Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I notice that from his first quotation to his second quotation the noble Lord has made some interesting changes. I would ask the noble Lord to tell the House—because he is making this a very public statement—when and where he saw or heard my right honourable friend the Home Secretary saying, "More and more prisoners is a sign of success".

Lord Rodgers of Quarry Bank: My Lords, if I have summarised the Home Secretary's views inadequately, let me clarify the matter. I quote from the press release:

If one is not going to judge the success of the system by a fall in the prison population, it is not unreasonable to believe that one will judge it by an increase in the prison population. I shall not give way for a moment. This is a matter of opinion. The noble Baroness can express a different opinion when she replies to the debate. I would be happy to submit it to the judgment of laymen that most people would read that paragraph as I have expressed it.

I recognise the moral dilemma of the Minister. I do not wish in any way to be unfair to her. I know that she must defend the Home Secretary. But, if he meant what he said when he used the words that he did—let me put it that way —about numbers, then I think that perhaps he judges his own performance not only by numbers but by how many of those who are in prison now will stay in prison forever. That is a poor measure of success for a Home Secretary and it would be good if the Minister was able at least gently to dissociate herself from some of the harsher aspects of it.

7.36 p.m.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, my noble friend Lord Longford is, as always, to be congratulated on his persistence in raising these humanitarian issues of penal policy before your Lordships' House. If we take his Question literally, it could be interpreted in a relatively minor sense as regards,

    "why the Home Secretary has informed certain prisoners that they are to remain in prison for the rest of their lives".

The Question could be thought to be about the notification to prisoners rather than about the principle of whether prisoners should serve what I think is called "whole life". I shall dispose of that, I believe, secondary issue as quickly as I can because my noble friend and subsequent speakers have all talked about the more important issue of whether it is right for prisoners to be in prison for all of their lives.

I am grateful to the Minister for the replies she has given to me in recent months on the notification procedures which the Home Secretary announced at the end of last year. She has told me that the process of

27 Apr 1995 : Column 1091

notification for general prisons as opposed to psychiatric prisons or secure hospitals should have been completed by now I believe and that 15—or it may now be 17—prisoners have been notified of the tariff which has been allocated by the Home Secretary.

I, personally, do not object to the process of notification. If one is to have a tariff, it is proper that those who are subject to that tariff should be told openly what the tariff is rather than be kept in the dark. As regards that secondary issue, I have no difficulty with the decisions of the Home Secretary. But, of course, the issue is much more profound than that. The issue concerns not whether notification is a good thing but whether a whole life—in other words, staying in prison until one dies—is a proper instrument of penal policy, or indeed a proper concept for a humane society to adopt. The response of noble Lords to my noble friend's Question and his characteristically passionate and morally based speech indicate that there is something profoundly wrong about telling people that they are going to stay in prison for the rest of their lives.

Of course there are other considerations, and above all the consideration of danger to the public. Nobody will say that those who continue to be a danger to the public because they have uncontrollable homicidal tendencies should be released into the community. The public anxiety on the matter is entirely justified. However, those are not the people serving in ordinary prisons. They are people who have, perhaps physically based, psychiatric problems which mean that they are not detained for deterrence but for their own safety and the safety of people around them. In effect, they are detained, as the noble Lord, Lord Monson, suggested in secure hospitals rather than in prison. Let us put that aspect on one side.

The protection of the public does, of course, require that there should be people in places like Broadmoor who will never be released during the term of their natural lives, even when they become enfeebled. That is not what we are debating tonight. We are dealing with the issue of those who are capable of repentance and change. As a non-Christian I believe with the Christians that we are all capable of repentance and of change.

We are debating a system which has been adopted by the Home Secretary. First, he has decided that he, the politician, Member of Parliament and Home Secretary, has the right to change the tariff which has been determined by the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice. Not surprisingly, in recent years such changes have always involved an increase in the tariff rather than a decrease. Secondly, the Home Secretary will tell people who are of sound mind and capable of repentance that they will never be released. I suggest that that is morally wrong and cannot be defended either in terms of humanity or, as the noble Lord, Lord Rodgers, made clear, in terms of the way prisons are run.

If people are to be restrained or confined, there has to be some sanction upon them. The noble Lord, Lord Monson, very effectively made the point that the sanction has to include the prospect of some reward at the end of a period of imprisonment. If the period of imprisonment is for life with no prospect of anything else, then the whole relationship between the prisoner and the institution in which he is confined changes. It becomes a relationship

27 Apr 1995 : Column 1092

without hope, as the right reverend Prelate said, and a relationship which is destructive, not only for the prisoner and the institution but for all other prisoners who are confined in the same institution.

It is not a dereliction from our concern for public safety that leads me to say that I agree with my noble friend and all those who have spoken. It cannot be right for us to decide, and above all for politicians to decide, that prisoners serving mandatory life sentences should never be released.

7.44 p.m.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I know that the noble Earl, Lord Longford, speaks very much from the heart on these matters. I understand his concern about those prisoners who have been informed in recent months that previous Ministers have considered that the nature of their crimes demands that they should remain in prison for the rest of their lives—in other words, a whole life tariff has been set. I know that a number of noble Lords, including some who have spoken during this evening's debate, share that concern.

The issue here is a simple one. Is it right that in some cases a life sentence should mean just that? The Government's view is that it is entirely proper that in the very worst cases the extreme rigour of the law should be allowed to take its course. Indeed, we believe that there would be outrage in the community if some murderers were to be released into the community.

As I explained to your Lordships' House in response to the Starred Question of the noble Earl, Lord Longford, on 20th March, the sentence of imprisonment for life imposed by the courts affords sufficient legal authority to detain a person so sentenced for the remainder of his or her natural life. However, the imposition of a life sentence does not mean in practice that all murderers will be incarcerated for life. Far from it. In the vast majority of cases it has always been considered right that the extreme rigour of the law should be mitigated.

Perhaps I may give the current figures. Of 2,500 murderers serving mandatory life sentences, there are 16 people for whom a life sentence has been said to mean life and whose tariffs have been disclosed to them.

The period which must be served to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence is fixed by the Secretary of State only after very careful consideration of the case, including, very importantly, the views of the judiciary—the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice. I can assure your Lordships that it is not a decision that is taken likely. The tariff in a particular case will be tailored to reflect the specifics of that case. In a small number of instances the horrific nature of the crime may require that the period must be the whole of the murderer's life. We cannot escape from the fact that where the gravity of an offence is such that it can only be reflected by detaining the offender for the rest of his life a life sentence will, and indeed should, mean life.

When discussing this issue, it is important that we give a thought to those victims—innocent men, women and children —who received a life sentence and for whom

27 Apr 1995 : Column 1093

there was no opportunity to consider parole or release, victims who were cruelly cut down by those who are the subject of this debate.

As your Lordships are aware, the prisoners who have been informed that previous Ministers set a whole life tariff in their cases have been offered an opportunity to make representations against that decision. No decisions have yet been made by current Ministers to confirm or vary those tariffs. I informed the House on 24th January in a Written Answer to a Question from the noble Lord, Lord McIntosh of Haringey, that such disclosure had been made in 15 cases. Your Lordships will wish to be aware that a further two prisoners have now been told that whole life tariffs had previously been set in their cases. Should somebody do their arithmetic and think that I have made a mistake, a prisoner has died in prison, which accounts for the missing case.

That is part of the exercise which has been embarked on as a result of the Doody judgment, a judgment with which this House is familiar. That judgment has resulted in important changes to procedures. There is now much more openness, a change which I believe your Lordships welcome as a very positive development.

It is that requirement for greater openness which means that, if it is right that whole life tariffs should be set in some cases—and I have made clear that it is the Government's view that that is the case—then we have no choice but to tell the prisoners concerned. I wholly appreciate that such prisoners may feel that they have no further hope of release.

I remind the House, however, that, even if whole life tariffs are set as a result of the current exercise, that is not the end of the matter. In reply to a point made by the right reverend Prelate, the Lord Bishop of Lichfield, I can say that all such cases will, as a matter of course, be reviewed at intervals to consider whether the whole life tariff should be converted to a tariff of a shorter period. In addition to the standard ministerial review of all mandatory life cases at the 10-year point, a further review will take place when the prisoner has been in custody for 25 years and, where appropriate, will normally take place at five-yearly intervals thereafter.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page