HL Deb 25 November 2002 vol 641 cc17-9WA
Lord Evans of Temple Guiting

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have in relation to tariff-setting arrangements for those convicted of murder. [HL259]

The Minister of State, Home Office (Lord Falconer of Thoroton)

The House of Lords has made decisions today in two cases that deal with the arrangements for the sentencing of adults convicted of murder. These judgments concern matters of fundamental significance for the criminal justice system and the role of Parliament and Ministers in formulating policy on the provision of adequate punishment for the quality and the protection of the public.

In the case of Pyrah and Lichniak, the House of Lords has confirmed that the mandatory life sentence of murder is compatible with the rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. This sentence will remain in place.

The case of Anderson deals with the Home Secretary's power to set the tariff or minimum period a convicted murderer must remain in custody until he becomes eligible for release. This power has ensured ministerial accountability to Parliament within the criminal justice system for the punishment imposed for the most heinous and serious of crimes. When Parliament took its decision to abolish the death penalty for murder, this was the framework with which it was replaced. The House of Lords has not ruled that the Home Secretary's power is unlawful. All existing tariffs therefore stand. The House of Lords has declared instead that the Home Secretary's power to set tariffs for those convicted of murder is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. The existing law and tariffs set according to it therefore remain until new legislation is in place.

The judgment will affect only the issue of who sets the tariff in each case. As is proper in a democracy, Parliament will continue to retain the paramount role of setting a clear framework within which the minimum period to be served will be established. The Government determined that there should continue to be accountability to Parliament for these most critical decisions. This is fundamental to our democracy and to the maintenance of confidence in the criminal justice system.

We need to study the judgment carefully before finalising our proposals, but we intend to legislate this Session to establish a clear set of principles within which the courts will fix tariffs in the future. These principles will be debated and agreed by both Houses of Parliament, and in setting a tariff, the judge will be required, in open court, to give reasons if the term being imposed departs from those principles. The Attorney-General already has powers in relation to unduly lenient sentences and it will be open to him to challenge any tariff which he does not consider to be consistent with these principles.

These principles will set a framework within which judicial discretion, which is an essential feature of sentencing, will operate. They will be robust and comprehensive. We envisage that they will comprise a statement of the major guiding principles followed by a series of clear messages about the tariffs Parliament expects to be imposed for different categories of murder. The principles will provide entry points for particular categories of murder, which would be adjusted up or down in line with specified aggravating and mitigating factors. The principles will set out that for the most serious crimes—such as the sexual, sadistic murder of children—life should mean life. The principles will incorporate the same aggravating factors upon which previous Home Secretaries and the present one have based our decisions. These factors will include murder committed in the course of armed robbery or the murder of prison or police officers in the course of their duty as set out to Parliament by Leon Brittan in 1983. In the case of existing tariffs, these arrangements will ensure that any judicial reconsideration is on the basis of this same set of principles.

We believe that coupled with the new arrangements for the determination of release of mandatory life prisoners by the Parole Board, under which the Home Secretary will have an opportunity to make representations on the impact of any future offending by the prisoner concerned, the provisions outlined will amount to a sensible and secure scheme for the management of life sentences generally. The new scheme will be compatible with our human rights obligations and will also ensure that Parliament has established the framework for dealing with the most dangerous and evil people in our society.

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