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Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Should not the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House why it is being asked to approve a range of life sentence tariffs which are greatly in excess of the range set out in the practice directions from the Lord Chief Justice of May 2002? There, the suggested starting point was 12 years, rising to 15 and 16 years, then to 20 years, and only in exceptional cases, 30 years or whole life? The plain truth is that what we are being asked to approve is substantially in excess of what the Lord Chief Justice and the Court of Appeal recommended.
Mr. Blunkett: Yes, I accept that entirely. I disagreed with the Lord Chief Justice's practice guidance. I happen to believe, and the House can take a contrary view if it wishes, that we should lay down a framework that will give the people of this country confidence in the system, for two reasonsfirst, that those who commit the most horrendous murders will get what used to be called, in old-fashioned language, their just deserts. Secondly, when people have confidence in the system and there is consistency in the treatment of the most difficult and dangerous crimes, they might be prepared to listen to a broader debate about sentencing policy, the sentencing framework and the work of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and about how we stop lower-level repeat offenders reoffending. We can have, in the House
Mr. Allen: I thank the Home Secretary for his typical generosity in giving way yet again to me. In the next bunch of amendments, we will create a sentencing guidelines council, which is designed to achieve a broader-based consensus on sentencing across the board. In the present group of amendments, we are taking from the council's ambit a number of key offencesmurder through driving and firearms offences. Does my right hon. Friend accept that if his case is as strong as I believe it to beI know that he believes passionately in ithe could win his case around the table with the Lord Chief Justice, other members of the judiciary, and a broader-based group including prison governors and police officers, being present, himself as a full member? That would be a way of making sentencing command public support not just today, because of an impassioned argument arising from a particular offence, but for a long time, so that we could end the problem of megaphone diplomacy between his Department, the judiciary and others who are concerned about the issue? Will my right hon. Friend put the offences before the Sentencing Guidelines Council and get consensus?
Mr. Blunkett: If I believed it was appropriate, following the decision on tariffs, simply to leave the matter to the future, I would have done so. We cannot do that. As we made clear at the beginning of the year, we must make decisions about how we proceed following the judgment. I believe that these are decisions that should be taken by the House. We cannot deal with the multiplicity of sentencing guidance required, and I could not possibly sit on the Sentencing Guidelines Council. I have a slot each day somewhere between 12 midnight and 5.30 am.
Mr. Blunkett: I could depute someone. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Wythenshawe and Sale, East (Paul Goggins) would probably not be too pleased if I put him on such duties as well, although he would perform them extremely well, on the basis of yesterday's performance.
Mr. Blunkett: My hon. Friend has volunteered, and I have every confidence that he would come to the same conclusions as the House will reach later this afternoon. We know that there are certain cases on which the House has historically ruled, such as when it ruled that there should, and eventually that there should not, be a death penalty, and the kind of sentences that we are debating this afternoon arising from death by dangerous and careless driving or firearms offences. There have been certain historic sentences for which the House has taken responsibility.
Mr. Grieve: I am grateful to the Home Secretary and to my hon. Friend. I agree with the Home Secretary in the sentiments that he expressed, but it is important, is it not, that Parliament should not raise unrealistic expectations about what it intends to do, which prove not to be feasible? The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the guidelines on sentences. That sends out a signal about what Parliament wants, but in view of the way that they are framed, and in view of the fact that the 15 and 30-year sentences may be considered too high by the judiciary, it may well not be what the public get. Will not that bring Parliament into disrepute, as much as the judiciary?
Mr. Blunkett: It would, if the will of Parliament were flouted without good cause. I do not believe that the senior judiciaryit will be members of the senior judiciary who deal with these matterswill do that. They may be reluctant, as many of them were, to commit people to the condemned cell, but they did, and they did so because that was the will of Parliament. I believe that they will respond, and that where they exercise their discretion, they will explain in court why they did so.
That is eminently sensible. It does not flout human rights. It will not run us into the difficulties that we faced in relation to the abolition of the tariff-setting powers. It will give Parliament and the people of this country confidence that they have provided judges with the principles and framework to carry out the will of the people.
Mr. Bercow: The Home Secretary has been generous in giving way. Decisiveness should not be a synonym for rigidity. Although most of us would accept that those who commit the most bestial murders and who show no sign of repentance or rehabilitation should remain incarcerated indefinitely and probably for the duration of their natural lives, will the right hon. Gentleman concede and put on the record that those who commit the most bestial murders but who, over a period, show sustained evidence of repentance and rehabilitation should always have the hope that they might be released?
Mr. Blunkett: No. I do not agree. Although the conditions in which such people are held may be commensurate with the changes brought about in their apparent character, the kind of multiple and sadistic murders that would warrant a life sentence, meaning
If those who have committed bestial murders are let out into society, their own lives may be at risk. I am not interested in a wild west society of vigilante retribution. It is in everybody's interests to try to get the issue right and to ensure that people understand that, while conditions may changethey have done so in respect of liferswe must stand firm. We are talking, thank God, about a small number of people, but we are also dealing with the nature of the impact that they have.
Simon Hughes: Given that the Home Secretary has accepted that his proposals will ratchet up sentences for many categories of people convicted of murder, and as more people are already serving life imprisonment in England and Wales than in any other country in western Europein the whole of Europe, only Cyprus and Moldova have proportionately moredid he consult the senior judiciary before the practice direction was issued last May and has he consulted on his proposals since the relevant court judgments at the end of last year? Does he believe that the proposal will change people's behaviour or reduce crime at all, given that many other countries have much lower sentences and do not have nearly as much serious crime?
I think that a contradictory set of precepts is advanced by those who oppose what I am doing. It is hard not to conclude that the reduction in the most bestial murders and violence in the United States has been a response to the way in which that country has dealt with such criminality. Yet it is also interesting to consider other forms of punishment and the response to it in other parts of Europe, as opposed to Britain. We need to look at the nature of society, the tendency towards an increase in violence, the response of society to such incidents at a local and not only national or parliamentary level and the way in which family and community life provide a different framework in which people respond.
Those are very big and important issues. I would like to recognise the sort of response that is made in some parts of Europe to the way in which the maintenance of family life and community pressure change the nature of violence. At the same time, there is a need to send signals in the way in which we lay down sentencing principles and frameworks so as to make everyone understand where we are coming from and the actions that will be taken. That is about consequences, and from the actions of children to those of horrendous murderers, consequences really matter.