The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Paul Goggins): I begin my congratulating my hon. Friend on securing this debate on victim consultation in the review of life tariffs. She has drawn the attention of the House to the experience of her constituent, Mrs. Elizabeth Moss, who had to endure the unimaginable tragedy of her son Michael's brutal murder in 1999. In outlining her concerns to the House, she has, as on so many previous occasions, shown both a deep compassion and a firm commitment to her constituents.
One of the Government's central aims is to rebalance the criminal justice system in favour of the victims of crime. Indeed, during the previous Session of Parliament it was my privilege to take through the House of Commons the Domestic Violence, Crime and Victims Act 2004, which for the first time sets out clearly what the victims of crime can expect from the criminal justice agencies. It is vital for victims of crime to have information and advice about the criminal justice process, and an opportunity to receive information about key stages in an offender's sentence.
It is the responsibility of the National Probation Service to arrange victim contact on behalf of us all in reaching out to victims in the important way that I have described. It consults victims before offenders' release from prison, so that they can make representations about any conditions that they think should apply to the offenders when they come out of prison on licence. That can include an offender's exclusion from a particular
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geographical area. It does not mean that victims have the final say in such mattersin particular, they do not have the final say on the length of sentencesbut it does mean that their views are heard and properly considered.
Responsibility for the setting of life tariffsthe tariff being the punitive period of a life sentence, or what could be described as the minimum period of imprisonment that must be served in custodyused to lie with Ministers. As my hon. Friend explained, in recent years it has gradually become a wholly judicial function as a result of landmark decisions in the domestic and European courts. Sections 269 and 270 and schedules 21 and 22 of the Criminal Justice Act 2003, which came into force in December last year, established new arrangements for sentencing in all murder cases, and for setting tariffsor, as they are now known, "specified parts" or "minimum terms".
My hon. Friend referred to the setting of a 12-year tariff in relation to offenders under the age of 18 who have been convicted of murder. In fact, 12 years represents not the minimum term but the starting point used by a judge passing sentence to determine the appropriate sentence. He or she can move the starting point up or down depending on the circumstances.
The distinction between a tariff set by Ministers and a specified part announced by the sentencing judge in court is that the latter runs from the date of sentence and will have already credited the offender with any time spent on remand. That may seem a small detail, but it is quite important and will be of particular interest to a victim's family, who will want to know how long a life sentence prisoner can expect to serve before being considered for release.
There are three groups of offenders who were and continue to be affected by the arrangements introduced by the 2003 Act. They consist of those sentenced after 18 December 2003, whose minimum terms will now be set in open court by the trial judge, those sentenced before that date for whom no minimum term has been set, and those sentenced before then whose tariff, set by Ministers, has not yet expired. Cases in which no minimum term has yet been set will be referred to the High Court. Offenders whose tariffs were originally set by Ministers can apply to have them reviewed. In such cases tariffs may remain the same or may decrease, but they cannot be increased.
The views of the victim's family will be sought in all cases in which an offender has yet to receive a minimum term, or has applied for a review of his or her tariff. The judges who set and review minimum terms will have an opportunity to receive statements from families about the events surrounding a loved one's death, and the immediate impact of the offence on their lives. National Probation Service victim contact teams are using their considerable knowledge and expertise to work with victims' families in order to present these views to the judges.
If they so wish, families will have the opportunity to attend the High Court to hear the judge's decision on the minimum term to be served. Indeed, I can confirm that guidance has recently been issued to victim liaison
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officers confirming the arrangements for submitting these personal statements to the court, and notifying the date on which the tariff will be set.
This is clearly highly sensitive work, and it has been ongoing for several months. Victim liaison officers work with victims' families to enable their views to be represented. This will often include several visits and involve many family members as they seek to obtain information, and try as best they can to put into words the impact of the death of a family member. Families will have strong views about the sentences that offenders should receive, but it is clear that those views alone cannot dictate the length of sentence that an offender will receive. We should also remember that some families will not wish to express their views, and it is important that we respect their right not to engage in the process, if that is what they choose.
The process for considering all applications and referrals in lifer cases is a matter for the High Court. There is some frustration at the fact that full implementation of the procedures has been delayed. That is the result of judicial challenges from a number of lifers concerning the relevant provisions in the 2003 Act, the most notable factor being the absence of an automatic right to an oral hearing. I am pleased to confirm that things have moved on and that the High Court process, including all the arrangements for considering the victim's perspective, is expected to be fully operational in the new year.
There is nothing that the criminal justice system can do to make up for sexual or violent offences, particularly those involving violent death. But the system that we have put in place attempts to treat victims and their families with dignity, and it offers them the opportunity to ensure that their important views are heard. As my hon. Friend made clear, there has been considerable correspondence about the issue that she has drawn to the House's attention this evening: the tariff-setting process for the three youths who murdered Michael Moss. As that correspondence makes clear, responsibility for deciding tariffs for murderers aged under 18 was taken on by the Lord Chief Justice, following the European Court of Human Rights decision in the cases of Thompson and Venables in December 1999. That happened in advance of the enactment of legislation to transfer responsibility for setting tariffs from Ministers to trial judges.
Michael's murderers were convicted on 26 July 2000, so they fell to having their tariffs decided by the Lord Chief Justice. They were among the last to be convicted before the new legislation came into effect on 30 November 2000, so they were behind a queue of 130 or more cases that needed consideration. The way in which the Lord Chief Justice set about this task was entirely a matter for him. He decided to seek the views of victims' families, through the Crown Prosecution Service and the police. Where families chose to make statements, they would have been informed that those views would be disclosed to the prisoners concerned for any comments, before being submittedalong with all other relevant materialto the Lord Chief Justice for a decision. I can confirm that the Prison Service played no part in obtaining the views of the families in any of these cases.
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My hon. Friend asked a number of specific questions, including why her constituent's views were dismissed by the Lord Chief Justice. Clearly, I am not in a position to make a judgment about the way in which the Lord Chief Justice handled this particular case, but the arrangements for setting tariffs in those transitional cases pending the new legislation were entirely a matter for him. He decided to seek the views of victims' families in all such cases so that he could be aware of how they had been affected. I am sure that he did not intend to be offensive in any way when he made it clear that the decision on the length of tariff was ultimately a matter for the judiciary. However, in the light of my hon. Friend's comments, I intend to write to the Lord Chief Justice asking him to clarify for her and for her constituentand indeed, for me as the Ministerprecisely what he did mean.
I can understand that Mrs. Moss is extremely upset about everything that has happened in this tragic case. Clearly, she deserves our deepest sympathy but, as I have said, the arrangements for dealing with those cases were explained in detail in correspondence with my hon. Friend and Mrs. Moss, and were decided and operated by the Lord Chief Justice. My hon. Friend asked why Mrs. Moss's permission was not sought for releasing her submission. My understanding is that, as part of the arrangements put in place by the Lord Chief Justice, families were told that their statements would be disclosed to the offenders concerned, so there was a risk that they might be made public. In additionthis is an important pointthe Lord Chief Justice took the view that decisions that were effectively sentencing decisions on the most serious offences should be made publicly available. Disclosure of any material from individual statements was a matter for the Lord Chief Justice.
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The location and progress of prisoners is not normally disclosable, but again, the Lord Chief Justice clearly felt that it was necessary to give some details of progress to explain to the detainees, the families concerned and the public the reasons for reaching his decisions. As for any question of delay, it is clear that the Lord Chief Justice had a very large number of cases to consider personally. The offenders in this case were among the last to be convicted before the law was changed to transfer responsibility for tariff setting from Ministers to trial judges. No doubt, that was one reason for the delay. The appeal against conviction by one of the offenders, which was not disposed of until July 2002, would have been another reason why the decision was not made earlier.
In conclusion, it is clear that Mrs. Moss has been through a terrible ordeal. I am certainly sorry if the new procedures put in place as part of the transitional arrangements led to confusion or misunderstanding. The procedures now in place, which are operated by the National Probation Service, ensure that all victims of crime are fully informed and fully engaged, and have choice about the amount of information that they receive and the representations that they can make about offenders, particularly at the point of release from prison. I hope that my remarks have clarified some of the issues raised by my hon. Friend, but I would, of course, be happy to correspond with her or discuss the case further. If there is anything more that I can do to try to help clarify the decision-making process on the setting of the tariffs for the three men who were responsible for Michael Moss's murder, I shall be only too pleased to do so.