HL Deb 27 November 2001 vol 629 cc133-6

2.43 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will reconsider the statutory requirement that a life sentence is mandatory for murder.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Rooker)

My Lords, the Government have no plans to reconsider the mandatory life sentence for murder. The sentence provides important safeguards. The public must have confidence in the penalty to be imposed on those who take another person's life. The public rightly regard the offence of murder as a particularly abhorrent crime and believe that it should carry the most severe penalties. Murder is never a matter that can or should be taken lightly, whatever the circumstances.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. However, is it not time for some fresh government thinking on this longstanding problem? Is it not wrong that a man who kills his beloved wife at her repeated request because she finds that she is so appallingly disabled that life is unbearable and agonising, or a woman so brutalised by a violent husband that she is driven beyond the pale and the point of endurance and kills him, should be given the same mandatory life sentence as a vicious mass murderer?

What is the justification for the bizarre arrangement whereby a politician, the Home Secretary, decides how long such people stay in prison rather than the judge who listens to all the evidence, sees all the witnesses and is able to assess the fine nuances, subtleties and "vibes" of a trial? Surely, it is wrong for a politician to make such a decision.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, there is always an argument on what is the view of the public on this matter. When the death penalty was abolished in 1965 I understand that the acceptance among the public was that for those who had been found guilty of committing the crime of murder, whatever the circumstances, the penalty should be a mandatory life sentence. However, this House debated the matter as recently as late 1997 and most of those who spoke then were against the law. But I would say to my noble friend that the operation of the mandatory life sentence is flexible. It allows those responsible for the least serious cases of the offence—that is, the so-called mercy killers—to the most serious—the serial murderers or child killers—to be adequately punished. Where the circumstances warrant, a mandatory life sentence prisoner can be released on licence having served only a short period of time in prison. On the other hand, under the system, those responsible for the worst crimes can be detained for the rest of their lives. Therefore, while there is a mandatory life sentence for those found guilty of the offence, they are all treated, in so far as they can be, according to the circumstances of the crime. I believe that that is right.

Lord Ackner

My Lords, the Minister no doubt accepts that categories of murder have been tried by statute and failed. We now have an offence which covers the mercy killer right up to the terrorist. Does the noble Lord accept that the insistence on an automatic sentence has devalued the life sentence? Why can it not be discretionary so that from the outset the court can indicate what is the appropriate punishment?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, even under the mandatory system it is possible for the trial judge to offer a view. In the most recent 12-month period for which figures are available, only five trial judges in more than 200 cases gave a view. Given that they are able to express a view and chose not to do so, I find that surprising. They chose to leave the matter to the present system. With all its difficulties over definitions—there cannot be good murders and bad murders—taking a person's life is murder. Therefore, it is right to consider the circumstances in the way I set out in my first supplementary answer.

Lord Windlesham

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the mandatory requirement for a court to pass a sentence of life imprisonment on conviction for murder is genuinely misleading the public? Despite what he has just said, life does not mean the natural life of the offender; it means release after the expiry of a tariff date, the tariff period having been set by the Home Secretary, supported by a favourable assessment of risk by the Parole Board. In asking this question I declare an interest as having been chairman of the Parole Board for England and Wales for a number of years in the past.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I pay tribute to the work of the noble Lord. But the fact remains that there are people who will be in prison for the rest of their natural lives as a result of the crime of murder. So it is not fair and true to say to the public that every one is let out. There is a degree of flexibility. The proof of the pudding is that there are people in prison for the rest of their natural lives who will clearly not be let out.

Lord Morris of Aberavon

My Lords, if the Minister is arguing for flexibility, does he recall the report produced under the chairmanship of a former Lord Chief Justice, the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lane? He suggested that there should be a law of homicide instead of murder and manslaughter and that discretion should be left to the judiciary who actually tried the case so that everyone would know where they stood.

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I must say to my noble and learned friend that I do not recall the report, although I probably saw the headline. But it clearly was not accepted.

Lord Elton

My Lords, on the threshold of the Second Reading debate, will the noble Lord take note of the deep suspicion that many of us have of entrusting the decision of whether or not to let someone out of prison solely to the hands of the political executive?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, I note the distrust.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, does the Minister recognise that when the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, which I had the privilege to chair, reported, it stated that in 1993 it had had reported 28 cases where a family member had brought about, or was alleged to have brought about, the death of a loved one who was suffering from terminal illness? In all of those cases but one an original charge of murder was levelled. But the prosecution in all but one case changed the charge to one of either manslaughter or attempted murder because it knew that no jury would convict. Does that not bring the law into disrepute?

Lord Rooker

My Lords, it may appear like that, but there is a degree of flexibility. I do not think that there is a widespread view among the public that the system is not working. As I said in my first Answer, we have no plans to reconsider the issue. Clearly, cases will arise from time to time where judgments have to be made. In those cases if the judgment was made by the prosecuting authorities that convictions could not be secured, they were right to change the charge to something else. That is an acceptable way forward. It shows flexibility in the system.