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Earl Russell: Before the Minister replies, may I ask him whether he has ever heard of what is known in the London Borough of Brent as "Stonebridge syndrome"? Stonebridge is the most undesirable council estate in Brent. If Brent does not want to house somebody it offers him a place in Stonebridge and can then say that he has refused it. That has been known to happen with training places.

I also wanted to say that occasionally one finds something happening in the past which could have happened yesterday. In 1610, in another place, a Member was discussing a case at the court of King Cambyses in Persia. His Ministers were asked, "What law have you got for what you are doing?" They replied, "None at all, but we have a law that the King may do whatever he likes". Our complaint is that that law is still in force.

7 p.m.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: I shall attempt to answer those two points. If the noble Earl has any evidence that there is the equivalent in the training system of the kind of council estate he mentioned —that there are a number of training places so awful that no one in his right mind will accept them—I hope he will let me know, because that is in no way within the meaning of the Bill or the desires of Ministers. So I hope that his example is not true. However, if there are such examples, I need to know.

I am not sure that the noble Baroness, Lady Seear, used a good example because for me the proof of the pudding would be on the operating table. The mistake that had been made would be quickly realised, and the youngster could make the point.

Baroness Seear: He may have a grumbling appendix.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: It was quite a long time ago, I grant, but I remember what it was like to have a grumbling appendix. It seemed to object, in particular, to bananas. It put me off bananas for life. I understand the points being made, although I am not sure that I understand what significance adding those words, or the clever intervention of the noble Baroness with regard to some other words, would have to the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, about the matter reaching the Minister.

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I do not expect that the Committee will divide on this matter. I am prepared, without any commitment, to say that I shall reflect on the points made in the debate—as I reflect on all points, of course—with special interest, and consider what has been said.

Baroness Dean of Thornton-le-Fylde: My noble friend has just said to me that that is a victory. I shall believe that when it happens. I listened to the appendix case, and I suppose a reality is better than an assumption. I can remember as a trade union officer being called into a factory on behalf of someone who had lost his job. The manager had asked him to go to a printing machine and he said that he could not because he had a rupture. I negotiated for him and got back his job on condition that he had a medical examination. He said, "I had better come clean. I haven't really. I just didn't want to go on that machine". I told him that he had a week to get one.

I have listened to the debate with great interest. I thank noble Lords who have been so generous in their support of the amendment. I heard what the Minister said. I noted carefully many statements that I would have challenged, but I take a great deal of comfort from his last point. I was concerned when he said that he would not go to the stake over this matter. To go along while being dragged screaming is never a satisfactory conclusion. He said that he would like to think about the matter, and I grasp that offer with both hands. I am happy to discuss it with him before we return to the issue on Report. On the basis of the Minister giving an undertaking that he will consider the matter—an offer which I should like to accept in the spirit in which I am sure it is intended—I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 129 and 130 not moved.]

Lord Inglewood: I beg to move that the House do now resume. I suggest that the Committee stage begin again not before 8 p.m.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

House resumed.

Life Imprisonment: Information to Prisoners

7.4 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government why the Home Secretary has informed certain prisoners that they are to remain in prison for the rest of their lives.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who are to take part in the debate, especially the right reverend Prelate, because I am sure that he will underline the fine message in favour of penal reform delivered recently by the right reverend Primate the Archbishop of Canterbury. I have my usual sympathy for the Minister, whose sensitive soul is tortured by the moral dilemma of defending something

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that is indefensible. I think that I shall say that again and again. However, she cannot help it. There it is. It is her job.

The idea of life meaning life was first propounded publicly by the Home Secretary last December. It was of course unprecedented, despite some contradictory answers on that point given to me later by the Minister, and it was understood to mean that these unfortunate prisoners would remain in prison until they died. That was the public's impression, and it was the impression created on the prisoners, one of whom had to be placed under 24-hour guard lest she commit suicide. There is no doubt that the intention was to create that impression.

The decision was criticised sharply later by, for example, the noble and learned Lord Donaldson, the former Master of the Rolls, in a radio talk early in the New Year, when he pointed out that no Home Secretary had the right to bind his successors. He said that it was cruel to say to Myra Hindley—he mentioned Myra Hindley in particular—that she had no hope of ever coming out. I know that the noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, would have liked to be with us tonight. No doubt he would have spoken along the same lines.

That was how the matter was left until it was debated here. The noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, extracted from the Government the admission—about three months after the original announcement—that Mr. Howard could not bind his successors. That point was cleared up. In the meantime it had caused a great deal of unnecessary pain—pain which was no doubt unwelcome to the Minister, but it was pain all right.

Having disposed of the disingenuous tactics used in making the announcement, we come to the issue. There are a number of people serving life imprisonment. My noble friend Lord McIntosh has obtained details, but I know one of them very well—Myra Hindley. I first visited her in prison in 1968. I know another prisoner in this category also. Those are not the only prisoners serving a life sentence for murder whom I know well. I am in touch with about 10, I suppose, out of the 2,400 at present serving life sentences.

Let us take the case of Myra Hindley. We all remember that she was involved in horrible crimes. She was a girl infatuated with her accomplice, a man who has been in a special hospital for many years. She has always agreed that it is only right and proper that she should serve many years in prison. She has now been in prison for nearly 29 years.

When Myra Hindley was first sentenced, the Lord Chief Justice recommended 25 years, but later, Ministers secretly, or without conveying the decision to the public, decided that she should serve 30 years. Later still, the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, who was Home Secretary at the time, decided that life should mean life. That decision was not conveyed to the public. For whatever reason, it was kept dark. At any rate, that was the infamous decision reached at that time. Now, Mr. Howard, whether willingly or because he was forced as a result of various judicial decisions, announced that life would mean life.

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We can consider the matter on its merits. If I take that particular case—my noble friend Lord McIntosh may tell us about others—there is someone who, by no conceivable stretch of the imagination is a danger to the public. It is years since the then chairman of the Parole Board told me that she was no danger. Since then, she has been twice recommended for parole by the local review committee, so there is no question of danger, but Mr. Howard has insisted that, however virtuous she becomes, she should stay in prison for the rest of her life. I can only describe that as an evil decision.

We may ask what is the explanation for that. I am afraid that there is only one possible explanation. Mr. Howard is a very intelligent man and for all I know, he may be an excellent man in his private life. This Government are the most unpopular government in history. We all know that they are many, many points behind the Labour Party in the polls and they are about to receive a crushing defeat in the local elections. This immensely unpopular Government are making frantic endeavours to endear themselves to the cruder elements of the public.

One must admit that they have been assisted by the tabloid press. I take the Sun as an example. I should say that Myra Hindley has recently broken her hip and is now in prison hospital, having had an operation. The Sun, which is undoubtedly close to Mr. Howard in its thinking, pointed out that, although I would probably be sympathetic, everyone else would wish that she had broken her neck. That is the kind of tabloid expression of opinion which has built up hatred towards that person over the years. The Sun calls her a monster and is begging her to write an article for it. That is the tabloid support for Mr. Howard's policies.

Therefore, we have that policy. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Donaldson, says it is cruel to remove all hope from prisoners. That has never been done before. It is totally anti-Christian, which should shock the noble Baroness, who is a good Christian. It takes us half-way back to capital punishment.

To be fair for once to Mr. Howard, I believe that he is now against capital punishment. Earlier he was in favour of it but he is now against it. That is in his favour. But his policy takes us back to the debates in this House in 1957, when I heard the Lord Chief Justice of the time say about one man who had been convicted of murder that such a man should be destroyed. That is the attitude of those who say that some prisoners should remain in prison for life. Some people believe that some sins cannot be forgiven and that such a person should be destroyed. I shall not ask the noble Baroness again whether she can reconcile that with her conscience because I believe that that is unfair. She has a tender conscience and that would be an occasion of mortal sin. But I put on record that I believe that that policy is fiendish. I hope that, when a Labour Government take power or even when a different Home Secretary takes over, that policy will be forgotten and repudiated as far as it ever can be.

7.15 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Lichfield: My Lords, I understand that it has always been possible to keep a person in prison for the rest of his or her life within our system. I, for one, accept that there is a need for society to

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be able to repudiate horrific crimes with sufficient severity and without resorting to capital punishment. However, I wish to add that the Christian tradition and other traditions are not only about peace and forgiveness but are also about justice, reparation and repentance. Therefore, in some cases a life sentence may have to mean what it says; that is, life-long imprisonment.

On the other hand, there is the profoundly important consideration underlined by the noble Earl, Lord Longford, that nobody is irredeemably evil. People can and do change. That can be for a wide range of reasons which may include remorse, maturity, growth in insight, ageing, the influence of other people, and personal and spiritual change. The mystery of personality of whatever kind is that it can change. Therefore, it is surely a near-fatal blow to any person, however heinous his crime, to be told that however deeply and seriously he repents, and whatever real and lasting transformation is achieved, there can never be any hope of a fresh life outside prison.

However severely society needs to repudiate a terrible crime, as the noble Earl has already pinpointed, should there not always be some hope of eventual rehabilitation following both just punishment and true repentance? To lose hope is to lose a key part of our humanity.

One of the prison chaplains with whom I have contact reminded me recently that a declared purpose of the prison system is not only to punish crime but also to nurture that precious virtue of hope which can be a catalyst both to personal change and future rehabilitation.

My most serious anxiety is that the disclosure of a sentence lasting for the rest of a natural human life could eradicate hope. It is no wonder that, as the noble Earl told us, one lady needed a 24-hour guard to prevent her from committing suicide.

At another time the noble Earl, Lord Longford, has quoted a well-known saying of Augustine that we hate the sin but love the sinner. I want to argue that in a civilised society, we must not only hate the sin but also maintain hope for the sinner.

Finally, although I am a layman in these matters, I understand that for all prisoners serving life sentences the Home Secretary has an important ministerial power; that is, the power to review each case when the prisoner in question has been in custody for 25 years. Indeed, I understand that the Home Secretary has further powers to review the case every five years after that first 25-year review. May we be assured that the Home Secretary will exercise those powers for the 17 people about whom we are concerned? Further, when the Home Secretary undertakes his review, will he take account not only of considerations of retribution and deterrence but also of evidence of contrition, change, and, therefore, the hope of rehabilitation?

Let us hate the sin but let us not give up all hope or, importantly, allow the prisoners to give up hope for the sinners themselves.

7.18 p.m.

Lord Monson: My Lords, I agree with a great deal of what the right reverend Prelate said. But the first objection to informing people that they are to be kept in prison literally to the end of their lives, even if they are by that

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time enfeebled and utterly harmless, is pragmatic and utilitarian. If there is to be no remission whatever for good behaviour, there can be no incentive to co-operate or to behave well, and no disincentive, should the prisoner be so inclined, to refrain from murdering or causing grievous bodily harm to a prisoner or prison officer, given that the penalties for so doing are minor compared with the prospect of spending another 50 or 60 years in prison come what may. In other words, the decision would seem to be prejudicial to the maintenance of good order and discipline.

The second objection—which refers back to what both the noble Earl and the right reverend Prelate said—is a moral one, if that does not sound too pompous. To rule that prisoners, however well they behave and however much they repent and try to atone for their dreadful crimes, can never be released under any circumstances is actually more cruel than inflicting the death penalty. At least the death penalty fulfils one of the main criteria for a just punishment; namely, that it should follow as quickly as possible upon the crime. I refer, of course, to the relatively speedy and efficient former English procedure and not what we have recently seen in the United States of America.

In contrast, by continuing to punish people possibly 50 or 60 years after the event you are in effect punishing a totally different individual, physically, mentally and emotionally, from the one who originally perpetrated the crime. After all, that was one of the objections—although by no means the only one—to instigating war crimes trials 50, 51 or 52 years after the events in question.

When the whole issue of the death penalty was being debated in the 1960s, liberal-minded friends and acquaintances used to say that, even for those guilty of the most heinous murders, they opposed the death penalty. Instead, they favoured locking up those individuals for life and "throwing away the key", to use a phrase that was greatly in vogue at the time. They imagined that they were being humane but actually they were being squeamish which is a very different kettle of fish: humane they were not.

I return to the main issue. The Government will undoubtedly argue that there are two categories of prisoner who can never be released in any circumstances, even after perhaps 50 or 60 years. The first category consists of those deemed to be chronically homicidal and hence perpetually dangerous. What? Even if they have become bedridden, three-quarters blind or so crippled with arthritis that they can scarcely move? I suggest that the words "never released" in that case should be replaced with "not released until they are physically harmless." Further, once those prisoners have served the term of years which a trial judge originally deemed necessary to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence, their status should revert from that of prisoner to one of what one might call "preventive detainee", rather like someone compulsorily detained in a mental hospital, with correspondingly improved conditions and amenities subject, of course, to the requirement of security. After all, the period of years which they have served as pure punishment has elapsed by that time.

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The second category of prisoner and the one, I believe, upon which the noble Earl was mainly concentrating—the non-dangerous types, by which I mean people who were once dangerous but who are no longer so—consists of those the Government dare not release for fear of public opinion and consequent adverse electoral consequences, even though they have served fully the period recommended by a trial judge as being sufficient to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence.

The Government have only themselves to blame in that respect. It is their absurd insistence on retaining so called "life" as the only sentence for murder that is responsible for their dilemma. Far from reassuring members of the public, so called "life" arouses their suspicions. First, the general public are firmly of the impression that life equals, in practice, nine years. I believe that it was true at one time that that was the average period of imprisonment served by life prisoners when capital punishment was in operation and only those reprieved were, by definition, serving life imprisonment. That is no longer the case.

Then, and more importantly, there is the quite understandable confusion between what might be termed gross and net sentences. On one day people read in the newspapers that a judge has sentenced a bank robber who has shot and wounded, for example, two security guards and a police officer to 22 years' imprisonment. The very next day they may read in the newspapers that the same judge has sentenced a murderer to life with a recommendation that he serve not less than 20 years. The public is understandably outraged, imagining that the murderer got off more lightly than the bank robber. Of course, he did not. The murderer's sentence is tantamount to 40 years gross; but the public can hardly be expected to grasp that fact.

If, instead, the law were altered so that judges could impose gross sentences ranging from, let us say, three or four years—or possibly even less—for a mercy killing; five to 12 years, but possibly more in the worst cases, for domestic murders; 25 to 45 years for ruthless, professional criminals who prefer to shoot their way out of a robbery; and the really dramatic, headline grabbing sentences of 50, 60 or 70 years' imprisonment for ultra-heinous crimes, happily perpetrated on average no more than once every 10 years—for example, deliberate child murders, or for murderers who blow up a passenger aircraft—members of the public would be largely satisfied, though not wholly, I grant. Those who are rightly sentenced to very long, determinate terms, unless they happen already to be middle-aged (and not many fall into that category) will be able to see a light, however faint, at the end of the tunnel, and will improve their behaviour accordingly.

7.26 p.m.

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, I was tempted to remain seated and, therefore, to allow the Minister rather longer to reply. That is because I believe the issues behind the Question have been very well expressed in the course of tonight's short debate. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, said that what we needed was clarification as to whether the words really did mean what they said, or whether it has now been very plainly

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conceded that the present Home Secretary could not bind his successor. We need to be sure which is the case. However, even if the second interpretation is correct, I have to say that the intention is in the wish. The present Home Secretary expressed the view that some prisoners should remain in prison for the rest of their lives. Whether that is possible constitutionally does not take away the fact that he made the statement and that that is his own clear preference.

The right reverend Prelate talked about justice, repentance and reparation. He said that no one is irredeemably evil. I believe that that is a sentiment which many of us who may not be as close to the Church as is the right reverend Prelate would indeed share. I do not believe that anyone in this House today, or on other occasions, could deny that the idea of redemption must have its place in our penal system. If prisoners are to remain in prison for the rest of their lives, the opportunity for redemption is totally excluded.

The noble Lord, Lord Monson, was most thoughtful and persuasive. I listened to him with the greatest of care. We should be immensely grateful, as always, to the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for probing so acutely into a dark corner of government penal policy. Over very many years, the noble Earl has defied popular criticism—and, if I may say so, some ridicule—in the causes that he has espoused. However, he has always been brave and nine times out of ten—if I am allowed to make that slight amendment—he has been right. I certainly believe that he is right on the issue under discussion.

In his usual sincere but subtle way, the noble Earl said, in effect, although I must not put words into his mouth, that the Minister should not be held responsible for the sins of the Home Secretary. Indeed, some of those, if you like, "sins of report", were committed during that famous speech at the Conservative Conference in 1993 before the noble Baroness was a Minister in the department. Therefore, one cannot hold the noble Baroness responsible for them. However, some of those sentences were expressed in a more austere way (I recall that "austere" is one of the Home Secretary's favourite words for applying to prisons to which he wants to condemn some people forever), in the Home Secretary's speech during the Debate on the Address on 18th November last in another place.

As the noble Earl, Lord Longford, said, it is impossible—and one has to make that point now—to separate the issue, its presentation and the sentiments behind it from the whole thrust of the policies of the present Home Secretary. The noble Earl, Lord Longford, referred to those policies as appealing to cruder elements. That was a restrained way of saying what I would say; namely, that there has been a great deal of saloon bar populism in much of what the Home Secretary has said. Of course a Home Secretary who is a member of a Cabinet in a government which is responsible to an elected Parliament must take account of public opinion on this, as on other issues. But it is the role of Ministers to lead and not follow. I am afraid that in so many respects the present Home Secretary has chosen to follow and not to make a case for policies which substantially address the issues

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before the country. I remember the phrase used in the debate on 18th November last to which I have already referred, when he said:

    "My task is to provide our country with the system of criminal justice for which it yearns".—[Official Report, Commons, 18/11/94; col. 239.]

He did not refer to the most effective system of criminal justice, or the morally right system of criminal justice, but the system of criminal justice "for which it yearns".

In a different context I was interested to see the recent consultation document on strengthening punishment in the community, which stated at paragraph 2.6,

    "The present arrangements suffer from the drawback that probation and supervision orders do not appear to the public to offer sufficient punishment ... Probation supervision is still widely regarded as a soft option. Although in many cases this perception may be misconceived, it must be addressed".

The usual way of dealing with a misconceived perception is to confront and to change it. However, I am afraid that is not the case with this Home Secretary in penal matters. His rule appears to me to be a case of, "Give me a misconceived perception and I will yield to it". That is, in my view, the background to the matters which we are discussing this evening.

The Minister missed the debate on training for the probation service that was held in this House a short time ago. However, I think she will know that the whole House, across all parties, was deeply distressed by the Home Secretary's proposals. No doubt the popular press would applaud ex-military policemen strutting their stuff with men on probation. However, that would not be a policy but an emotional spasm and that would be no way of dealing with the situation which this House fully recognised in the debate which was held only a short time ago.

As I say, I believe these issues form a background to the matter we are discussing this evening. However, there is another matter which it would perhaps be satisfactory to examine on a different occasion, and that is to consider what is the role of the Home Secretary on matters which otherwise might be thought to be appropriate to the judges and the courts. The Home Secretary has made a feature of the separation of the day-to-day responsibility of the Prison Service from the responsibility of the Home Secretary. In the debate on the matter Members of this House had doubts about whether that separation was effective. However, it is part of the Home Secretary's view —and let us take it on its merits—that there are strategic responsibilities which are his and day-to-day responsibilities which can be hived off to the director of the Prison Service.

If that is indeed the case, surely the Home Secretary should be drawing a clear line between the strategic issues of policy governing our penal policy, and leaving it to the judges and the courts to make these decisions. If the Home Secretary is afraid of what the popular newspapers will say about him if he fails to act in the way that he has been doing, the easiest route would be to say, "These are not matters appropriate to a Minister in a Government who is bound to be subject to strong day-to-day pressures. In some way they should be removed from ministerial responsibility altogether".

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The Home Secretary has set his own performance targets and has boasted about them. He believes that to have more and more people in prison is a measure of success. If the Minister doubts that, I refer her to paragraph 3 of page 12 of the Central Office press release of 6th October 1993, in which the Home Secretary said very plainly that more people in prison could be a measure of the success of his policies.

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