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2.30 pm

The Home Secretary wants to convey a message of which I wholly approve: that Parliament wants murderers to receive proper sentences, that those who commit the more serious offences should go to prison for a long time, and that those who commit the most serious offences should never be released. We must be realistic, however. If the guidelines we are establishing, particularly those specifying 30 and 15 years, bear no relation to the reality of sentencing practice, or indeed to the diversity of the criminals to be sentenced, we may be straying down the wrong road.

It might be better to substitute the sentences—I think they are of 20 and 12 years—suggested in amendments tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham (Mr. Hogg). I do not advocate that to the Home Secretary; I merely say that such an alternative should still allow very long sentences to be imposed within tariff sentence fixing. Something troubles me about the period of 30 years in particular: it sends out an unrealistic message, whose recipients potentially include prisoners who, despite having committed grave crimes, might be suitable for release in a rather shorter time.

Simon Hughes: The hon. Gentleman is assiduous in these matters. Has he seen any evidence of what considerably higher sentences for murderers would mean in practice? Does he accept that one problem of the whole-life sentence, although it is not the only problem, is that it means very different things to different people? It will not mean the same to a 60-year-old as it will to a 21-year-old.

Mr. Grieve: I entirely agree with the last point. It will mean enormously different things to a 60-year-old and a 21-year-old, and it will mean something different again to the one or two people who have been imprisoned for murder in their 70s.

I visited Her Majesty's Prison Kingston in Portsmouth, which contains many extremely elderly lifers. One was completely senile, and I questioned

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whether there was any point in his continued detention. Adopting a characteristically bureaucratic approach, the Home Office expressed the view that it was very proper for someone who was completely senile and suffering from Parkinson's disease to be in one of Her Majesty's prisons, but I found it difficult to see the purpose of the man's imprisonment given his unawareness of his own surroundings.

Mr. Allen: The hon. Gentleman and the shadow Home Secretary may not have a list of other offences for which they might wish to decide the penalties should they take office, but—perhaps to frighten my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—will the hon. Gentleman consider whether the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) might enjoy using a power of this kind to deal with a range of offences? He might wish to put his proposals to the House, with a majority, and to push them through.

It is not the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham who would propose changes in tariffs; there could be a bidding war in the House, in which we would all have to prove how tough we would be on the various offences. That would lead to an irrational process of sentencing which, sadly, the judiciary would be right to try to strike down in various ways.

Mr. Grieve: I entirely agree. We should certainly try to avoid such bidding wars. In fairness, I do not consider that the Home Secretary is embarking on one: I have never suggested that, and would not dream of suggesting it. These are perfectly cogent and sensible proposals. When the House comes to deal with our proposals for sentencing guidelines generally, it will be seen that one of the things we wanted to prevent was a bidding war. We would prevent it by not allowing Parliament to initiate the sentencing guidelines process.

We will not oppose the Home Secretary's proposal today, but we shall want to look carefully at the periods of 30 and 15 years, because we are concerned about them. We are even more concerned about something else, however. As far as I recollect, the Home Secretary did not once mention the position of juveniles, although his proposals affect them just as much as they affect adults.

In this country we have always differentiated between adults who commit murder and juveniles who commit murder. That is enshrined in the different sentencing regimes, if only in the words involved. Adults receive a sentence of life imprisonment, while a different order is applied to juveniles, described as "detention at Her Majesty's pleasure". Whatever the words imply, however, I saw a clear differentiation. The Home Secretary may not disagree with my perception of a much greater emphasis on rehabilitation in the case of juveniles. The view seemed to be that although they must clearly be punished, it was in the widest interests of society for them to be released as soon as possible if it had been satisfactorily established that rehabilitation had indeed occurred.

Some of those involved may be very young indeed. They may be children of 11 or 12. They may also have committed murder in a variety of circumstances, from a fight outside a school in which knives were produced to

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something with sadistic overtones. The murder may have been committed by a person approaching his or her 18th birthday, or by a person aged only 11.

Mr. Hogg: My understanding is that under new schedule 2 the starting point of the sentence of the two people who killed James Bulger would be 30 years—and they were very young at the time.

Mr. Grieve: That is an important point. I feel that attempting to be prescriptive in setting guidelines in relation to children who commit murder is a very dangerous exercise. Certainly I am mindful of the case of the murderers of James Bulger, because it excited a huge amount of public comment. Interestingly, the trial judge made a recommendation at the time of their detention, and ultimately that proved to be the period that they served. It appears—and one can only hope that it is the case—that they had been properly and completely rehabilitated during that period, which may be significant.

I do not want to get involved in discussing individual cases, however, because there is an infinite variety of cases. I feel strongly that the application of these rules to juveniles moves us on to very shaky ground, and is capable of doing great injustice. When I met Lord Falconer, I asked him—among other things—how a judge who felt that the proper period allowing retribution, deterrence and probable rehabilitation was likely to be very short in the case of a 12-year-old would get around the problem of the minimum 15-year term proposed in the new schedule. His response was that the judges were ingenious people, but I must tell the Home Secretary that I do not think we should have to ask the judiciary to exercise ingenuity in wriggling around rules which it would be better not to apply to juveniles at all.

I realise that this is a difficult issue to which there is no easy answer. I accept that a 17-year-old who has committed a sadistic killing may have to be detained for a very long time, possibly for as long as an adult would be in the same circumstances, if he is showing marked psychopathic tendencies. Equally, however, if we consider the generality of such offences—heaven knows, these offenders come in all shapes and sizes and the offences themselves, of every kind, are appalling enough—this kind of prescriptive guideline seems rather far removed from what is probably required. Even though we will not vote against these proposals, I would urge the Home Secretary to go away and think very carefully about whether this is the correct approach.

I would be much happier to see juveniles taken out of the guidelines altogether, because we have come to a point at which we rely on the judiciary's discretion to say that cases are likely to be so varied that we cannot lay down prescriptive guidelines on the number of years to be served. If the Home Secretary were minded to introduce a measure to lay down criteria on which a determination might take place, I would certainly be happy to help, support and co-operate with him. I would much prefer that, because I think that prescribing figures in a schedule will lead to many problems and be unlikely to do justice.

Mr. Hogg: I am sorry to press my hon. Friend on this point, but if he is saying that, in respect of juveniles, the

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matter should be left to the discretion of the trial judge—which, incidentally, is my view—I have some difficulty is seeing why he does not extend that general proposition to the sentencing of adults. I believe that that, too, should be left to the discretion of the trial judge, unfettered by the schedule.

Mr. Grieve: I am well aware of the strong views that my right hon. and learned Friend has on this issue, and he advances a perfectly good argument. Speaking for myself, however, and for the Conservative Front Bench on this matter, we believe that there is a proper role for Parliament here, especially in view of the changes that have unfortunately come about in the Home Secretary's ability to exercise a discretion on tariffs—

Mr. Hogg: It is a very good thing that he cannot.

Mr. Grieve: I know that my right hon. and learned Friend thinks that that is a good thing, but—

Mr. Hogg: Well, I did it when I was Minister.

Mr. Grieve: I know that my right hon. and learned Friend did it, but I believe that the public have an entitlement, which stems ultimately from the time when capital punishment was abolished, to expect that there will be more than just judicial input into the fixing of the periods that murderers will spend in prison. That said, one of the ironies of the situation that we must bear in mind—I am speaking generally about the proposals now—is that, in the days when we hanged the worst murderers, those who were reprieved tended to serve much shorter sentences than the generality of murderers do now.

That brings me back to where I started. We must be careful that, in seeking properly to address public disquiet about the most serious murderers, we do not simply introduce a ratcheting up of tariffs for every murderer, including those who could properly be rehabilitated and safely released. The Home Secretary is going to have to consider that question carefully. Indeed, if I understood him correctly, he is already doing so, given that he is making inquiries into what happened the last time tariffs were adjusted. It would be helpful if, before the Bill becomes law—and certainly in another place—we could have access to the information that the Home Secretary is collating about how this measure might work in practice.

I am conscious of the passage of time, and I would like to move briefly on to two other matters that must be considered in the amalgam before us. The first relates to road traffic offences. We welcome the proposals for increasing the sentences for aggravated vehicle-taking involving killing from five to 14 years, for causing death by dangerous driving from 10 to 14 years, and for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs from 10 to 14 years.

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