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House of Lords

Tuesday, 24th June 1997.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Lord Molyneaux of Killead

The Right Honourable Sir James Henry Molyneaux, KBE, having been created Baron Molyneaux of Killead, of Killead in the County of Antrim, for life--Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Cooke of Islandreagh and the Lord McConnell.

The Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells

James Lawton, Lord Bishop of Bath and Wells--Was (in the usual manner) introduced between the Lord Bishop of Norwich and the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

The Earl of Elgin and Kincardine--Took the Oath.

Mandatory Life Sentence for Murder

2.54 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Alloway asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether there has been recent consultation between the Lord Chancellor and senior members of the judiciary on the abolition of the mandatory life sentence for murder and, if not, when such consultation will take place.

The Lord Chancellor (Lord Irvine of Lairg): My Lords, there has been no such consultation, nor is any planned, nor has any been requested. If any members of the higher judiciary desire to make representations to me on the subject, I will consider them with great care. I will meet them for discussions, if they so wish, and will pass on the outcome of those discussions to my right honourable friend the Home Secretary.

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, I thank the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor for his most helpful and useful Answer. As he as Lord Chancellor first answers at Question Time, perhaps your Lordships will allow a word of congratulation and an expression of goodwill from someone on these Back-Benches who has known him since his earliest days at the Bar as a fair-minded opponent of the highest order of integrity and competence.

Noble Lords: Hear, hear!

Lord Campbell of Alloway: My Lords, in the wake of the negative response of the Home Office on 11th June, is the noble and learned Lord aware that as long ago as 1965, on the amendment proposed by the then Lord Chief

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Justice, the discretionary life sentence was accepted by this House but later withdrawn in exchange for the mandatory sentence with the discretion of the judge if he wished to make recommendations? That was done at the request of the then Lord Chancellor, Lord Gardiner.

Is the noble and learned Lord further aware that in 1991, in a debate on the Criminal Justice Bill, a massive majority of this House, which included the then Lord Chief Justice, two former Lord Chancellors and five Law Lords, accepted a similar amendment?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his generous remarks. I do indeed know the history of that debate in 1965. I know that the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Parker of Waddington, put down an amendment which narrowly passed in your Lordships' House, which would have had the effect of then abolishing--that is, about 30 years ago--the mandatory life sentence for murder. He was persuaded to withdraw it and to have it replaced by another amendment. I am also aware of the vote in your Lordships' House during the passage of the Bill to which the noble Lord referred.

Lord Hooson: My Lords, does not the noble and learned Lord's reply indicate that the Government are not prepared to take any initiative in this matter but are expecting the senior judiciary to seek a consultation? In the light of the representations and the questions which were asked from the Government when they were in opposition, does not this indicate a tempering of their approach?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, the arguments on both sides of this very contentious issue are well known. The view that prevailed under our predecessors was that all murder was so heinous that it required to be marked by a mandatory life sentence. There was also the argument that the public have confidence that that is so and that they further have confidence that the Home Secretary of the day must decide on all the information then available to him when it is safe to release a convicted murderer.

The arguments on the other side are very well known to me; that it is said to be wrong that all murders, regardless of the individual circumstances--and all murders vary so infinitely in their circumstances--should always attract the same sentence.

The Government are well aware of the arguments on both sides and I need go no further than to say in direct response to the question put that my door is open. I can also say that my right honourable friend the Home Secretary will profit from his experience in dealing with these lifer cases under the powers that Parliament has conferred upon him and, no doubt, as time passes will reflect upon the balance and the wisdom of our current arrangements.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord recall that the star-studded cast who made up the majority of the 98 in the debate to which the noble Lord, Lord Campbell of Alloway, drew attention not only featured the current Leader of this House but also himself? Further does the noble and learned Lord still strongly support the following two propositions? I say,

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"still" because he supported those propositions in the debate on 6th November 1989. The propositions were: murder embraces such a multitude of diverse crimes that a single mandatory sentence must be inappropriate. Accordingly, the mandatory life sentence should be abolished by a discretionary life sentence so that the range of penalties for murder is the same as for any other serious crime.

The second proposition that the noble and learned Lord firmly put forward--and I ask whether he still agrees with that proposition--is that the decision of how long a person should spend in prison is a judicial decision to be made by a judge in open court after hearing argument, subject to a right of appeal, and that it should not be this--

Noble Lords: Order!

Lord Ackner: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chancellor still agree that such a decision should not be made by a politician in secret without any right of appeal?

The Lord Chancellor: My Lords, by definition, the noble and learned Lord has a longer memory than me; but I, too, have quite a good memory. I did refresh that memory by looking through my own contribution to the debate to which the noble and learned Lord referred. I did think that it was quite well expressed but I was not bowled over by it today. The only difference between my position as expressed then and now is that today I think I have a keener awareness of the arguments on the other side, which I took pains in an earlier answer to express, than I had before and indeed the depth and sincerity with which they are held, to the same degree as the depth of sincerity which the noble and learned Lord adheres to his views.

Lord Waddington: My Lords--

Noble Lords: Next Question!

The Lord Privy Seal (Lord Richard): My Lords, I have to tell the House that I was cowardly enough not to interrupt the noble and learned Lord, Lord Ackner, but I fear that I must interrupt the noble Lord, Lord Waddington, because we have now spent nine minutes on the first Question.

Law of the Sea Convention

3.3 p.m.

Lord Archer of Sandwell asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they intend to ratify the United Nations Law of the Sea Convention 1982.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, we recognise that the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea is the

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most significant maritime convention this century. Its provisions cover virtually every topic of importance to coastal and maritime states, including the protection and preservation of the marine environment. The Government intend to push environmental concerns up the global agenda. Ministers have not yet had the opportunity to consider the UK's accession to the convention. Noble Lords may rest assured that Ministers will be considering this question soon.

Lord Archer of Sandwell: My Lords, I thank my noble friend the Minister for that very encouraging Answer. However, does she agree that we are already doing virtually everything which would be enjoined on us by the convention and that the only problem in the past has been the significance of Rockall for the exclusive economic zone? Is not the sole issue whether the fishing industry should share 0.2 per cent of its catch with such foreign boats as occasionally venture into that area? Indeed, for the sake of that, are we not disqualifying ourselves from discussions on the whole new regime? Can my noble friend the Minister go a stage further and promise that, under this Government, we will not be condemned eternally to pay the price of every item on the menu but always miss out on the food?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I hope that I have made it clear that the Government support the UNCLOS. We certainly intend to accede to the convention. However, as I said, Ministers will need first to consider what timing best suits the interests of the United Kingdom.

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