HC Deb 07 December 1994 vol 251 cc233-5W
Sir Ivan Lawrence

To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department, what changes have been made in the review procedures in cases of persons sentenced to life imprisonment.

Mr. Howard

Two of my predecessors as Secretary of State, the right hon. Sir Leon Brittan and my right hon. Friend the member for Witney (Mr. Hurd) made statements in 1983 and 1987 respectively, about the review arrangements for life sentence prisoners. Under those arrangements, the first review by the Parole Board takes place three years before the expiry of the period thought necessary to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence—commonly referred to as "the tariff". However, no life sentence prisoner is detained for more than 17 years without a Parole Board review of his or her case, even where the period in question exceeds 20 years. The Secretary of State also reviews the case of every life sentence prisoner who has been detained for 10 years.

From now on, all life sentence prisoners will have a Parole Board review three years before the expiry of their tariff. Since all prisoners will now know the length of their tariff and also the date of this review, I consider that the automatic review at the 17-year point no longer serves any useful purpose. The 17-year review will therefore be discontinued, save in respect of those existing prisoners for whom such a review has already been fixed.

This means that the review three years before the expiry of the tariff will be the first review for all prisoners. The setting of a review at this point is intended to allow sufficient time for preparing the release of those life sentence prisoners who may be considered an acceptable risk. This is subject, in the case of mandatory life prisoners, to the question of the public acceptability of early release.

In recent years, successive Secretaries of State have recognised that, for the majority of life sentence prisoners, a period in open prison conditions is generally vital in terms of testing the prisoner's suitability for release and in preparing him or her for a successful return to the community. It is, therefore, now normally the practice to require the prisoner to spend some time in open conditions before release and to arrange a further review while the prisoner is in an open prison for a formal assessment of his or her progress. I intend to continue with this practice and the first Parole Board review will therefore normally serve the purpose of assessing the prisoner for open conditions.

The purpose of the 10-year ministerial review is to consider whether there are any grounds for bringing forward the date of the first review by the Parole Board. This review is now redundant as far as discretionary life sentence prisoners are concerned since their cases are dealt with in accordance with the arrangements introduced by part II of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. However, the 10-year ministerial review will continue to take place for mandatory life sentence prisoners.

In addition, I have decided that for those life sentence prisoners for whom it is decided that the requirements of retribution and deterrence can be satisfied only by their remaining in prison for the whole of their life, there will in future be an additional ministerial review when the prisoner has been in custody for 25 years. The purpose of this review will be solely to consider whether the whole life tariff should be converted to a tariff of a determinate period. The review will be confined to the considerations of retribution and deterrence. Where appropriate, further ministerial reviews will normally take place at five-yearly intervals thereafter. Existing prisoners who fall into this category and who have already served 25 years or more in custody will not be disadvantaged. Their cases will be reviewed by Ministers as soon as is practicable and after any representations they may wish to make.

As I announced in reply to a question by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Burton (Sir I. Lawrence) on 27 July 1993, Official Report, columns 863–65, successive Secretaries of State have been, and I continue to be, willing to consider any written representations by life sentence prisoners about their tariff. They will also continue to be afforded the opportunity to submit such written representations at the beginning of the sentence and before I have formed a view as to the appropriate period in question.