HC Deb 20 March 1970 vol 798 cc236-8W
Mr. Randall

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will obtain information on firework accidents, fatal, serious and minor injury, reported during the year 1969 in the county of Durham; and if he will give comparative figures for the last five years.

Mr. Merlyn Rees

The table below sets out the information obtained from hospitals in the County of Durham as to the number of persons who received hospital treatment during the period 13th October to 9th November, 1969, for injuries caused by fireworks, and during comparable four-week periods in the previous four years. There were no fatal injuries.

the equipment and facilities which they need. At the same time, detection by itself is not enough especially in the case of so grave a crime as the murder of a policeman, the penalty must be seen to be commensurate with the heinousness of the offence, and must serve as a deterrent to criminals and a protection to the police and law-abiding citizens generally. The sentence for murder is now life imprisonment and I should like to explain, in some detail, the procedure and safeguards under which life sentence cases are treated and reviewed. First, the sentencing stage. The only sentence that can be passed for murder is life imprisonment, but the trial judge is expressly empowered by the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act, 1965 to recommend a minimum period for which the murderer should be detained in prison. Such a recommendation is not necessarily made in every case and although where made it is not binding on the Home Secretary or the Parole Board, nevertheless, it will clearly be a most important consideration to be taken into account in considering the prisoner's eventual release. In the case of the three men convicted in 1966 of the murder of Detective Sergeant Tippet-Head. Detective Constable Wombwell and Police Constable Cox at Shepherd's Bush, the judge recommended a minimum period of detention of 30 years. Next, as to the review of cases. There is a difference here between the fixed sentence and the life sentence. The person sentenced to a fixed term of imprisonment has for a long time been able to earn remission of one-third of the sentence by good conduct (so that a sentence of say 15 years has normally meant actual detention for 10 years). Under the parole scheme every prisoner serving (in effect) a fixed sentence of imprisonment of over 18 months is eligible for consideration for parole when he has served one-third of his sentence, or 12 months, whichever is the longer. He is entitled to have his case reviewed, in the first instance, by a local review committee at the prison in which he is detained, and if they recommend favourably, by the central Parole Board. The life sentence prisoner, however, has no entitlement to have his case reviewed by the local committee at any particular time. Normally, the first review by the local committee takes place after seven years. But a review after seven years does not in any way imply that the Home Secretary considers that the time has come to contemplate giving the prisoner a provisional date of release. It is arranged at about this stage of the prisoner's sentence so that he himself is aware that his case is subject to review by an outside body, and so that those cases in which there are mitigating circumstances which might justify release after say 9 or 10 years will be brought to notice. Except where a provisional date of release is fixed as a result of his first review, the prisoner's case will be considered again by the local review committee at suitable intervals. The local review committee are concerned primarily with the question whether or not the prisoner could, in their view, be safely released, and do not take into account some of the wider considerations; and if they make a favourable recommendation, it is not binding on the Parole Board, or on the Home Secretary. The Home Secretary cannot release any life sentence prisoner on licence unless recommended to do so by the Parole Board, which includes three High Court judges. Where a life sentence prisoner is being considered for release, the law requires that, before a decision is taken, the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge, if the latter is available, must be consulted, and I can assure you that their views carry great weight with me and with the Parole Board. The Home Secretary is not obliged to accept a recommendation by the Parole Board for release, and I should make clear that every case of proposed release is studied by me personally. The present law, therefore, and the procedures under it, provide an impressive defence against the possibility of premature or ill-considered release of a person serving a life sentence—not that I think that this danger has existed in practice. Some people, I know, are still under the impression that any life sentence prisoner can expect to be released after nine years. I cannot emphasise too strongly that this impression is wrong. The facts speak for themselves. There are at present 66 life sentence prisoners in prison who have already been detained for nine years or longer—the longest for over 20 years. Under the procedure which I have outlined, full weight is given to the degree of gravity of the offence, as well as to considerations of public safety, at all stages of a life sentence and its review. I would certainly regard as exceptionally serious the case of a person who had been convicted of the murder of a police officer or of a prison officer. No one convicted of a crime of this kind should expect that he will be released merely because a certain number of years, however many they may be, have elapsed. There will be cases where the protection of the public required that the sentence should be literally one for life. Another important safeguard is that a life sentence prisoner released on licence is subject to conditions of supervision for as long as necessary; and for the rest of his life he remains liable to recall to prison at any time. I have not hesitated to exercise the power of recall whenever it seemed necessary to do so for the protection of the public or of any particular members of the public. A life sentence is, therefore, no empty formula or soft option. But I recognise that there is a case, in the light of and subject to Parliament's decision to abolish the death penalty, for considering whether the life sentence should remain the only sentence which can be imposed for murder. As I have announced in the House of Commons, I am asking the Criminal Law Revision Committee, whose chairman is Lord Justice Edmund Davies, to review the whole law of offences against the person, including homicide, and this will include a review of the penalties. The committee will, therefore, be able to consider whether there should be any re-definition of the offence of murder and (subject to Parliament's recent decision on the abolition of the death penalty) whether there should be any change in the penalty for murder—for instance, whether the courts should be able to pass a sentence for a fixed term of years instead of, as now, being obliged to pass an indeterminate life sentence. The Committee will begin their review by seeking the views of those primarily concerned with the administration and enforcement of the criminal law, and there will, therefore, be full opportunity for police officers, and prison officers, through their representatives bodies, to put their views to Lord Justice Edmund Davies and his colleagues.