HL Deb 18 June 1996 vol 573 cc162-4

3.1 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they agree with the conclusion of the House of Commons Home Affairs Select Committee that the Home Secretary should no longer have the responsibility for setting the tariff for life sentence prisoners and taking decisions on their release.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch)

My Lords, we welcome the committee's conclusion that the mandatory life sentence should be retained for the offence of murder. My right honourable friend the Home Secretary made clear in his evidence to the committee that the Government did not agree that the Home Secretary's role should be removed. However, we are carefully considering the report and will respond to it in due course.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I am not clear from that Answer whether the noble Baroness gave a yes or a no to my Question. I do not think anybody in the House will be aware as to whether she said yes or no. She is holding her breath. Are we to understand that the Government are still considering the possibility that the Home Secretary might be withdrawn altogether from the process, which is most inappropriate, of deciding the life sentence of somebody on electoral considerations? Are we to understand that that role is to be withdrawn from him? The Minister may be aware that there is a procedure readily available for discretionary life prisoners. Is she ready to apply that to mandatory life prisoners?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I was not avoiding the noble Earl's Question. What I said was that he will have to be patient, as we have not yet responded to the recommendations of the Home Affairs Select Committee. The Home Secretary gave a robust defence of the present position; but he has agreed to consider the report carefully and will respond to it in due course.

Lord Renton

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that in England and Wales the Home Secretary has the important constitutional responsibility of advising the Crown on the exercise of the prerogative of mercy? Will she confirm that it would be most unfortunate if that prerogative were interfered with in any way?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I have to agree with my noble friend on that point.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, does the Minister recall—I am sure she does—that in a recent Criminal Justice Bill, this House, by a sizeable majority, passed an amendment that there should be a right of appeal given in a murder case against a minimum sentence recommended by the judge? Does she recall that that amendment was nullified in another place? Will the Minister assure the House that since the committee whose report we are discussing advised very firmly that there should be such a right of appeal, provision will be made for such a situation in the next available criminal justice Bill?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I cannot give the noble and learned Lord that assurance. Both Houses rightly discussed the matter and each reached a different conclusion on that particular issue. The elected Chamber took a different view from that taken by this Chamber. As I said, the Home Secretary will consider the report and will respond to it in due course.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, will the Minister tell the House who in Scotland exercises the powers exercised in this respect in England and Wales by the Home Secretary?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my understanding is that it is the Secretary of State for Scotland.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, in how many cases has the Secretary of State settled a tariff that exceeds that recommended to him by the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice? In how many of those cases has his decision been challenged by way of judicial review?

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, my understanding is that he has differed in 15 cases. In some five he settled at a figure lower than the recommendation from the trial judge; in the rest the tariff was increased. The vast majority of recommendations from both the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice are accepted by my right honourable friend. At the end of the day, my right honourable friend has responsibility for considering the wider public interest and the safety of the community. That is not a consideration for the trial judge.

Lord Campbell of Alloway

My Lords, as we read today, the victim's views are now to be heard at every stage of the criminal process, including sentencing. Could further consideration be given as to whether there ought not to be a judicial determination in open court as to release or recall on licence? I do not of course include any reference to the prerogative of mercy. I refer to judicial determination on the available evidence, as distinct from an executive decision, which raises difficulties with the European Convention on Human Rights.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, in anticipation of my right honourable friend considering the recommendations of the report from the Home Affairs Select Committee, we have to date taken the view that the procedures in place are the right ones, and we have defended them. So far as the European Court of Human Rights is concerned, we have already indicated that although we are disappointed, for example, about the decisions in the cases of Hussein and Singh we intend to comply with the ECHR ruling.

As to whether procedures for release and parole should be judicially decided, the current procedures for adult life sentence prisoners are the result of careful consideration by our own courts of appropriate procedures of the European Convention on Human Rights. In the case of mandatory lifers, the final decision on whether a prisoner should be released remains with the Home Secretary. To date, that has never been found unlawful.