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Lord Henderson of Brompton: My Lords, that is a hugely satisfactory Answer. The figures are greatly improved since I last asked a Question on the subject. Do I understand, therefore, that the Minister is of the same persuasion as I: that it is a waste of public money to use this very expensive accommodation for small debtors? If there are any procedural or statutory bars against imprisoning such offenders, will the Minister take the earliest opportunity that is provided either by statute or otherwise to ensure that this waste of money and of human lives is brought to an end?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I am most grateful for the tone of the noble Lord's question, as well as for its content. In this context, imprisonment is the sanction of last resort--and we believe that it ought to be. As a result of the decision of Lord Justice Simon Brown in R v. Oldham Justices ex parte Cawley in 1995, it has been made perfectly plain that any court considering the sanction, which I repeat is the sanction of last resort, is obliged to consider all other enforcement measures prior to imprisonment. We believe that a most useful discipline is that the court is required in open court to state its reasons for not using any other enforcement measure. This chimes with the earlier Question. Prison spaces are extremely scarce. As the noble Lord has rightly said, they are extremely expensive. It is a source of

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some satisfaction that the numbers are now quite small--perhaps rather lower than is sometimes implied in public discussion in the newspapers.

Baroness Blatch: My Lords, I am grateful that the noble Lord has just given the proud record of the previous government. The statistics that the noble Lord has referred to were achieved by the previous government. I agree that we should continue to try to find effective alternative methods to penalise those who default on debt. Does the noble Lord agree that other alternatives should include, for example, curfew by electronic tagging which can be very successful and effective, but that at the end of the day for the most persistent debt defaulters and the most serious cases prison must always be a last resort?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the noble Baroness will be aware that the technology on electronic tagging has become more sophisticated. It is therefore available as a more flexible control than the earlier rather cruder technology. The Home Secretary has made it plain that his mind is always open to alternatives. In so far as the former government claim credit for the reduction in the imprisonment of debt defaulters, I am more than happy to lay credit where it truly lies.

Lord Hylton: My Lords, in the related category of fine defaulters and those who do not pay their television licences, can the noble Lord say what progress is being made in the use of non-custodial sentences, such as community service orders, instead of imprisonment?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, certainly this question exercises a large number of people. The truth is that to watch television without a licence is a criminal offence. However, I am bound to say that, given some of the programmes on television, watching television with a licence...! Of course, imprisonment in this case must be a measure of last resort. Alternatives include a money payment supervision order, an attachment of earnings order, an attachment of benefits order and a distress warrant. My experience, such as it is, is that courts are very reluctant to sentence people to imprisonment for the non-payment of television licence dues. I believe that that is a matter that all courts have carefully in mind.

Murder: Mandatory Life Sentence

2.53 p.m.

Lord Ashley of Stoke asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will take steps to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder.

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the Government have no plans to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, is my noble friend aware that some noble Lords believe that the

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real reason why the Tory Government would not end the injustice of the mandatory life sentence for murder was their fear of being perceived as weak on crime? As there is now no danger of that with our strong Home Secretary, why do the Government not end the mandatory life sentence and restore some measure of discretion to the judges?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the Secretary of State for Home Affairs has a discretion to determine tariff by virtue of Section 35(2) of the Criminal Justice Act 1991. I believe that the scheme is well known. The trial judge gives his view and the Lord Chief Justice of the day gives his view. Subsequently, the Home Secretary has the power to decide how to exercise his discretion upon the recommendation of the Parole Board. I fully understand the views of my noble friend. There are people who hold different views. They believe that in this particular category of crime public interest and concern justify the discretionary involvement of the Home Secretary. Therefore, although the argument of my noble friend is one that is frequently put forward it is not simply one way; there are different views.

Lord Waddington: My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that one of our principal tasks is to reinforce rather than weaken respect for the criminal justice system? Following the recommendations of the judges in the Bulger case, how can it be said that if the mandatory life sentence is abolished there is any real likelihood that judges will pass sentences for murder that remotely equate to public expectations? Was it not said again and again at the time of the abolition of capital punishment that a unique penalty for the crime of murder would remain and the public would be reassured that the murderer would not be released except on the say-so of the Home Secretary, who would be responsible to Parliament if anything went wrong?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I believe that the noble Lord was in his place when I referred to the murder of an innocent child of two years of age by Thompson and Venables. The trial judge made his recommendation. It was extremely carefully reviewed by the Lord Chief Justice. Subsequently matters took their course through the law courts and went to the Appellate Committee of this House. Those speeches are not unanimous in the route by which the conclusion was arrived at. At the moment a very careful study is being made of all their Lordships' views.

Lord Walton of Detchant: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the recommendation implicit in this Question was one of those made by the Select Committee on Medical Ethics, which I had the privilege to chair some four years ago? That committee had reported to it by the Home Office no fewer than 23 cases where killings had taken place in which the motive had appeared on the basis of the evidence to be wholly merciful. It seemed to the committee that the law was in a sense being

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manipulated. Whereas the intention had clearly been to kill in each case the charge had been amended to one of attempted murder or manslaughter because it had been clear to those involved in the prosecution that no jury would be likely to convict. The recommendation of the Select Committee was that judges should have the ability to look at this matter flexibly in order that where the motive appeared to be merciful they might be able to impose a sentence of less than life, but that in the most heinous crimes the most severe sentence could nevertheless be imposed. Is this not a case in which the judiciary may be allowed some degree of flexibility?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, the regime that I have described offers flexibility. In the offences to which the noble Lord has referred--shall we say mercy killings--the sentences actually served are capable of being quite short. In offences that many would regard as the most serious--terrorist murder--it may well be that very many years will be required to be served. The present regime is not inflexible. Some people who are subject to mandatory life sentences are released quite early to reflect the general spectrum of different circumstances to which the noble Lord has referred. The average time, excluding time on remand, served by mandatory life prisoners who were released in 1996 was 13.2 years.

Earl Ferrers: My Lords, despite the risk of giving the noble Lord a second kiss of death, as he put it, does he appreciate how much pleasure it gives to see the Government standing firm on matters of law and order on this Question as on the first? Does he also appreciate that people would be greatly alarmed and despondent if they believed that those who committed murder would be subject neither to capital punishment nor to life imprisonment?

Lord Williams of Mostyn: My Lords, I do not believe that it is a party political question. I know that the noble Earl agrees with me because we have discussed this matter across the Dispatch Box on a number of occasions. I would have thought it axiomatic that trust in law and order was a necessary requirement for a civil society. If it comes to standing firm on what we believe to be principle or blowing with the wind, we prefer the former.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, does the Minister agree with the following three simple propositions: first, murder is not a uniquely heinous crime? He has only to consider the mercy killers who have been referred to or even the case of Trooper Clegg who was correctly convicted of murder and allowed his freedom after two years. The second proposition: if murder is not uniquely heinous, there is no justification for an automatic life sentence; and, thirdly, the existence of the automatic life sentence, in the present context, devalues the life sentence, because the public realises that it does not mean anything like what it says.

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