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Mr. Graham Allen (Nottingham, North): Does my right hon. Friend accept that although many of us agree with his view on mandatory life sentences, we also agree with the provisions in the Bill that would establish a sentencing guidelines council? Several of us think that the council would be stronger if it included him, the Lord Chief Justice and a senior Member of the House so that all arms of state were represented. Does he accept that his strong case for mandatory sentences for certain murders would find favour on such a council and lead to a consensus on sentencing but that if his proposals were carried today, there might be continual chipping at them by Members of the House and, above all, members of the judiciary? Surely trying to find consensus on an eminently sensible proposal is better than producing a proposal that might lead to further confrontation.

Mr. Blunkett: I do not want confrontation in any sense and I do not imagine that we will have confrontation. We will re-establish what we thought already existed. In 1983, the then Home Secretary introduced the tariff system which, as hon. Members know, was overturned on appeal.

I am trying to re-establish the role of Parliament and our democratic processes in relation to the most difficult crimes with which we deal and to establish, for the first time, the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which will involve people other than the judiciary, although the judiciary will represent the majority on it. That arrangement is designed to deal with the plethora of sentencing challenges that exist. It would be impossible for any Member of the House or the Executive to do that on an ongoing basis because so many issues and time-consuming questions must be addressed. That is why it is appropriate for the House to lay down principles and frameworks on the cases with which we deal today, for the Sentencing Guidelines Council to make proposals on the broader thrust of sentencing, and for the Home Affairs Committee and the House to return to the issues from time to time to appraise how the Sentencing Guidelines Council is working. That process has been a feature of Parliament since democracy and the franchise were extended and I am not trying to interfere with that in any way.

Mr. David Trimble (Upper Bann): I have a lot of sympathy with the Government new clauses. As the Home Secretary knows, this Parliament is still responsible for criminal law in Northern Ireland and several measures in the Bill already extend to Northern Ireland. Given that he is introducing new proposals, has

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he consulted the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on them? What response has he received from the Northern Ireland Office?

Mr. Blunkett: I have consulted and I always take account of representations and concerns on specific issues relating to Northern Ireland. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks it appropriate, I would be happy to arrange a discussion with him before the Bill enters the House of Lords so that we can take account of any of his concerns and be responsive to them. I hope that he finds that offer acceptable given the complexities that always exist when dealing with the delicate situation in Northern Ireland, especially while he and the Prime Minister are making efforts to re-establish the Executive and to move toward elections being held.

Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South): May we explore the extent to which the measures introduce arrangements that we believed already existed before the recent court judgments and the extent to which, in practice, a far larger number of people will serve either whole-life tariffs or greatly increased life sentences? What estimates does the Home Secretary have on the overall effect that the measures will have on the lifer population?

Mr. Blunkett: We believe that in time there will be an increase in those serving life sentences and, as a consequence, an increase in that part of the prison population. That will inevitably take time to work through. We have done some work, not least in the past few weeks, to ascertain what changes occurred when the death penalty was abolished and when the tariff system was introduced 20 years ago. As with statistics generally, there are always perverse findings. The statistical data on the abolition of the death penalty were paradoxical because the taking of prisoners' lives reduced the length of time that they served for the most horrendous crimes. Prisoners whose lives were taken served only that time until the death penalty was carried out, so the overall length of time served by the most dangerous criminals was statistically reduced. I hope that that makes sense.

As for what happened post-1983, according to surveys undertaken for a House of Lords report immediately after the removal of the old system and the introduction of tariffs, the tariffs set in the first six months of the new issue rose by 40 per cent. That fell to a third two years later. It would appear that the judiciary responded to the tariff system and the indications given by the Home Secretary.

Mr. Mullin: I just want to press to what extent we are putting in place what we believed already existed and the extent to which that represents a ratcheting up of the length of time that life prisoners will serve and the number of them who will eventually accumulate in our prison system.

Mr. Blunkett: Let me give examples. When life means life for crimes that are committed in the most horrendous circumstances, that will ratchet up the length of time served, but only in line with what the House intended when it voted in 1983 and by its subsequent actions. Today I am responding to the

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judgment. Although I accept that it takes the tariff out of the hands of the Home Secretary—as I said, no Home Secretary would be sorry to see that go—we are trying to achieve the same result.

In 1985, for instance, the trial judge gave a sentence of 20 years for an offence of rape and murder and rape and attempted murder by one individual. The Lord Chief Justice ratified that, but the Home Secretary increased it to 30 years. In 1996, the trial judge recommended 25 years for an offence of three sexual assaults and murders. The Lord Chief Justice affirmed. The tariff was 35 years. In 2000, three murders resulted in a sentence of 25 years. The Lord Chief Justice agreed with that. The tariff was set at 35 years.

It is not difficult to see from those examples that, as a consequence of decisions taken by the Home Secretary, tariff setting increased the length of time served for the multiple crimes of murder and rape, which no one in the House would dispute are horrendous. I want to codify that within principles and the sentencing framework so that the decision is taken not by the Home Secretary now or in the future, but by the judiciary. Should it use its discretion outside the terms laid down by the House, it will account for that publicly in court, which is a reasonable and transparent way to behave in a free and liberal society, as the shadow Home Secretary described it yesterday.

1.45 pm

Simon Hughes (Southwark, North and Bermondsey): What has changed since April last year when the Home Secretary received the Sentencing Advisory Panel advice to the Court of Appeal? It suggested that the norm—the starting point—should be 14 years, the higher level about four years above that, and the lower level about four years below it. The advice also said that the 30-year tariff should be applied in exceptional circumstances only and that whole-life tariffs were not a good idea. It clearly recommended that young people should have nothing like a starting point of 15 years. I gather that the Home Secretary accepted that advice a year ago. What has made him change his mind?

Mr. Blunkett: There has clearly been a misunderstanding. The Home Secretary does not ratify the advice of the Sentencing Advisory Panel. I have accepted no sentencing precepts for murder. I have continued in the best way that I can to fulfil the obligations and duties put on me to set tariffs for murders, including some of the most horrendous murders that were committed before I took over as Home Secretary. I believe that the sentencing principles and framework that I am laying down are correct. They are my suggestions, discussed with Ministers and my officials, and attempt to replace, and therefore to restore, the general sense of what Parliament required of the Executive in giving guidance to the judiciary and responding to it.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): I understand the Home Secretary's arguments on the full-life tariff and the criteria that have been established. Is it not the case that if we go down this road it is likely that more full-life tariff sentences will be imposed, as I think he accepted? In such circumstances, is a 30-year sentence for the next category down the scale the correct median point to be

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built up or down? It is our impression that that figure is rather high. It would be interesting to understand the Government's reasons for choosing it.

Mr. Blunkett: It is a high figure. In the case of the murder of a police or prison officer, or a murder involving the use of firearms, we need to send a clear signal that such horrendous crimes warrant a more severe starting point for sentencing. People need to understand that life means life. That has not been the case because people who have been given life sentences have served anything but life. People need to know that there is clarity and consistency so that they have confidence in the system. We need to send those signals and establish a framework in which it is clear that such crimes—especially those in which someone has put his or her life on the line in dealing with the most dangerous criminals—warrant a more severe starting point for sentencing. We also need a minimum sentence of 15 years, which did not exist before, so that that, too, sends a signal.

Let me draw breath for a minute. People cannot understand that when someone has been found guilty of murder—there are arguments about whether a transfer to manslaughter is more appropriate, and I understand those—the sentence that is served for taking a life does not always equate to other forms of criminality for which people at a lower level of the sentencing framework are serving longer sentences. People think, honestly, that we have all lost our marbles. They do not understand how, if murder is the most horrendous crime, others do not see that the perpetrators must be put in jail for as long as possible so that society demonstrates its common sense through its actions.

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