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House of Lords

Wednesday, 7th December 1994.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by

the Lord Bishop of Worcester.

Life Prisoners: Tariff

The Earl of Longford asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What prisoners, if any, have at any time been informed that a life sentence in their case would mean life.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, no prisoner has been so informed; but the exercise in tariff disclosure has not yet been completed. All mandatory life prisoners will have been informed of their tariff by early in the New Year.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, the noble Baroness makes total nonsense of the remark made by the Minister on an earlier occasion. However, I am not involved in debating aspects. Is she aware that I am full of sympathy for her at the moment? I have paid repeated tributes to her as a good Christian, and here she is defending some absolutely obscene proposal that a number of people should be confined to prison and rot in prison for life.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am not absolutely certain what the noble Earl means by his first remark. I think he could save his energy in being sorry for me at the moment; I am not sure that I can be defensive or over-defensive of my position. I believe that disclosure of tariffs to prisoners is a good thing.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, of course, the Minister's first Answer to my noble friend was, as always from her, entirely correct. She answered the Question properly. However, what she did not indicate was whether the tariffs which are now being prepared and will be announced to prisoners, as she said, by early next year will ever include the provision that a prisoner should stay for life. That is, in other words, until death, without release on licence.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there are some people who are serving a mandatory life sentence who are subject to life meaning life. What will happen as a result of the Doody judgment and the Government's commitment to honour it is that all life prisoners will be informed of the original recommendation by the judge, the recommendation by the Lord Chief Justice and the decision of the Home Secretary at the time. That information will be made available to prisoners and then the prisoner's comments, the responses to them and the

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historical information will be presented to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. He will then review the tariff in the light of all that information.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, what does the Minister mean by saying that some prisoners are subject to a decision that life means life? They have not been informed of that, so in what sense are they subject to it?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, there are prisoners serving mandatory life sentences about whom previous Home Secretaries have said that life should be life.

The noble Earl says from a sedentary position, "Not publicly"; no, of course not publicly. What I am saying now is that in reply to a Question for Written Answer, the new procedures will be laid later today, therefore all noble Lords will be able to see what the procedures are. What is in process at the moment is that as a result of the Doody judgment, prisoners will be informed not only of what the tariff is but also of what the historical decisions were; what the tariff was at the time it was recommended by the judge; what the Lord Chief Justice's views were at the time; and what the recommendation and determination by the Home Secretary were at the time. In addition, the historical data will be coupled with the response of the prisoner to that information. That will be presented to the Home Secretary at the time, who will review it and either confirm the tariff or modify it.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, will the noble Baroness undertake to look again at those cases where prisoners were retrospectively affected by Sir Leon Brittan's decision that life would normally mean 20 years? Will she look with particular care at the cases of those prisoners who have been of good behaviour during their term of imprisonment?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, we need to make a distinction here. We are talking about people serving mandatory life sentences at this moment. Those serving mandatory life sentences can ask for a review of their tariff at any time. It is up to any Home Secretary in office to consider that.

What is changing now is that that information will be made available to the prisoner with all the historical information. The Home Secretary in office will make a determination either to confirm the original tariff, with life meaning life, or to modify it in the light of a great deal of information. As to the decision about a minimum of 20 years, the present Home Secretary and his predecessors take the view that for very serious crimes of murder a minimum of 20 years is probably appropriate.

Lord Wigoder: My Lords, is there not therefore a possibility that some prisoners will be told that they will be kept in prison for the whole of their lives?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am saying just that. There are prisoners whose tariff states that life should mean life as a result of previous decisions. It is possible for my right honourable friend the Home Secretary to

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confirm that or in the light of all present information—including the response of the prisoner himself to that information—to modify it.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that at the time of the abolition of capital punishment it was widely suggested by the abolitionists that life imprisonment should mean life imprisonment? Have we not moved a long way since then?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I was not party to that debate, so I am not able to answer very specifically. I cannot respond in any pedantic way. What I can say is that the particular consideration for any Home Secretary is what is the appropriate time that would properly address retribution and deterrence. That is uppermost in the mind of the Home Secretary when he makes that determination.

Lord Ennals: My Lords, will the Minister accept, from one who was involved in the matter in 1967, that there really was no such suggestion as has been referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, of course I have to bow to the noble Lord if he was present. As a Home Office Minister, I can say that when somebody has been convicted of a very serious crime—for example, murder—which carries a mandatory sentence, there is a great deal of concern that sometimes the period served in prison does not properly address retribution and deterrence. It is up to my right honourable friend to make sure that those issues are properly addressed in determining the tariff.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Minister has given a very important and to some extent welcome announcement today that there will be an Answer to a Written Question later today. Will she communicate to her side of the usual channels what I am sure will be a universal wish on this side of the Chamber; namely, that there should be an early opportunity for a full debate on this issue as soon as the process of notifying prisoners has been completed?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, whether there is to be a debate on this matter is very much a question for Members of this House, and of course the usual channels. I believe that there is a misunderstanding which I ought to put on record at this moment. We do not have an official policy of making these decisions public. If we are asked for this information, once the disclosure process has been gone through, then the department has an obligation to answer such questions. The prisoner will know; but we will not make public statements at the time of disclosing to the prisoner what the tariff is to be.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, perhaps the House will forgive me for coming back on this point; it is really a matter for information. Nobody would suggest that the details, with names, should be made

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public. But can we presume that the Government will wish to issue some statistical review of the announcements that have been made to prisoners?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am not sure whether they are included in the statutory statistics. But certainly if that information is called for or asked for we will reply publicly.

Buses: Construction Standards

2.45 p.m.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will invoke the principle of subsidiarity or otherwise secure the future of the London double-decker bus and of the British midi-bus in the current negotiations on European Community draft vehicle harmonisation directives.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Viscount Goschen): My Lords, these proposals are designed to form one of a number of directives designed to harmonise vehicle construction standards. We cannot accept this as an issue on which the doctrine of subsidiarity should apply. We shall, however, need to ensure that United Kingdom manufacturers will be able to accommodate the eventual standards, particularly in respect of double-decker buses and midi-buses.

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