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House of Lords

Tuesday, 21st January 2003.

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

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Southwark


Lord Ackner asked Her Majesty's Government:

    In the year 2002, in relation to those offences for which life imprisonment is the maximum sentence, how many applications were made by Her Majesty's Attorney- General to the Court of Appeal to review the sentences as being unduly lenient, and with what results, particularising the offences and the length of the sentence imposed by the trial judge.

The Attorney-General (Lord Goldsmith): My Lords, in the year 2002 in England and Wales, in relation to those offences for which life imprisonment is the maximum, the Law Officers made applications to the Court of Appeal to review sentences in respect of 97 offenders. Of these, 44 applications are yet to be heard. Of the 53 heard, the Court of Appeal has agreed that the sentence was unduly lenient in 49; and the court has increased the sentence of 38 offenders. The offences involved include murder, attempted murder, manslaughter, robbery, rape, arson and kidnap and others. The further information that the noble and learned Lord seeks would be too detailed to go into today, but I am happy to write to him if he would still like it.

Lord Ackner: My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble and learned Lord. I have two questions, which are based on two assumptions. The first assumption is that the noble and learned Lord will accept that he has a statutory duty under Section 36 of the Criminal Justice Act 1988 to refer unduly lenient sentences to the Court of Appeal. The second is that the noble and learned Lord is aware of decisions in which the determinate sentence has been changed by the Court of Appeal to life sentence. If he wishes to know them, I can give him the two references. My two questions are as follows. Does the noble and learned Lord agree that, if the Attorney-General is complying with his statutory duty as we understand and expect he would, the courts, bearing in mind the vast number of cases dealt with, are carrying out their duties responsibly? Secondly, does he agree that the Home Secretary, having lost any right to play any part in dealing with murder cases, is acting irresponsibly in threatening to bring in by statute what he considers to be the appropriate sentence for murder, category by category?

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, I do not understand myself to have a duty to refer unduly lenient sentences in every case. The Court of Appeal has a discretion, and so do I. So I am not sure that it is possible to

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deduce from the figures I have given that, in all other cases, I, or others, would agree with the sentences passed.

In response to the noble and learned Lord's second question, I do not agree that the Home Secretary is acting irresponsibly. As my noble and learned friend Lord Falconer made plain in the debate on sentencing in this House on 15th January, the basic principle must be that a judge acts independently on the facts of an individual case to set the appropriate sentence. But it has been found extremely useful, if not essential, for the courts to have guidance from the Court of Appeal, now with the assistance of the sentencing advisory panel, and the guidance of the sentencing guidelines council proposed in the Criminal Justice Bill. Murder has always played a special role in our criminal justice system. For parliaments to play a role in the setting of sentences—the guidelines for sentences, in those cases—does not appear to be the slightest bit irresponsible.

Lord Thomas of Gresford: My Lords, will the noble and learned Lord make clear his approach to applications? Does he consider a sentence to be unduly lenient if it is in line with current sentencing as set out by the judges; or does he make applications when he feels it is time to up the level of sentences in a particular category of case?

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, since this power was introduced in 1988, it has been used largely to refer to Court of Appeal sentences which the Law Officers, in their independent quasi-judicial judgment, believe to be out of line with existing tariffs and sentencing guidelines. There are also occasions where the Law Officers will think it appropriate to ask the Court of Appeal senior judges to consider whether any adjustment to the guidelines is appropriate. That would be for the guidance of all sentencing judges and to increase public confidence in the system.

Lord Carlisle of Bucklow: My Lords, does the noble and learned Lord agree that it would be far better to continue with the system whereby the individual sentence is a matter for the court, assisted by judicial guidance, as he said, rather than move to mandatory minimum sentences, which apparently the Government now propose?

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, as I indicated in answer to an earlier question, it is obviously right that in the individual case, the judge should be able to exercise his or her judgment on the facts of the case. But there are guidelines from judges, with the assistance of the sentencing advisory panel, which some judges at the time thought a bad move. I have heard them say now that they think it has been a success, and I entirely agree. The sentencing guidelines council will build on that. So there is room both for the individual judgment and the assistance of others in setting the guidelines.

Lord Tebbit: My Lords, is it not clear that judges sit in their positions of authority in order to defend the people of this country? Is it not therefore perfectly right, when

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the people of this country wish to send a message through Parliament or through the Home Secretary, that the Home Secretary acts to do that? He is fully within his rights and is behaving absolutely responsibly when he intimates to the judges the feelings of the people of this country, which he frequently gets just about right.

Lord Goldsmith: My Lords, as my earlier answers indicated, the Government believe it appropriate that there should be input into judicial views on sentencing from the sentencing advisory panel and from other sources. In the case of murder, which has a special role in the criminal justice system, it is thought appropriate to take account of the views of Parliament while still leaving discretion to judges in individual cases within those guidelines. To that extent I agree with the noble Lord.

Equitable Life

2.44 p.m.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so I declare my interest as an annuitant of the Equitable Life Assurance Society.

The Question was as follows:

    To ask Her Majesty's Government when they expect the findings of the Penrose inquiry into the conduct of the Equitable Life Assurance Society to be completed and whether they intend to make those findings public.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, Lord Penrose's inquiry is independent of the Treasury. It is for the inquiry to set its own timetable. Lord Penrose has said that he hopes to be able to report to the Treasury this summer. It remains our intention to publish Lord Penrose's report in full if at all possible. The only possible constraint on publication in full will be the need to respect legal and commercial confidentiality restrictions.

Lord Willoughby de Broke: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Given the dire state of Equitable Life at the moment, it seems likely that there was regulatory failure. A lot of the policy holders and annuitants such as me would like to know whether, if the Penrose inquiry finds that there was regulatory failure, the Government will feel it their duty to compensate policy holders and annuitants for that failure.

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, I do not want to join the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby, in anticipating what conclusions Lord Penrose may come to. Those conclusions are entirely a matter for him. His terms of reference are very wide, going back, potentially, over a period of 50 years. If he were to

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recommend that there should be compensation for Equitable Life policy holders, the Government would have to take that seriously.

Lord Higgins: My Lords, I declare an interest in Equitable Life. Many Equitable Life pensioners believe it is obvious that the Government, as regulator, have failed to protect their interests. As the Penrose inquiry was set up by the Treasury, with terms of reference decided by the Treasury and to report to the Treasury and the inquiry now seems to have disappeared from sight, can the Minister say at least that when the Parliamentary Ombudsman's report is made available, the Government will respond to it without delay, if necessary before the publication of the Penrose report?

Lord McIntosh of Haringey: My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Higgins, has joined the noble Lord, Lord Willoughby, in anticipating the outcome of the Penrose inquiry, saying that it is bound to show regulatory failure. I do not know that and I cannot say that. That is a matter for Lord Penrose to conclude. It is not true that the Government restricted the terms of the Penrose inquiry. The terms of reference are very wide, as I have said. They were accepted by Lord Penrose and there has never been any suggestion that there was any undue restriction on them. Neither is it true that the inquiry has been lost to sight. The inquiry started to interview individual witnesses only yesterday.

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