HL Deb 09 July 1997 vol 581 cc619-21
Baroness Anelay of St. Johns

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have to prevent the automatic release of criminals who are guilty of repeated sexual or violent offences and who are known by the prison and probation services to present a risk to the public.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn)

My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that the Government support the provisions in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 which require the courts to impose a life sentence on an offender convicted for the second time of a serious violent or sexual offence, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Such life sentence prisoners will not be released at the end of the relevant part set by the judge for the purposes of retribution and deterrence unless the Parole Board considers it safe to do so. We intend to implement these provisions as soon as possible.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns

My Lords, can the Minister please give us some information about the kind of monitoring that will be available with regard to people who will be released upon licence? Is he aware that public concern on the matter will have been intensified as a result of the report last week that a person serving a five-year sentence for kidnapping, drugging and indecently assaulting a 14 year-old boy was released after serving just two-and-a-half years on the basis that he would be living in a bail hostel on licence, yet he failed to register there? Will the Government be using the probation services alone or will they be innovative and make use of the private and voluntary sectors?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, as the noble Baroness rightly pointed out, this is a matter of great public concern. It does not relate to an offender who would be subject to the new regime. It seems to us that every possible effort must be made to ensure public safety, in particular the safety of those sections of the public who are most vulnerable. In respect of the mandatory sentence to which the Question refers, the Parole Board will have the ultimate say on release and it would, of course, make the usual full and appropriate inquiries.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, what does the Minister intend to do about the practice which was followed by the former Home Secretary of increasing the tariff recommended by the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice for life sentence prisoners? Does he believe that that is a matter for the judiciary rather than the executive?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble Lord's question relates to the decision of the judicial committee of your Lordships' House in the case of Venables and Thompson, in which Venables and Thompson had murdered the small, innocent child, James Bulger. The Home Secretary has powers to review sentence tariffs. In the case of Venables and Thompson, the trial judge gave one indication, the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, gave another and the Home Secretary had the statutory power to review, which was subsequently found to have been inappropriately exercised. But the House of Lords' judicial committee did not begin to suggest that that power could not have been properly exercised within the statutory regime.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, why do not the Government consider implementing the recommendation of the Butler Committee with regard to reviewable sentences? Does the Minister agree that the reviewable sentence suggestion made by Lord Butler has the following advantages over what is proposed: it is not limited to repeat offenders; it is not restricted to the narrow range of offences as is Section 2; it requires medical evidence before it can be imposed; it does not run the risk of the criminal deciding to do in his victim to avoid a life sentence; and, finally, it does not carry the false label of imprisonment for life, which is never intended to be effective.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord sets out the claimed advantages of the Butler Report regime. There is certainly virtue in some of them. The Government are determined to ensure a coherent and strategically focused approach to sentencing. We need to consider the whole of the wider context, which is what my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is presently about.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, in view of the fact that the Minister recently denounced "Howardism" in scathing terms, will he return to the philosophy of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, who recently joined this House?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I have never used the term, "Howardism", although I know that my noble friend frequently has done so. I understand what he means by it as a compendious term of contempt. What the present Government wish to do, if possible on the basis of cross-party agreement, is to attend to the serious problem of prisoners being released and being a perceived and actual menace to members of the public.

Lord Mason of Barnsley

My Lords, in view of the importance of the Parole Board report, can my noble friend say who is entitled to see the report apart from the prisoner and how the prisoner can challenge it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Parole Board report is seen by officials in the Home Office; it would be seen by the Home Secretary; it is shown to the prisoner, and it is capable of having representations made about it by the prisoner. Those last two aspects would be what a system of civilised justice, not least natural justice, would require.

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