HL Deb 20 March 1995 vol 562 cc1010-2

2.46 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Home Secretary has the legal right to tell a prisoner that he or she will never come out of prison.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, the detention for life of a person sentenced for murder is sanctioned by the court which imposed the sentence. Section 35(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991 allows the Home Secretary to release a mandatory life sentence prisoner if recommended to do so by the Parole Board and having consulted the Lord Chief Justice and, if available, the trial judge. He is not obliged to exercise this power.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the noble Baroness is far too intelligent not to be aware that that is a nonsensical Answer. She must be aware of that—

Noble Lords


The Earl of Longford

My Lords, it is no good noble Lords bleating about it. It did not begin to answer the Question. I am asking the Minister whether the present Home Secretary, in defiance of all previous experience, has told some prisoners that they will never come out.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my original Answer was factually correct. I have said that the Home Secretary is not obliged in law to tell a prisoner that life means life. However, in view of the recent Doody judgment, of which the noble Earl will be well aware, the Home Secretary has taken it upon himself to put procedures in place so that those sentenced to life under the mandatory schemes are told what that will mean in practice.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, in view of the fact that the unexpected always happens, is it not more a question of predictability or otherwise rather than a question of legal right, as the noble Earl, Lord Longford, nonsensically suggests?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I note what my noble and learned friend says. But there is a distinction between what my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is obliged to do under the law and what he has undertaken to do, which is to make known to all prisoners that which was previously done behind closed doors. I refer to the setting of a tariff. The Home Secretary has willingly undertaken to inform all prisoners who are subject to a mandatory life sentence what that tariff is and what it was historically.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, surely the Home Secretary has no power to bind his successor, whatever he may say.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right. The Home Secretary has no power to bind his successor.

Lord Monkswell

My Lords, can the Minister advise the House which other countries, apart from the former Soviet Union, insist when a life sentence is given thatit should mean for life?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have no idea. I cannot answer that question. What I can say is that when a life sentence is given by the courts, it means life unless in the intervening period a tariff is set which means that the sentence should be less than life. Even then, it is only subject to advice which is given to my right honourable friend the Secretary of State from the Parole Board and the judiciary that release arrangements can be made.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, the Minister's answers have been factually correct, of course. But does she recognise the thrust behind the Question asked by my noble friend Lord Longford, that in answer to a Written Question that I put down we have been informed that 15 prisoners have been told that their life tariff is whole life; in other words, they will never be released? That is the real issue. Is the Minister satisfied that our prison system requires people to be told that there is no hope whatsoever of their release from prison?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, those given mandatory life sentences are accused of murder with an intent to cause serious harm. People have died, and that is why those convicted are given mandatory life sentences. My right honourable friend has now undertaken to inform prisoners what that means in practice. Historically, my right honourable friend's predecessors, after considering all the facts, have said that life should mean life. My right honourable friend has undertaken to make all that historical information public to the prisoners. If the prisoners wish, they may make representations to my right honourable friend who will take them into account, together with advice from the judiciary. He may come to the same conclusion or he may modify his conclusion in the light of all the evidence presented to him.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, is the Minister aware that if some of the people who have committed some of the worst and most appalling crimes in our history were released into the community there would be outrage in the community?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, it comforts me to note that that remark came from the other side of the House. We become close to these matters in this House. The general public would be outraged if those who had committed the worst crimes in history were allowed to go free and if their release were not taken seriously by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, the Minister is a woman of conscience. Can she reconcile with her conscience the telling to any human being that, however good his or her conduct in prison, he or she will never come out and will die in prison? Can she reconcile that with her Christian conscience?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have no difficulty in reconciling that with my conscience. I have to think of all those people who were given no opportunity to have their release considered because they were murdered in the most dreadful, loathsome way by many of the people who now seek to go free. The public would be outraged if that were done carelessly.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, does the Minister believe that those who advocate the early release of murderers can reconcile with their own consciences any act carried out by the person so released against another person which involves the loss of that other person's life?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, that is absolutely right. Again, I believe that the whole House would understand the statement made by the noble Lord.

Baroness Farrington of Ribbleton

My Lords, does the Minister agree that occasionally it may be less than wise for such a decision to be taken by an elected Home Secretary rather than by someone who views the matter as a lawyer in a legal context? Does she agree also that there could be circumstances in which the judgment of someone who is elected, as is the holder of the office of Home Secretary, may be influenced by matters that are not strictly relevant to a proper, due legal consideration?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I must take issue with the noble Baroness. The criteria by which such decisions are made are laid down, and the judiciary, whose advice will form part of that given to my right honourable friend, has to concern itself with deterrence and retribution. My right honourable friend, who is accountable to Parliament for these matters, has to consider the risk to the public and the public interest.