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Jim Dowd (Lewisham, West) (Lab): It is unusual to intervene in such a debate, but the tale my hon. Friend is outlining is scandalous, to put it mildly. Can he remind the House of who was the Home Secretary when those releases were authorised?

Mr. Kilfoyle: That happened in 1996 when the right hon. and learned Member for Folkestone and Hythe (Mr. Howard) was the Home Secretary.

What made the case so special as to merit the release of Haase and Bennett? My hon. Friend the Minister will rightly quote the judge. I know that he, in turn, quotes the arguments of what I would consider a rather undependable alliance of the defence counsel and Paul Cooke, the Customs and Excise officer in charge of what happened.

The repeated allegation on the streets of Liverpool—it is not a new allegation—is that in some way large sums of money were involved in arranging matters. After all, Haase and Bennett had it. The authorities had seized only half the stock of "brown"—heroin—from that importation. I put it on the record that the street value at the time was £18 million. They had a lot of money at their disposal, if that was the case, to buy weapons and to buy influence.

I should also put it on the record that one name that is always mentioned in this context is that of a local criminal, Simon Bakerman, a man who has done time for drug offences. He is the son of Warner Bakerman, who was also arrested on drug-related charges. I cannot argue the veracity of the claims that are made by people who I have already said are practised liars, well able to do deals, and always seeking to do deals to minimise the effects of the sentences handed down to them. Nevertheless, the allegation is repeated time and again, ad nauseam. It merits somebody, somewhere, looking into what, after all, would be conspiracy to pervert the course of justice. The people involved are not only well known to the underworld. They are well known to the police in the area, and I believe they are well known to senior members of national agencies.

That gives rise to the question that I am often asked: have those repeated allegations been investigated, and if so, what was the outcome? Back in 2001 when I first raised the issue, I asked a series of questions seeking information to fill in the blanks in this unsavoury tale. As the House has heard, the Minister responding for the Government at the time promised me answers, but sadly, for reasons that I am prepared to accept were in good faith, because the election came along and ministerial roles changed, I never got those answers. I repeat for my hon. Friend the Minister, to see whether he can be of assistance, some of the pertinent questions that go to the heart of the so-called information provided by Haase and Bennett in order to give credibility to their application for the royal pardon.

Was Paul Ferris interviewed about the gun purchases of Haase and Bennett? What information is available on John Lally, Dominic Donnelly and Roger Jordan in
 
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relation to the smuggling of a gun into Strangeways jail? Was a report compiled on the gun in Strangeways jail? Has it been or will it be published anywhere, and if not, why not? Was there a failure by Customs and Excise to liaise with Merseyside police about the arms stashes pointed out by Haase and Bennett while they were on remand? Finally, who in the Home Office, if anyone, made the recommendation that Haase and Bennett should be released back on to the streets to carry on their perfidious work?

Three years ago I asked for two inquiries. One was into the procedures of Customs and Excise for dealing with informers. As I have already said, I am assured that that has been done and the necessary changes effected. My second request was for an inquiry into those cases touched upon by Haase and Bennett and their information, relating in particular to their release, the basis for it and any questions arising from it, and also into cases where their evidence was allegedly used and was crucial in securing convictions.

There have always been problems with so-called supergrasses, and, as I have said before, criminals always argue that they are innocent of the crimes of which they have been convicted. Nevertheless, there remains a deep concern on Merseyside that no one in authority seems to care about the uncertainty surrounding the information allegedly provided by Haase and Bennett with regard to others convicted of serious crimes.

We live in an age of increasing violence and frequent resort to firearms on the street. That is a commonplace fact of life today in my home city, as it is in other cities in the United Kingdom, and it is a tragedy. Here is a case where hundreds of weapons were bought on behalf of Haase and Bennett and turned in to the authorities, yet no one appears to have asked the appropriate questions about the stashes and the arrangements surrounding them.

I cannot believe that everyone touching on this case missed the obvious. To a simple-minded lay person such as myself, there can be only two possible conclusions. The first is that Customs and Excise, the Prison Service, the police, the judiciary and the Home Office were all duped by Haase and Bennett. The alternative is that there was, at some stage, some truth in the allegations that bribery played a part in securing Haase and Bennett's release. I do not want to believe that. All of my instincts say that that is not possible. Yet I also find it difficult to believe that no one within the system smelled a rat in the way in which the gun stashes were set up. I just hope that today the Minister can throw some real light on this sordid saga, so that I can explain to my constituents why it is that these people were allowed out.

2.46 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool, Walton (Mr. Kilfoyle) on obtaining this debate and providing the House with an opportunity to discuss an issue that reaches back into our history.

By constitutional convention, the Home Secretary is, in England and Wales, responsible for recommending to the Sovereign the exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy. Indeed, the Home Secretary is personally involved in all decisions relating to any application for the use of the royal prerogative of mercy.
 
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The Home Secretary's discretion in providing advice on the exercise of the royal prerogative has to be exercised having regard not only to the legal restrictions on the prerogative power, but to those imposed by constitutional convention and the allocation of ministerial responsibilities.

It might be helpful if I set out my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary's policy and powers, as well as the conventions relating to the royal prerogative, and the particular factors that have a bearing on the granting of the three different forms of pardon that exist.

A decision by my right hon. Friend to recommend the use of the royal prerogative of mercy to grant a free pardon is restricted to cases that meet the following conditions. The first is where it is impractical for the case to be referred to an appellate court, and the second is where new evidence has arisen that has not been before the courts, which demonstrates beyond any doubt that no offence was committed or that the defendant did not commit the crime.

The effect of a free pardon is that the conviction is disregarded to the extent that, as far as possible, the person is relieved of all penalties and other consequences of the conviction. Of course, only the courts have the power to quash a conviction, and length of sentence is entirely a matter for the trial judge. The sentencing process must be as transparent as possible. Only in the most exceptional circumstances would it be appropriate to recommend an exercise of the royal prerogative of mercy, subsequent to conviction, on the strength of mitigating factors that were in fact known to the sentencing judge. That is an important point to which I shall return later.

The criteria currently used by my right hon. Friend in considering whether to make a recommendation to Her Majesty appear to have been applied by his predecessors for the past 100 years. Those criteria reflect a proper regard for the constitutional position, namely, that the courts decide whether a person is guilty of an offence, not the Government.

Thus, the Home Secretary would not generally consider recommending the grant of a free pardon until an appeal had been dismissed or leave to appeal had been refused, and it would be impractical for the case to be otherwise referred back to an appellate court.

Three forms of the royal prerogative of mercy are used to grant pardons to convicted criminals. The first is what is commonly known as a free pardon, which in this context means that the pardon is free from any conditions. The last free pardon was granted in 1996 and involved summary driving offences. Hon. Members will recall that, at that time, there was no other form of redress for a miscarriage of justice in summary cases.

The second form is a conditional pardon, whereby the penalty is removed on condition that a lesser penalty is served. Back in the 18th century, this form of pardon was used to substitute transportation for life in place of the death penalty. With the withdrawal of capital punishment, such pardons are no longer required. Indeed, the last conditional pardon to be granted was given posthumously in 1993 in respect of the death sentence passed on Derek Bentley, although this did not, of course, pardon his conviction for murder.

The third form of the royal prerogative of mercy is what is known as a remission pardon. This provides for the mitigation of punishment by releasing a prisoner
 
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from having to serve some or all of the remainder of their sentence or releasing someone who has been subject to a monetary penalty from the obligation to pay all or part of it. Remission pardons are usually considered in cases where the applicant has provided assistance to the authorities or in recognition of meritorious conduct, such as saving the life of a fellow prisoner or a member of the prison staff. It is this form of pardon that I know is of particular interest to my hon. Friend, given his concerns about the cases that he has mentioned. It might be helpful, therefore, if I say a little more about how the procedures work in such cases.

In the case of an individual providing information or assistance to the authorities prior to sentence, it would be normal for those authorities to inform the trial judge of the nature and extent of the assurances given. The trial judge would then reflect these representations in any sentence handed down. In some cases, such as where doing that might draw attention to the fact that the offender had been very helpful to the authorities and in turn might place that particular individual at great personal risk, and especially where that risk might be life threatening, the judge may decide not to impose a reduced sentence but write instead to the Home Secretary asking him to consider the use of the royal prerogative of mercy.

When that happens, the Home Secretary should not simply take the information at face value, but seek a detailed report from all the authorities involved in order to satisfy himself as to the value of the assistance given, and indeed as to what use that information has been put, before going back to the trial judge for his opinion as to what level of reduction in sentence would be justified in the circumstances. In cases where information has been provided after sentence, the same processes should take place, in that the Home Secretary should seek a detailed report with regard to the validity and use of the information as well as any outcome that may have occurred.

With regard to recommendations for the use of the prerogative in respect of meritorious conduct, this would normally relate to behaviour in prison, such as preventing the suicide of a fellow inmate, rescuing prison officers during a riot, preventing a fire, or some similar highly creditable behaviour. In such cases, it would be for the prison authorities to confirm the action taken by the prisoner and to recommend a suitable period of reduction in sentence. In most cases, this is a matter of a few days.

My hon. Friend has reiterated his close interest in the cases of John Haase and Paul Bennett, both of whom were granted remission pardons in 1996. He has raised his concerns on a number of occasions in the years since; indeed, this is not the first Adjournment debate he has initiated on this particular topic. I appreciate my hon. Friend's deep disquiet that in this case both men—despite the sensitivities involved and the possible danger to themselves—decided to make public the fact that they had received a reduction in sentence. It will be of great concern to my hon. Friend and his constituents that those men continued, after their release, to engage in further serious criminal activity. I note, too, my hon. Friend's allegation that those two men had deceived the authorities in their efforts to obtain a reduction in sentence.
 
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I know that the then Paymaster General wrote to my hon. Friend following the earlier debate, to assure him that Customs had re-examined its handling of the case and concluded that it had been dealt with appropriately. I also understand that earlier this year my hon. Friend met my hon. Friend the Economic Secretary to the Treasury to discuss his continuing concerns.

My hon. Friend asked a number of specific questions, but I am sure that he understands that I am unable to go into detail on the facts of those cases. In particular, I emphasise the well-established policy and practice that no one—whether they be the police, Customs, Home Office officials or indeed Ministers—should comment publicly on whether an individual has or has not given information in confidence to the authorities. However, the House should be in no doubt that the impetus for the reduction in sentence in those cases came entirely and properly from the trial judge, and in supplying material to the judge, Customs and the police were properly fulfilling their obligations to the court.

Indeed, the Court of Appeal in the case of Sinfield laid great emphasis on the public interest in ensuring remissions of sentences in such instances, making it clear that even if the defendant is a major criminal—as he was in that particular case—a reduction in sentence still remains appropriate. Given the concerns that my hon. Friend raised, he will want to know whether we are considering any changes to the procedures in relation to the use of the royal prerogative of mercy.

I know that my hon. Friend is aware that at the time of his Adjournment debate in March 2001, an internal Home Office review was in progress. The review was completed soon after the debate and, although the conclusions were never made public, I can inform the House that they confirmed an earlier decision of the then Home Secretary that the royal prerogative of mercy should not normally be used to shorten sentences in recognition of information supplied to the authorities and known to the trial judge at the time of sentence.

The review did not, however, conclude that the prerogative should never be used in such circumstances, given that there may be very rare cases in which it is important for the Home Secretary to retain this discretion. Take, for example, a case in which co-defendants were all sentenced together in open court for the same offences, and where all might expect to receive the same or at least very similar sentences. It might simply be too obvious, not to say dangerous, to be seen to be lenient with just one. There can be particular
 
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difficulties when co-defendants plead guilty, but not all have given assistance, since a marked disparity of sentence may be impossible to explain, and any attempt to explain it would put the informer and their families at risk and so discourage informers from giving assistance.

I am led to understand that there have been recent improvements in the way customs officers handle their informants. The Butterfield review of criminal investigations and prosecutions, conducted by Customs and published in July 2003, revised arrangements for handling human intelligence sources. These new arrangements were put into place in September 2003 and extensive new law enforcement training commenced in April this year.

There have, of course, also been legislative changes that have affected the use of the royal prerogative of mercy and provided alternative means of redress. Prior to the implementation of the Criminal Appeal Act 1995, the only way that those who were wrongfully convicted had to remove the stain against their character was to seek a free pardon. Now, such people are able to appeal against summary conviction to the Crown Court and in the case of indictable offences to the Appeal Court. If they are unsuccessful, they can also seek the assistance of the Criminal Cases Review Commission. The commission, having investigated an allegation of injustice, may, if it determines that it is appropriate, refer the case back to the Court of Appeal.

That has clearly reduced the need to resort to the royal prerogative of mercy, and as a consequence no free pardons have been issued since 1997, when the Criminal Cases Review Commission came into being. Remission pardons have continued to be granted, but as my hon. Friend is aware from replies to recent questions that he has tabled, they are extremely rare, and only five have been granted since 1997, excluding grants for meritorious conduct in prisons.

The royal prerogative of mercy is, therefore, used only sparingly, and only in cases that are truly exceptional in character, in which no other route of redress is available.

It should not surprise any of us when public controversy accompanies a remission pardon. The cases are rare, and the people involved are convicted offenders who have sometimes committed very serious crimes. I appreciate, therefore, not least in relation to his constituency responsibilities, why my hon. Friend continues to press his concerns, and I remain happy to respond should he have further questions in future.

Question put and agreed to.




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