HL Deb 01 November 2000 vol 618 cc947-9

3 p.m.

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have any plans to remove decisions about the release of all mandatory life prisoners from the Home Secretary and transfer them to an independent body.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Bassam of Brighton)

My Lords, the Government have no plans to change the arrangements for deciding when mandatory life sentence prisoners should be released from prison. The Home Secretary takes that decision on the recommendation of the Parole Board.

The Earl of Longford

My Lords, I have so much respect for the Minister that I am sure that he cannot be happy with that feeble reply. Is not the trouble with the Home Secretary deciding these matters that he has a duty to take account of public opinion in the widest sense, including that of the tabloid press, which may be cruel and unjust to prisoners? Secondly, is the Minister aware that leading Law Lords have expressed an opinion that is contrary to his?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Law Lords have been expressing that opinion for a very long time. The Home Secretary has made his position perfectly plain. We have no plans to change the current arrangements, with which we are entirely happy. As to the influence of the tabloid press, I cannot believe that a Labour Home Secretary would be in any way, shape or form influenced by the tabloid press. He will continue to form a balanced view, as he always has done in these matters.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, is the Minister aware of the Second Report of the Home Affairs Select Committee, published on 15th May 1996 entitled, Murder: The Mandatory Life Sentence? At paragraph 14 of the report, the committee recommended that the responsibility for setting the tariff and for taking decisions on release should be removed from the Home Secretary and should go to the judges, with the Court of Appeal as the final arbiter. Why does the Home Secretary behave like a drowning man clinging to insubstantial wreckage?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the last thing that one could accuse the Home Secretary of doing is clinging to wreckage like a drowning man. That is not at all his demeanour. I defer to the noble and learned Lord's knowledge of the report of the Home Affairs Select Committee. I am aware of the report; but the Government take a different view.

Lord Cope of Berkeley

My Lords, if the courts were to decide that the present law was incompatible with the human rights convention, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Woolf, recently suggested is likely, will the Government stick to their opinion?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Government, including the Home Secretary, take the view that, in terms of any action in the event of a declaration of incompatibility, it will be for government to propose and for Parliament to dispose. The matter will rest with the Government.

Lord Goodhart

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the simplest way to get rid of this problem is to abolish the mandatory life sentence? Is it not the case that murder ranges from sadistic serial killings at one end of the scale to mercy killings at the other? Would it not be appropriate for judges to be given the same kind of sentencing discretion over murder as they have over all other crimes?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the noble Lord touches on an important issue. It must be remembered that, in practice, the mandatory life sentence is highly flexible. The noble Lord's question suggested that flexibility is required. The judiciary has the opportunity to take cognizance of the facts and the circumstances of, for example, mercy killings at one end of the scale and terrorist offences at the other. We believe that the flexibility is there, and we have no plans to change the mandatory life sentence.

Lord Avebury

My Lords, if a declaration of incompatibility with the Human Rights Act were to be issued by the Law Lords, is the Minister saying that the Home Secretary might nevertheless disregard that finding and continue on the present path?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, it will be a decision for government. Our view is that the current arrangements are satisfactory and we intend to stick by them.

Earl Ferrers

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, in granting the release of those who have received a mandatory life sentence, the Home Secretary has a responsibility to consider the public benefit and the effect that their release will have? Does he further agree that such a requirement is not necessarily present if the Law Lords have to do that, because their responsibility is towards the person concerned, and not towards the public?

Lord Bassam of Brighton

My Lords, the Home Secretary must take account of a broad range of views. The views of the public are important, as are those of the victims of crime. We must take careful account of both. That is one of the matters that has driven public policy in recent years, particularly under this Government.