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House of Lords

Monday, 22nd April 1996.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Blackburn.

Law of Murder Review

Lord Ackner asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What are the reasons for the Home Secretary's continuing delay in publishing the report of the review of the law of murder, announced on 24th January 1995, and his conclusions thereon.

The Minister of State, Home Office (Baroness Blatch): My Lords, this was always a sensitive and complex issue. However, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary announced the Government's conclusions on the review of the law of murder on 19th April when a copy of the report was placed in the Library. The Government are not persuaded that an adequate case has been made to change the law.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for her Answer and also for her courtesy in sending me a copy of the report last Friday. It was the third time of asking and it demonstrated the validity of the proposition that perseverance doth keep honour bright.

I have two questions of the Minister, the first of which she will probably agree with but the second probably not. The first question is: does she agree that the essential question for the interdepartmental steering group was a short one; namely, where the accused overreacted and used excessive force to defend himself or prevent crime, but believed that such force was necessary and reasonable, he should be guilty of manslaughter and not murder, as recommended by the Criminal Law Revision Committee, the Law Commission and your Lordships' Select Committee and as supported by the Court of Appeal of Northern Ireland and your Lordships' Appellate Committee in the Clegg case?

The second question is: does the Minister agree that the Home Secretary rejected those recommendations for a wholly fallacious reason; namely, and I quote from the report,

    "because the defendant could only",
and I emphasise the word "only",

    "be convicted of manslaughter",
thereby missing the entire point that in manslaughter the judge has the fullest discretion to sentence from life imprisonment down to conditional discharge?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, as regards the second question, I certainly do not agree that my right honourable friend has been fallacious at all. As regards the first question, there were four specific questions before the review. The first was whether a person who

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used excessive force resulting in death in self-defence or the maintenance of law and order should be liable to a charge of murder, manslaughter or some other charge. All previous reports were taken into account in coming to a view about that. The second was whether any specific, complete or partial defences should be provided. The third was whether a new defence or offence should apply only to soldiers and police officers or more generally. The fourth was whether official guidance to soldiers and police officers on the use of firearms should have any status in law. My right honourable friend commissioned that review. The review body has reported and its considerations are before your Lordships.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, may I ask a short and simple question? As this is a matter of considerable urgency and great importance, when may we expect a Bill?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it is a matter of some importance but not of great urgency because the recommendation is that there should be no change.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the Minister will accept that this is not and should not be a party political issue. Perhaps I may concentrate on one of the issues with which the review was concerned, which is the question of whether there should be a separate law for the Armed Forces and the police? Will the Minister take it that we on these Benches strongly support the view that terrorism should be countered within the existing criminal law and that it would be wrong to have a separate law for the Armed Services and the police? Will she confirm that the Armed Forces and the police representatives would oppose such a change, as stated in the review?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am happy to put on record that the noble Lord has been entirely consistent over this matter. There has been a considerable body of evidence to support the conclusion that there should be no distinction between uniformed personnel and ordinary civilians.

Lord Boyd-Carpenter: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that many of us believe that the Government are extremely sensible not to become entangled in further amendments to the law on this somewhat controversial issue and believe that they are wise to leave things as they are?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful for my noble friend's comments. It is worth noting that the conclusion, albeit that it discussed a third option, was anything but unequivocal on the point. It said that it gave rise to considerable debate.

Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge: My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that many of us on these Benches have views exactly the opposite to those of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, we live in a democracy and everybody has a right to a view. Having read the

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report, I believe that it is painstaking in its consideration of these matters and that, on balance, the conclusion that it is not an easy subject, but rather a difficult and delicate one, is correct.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that the decision in the report strengthens even further the case for the abolition of the statutory mandatory life sentence?

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, it depends how one reads the conclusions. The report says that it is difficult to make changes in that particular aspect of the law without regarding more fundamental issues. However, the report does not conclude that we should necessarily resort to a fundamental review.

Mr. Jason Mitchell: Inquiry Findings

2.44 p.m.

Lord Harris of Greenwich asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they propose to take following the inquiry into the case of Mr. Jason Mitchell, a paranoid schizophrenic, who murdered three people.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (Baroness Cumberlege): My Lords, this was a local inquiry set up by Suffolk Health Authority. I understand that the authority has agreed to invite the inquiry team back in six months' time to review progress in implementing the local recommendations.

Lord Harris of Greenwich: My Lords, I thank the noble Baroness for that reply. Is she aware of the very high level of public concern in relation to this question? There are a great many reports of cases of paranoid schizophrenics killing while released into the community. Is she aware that I know of nine such cases where people in that category have killed while in the community? Is she aware that many of us are concerned about the sheer repetition of such cases? I am sure that the noble Baroness will be the first to confirm the high level of public disquiet. One of the reasons for that concern is the acute shortage of community health nurses. Is she aware that only one out of every five schizophrenics in the community has a community health nurse? In that situation, is it sensible for the Government to propose closing 50 psychiatric hospitals in the next five years?

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, we are very much aware of the public disquiet. However, it is interesting to note that convictions for homicide under Section 2 of the Homicide Act 1957 and hospital orders imposed under the mental health Acts are no higher now than they were 20 years ago although of course in that time the total number of homicide convictions has increased substantially. However, we realise that there is

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enormous public disquiet. That is why we are undertaking a major programme to provide medium-secure beds and secure beds. Indeed, for those who do not require 24-hour nursing care, we appreciate what the noble Lord says about community psychiatric nurses. It is our intention to ensure that those numbers are increased.

Lord Strabolgi: My Lords, may I ask the noble Baroness when the report on the independent lay assessors is likely to be published? Those outside independent people seem able to overrule the professional opinions of psychiatrists and doctors in insisting on the release of dangerous mental patients, very often with disastrous consequences.

Baroness Cumberlege: My Lords, yes. The noble Lord is correct that we are at present assessing the role of lay members on the mental health review tribunals. At present, nearly all members have some involvement with mental health services in either a professional or a voluntary capacity. Sometimes that experience and knowledge are of extreme value. But we appreciate that there may need to be a review of the procedures of mental health review tribunals system and that is being undertaken at the moment.

Baroness Cox: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that I have served on a mental health tribunal and there was great anxiety about the availability of secure beds for potentially dangerous discharged patients? Will my noble friend assure the House that that shortage is being dealt with as a matter of real urgency?

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