HL Deb 16 March 1993 vol 543 cc1400-11

7.30 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill be now read a third time.

My main purpose this evening is to thank those noble Lords who spoke in the debate on 8th February in what I believe was one of the finest debates that I have heard in either place. There were some valuable and distinguished speeches. I appreciated them greatly. Every noble Lord who spoke from all sides of the House applauded the Bill. I should also like to thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice for his message of support for the Bill. That was warmly appreciated.

I do not intend to keep the House by repeating the arguments that I used on Second Reading. It would be impossible to improve upon the speeches made by so many distinguished noble Lords, some of whom held senior posts in the judiciary. My main purpose in bringing forward the subject was to help those battered women who were so provoked by domestic violence that they reacted and killed their spouses in the heat of the moment, and not to sentence those people, and, let us say, mercy killers—a man perhaps driven to kill his wife, who is in great pain and who begs to be released from a terminal illness—to the same sentence as a calculated assassin. That is wrong.

The issue of the mandatory life sentence goes much wider than those groups. It is one of tremendous significance in all cases of murder. I should emphasise that I am not against life sentences. In fact, I favour them strongly, but I want them reserved for especially outrageous murders.

The Bill does not remove the power of the courts to impose a life sentence. It releases the courts from the obligation to impose the life sentence when it is inappropriate. If there is any debate, I shall be more than delighted to speak at greater length and to try to answer any points raised. I am grateful to noble Lords for listening to my speech. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read a third time.—(Lord Ashley of Stoke.)

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I am bound to say that I am not at all happy, as the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, knows, about the substance of the Bill or the way in which it has been handled. By that I mean no reflection whatever on him. I feel that the machinery of the House has not operated sensibly in respect of what I believe the noble Lord will agree is an important measure.

As your Lordships may recall, it was originally suggested on 9th March that Second Reading should go on the nod and the Committee stage should be dispensed with. It was only the fact that I objected to that procedure that caused the matter then to be debated.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

My Lords, will the noble Lord reflect that on 9th March we had the Report stage? Second Reading had taken place some weeks before.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, the noble Lord is wrong. The attempt to have Second Reading was on 9th March. I am sorry, I have Hansard here. The noble Lord is not often wrong, but he is wrong now. There was an attempt to get the Second Reading through on the nod and to have the Committee stage dispensed with. I am sure that he will agree with me—the fact that he has seen fit to intervene suggests that—this is an important matter for your Lordships' House, with its ultimate responsibility for law and order.

It is an important measure. We did not have an opportunity to discuss it on Second Reading. An attempt was made to have the Committee stage dispensed with. That was fortunately frustrated. We then had an extraordinary discussion which the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, will recall, during which a number of noble Lords admitted that the Bill had not been discussed as a Bill; but they said that that did not matter because the issue of whether the penalty for murder should automatically be life had been discussed.

Indeed, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Morton of Shuna, who I do not think is in his place, seemed to suggest that because the matter had been discussed in 1988, there was no need to debate it in 1993. That seems to be treating a serious measure without the seriousness it demands. So I am glad that we can have some discussion now; although, here again, having this important measure slanted into the dinner interval for the convenience of those who manage the affairs of the House, is probably not the most appropriate way of dealing with it.

Having said that, I should like to come to the merits of the subject. Some of us believe that murder is a uniquely serious crime, and that it should be marked always by having a penalty of imprisonment for life imposed automatically, and no matter whether the circumstances are serious or whether there are seriously mitigating circumstances. When a life sentence is imposed, it is rarely served. It is a matter of some criticism—but perhaps that does not arise so much this evening—that most people convicted of murder and sentenced to life imprisonment are released after 20 years or so.

Your Lordships will be aware that that has been the case in some serious murders, including murders of policemen, and that the police are deeply agitated and worried about the Bill. People convicted of murder, and sentenced properly to life imprisonment for murder, find themselves released after 20 years or so in a great many cases. That is due to a certain laxity in the Home Office which, again, perhaps is a matter which is not appropriate to carry further this evening.

What is important, and it will be regarded as important when the Bill goes to another place, is that murder should be marked as a uniquely serious crime. It is not, as I said, a question of whether life imprisonment is always served, but the fact that if the penalty is automatically imprisonment for life, that marks out murder as being an offence of peculiar seriousness. It is a pity that we should seem to be tackling the Bill in the strange way that it has been tackled. If it is to be tackled, it should be done in a serious criminal law reform Bill which would cover also penalties for some other offences, and would enable the whole issue to be seen in proportion.

It is a pity to dig out this issue as a separate one merely because—I know this as a fact, and the noble Lord, Lord Ashley of Stoke, is an example of it—some noble Lords dislike the idea of the automatic life sentence for murder. I do not believe the Bill will progress far in another place. It will be dealt with, if it is dealt with, in a serious criminal law amendment Bill. I should like to put my voice on record as saying that it is a great mistake to suggest that there has been any diminution in the seriousness with which society regards the crime of murder. That is a dangerous and foolish attitude to take.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, is entitled to his views about the merits of the Bill. However, he is not entitled to say that the Bill has proceeded in your Lordships' House in anything other than an entirely proper way. The First Reading was moved formally, as is normally the case. The Second Reading took place on Monday, 8th February 1993 and the debate took 1 hour and 50 minutes. There were nine speakers, taking up 25 columns in Hansard

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, perhaps the noble Lord will allow me to intervene. Is it correct that the length of the debate was due only to the fact that a noble Lord objected to the Bill going through on the nod in Committee?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, not at all. There was a Second Reading debate, for which there was a speakers list. If at that stage the noble Lord had wished to express his views in opposition to the Bill, he would have been fully entitled to put his name down to speak or, if he had been unable to do so, to speak in the gap. The noble Lord did none of those things. I was there present but I am not aware whether the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, was present.

I can assure the noble Lord that the debate was entirely proper. It was publicly announced, minuted and appeared on the Orders of the Day. It took place, as my noble friend Lord Ashley said, without a single speaker giving evidence of the kind of dissent to which the noble Lord has referred.

Perhaps I may return to the procedural issue. After an entirely proper Second Reading debate there was an opportunity for the House to consider the Bill in Committee. Again, my noble friend Lord Ashley behaved entirely properly. He rose when the Committee stage was called and announced that no amendments had been tabled and that no noble Lord had indicated a wish to submit a manuscript amendment. He therefore asked the leave of the House for the Committee to be discharged. Again, in accordance with the procedures of the House, any noble Lord, including the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, would have been free to challenge that request and his view would have prevailed—

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that he has the facts wrong, as will be confirmed by his noble friend Lord Ashley? I informed the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, that there would be objection to discharging the Committee stage and taking the Bill on the nod. Therefore, the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, properly did not seek to have the Committee stage dropped and made a perfectly adequate speech on the subject. The noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, was wrong in what he said.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the point which the noble Lord sought to make at the beginning of his speech was that something improper had been done in that Second Reading had been avoided. In view of what I have said, will he now acknowledge that there was an entirely proper Second Reading debate?

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I never said that something improper had been done. However, I did say, and I repeat, that it was a great mistake that a serious criminal reform Bill was handled in that way. It was a great mistake that it was handled on the basis that an attempt was made to dispense with the Committee stage. Equally, it is wrong to take it now in the dinner interval.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Committee stage takes place only if amendments have been tabled or if noble Lords wish to table amendments. That is what a Committee stage is for. The noble Lord in his original speech suggested that there was something—if he did not use the word "improper" I shall not use it—

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, no, I did not.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, perhaps I may say "something unusual", in that the noble Lord was clear that there had not been a proper Second Reading. I have produced adequate evidence to show that there was a proper Second Reading. Will the noble Lord acknowledge that?

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I shall certainly acknowledge that I said, and maintain, that there was something, to use the noble Lord's phrase, unusual about treating a serious criminal reform Bill in this way.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, when the noble Lord reads Hansard he will realise that he criticised the absence of a Second Reading debate. After I have challenged him with that and produced complete proof that there was a proper Second Reading debate, the noble Lord has failed to withdraw the accusation that there was something unusual about the lack of a Second Reading debate. I find it extraordinary that the noble Lord should resist the opportunity which he has been given on more than one occasion to apologise to the House and to my noble friend Lord Ashley.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter

My Lords, I have no reason to apologise to the House. I certainly have no reason to apologise to the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, for whom I have the highest regard. What is clear is that the procedure followed on this Bill was unique in respect of a serious criminal reform Bill, and I notice that the noble Lord has not disputed that.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I certainly dispute that; the procedure was not unique in any way. The procedure went from First Reading, through a full debate on Second Reading, to an opportunity for Committee, and now to Third Reading. There is nothing unique about that, as I am sure the Government Front Bench will confirm.

7.45 p.m.

Earl Russell

My Lords, I hope that the House will bear with a few comments on the merits of the Bill. The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, had only one significant point to make; he argued that murder is a uniquely serious crime. The noble Lord and I were in the House when the issue was debated on the Commons amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill. I have not forgotten the comment made on that occasion by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, about precisely this point, which was outlined by the noble Lord, Lord Waddington. The noble and learned Lord said, "This is what in the business we call a good jury point", which means that it does not have much substance.

The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone, who on that occasion made a memorable speech, elaborated precisely on this point. The noble and learned Lord asked us to consider two cases. The first was of someone who helped to bring forward slightly the death of a cancer patient in great pain. The second case was that of someone who set fire to a tenement block in which many people lived but in which, by the grace of God, no fatality resulted. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Hailsham, invited the House to consider which of those two cases was truly the most heinous. I do not have much difficulty in reaching an answer.

On that occasion the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, made what is the key point in the argument. In this country we do not have degrees of murder and therefore it is extremely difficult to insist on one single mandatory sentence for every type of murder. However much horror we express at murder—and I agree that every criminal code in every country of which I have heard has done so—it is the case, and has always been recognised, that one murder is not necessarily as heinous as another.

The noble Lord, Lord Ashley, referred to some of the cases involving battered women. In the case of Mrs. Ahluwalia a substantial mischief would have resulted from the mandatory life sentence had we not been saved from that by the ingenuity of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, whose judgment on the subject deserves a great deal of study. On behalf of Members on these Benches I say that we wish the Bill well and hope that it will fare well and go forward in another place.

Lord Simon of Glaisdale

My Lords, the speech of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, fell into two parts. The first part was largely a repetition 'of what he said on the Motion discharging the order of commitment. The point he then made was that the matter was too serious for the omission of a Committee stage. On that point he was answered conclusively by my noble and learned friend Lord Morton of Shuna, who pointed out that the matter had been discussed over and over again in this House on the occasion mentioned by the noble Earl and in connection with the Select Committee. In so far as the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, unfortunately went rather further this evening, he has been answered conclusively by the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh.

The second part of his speech canvassed again the merits which have been debated, as I and my noble and learned friend, Lord Morton, pointed out, on a number of occasions in your Lordships' House. The noble Earl has again rehearsed some of those arguments. The testimony of the Lord Chief Justice and his predecessor the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane, should be added to that of the Select Committee.

This Bill should pass now on Third Reading in accordance with the usual practice. I expect that the Government will seek to kill it in the other place. I can only say that that is so much the worse for the Government and for the other place and it is so much the better for your Lordships' House that the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, has piloted through this Bill.

7.50 p.m.

Viscount Astor

My Lords, your Lordships will not be surprised to hear that the Government's position on the Bill remains as it was on the two previous occasions when we have debated it in your Lordships' House.

The Government fully understand the strong feelings which some of your Lordships hold about the retention of the mandatory life sentence for murder. We also acknowledge the view which was expressed by your Lordships' House on occasions such as the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill 1990 that the mandatory nature of the sentence should be abolished so that the courts could consider any aggravating or mitigating circumstances of the particular offence of murder and impose a sentence tailored to the specific case.

I have to tell your Lordships that the Government's position has not changed. We believe that the life sentence should at present remain. We are not persuaded that it is necessary or appropriate to abolish this unique penalty, which has for a long time applied to the offence of murder.

Your Lordships spoke with a degree of eloquence and with great determination and put forward arguments with which we are all familiar. But they were not, in the view of the Government, arguments which pointed quite as conclusively towards adopting the measure put forward in the noble Lord's Bill as some of your Lordships urged.

One argument was that murder could not be considered a unique offence and should not, therefore, merit a different penalty from other serious offences.

Of course, there can legitimately be said to be cases of offences other than murder, such as the worst rapes, woundings, and other abuses which might be considered to be more serious than the case of the battered wife who takes the life of her brutal husband and about whom the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, always speaks so eloquently.

I agree that there is force in that argument. It is open to the courts to pass a sentence of life imprisonment for some offences other than murder; for example, those which I have just mentioned. It is, therefore, possible to find those who have served less time in prison as part of a life sentence imposed for murder, than offenders who have committed other crimes.

Our approach to the crime of murder sends a simple and readily understood signal to the country as a whole about the sanctity of human life. There can be no more important or central an issue in the law. The fact that the penalty for murder is always life imprisonment ensures, as I said before, that someone whose deliberate action has resulted in the loss of another person's life will always—even if released from prison on licence—be liable to imprisonment for the rest of his or her life.

My right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that he will continue the policy of his predecessors of requiring that those convicted of the most serious murders—including police killers and sexual and child murderers—will serve at least 20 years in prison. The mandatory life sentence has, since its introduction in 1965 meant that the time spent in prison has varied from six months to, to date, 40 years. The Government do not, therefore, accept the argument that the abolition of the mandatory life sentence is necessary to provide the flexibility to deal with every situation which might result in a conviction for murder. That flexibility already exists in the present system.

Anyone who has read a newspaper at almost any time, but particularly over the last month, will be aware that public confidence about crime and the fear of crime is something which can be affected very immediately by a whole range of factors.

Unlike the noble Lord, Lord Ashley, we, the Government, have to think very carefully what message we would be sending to the public if we were to abolish the mandatory sentence for murder at this time. To say that we were going to abolish the mandatory life sentence for this very grave offence would, in the Government's view, send the wrong message to the public about our determination to deal with violent crime and about the sanctity of human life and would, I believe, risk undermining the faith of the public in the criminal justice system as a whole.

I have set out the reasons why the Government remain committed to the mandatory life sentence for murder. We shall, of course, continue to reflect upon whether this sentence remains the most appropriate response to those who commit such a grave crime. We are not, though, as yet persuaded that the arguments put forward in support of this Bill outweigh those in favour of retaining the mandatory life sentence and that is why the Government are unable to give their support to the aims of the Bill.

7.56 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I am grateful to those noble Lords who have spoken in the debate but I must begin by correcting the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, on a number of misleading points which he has made.

As regards procedure, he has been answered in great detail by my noble friend Lord McIntosh who was right when he spelt out the procedure which has been followed. I see no point in taking that argument any further.

The noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, said that I had not told the House what I had in mind and that was one reason that he objected to the Bill. As I have already said, I dealt in great detail with what I had in mind in the Second Reading debate on 8th February. I do not wish to repeat all the points that I made but in essence I said that: It is quite nonsensical to give precisely the same sentence to a brutalised woman driven beyond the brink by sustained violence as to vicious, sadistic murderers".—[Official Report, 8/2/93; col. 481.] As regards the alternative, I said: With determinate sentences for murder the judiciary, not the executive, gives a public verdict on the seriousness of the crime. By ending mandatory life sentences, we can avoid the anomalies, false impressions and injustices that now exist—and We can win public support for our judiciary". —[Official Report, 8/2/93; col. 482.] That is a short extract from a long speech which I made outlining precisely what I had in mind.

The second point on which I should like to correct the noble Lord is that he complained that I suggested that the Second Reading debate was late in the evening. That is quite wrong because it began at 6.33 p.m. and ended at 8.23 p.m. That is by no means late at night.

The third point on which I wish to correct the noble Lord is that he said that the debate was too important to be allowed to go through on the nod as I had proposed. I never suggested that that should happen. Perhaps the noble Lord will check Hansard. The last thing that I wanted was for the Bill to go through on the nod. I love debate and was delighted to hear the noble Lord put forward his views which he did extremely eloquently. However, I disagree with those views. I love debate and I dislike matters going through on the nod. Therefore, the noble Lord is quite wrong to suggest that I suggested that the Bill should go through on the nod or that the Committee stage should go through on the nod.

The fourth point on which I should like to correct the noble Lord is that he said that the proposal should properly be part of a larger Bill dealing with the law. In point of fact in the Second Reading debate the noble Lord, Lord Windlesham, explained that there was an amendment to a large Act, the Criminal Justice Act 1991, in which this clause was moved. So it has formed part of a larger debate. Regrettably the Government did not accept it. I wished to correct the noble Lord on those points. As regards the substance of his argument, I do not know what the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, and the noble Lords, Lord Wigoder and Lord Windlesham, would make of the points he has made because he spoke as if he had not followed their brilliant speeches which were made on Second Reading. Their speeches tackled all the points far better than I can as they have a wealth of experience and legal expertise.

In essence what they were saying, and what I am trying to say, is that the life sentence is fine and admirable, but a mandatory life sentence for all murderers regardless of how heinous their crimes is perhaps ridiculous. In many cases the life sentence is imposed on someone who does not deserve it, for example, a mercy killer or a victim of domestic violence. All we are asking is to drop the term "mandatory". We are happy that the life sentence itself should be maintained. To impose the mandatory life sentence in all cases of murder is to bring the law and the courts into disrepute. That step is opposed by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice, many judges and noble Lords on both sides of the Chamber.

I apologise if I have repeated some of the arguments that were made on Second Reading. However, I am glad of the opportunity to express my great appreciation to all noble Lords who have spoken in this debate. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh, for backing me up on this matter. I hope that this House will give the Bill a Third Reading.

On Question, Bill read a third time.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Ashley of Stoke.)

On Question, Bill passed, and sent to the Commons.

Scottish Nuclear Ltd. (Rateable Values)

(Scotland) Order 1993

Mercury Communications Ltd. (Rateable

Values) (Scotland) Order 1993

Lochaber Power Company (Rateable

Values) (Scotland) Order 1993

British Railways Board (Rateable Values)

(Scotland) Order 1993

British Gas plc (Rateable Values)

(Scotland) Order 1993

British Telecommunications plc (Rateable

Values) (Scotland) Order 1993

Electricity Generators (Rateable Values)

(Scotland) Order 1993

Glasgow Underground (Rateable Values)

(Scotland) Order 1993

Industrial and Freight Transport

(Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1993

Scottish Power plc (Rateable Values)

(Scotland) Order 1993

Oil Related and Petrochemical Plants

(Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1993

Mines and Quarries (Rateable Values)

(Scotland) Order 1993

Water Undertakings (Rateable


(Scotland) Order 1993

Scottish Hydro-Electric plc (Rateable

Values) (Scotland) Order 1993

8.3 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie) rose to move, That the draft orders laid before the House on 15th February be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee.]

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, the 14 draft orders standing in the Order Paper in my name relate to matters of valuation for rating in Scotland. Two prescribe the industrial derating for 1993–94; 11 deal with the rateable values of the so-called formula-valued industries, and one provides for the enhanced derating of certain oil and petrochemical properties.

Two of the orders continue derating in Scotland for the coming financial year for industrial and freight transport lands and heritages and for mines and quarries but at a lower level than that in place for the current year; namely, 17.5 per cent. The higher level of derating of 58.75 per cent. for mines and quarries complements the level of derating that applies south of the Border for similar properties.

As regards formula valuation, the formula-valued industries are mainly public utilities which are not valued for rating by the regional assessors in the usual way, but for which the rateable values are prescribed. The draft orders before your Lordships today simply revise the rateable values prescribed for this year to take account both of the new level of industrial derating of 17.5 per cent. and also of material changes affecting the value of each industry's property holdings.

As regards oil-related and petrochemical derating, the final order supplements the Oil-related and Petrochemical Plants (Rateable Values) (Scotland) Order 1992 by extending its provisions to lands and heritages which are partly used for the prescribed purposes and honours a government commitment made in relation to the 1992 order. The level of derating proposed for the relevant elements is 45 per cent. with retrospective effect to 1st April 1992 in line with the effective date of the 1992 order.

These orders in the main update 1993–94 existing provisions which apply in respect of this financial year. I commend the orders to your Lordships.

Moved, That the draft orders laid before the House on 15th February be approved [21st Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Lord Fraser of Carmyllie.)

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for his explanations. I have received no representations as yet on any of these orders either from the organisations that are involved in this matter or from any local authorities. The Minister's explanations may stimulate some action from them but in the meantime I am happy to accept the explanations that he has given.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do adjourn during pleasure until 8.30 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.6 to 8.30 p.m.]