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Mr. Miller: Before I speak to new clause 39, I wish to put the record straight for the benefit of Conservative Members who mentioned my late father. He was well known to the hon. Member for Poole (Mr. Syms) because they served on the town council together and the hon. Gentleman will attest that my father was quite a character. This could perhaps be described as a leak inside the Conservative party, but my father had a wartime relic, which I discovered in his possession when he died. Rather than have my mother worry about it, I removed it from the premises and under the amnesty introduced by the present Government, I asked a police officer whether I should hand it in. I partly agree with point made by the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) in that the weapon could not be fired. Like any tube of steel, it could have been converted into something that could fire, but it could not fire as it was. That poses serious questions about the state of weapons in those narrow circumstances. Making exemptions is a problem because it could create a loophole. However, the only offence that my late father committed was being a member of the Conservative party—and even I would not give him five years for that!

In common with hon. Members throughout the House, I welcome new clause 39. The road police believe that some matters should be taken considerably further. I have always believed that the best way to proceed is to create a charge of death by driving, as opposed to what the hon. Member for Southwark, North and

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Bermondsey (Simon Hughes) proposed a few moments ago. One of the absurdities, of course, is that cases in which a death has occurred are often dealt with by the magistrates court, but the fact of a death or serious injury is not even reported to the court. The Lord Chancellor has given guidance to magistrates courts on that point, but the news is not getting through.

3.30 pm

Some have argued that provisions to extend sentences in cases of death by driving are an example of the nanny state at its worst, but that is not the case. Having discussed the issue with many families who have been bereaved, I see it as the House's responsibility to provide some leadership on the issue. That is what the clause will do. The motor car is one of the world's most serious killers, and I speak as someone with a constituency in which motorcars are made. We all use them, and we want them to be a safe and effective mode of transport, but—like any other potential weapon—they can be deadly in the wrong hands. The cases include not only momentary lapses of attention but serious acts of recklessness—so serious that those involved must have known that their actions, just before or during the offence, were likely to kill. Those people need to be dealt with most severely. We cannot fall back on the kinds of excuses that society has accepted for far too long when it comes to the motor car, such as, "We are all drivers, and we all make mistakes," or "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Those are not acceptable excuses, especially for those people who kill under the influence of drink or drugs, or who drive at ludicrous speeds, such as those we read about from time to time.

When I intervened in the speech by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I pointed out that for once we should put the rights of victims first. A network of obsolete regulations governs the conduct of road traffic law, and most fail to put the victims first. I tabled a question for written answer a couple of weeks ago that sought to tease out from Ministers in the Home Office the absurdity of a situation in which a defendant in a case of death on the road is entitled to copies of all documents collected by the police when adducing evidence, but that some police forces have the gall to charge the families of victims for the documents. That is an absurd injustice that cannot be allowed to continue. The House should take a leadership role and deal with that and many such issues.

I welcome new clause 39 as a step in the right direction. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the final comment by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, because in the absence of the creation of a charge of death by driving—my suggestion to address all the problems involved—his point remains valid and is worthy of examination.

Mr. Watson: Like my hon. Friend, I agree with the proposal from the Liberal Democrats—a lifelong first for both of us—and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider it.

Mr. Miller: It is a rare occurrence, but on this issue I have discussed many cases with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, and we have reached a consensus. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister

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to listen to the spirit of consensus that has emerged around the debate, and to act accordingly. The Home Office is in better hands than ever before, with the appointment of my hon. Friend, and I know that he will do a good job and listen to the representations from both sides of the House.

Mr. Hogg: I shall concentrate on the issues of firearms and the life sentence tariffs. However, I also echo what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) about the undesirability of the timetable. It has grouped a range of measures together, which are all important, and many right hon. and hon. Members will not have time to speak to them. Nor will we have time to vote on them, and that is a lamentable way in which to carry out our parliamentary business.

I have the advantage of some hon. Members in that I have both represented many murderers and, for some two years as an Under-Secretary at the Home Office, I was responsible for setting the life sentence tariffs. Indeed, because my predecessor did not do many of them, I set more than 600. I have probably set more tariffs than any other Minister who has ever held office, but it is not a process that I would recommend. Although I performed the task with a degree of enthusiasm, I believed that it was not one for Ministers. I am glad that the courts have said that tariff setting should be done by judges, not Ministers. It was a denial of justice done by Ministers. It was done privately, without appeal, supervision or review. It was done without representation and, in my view, it offended every canon of justice that one can readily bring to mind. The decision to do away with the process is long overdue. I thought that when I did it, and I think it even more robustly now.

Have the Government taken the correct approach to the tariff? It is, of course, the penalty imposed by the court for the offence. It is a punishment, and as such I welcome the fact that a right of appeal has been included in respect of the determination of the minimum term and that the judge will be obliged to state his reasons for setting it or departing from it. I tabled amendments to that effect, and the Government's provisions achieve the same end.

A prisoner is not automatically released on expiration of the tariff period. In any event, he is released only on licence, if he satisfies the requirement on public safety. It is worth remembering that the Lord Chief Justice made it clear in his practice direction, issued last year, that the majority of life sentence prisoners are not released at the expiration of the minimum term but at some later date. The Lord Chief Justice also made the important point that a tariff is, generally speaking, the equivalent of a determinate sentence of twice the length. A tariff of 14 years is the equivalent of a determinate sentence of 28 years, and a tariff of 30 years is the equivalent of a determinate sentence of 60 years. We need to keep that in mind when we are deciding the appropriate tariff in each case.

I want to say a word about murder. Again, I emphasise that I have represented many murderers, although not as many as the hon. and learned Member for Medway (Mr. Marshall-Andrews), and I suspect that the hon. and learned Member for Redcar (Vera

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Baird) has also represented more than I have. However, I have represented enough of them and, as I said, I have also set the tariffs.

Murder is not a homogeneous class of offence. It covers offences from the most bestial to those which, broadly speaking, are little more than assaults. In my experience, many murders are not intended at all. They happen because of loss of control, or through panic or surprise, or because a person has been taken unawares. All those factors can be involved, and many murders are simply the unintended consequences of action, which fall within the judicial definition. We have to keep that in mind when it comes to sentencing, as we need to have a high degree of flexibility in order to do justice.

That brings me to last May's practice direction, when the Lord Chief Justice and the Court of Appeal set out the guidance that the Lord Chief Justice wished to be observed. The starting point was 12 years, rising to 15 or 16 years in due time, then to 20 years, with sentences of 30 years, or whole-life sentences, to be set very occasionally. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that guidance. I want to know why we are trying to subject the judiciary to a straitjacket imposed by Parliament. I cannot find a reason for that.

The intended effect and purpose of the Bill is to drive the life sentence tariffs up, and to constrain the judiciary. I see absolutely no justification for that. It will certainly not reduce the number of murders, which have remained broadly constant these past 15 years. It may make people feel good, but that is a wholly different matter.

What is more, the proposal will cause injustice, as the case of Tony Martin shows. I am not a particular sympathiser of Tony Martin, but let us assume for a moment that his conviction for murder had been sustained, and not quashed. On any view, Tony Martin's offence was at a relatively low level of culpability in the context of murder. However, under this Bill, the starting point for his sentence would have been 30 years, because he used a firearm. What justice lies in that?

Another example, which I raised with my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, had to do with the killers of James Bulger. They were very young at the time, but under new schedule 2 the starting point for their sentences would be 30 years. What is the justice in that? Once one begins to look at the Government's approach to the matter one sees, not only that there is no justification for it, but that it will certainly do injustice in some cases—or that it will make no difference whatsoever, in which case it is otiose.

I turn now to firearms. I am deeply opposed to mandatory sentences, as a general proposition, yet the Bill introduces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for firearms possession. We can highlight injustices in various ways, and the sentence covers, for example, the possession of a range of souvenirs from the second world war.

My father-in-law had a revolver and ammunition right up to the moment of his death, at the age of 94. His justification was that he was a reserve officer of the Crown. There is no way for one to argue exceptional circumstances in respect of a man who has chosen to have a handgun in his wardrobe for 50 years. What possible exceptional circumstance could there be?

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My father—a very law-abiding man—had as his doorstop an artillery shell. I never inquired whether it had the necessary fuses but, knowing him, I should not have been surprised in the least if it had. That would have been another case of a mandatory five-year sentence—imposed on a former Lord Chancellor.

In addition, lots of people have Sten guns, grenades and this and that from their wartime circumstances. They are not going to be able to argue exceptional circumstances: they will face the minimum five-year term. There is no justice in that, yet it is the inevitable consequence of this House trying to take unto itself the power to impose minimum sentences.

The real truth is that we should leave these matters to the judiciary. Its members have ample powers of sentencing already; they are guided by the Court of Appeal and, in appropriate circumstances, the Attorney-General can refer a case if there has been an under-sentence. Let us not take to ourselves a power that we cannot properly exercise, which is unnecessary in itself and which will certainly do injustice.


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