HL Deb 15 July 1997 vol 581 cc907-10

2.53 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will take steps to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Government have no plans to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some noble Lords believe that the real reason why the Tory Government would not end the injustice of the mandatory life sentence for murder was their fear of being perceived as weak on crime? As there is now no danger of that with our strong Home Secretary, why do the Government not end the mandatory life sentence and restore some measure of discretion to the judges?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the Secretary of State for Home Affairs has a discretion to determine tariff by virtue of Section 35(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I believe that the scheme is well known. The trial judge gives his view and the Lord Chief Justice of the day gives his view. Subsequently, the Home Secretary has the power to decide how to exercise his discretion upon the recommendation of the Parole Board. I fully understand the views of my noble friend. There are people who hold different views. They believe that in this particular category of crime public interest and concern justify the discretionary involvement of the Home Secretary. Therefore, although the argument of my noble friend is one that is frequently put forward it is not simply one way; there are different views.

Lord Waddington

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that one of our principal tasks is to reinforce rather than weaken respect for the criminal justice system? Following the recommendations of the judges in the Bulger case, how can it be said that if the mandatory life sentence is abolished there is any real likelihood that judges will pass sentences for murder that remotely equate to public expectations? Was it not said again and again at the time of the abolition of capital punishment that a unique penalty for the crime of murder would remain and the public would be reassured that the murderer would not be released except on the say-so of the Home Secretary, who would be responsible to Parliament if anything went wrong?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord was in his place when I referred to the murder of an innocent child of two years of age by Thompson and Venables. The trial judge made his recommendation. It was extremely carefully reviewed by the Lord Chief Justice. Subsequently matters took their course through the law courts and went to the Appellate Committee of this House. Those speeches are not unanimous in the route by which the conclusion was arrived at. At the moment a very careful study is being made of all their Lordships' views.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the recommendation implicit in this Question was one of those made by the Select Committee on Medical Ethics, which I had the privilege to chair some four years ago? That committee had reported to it by the Home Office no fewer than 23 cases where killings had taken place in which the motive had appeared on the basis of the evidence to be wholly merciful. It seemed to the committee that the law was in a sense being manipulated. Whereas the intention had clearly been to kill in each case the charge had been amended to one of attempted murder or manslaughter because it had been clear to those involved in the prosecution that no jury would be likely to convict. The recommendation of the Select Committee was that judges should have the ability to look at this matter flexibly in order that where the motive appeared to be merciful they might be able to impose a sentence of less than life, but that in the most heinous crimes the most severe sentence could nevertheless be imposed. Is this not a case in which the judiciary may be allowed some degree of flexibility?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the regime that I have described offers flexibility. In the offences to which the noble Lord has referred—shall we say mercy killings—the sentences actually served are capable of being quite short. In offences that many would regard as the most serious—terrorist murder—it may well be that very many years will be required to be served. The present regime is not inflexible. Some people who are subject to mandatory life sentences are released quite early to reflect the general spectrum of different circumstances to which the noble Lord has referred. The average time, excluding time on remand, served by mandatory life prisoners who were released in 1996 was 13.2 years.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, despite the risk of giving the noble Lord a second kiss of death, as he put it, does he appreciate how much pleasure it gives to see the Government standing firm on matters of law and order on this Question as on the first? Does he also appreciate that people would be greatly alarmed and despondent if they believed that those who committed murder would be subject neither to capital punishment nor to life imprisonment?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I do not believe that it is a party political question. I know that the noble Earl agrees with me because we have discussed this matter across the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions. I would have thought it axiomatic that trust in law and order was a necessary requirement for a civil society. If it comes to standing firm on what we believe to be principle or blowing with the wind, we prefer the former.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, does the Minister agree with the following three simple propositions: first, murder is not a uniquely heinous crime? He has only to consider the mercy killers who have been referred to or even the case of Trooper Clegg who was correctly convicted of murder and allowed his freedom after two years. The second proposition: if murder is not uniquely heinous, there is no justification for an automatic life sentence; and, thirdly, the existence of the automatic life sentence, in the present context, devalues the life sentence, because the public realises that it does not mean anything like what it says.

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, the only question not put to me is whether I have stopped beating my wife. I did not say that murder is a uniquely heinous offence. So I have been asked a question on a basis which has proved to be incorrect. However, it involves the taking of human life, which we must not devalue. It involves the taking of human life with at least one of two intents; namely, the intention to kill or to do really serious physical injury. None of those things can be overlooked. I take a view which is that even in "mercy killings" a human life has passed from us, and no society can turn its face away from that. I do not believe that the present system devalues the life sentence. It indicates the feelings of our society as they presently are, that to take life in those circumstances is extremely grave and serious. It has the additional benefit of the flexibility of approach and regime to which I referred earlier.

Baroness Blatch

My Lords, I shall not be asking the Minister whether he has stopped beating his wife, but I shall, with a wry smile, say to him that I welcome the fact that he has said that this is not a party political issue. But for 16 out of the 18 years that we on this side ruled it was very definitely a party political issue. We were opposed tooth and nail on minimum sentences, automatic life sentences, and mandatory life sentences. We welcome the tough and resolute stand that is now being taken on this particular issue. Will the Minister confirm what his right honourable friend said in another place, that they will implement the automatic life sentence as set out in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997?

Lord Williams of Mostyn

My Lords, I am not sure that government should properly be described as ruling. I believe that governments are there to serve the public. One of the possible disadvantages of the previous government was that they had regarded themselves as ruling rather than serving. The noble Baroness smiles at me in her charming way, but "ruling" was the word that she used. If it was a slip, something to which we are all subject occasionally, then of course I shall close my eyes to it. I have already said that the Home Secretary will make an announcement quite soon about these matters.