years in prison, then after those years have expired he cannot be recalled.

Therefore, the question of the unique penalty for murder is a serious one. I believe that your Lordships' House would be subject to criticism from outside if we allowed the measure to go through, as was apparently proposed, simply on the nod. Whatever view the Committee may take—I am conscious that there are differing views in your Lordships' Chamber—it is a matter which must be and should be thoroughly debated. It is quite wrong to attempt to get it through in this way, with the Committee stage suspended.

I venture to remind the Committee of the difficult law and order situation which exists today; of the fact that many criminals are now armed and are prepared to shoot policemen or others who resist. To modify the sentence which can be imposed for murder at this moment would seem to be extraordinarily unwise. I suggest that if the Committee were to accept such a proposal it would expose the House to a certain amount of criticism. In any event, I ask your Lordships to consider that if the penalty is to he modified, the matter should be fully debated and conflicting views taken. A decision can then be made in the light of that. I gave notice to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, that I would try to say something on the matter, and it may be that other Members of your Lordships' Committee will also feel so inclined.

Viscount Astor

I am grateful for the support of the Government's position on the Bill offered today by my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I know that your Lordships wish to proceed to the next business shortly. We shall have a chance to debate the Bill at Third Reading next week.

All I wish to say, as I made clear at Second Reading, is that to abolish the mandatory life sentence for this grave offence would, in the Government's view, send the wrong message to the public regarding our determination to deal with violent crime. I believe that it would risk undermining the faith of the public in the criminal justice system as a whole.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

Before my noble friend sits down, perhaps he will confirm at what hour next week it is proposed to take the Third Reading. Is it proposed that it should be taken late at night, as was done with the Second Reading?

Viscount Astor

That is a matter for the usual channels, but I shall convey the comments of my noble friend to those concerned.

Lord Morton of Shuna

It is unfortunate that the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, suggested that this Chamber has not debated and considered abolition of the mandatory life sentence. To my recollection it was debated at length in 1987 during proceedings on the Criminal Justice Bill. Those debates occasioned the setting up of the Select Committee on Murder and Life Imprisonment, of which I had the privilege to be a member. We reported and the matter was debated in this Chamber at length.

It is wrong to suggest that the matter has not been debated. To my knowledge it has been debated regularly at around six-monthly intervals and on several occasions Members of this House have expressed the strong view that the mandatory sentence should go. However, we are not talking about the abolition of the life sentence; it is only the abolition of the mandatory life sentence. It is the abolition of the necessity to impose a life sentence for a mercy killing —the sort of offence where, in the view of the majority of the judiciary of England, such a sentence is clearly wrong.

Firm views to that effect were expressed on the subject both by the present Lord Chief Justice and by his predecessor. Those views have been expressed in this Chamber. It is extraordinary to suggest that the matter has not been before the House. It has been regularly before the House, and views have been expressed. It is entirely proper that the Bill should go through merely endorsing what Members of this Chamber have said on several previous occasions.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

I wish to support every word spoken by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna. I was a member of the committee. I am astonished by what my noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter said. As a matter of record I wish to be associated with everything said by the noble and learned Lord.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

We are always delighted to hear the eloquence of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter. I am especially pleased that he raised this matter today to give us the opportunity of addressing this important issue. I am grateful to him. However, I do not agree with him for the reasons I set out on Second Reading.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is seriously at fault when he says that I have not told Members what I intend. I spelt out what I had in mind in great detail on 8th February this year in what was perhaps too long a speech. The point of introducing the Bill was that I was concerned. I have campaigned in another place on behalf of battered women, arguing that they should be given more justice than they receive at present. I tabled the Bill because a battered woman who has suffered from years of violence and who then kills in reaction to that violence is given exactly the same life sentence as a cold, calculating murderer.

It is preposterous to put the same moral culpability on to somebody who commits a killing of that kind or perhaps a mercy killing as one would put on a calculated assassin or, for instance, the Moors murderer. The same moral culpability through all these murders is preposterous. That is why I want the mandatory life sentence ended.

A distinguished Member of this House, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, commented on the question of moral culpability. I have not told him that I intended to quote him as I learnt only 20 minutes ago that the Committee was to debate this matter today. He said, Murder…consists in a whole bundle of offences of vastly differing degrees of culpability, ranging from brutal, cynical and repeated offences like the so-called 'Moors murders', to the almost venial, if objectively immoral, mercy-killing of a beloved partner".—[Official Report, 8/2/93; col. 481.] No noble Lord could put it more eloquently than that. That is the situation. There are all these vastly varying degrees of moral culpability. The Minister is quite wrong to stand pat on this ancient ill thought out case of saying that we must stand by the mandatory life sentence. The reason the Government are so cowardly on this issue is that they are afraid of public reaction. They want to be seen as tough. But I am tough. I am a hardliner on brutal crime. I want cool, calculating murderers to have life imprisonment. I feel very strongly and deeply about that. But to give the same sentence to a mercy killer or a brutalised wife is palpable nonsense. I do not want to make a very long speech but that is the nub of my case.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment; Report received.