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House of Lords

Wednesday, 9th July 1997.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Coventry.

Several Lords--Took the oath.

Violent and Sexual Offences: Sentencing

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What plans they have to prevent the automatic release of criminals who are guilty of repeated sexual or violent offences and who are known by the prison and probation services to present a risk to the public.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord Williams of Mostyn): My Lords, my right honourable friend the Home Secretary has made it clear that the Government support the provisions in the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 which require the courts to impose a life sentence on an offender convicted for the second time of a serious violent or sexual offence, unless there are exceptional circumstances. Such life sentence prisoners will not be released at the end of the relevant part set by the judge for the purposes of retribution and deterrence unless the Parole Board considers it safe to do so. We intend to implement these provisions as soon as possible.

Baroness Anelay of St. Johns: My Lords, can the Minister please give us some information about the kind of monitoring that will be available with regard to people who will be released upon licence? Is he aware that public concern on the matter will have been intensified as a result of the report last week that a person serving a five-year sentence for kidnapping, drugging and indecently assaulting a 14 year-old boy was released after serving just two-and-a-half years on the basis that he would be living in a bail hostel on licence, yet he failed to register there? Will the Government be using the probation services alone or will they be innovative and make use of the private and voluntary sectors?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, as the noble Baroness rightly pointed out, this is a matter of great public concern. It does not relate to an offender who would be subject to the new regime. It seems to us that every possible effort must be made to ensure public safety, in particular the safety of those sections of the public who are most vulnerable. In respect of the mandatory sentence to which the Question refers, the Parole Board will have the ultimate say on release and it would, of course, make the usual full and appropriate inquiries.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, what does the Minister intend to do about the practice which was followed by

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the former Home Secretary of increasing the tariff recommended by the trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice for life sentence prisoners? Does he believe that that is a matter for the judiciary rather than the executive?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Lord's question relates to the decision of the judicial committee of your Lordships' House in the case of Venables and Thompson, in which Venables and Thompson had murdered the small, innocent child, James Bulger. The Home Secretary has powers to review sentence tariffs. In the case of Venables and Thompson, the trial judge gave one indication, the then Lord Chief Justice, Lord Taylor of Gosforth, gave another and the Home Secretary had the statutory power to review, which was subsequently found to have been inappropriately exercised. But the House of Lords' judicial committee did not begin to suggest that that power could not have been properly exercised within the statutory regime.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, why do not the Government consider implementing the recommendation of the Butler Committee with regard to reviewable sentences? Does the Minister agree that the reviewable sentence suggestion made by Lord Butler has the following advantages over what is proposed: it is not limited to repeat offenders; it is not restricted to the narrow range of offences as is Section 2; it requires medical evidence before it can be imposed; it does not run the risk of the criminal deciding to do in his victim to avoid a life sentence; and, finally, it does not carry the false label of imprisonment for life, which is never intended to be effective.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble and learned Lord sets out the claimed advantages of the Butler Report regime. There is certainly virtue in some of them. The Government are determined to ensure a coherent and strategically focused approach to sentencing. We need to consider the whole of the wider context, which is what my right honourable friend the Home Secretary is presently about.

The Earl of Longford: My Lords, in view of the fact that the Minister recently denounced "Howardism" in scathing terms, will he return to the philosophy of the noble Lord, Lord Hurd, who recently joined this House?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I have never used the term, "Howardism", although I know that my noble friend frequently has done so. I understand what he means by it as a compendious term of contempt. What the present Government wish to do, if possible on the basis of cross-party agreement, is to attend to the serious problem of prisoners being released and being a perceived and actual menace to members of the public.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, in view of the importance of the Parole Board report, can my noble friend say who is entitled to see the report apart from the prisoner and how the prisoner can challenge it?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the Parole Board report is seen by officials in the Home Office; it

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would be seen by the Home Secretary; it is shown to the prisoner, and it is capable of having representations made about it by the prisoner. Those last two aspects would be what a system of civilised justice, not least natural justice, would require.

Self-chilling Cans

2.44 p.m.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe: My Lords, on behalf of, and at the request of, the noble Lord, Lord Dean of Beswick, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in his name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in accordance with the latest reports on global warming, they are prepared to ban the manufacture and sale of chillcans.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman): My Lords, the Government were concerned to learn of plans to develop self-chilling drinks cans which would emit powerful climate-changing greenhouse gases. That is why my right honourable friend the Minister of State for the Environment raised the issue recently with fellow European Union environment Ministers. They agreed to invite the European Commission to investigate the situation as a matter of urgency and to bring forward proposals for appropriate action which could include the possibility of a ban.

Lord Cocks of Hartcliffe: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Can she comment on the claim by the inventors that self-chilling cans will help to fight global warming by reducing the need for refrigerators?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, that is a claim on which I am glad to be able to comment because it is highly disingenuous. It is not the case. Even on the most generous assumptions, the contribution to global warming from emissions from the cans would far exceed any savings in carbon dioxide emissions from reduced refrigeration. Even moderate sales of the cans would seriously undermine international efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because of the high global-warming potential of HFC 134A--the gas used to chill the drink. To give a sense of the scale of the problem, the gas is 1,300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide.

Lord Bruce of Donington: My Lords, can my noble friend inform the House why, in these circumstances and after due and proper investigation by the Government, it is necessary to go to the European Commission on this matter? If it is deemed by the Minister, after all proper inquiries--I assume they were

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expensive--that there are bad effects upon health and other possible consequences, why cannot she act on her own in the interests of the country?

Baroness Hayman: My Lords, we certainly could act on our own under the Environmental Protection Act. And we certainly would, if that was the most effective way of protecting the interests of this country. If, however, because of the single market implications, it would be more effective to act through the European Union and other international efforts, then that is the correct course to pursue.

Lord Burnham: My Lords, is the Minister aware that all this is quite unnecessary? Long before the right honourable gentleman jumped on this bandwagon the soft drinks manufacturers and the brewers had decided that chilled cans were quite wrong and were not effective on either environmental or economic grounds. Further, the British Oxygen Company, within the next two months or so, is expected to announce another widget--whatever that may be--which does not contribute to global warming or ozone depletion.

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