Government New Clause 30 — Determination of Minimum Term in Relation to Mandatory Life Sentence

Criminal Justice Bill — [3rd Alloted Day] – in the House of Commons at 1:19 pm on 20th May 2003.

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'(1) This section applies where after the commencement of this section a court passes a life sentence in circumstances where the sentence is fixed by law.

(2) The court must, unless it makes an order under subsection (4), order that the provisions of section 28(5) to (8) of the Crime (Sentences) Act 1997 (c. 43) (referred to in this Chapter as "the early release provisions") are to apply to the offender as soon as he has served the part of his sentence which is specified in the order.

(3) The part of his sentence is to be such as the court considers appropriate taking into account—

(a) the seriousness of the offence, or of the combination of the offence and any one or more offences associated with it, and

(b) the effect of any direction which it would have given under section 222 (crediting periods of remand in custody) if it had sentenced him to a term of imprisonment.

(4) If the offender was 21 or over when he committed the offence and the court is of the opinion that, because of the seriousness of the offence, or of the combination of the offence and one or more offences associated with it, no order should be made under subsection (2), the court must order that the early release provisions are not to apply to the offender.

(5) In considering under subsection (3) or (4) the seriousness of an offence (or of the combination of an offence and one or more offences associated with it), the court must have regard to—

(a) the general principles set out in Schedule (Determination of minimum term in relation to mandatory life sentence), and

(b) any guidelines relating to offences in general which are relevant to the case and are not incompatible with the provisions of Schedule (Determination of minimum term in relation to mandatory life sentence).

(6) The Secretary of State may by order amend Schedule (Determination of minimum term in relation to mandatory life sentence).'.—[Mr. Blunkett.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Michael Martin Michael Martin Chair, Speaker's Committee on the Electoral Commission, Speaker of the House of Commons

With this it will be convenient to discuss the following: Government new clause 31—Duty to give reasons.

Government new clause 32—Appeals.

Government new clause 33—Review of minimum term on reference by Attorney General.

Government new clause 34—Life prisoners transferred to England and Wales.

Government new clause 35—Further provisions about references relating to transferred life prisoners.

Government new clause 36—Duty to release certain life prisoners.

Government new clause 37—Mandatory life sentences: transitional cases.

Government new clause 38—Interpretation of Chapter.

Government new clause 39—Increase in penalties for certain driving-related offences causing death—and amendment (a) thereto.

Government new clause 46—Minimum sentence for certain firearms offences—and amendments (a) and (b) thereto.

Government new clause 47—Certain firearms offences to be triable only on indictment.

Government new clause 48—Power to sentence young offender to detention in respect of certain firearms offences: England and Wales.

Government new clause 49—Power to sentence young offender to detention in respect of certain firearms offences: Scotland.

Government new clause 50—Power by order to exclude application of minimum sentence to those under 18.

Government new clause 51—Increase in penalty for offences relating to importation of exportation of certain firearms—and amendments (a) and (b) thereto.

New clause 7—Prohibition on mandatory sentences.

New clause 9—Penalty for causing death by dangerous driving.

Government amendments Nos. 426 to 429, 223, 430, 224, 436 and 437, 228 and 229, 438 to 440 and 431.

Government new clause 41—Mode of trial for certain firearms offences: transitory arrangements.

Government amendments Nos. 325 to 330, 338, 342, 225, 432, 441, 303, 305, 442, 230, 226, 434 and 435, 227 and 259.

Government new schedule 2—Determination of minimum term in relation to mandatory life sentence—and amendments (a) to (j) thereto.

Government new schedule 3—Mandatory life sentences: transitional cases.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I shall speak to new clauses 30 to 38, with regard to sentencing for murder, new clause 39 on increasing penalties for driving offences causing death, and new clauses 46 to 51 relating to firearms offences. These proposals should be seen in the light of the overall changes that we are making to provide a sensible framework. First, in the Bill we have outlined the purpose of sentencing, on which there is accord across the House. Secondly, we have established the principles and a framework within which the judiciary can use its discretion. Thirdly, and crucially, by offering a clear response to public concerns and establishing clarity and consistency in the sentencing framework, Parliament will see a role for itself. In my view, no disagreement exists between the Government and the judiciary about the fact that it should have the discretion to make decisions in relation to individual cases. We do not intend for the new clauses and amendments to interfere with that. We want to reassert the role of Parliament that historically existed when considering cases of murder, and to ensure that there is clarity and a response to public concern about issues relating to driving, the carrying of guns and the use of firearms. I hope that there will be more light than heat this afternoon, and I intend to deliver the justification for the new measures in that vein rather than taking a bombastic approach on the need for greater responsiveness to public demand.

There is no question but that the public are bewildered by how sentences can be reached when they know that the crime that has been committed was so heinous that there could be only one sentence: life should mean life. When the death penalty was abolished—I am wholly in favour of that—it was presumed that those who committed such an act against their fellow human beings would go down for the rest of their lives. There was a presumption that the removal of judicial murder would safeguard the interests of the community and send appropriate signals to both perpetrators and the wider community to show that we understood the nature of what was being done and those who perpetrated such heinous crimes.

As Home Secretary, I have had the privilege and trauma of examining cases for which tariffs were set in which people had committed the worst possible crimes in our community. In cases such as those involving crimes against children, we have to consider not only people who have committed murder—horrendous though that is—but their actions and behaviour before the murder. I take no pleasure in saying this but it is important for people to know that those who have read the cases on to tape for me have done so in tears. The horrendous nature of the cases and the decisions that must be taken are such that it is difficult to get inside the minds of, or to predict the likely future actions of, the people with whom we are dealing.

I do not apologise for saying that successive Home Secretaries of all political persuasions have intended that we should not only send a signal to, but deal decisively with, those who threaten the life and limb of others, by saying that such people should be given life sentences that would literally put them away for the rest of their lives. We are talking about such cases as multiple and sadistic killings, and when terrorists take the lives of others. In more traditional terms, before suicide bombing occurred, there was at least a way of sending signals to and getting retribution from terrorists. We are talking about incidents of child murder, which I have described, and the way in which people abused others before committing such a crime.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham 1:30 pm, 20th May 2003

The Home Secretary is addressing a matter of utmost importance. While accepting that in several cases life most certainly should mean life and that it is unimaginable that there could be any mitigating circumstance that would allow an exemption from that edict, is he arguing for life to mean life in cases of heinous crimes on the basis of a commitment to justice or retribution, or is he motivated by a consideration of the capacity to deter?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I am motivated, as is indicated by the sentencing framework and the new purposes of sentencing, by the desire to show those who are engaged in such actions that there will be clear and unequivocal consequences. Such people are often the associates of those who are the instrument of the intended murder or those drawn into the situation because, on several occasions, more than one person has been engaged in the most horrendous murders. I am also engaged, as the guidelines on sentencing and on the purposes of sentencing set out, with the need to punish. Punishment means that there is an element of retribution on behalf of society. Those aims are not the least bit contradictory and that is why we were careful to ensure that they were not contradictory in the provisions on the purposes of sentencing.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Does my right hon. Friend accept that although many of us agree with his view on mandatory life sentences, we also agree with the provisions in the Bill that would establish a sentencing guidelines council? Several of us think that the council would be stronger if it included him, the Lord Chief Justice and a senior Member of the House so that all arms of state were represented. Does he accept that his strong case for mandatory sentences for certain murders would find favour on such a council and lead to a consensus on sentencing but that if his proposals were carried today, there might be continual chipping at them by Members of the House and, above all, members of the judiciary? Surely trying to find consensus on an eminently sensible proposal is better than producing a proposal that might lead to further confrontation.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I do not want confrontation in any sense and I do not imagine that we will have confrontation. We will re-establish what we thought already existed. In 1983, the then Home Secretary introduced the tariff system which, as hon. Members know, was overturned on appeal.

I am trying to re-establish the role of Parliament and our democratic processes in relation to the most difficult crimes with which we deal and to establish, for the first time, the Sentencing Guidelines Council, which will involve people other than the judiciary, although the judiciary will represent the majority on it. That arrangement is designed to deal with the plethora of sentencing challenges that exist. It would be impossible for any Member of the House or the Executive to do that on an ongoing basis because so many issues and time-consuming questions must be addressed. That is why it is appropriate for the House to lay down principles and frameworks on the cases with which we deal today, for the Sentencing Guidelines Council to make proposals on the broader thrust of sentencing, and for the Home Affairs Committee and the House to return to the issues from time to time to appraise how the Sentencing Guidelines Council is working. That process has been a feature of Parliament since democracy and the franchise were extended and I am not trying to interfere with that in any way.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

I have a lot of sympathy with the Government new clauses. As the Home Secretary knows, this Parliament is still responsible for criminal law in Northern Ireland and several measures in the Bill already extend to Northern Ireland. Given that he is introducing new proposals, has he consulted the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on them? What response has he received from the Northern Ireland Office?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have consulted and I always take account of representations and concerns on specific issues relating to Northern Ireland. If the right hon. Gentleman thinks it appropriate, I would be happy to arrange a discussion with him before the Bill enters the House of Lords so that we can take account of any of his concerns and be responsive to them. I hope that he finds that offer acceptable given the complexities that always exist when dealing with the delicate situation in Northern Ireland, especially while he and the Prime Minister are making efforts to re-establish the Executive and to move toward elections being held.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

May we explore the extent to which the measures introduce arrangements that we believed already existed before the recent court judgments and the extent to which, in practice, a far larger number of people will serve either whole-life tariffs or greatly increased life sentences? What estimates does the Home Secretary have on the overall effect that the measures will have on the lifer population?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

We believe that in time there will be an increase in those serving life sentences and, as a consequence, an increase in that part of the prison population. That will inevitably take time to work through. We have done some work, not least in the past few weeks, to ascertain what changes occurred when the death penalty was abolished and when the tariff system was introduced 20 years ago. As with statistics generally, there are always perverse findings. The statistical data on the abolition of the death penalty were paradoxical because the taking of prisoners' lives reduced the length of time that they served for the most horrendous crimes. Prisoners whose lives were taken served only that time until the death penalty was carried out, so the overall length of time served by the most dangerous criminals was statistically reduced. I hope that that makes sense.

As for what happened post-1983, according to surveys undertaken for a House of Lords report immediately after the removal of the old system and the introduction of tariffs, the tariffs set in the first six months of the new issue rose by 40 per cent. That fell to a third two years later. It would appear that the judiciary responded to the tariff system and the indications given by the Home Secretary.

Photo of Chris Mullin Chris Mullin Labour, Sunderland South

I just want to press to what extent we are putting in place what we believed already existed and the extent to which that represents a ratcheting up of the length of time that life prisoners will serve and the number of them who will eventually accumulate in our prison system.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Let me give examples. When life means life for crimes that are committed in the most horrendous circumstances, that will ratchet up the length of time served, but only in line with what the House intended when it voted in 1983 and by its subsequent actions. Today I am responding to the judgment. Although I accept that it takes the tariff out of the hands of the Home Secretary—as I said, no Home Secretary would be sorry to see that go—we are trying to achieve the same result.

In 1985, for instance, the trial judge gave a sentence of 20 years for an offence of rape and murder and rape and attempted murder by one individual. The Lord Chief Justice ratified that, but the Home Secretary increased it to 30 years. In 1996, the trial judge recommended 25 years for an offence of three sexual assaults and murders. The Lord Chief Justice affirmed. The tariff was 35 years. In 2000, three murders resulted in a sentence of 25 years. The Lord Chief Justice agreed with that. The tariff was set at 35 years.

It is not difficult to see from those examples that, as a consequence of decisions taken by the Home Secretary, tariff setting increased the length of time served for the multiple crimes of murder and rape, which no one in the House would dispute are horrendous. I want to codify that within principles and the sentencing framework so that the decision is taken not by the Home Secretary now or in the future, but by the judiciary. Should it use its discretion outside the terms laid down by the House, it will account for that publicly in court, which is a reasonable and transparent way to behave in a free and liberal society, as the shadow Home Secretary described it yesterday.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 1:45 pm, 20th May 2003

What has changed since April last year when the Home Secretary received the Sentencing Advisory Panel advice to the Court of Appeal? It suggested that the norm—the starting point—should be 14 years, the higher level about four years above that, and the lower level about four years below it. The advice also said that the 30-year tariff should be applied in exceptional circumstances only and that whole-life tariffs were not a good idea. It clearly recommended that young people should have nothing like a starting point of 15 years. I gather that the Home Secretary accepted that advice a year ago. What has made him change his mind?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

There has clearly been a misunderstanding. The Home Secretary does not ratify the advice of the Sentencing Advisory Panel. I have accepted no sentencing precepts for murder. I have continued in the best way that I can to fulfil the obligations and duties put on me to set tariffs for murders, including some of the most horrendous murders that were committed before I took over as Home Secretary. I believe that the sentencing principles and framework that I am laying down are correct. They are my suggestions, discussed with Ministers and my officials, and attempt to replace, and therefore to restore, the general sense of what Parliament required of the Executive in giving guidance to the judiciary and responding to it.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I understand the Home Secretary's arguments on the full-life tariff and the criteria that have been established. Is it not the case that if we go down this road it is likely that more full-life tariff sentences will be imposed, as I think he accepted? In such circumstances, is a 30-year sentence for the next category down the scale the correct median point to be built up or down? It is our impression that that figure is rather high. It would be interesting to understand the Government's reasons for choosing it.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is a high figure. In the case of the murder of a police or prison officer, or a murder involving the use of firearms, we need to send a clear signal that such horrendous crimes warrant a more severe starting point for sentencing. People need to understand that life means life. That has not been the case because people who have been given life sentences have served anything but life. People need to know that there is clarity and consistency so that they have confidence in the system. We need to send those signals and establish a framework in which it is clear that such crimes—especially those in which someone has put his or her life on the line in dealing with the most dangerous criminals—warrant a more severe starting point for sentencing. We also need a minimum sentence of 15 years, which did not exist before, so that that, too, sends a signal.

Let me draw breath for a minute. People cannot understand that when someone has been found guilty of murder—there are arguments about whether a transfer to manslaughter is more appropriate, and I understand those—the sentence that is served for taking a life does not always equate to other forms of criminality for which people at a lower level of the sentencing framework are serving longer sentences. People think, honestly, that we have all lost our marbles. They do not understand how, if murder is the most horrendous crime, others do not see that the perpetrators must be put in jail for as long as possible so that society demonstrates its common sense through its actions.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

Should not the right hon. Gentleman explain to the House why it is being asked to approve a range of life sentence tariffs which are greatly in excess of the range set out in the practice directions from the Lord Chief Justice of May 2002? There, the suggested starting point was 12 years, rising to 15 and 16 years, then to 20 years, and only in exceptional cases, 30 years or whole life? The plain truth is that what we are being asked to approve is substantially in excess of what the Lord Chief Justice and the Court of Appeal recommended.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes, I accept that entirely. I disagreed with the Lord Chief Justice's practice guidance. I happen to believe, and the House can take a contrary view if it wishes, that we should lay down a framework that will give the people of this country confidence in the system, for two reasons—first, that those who commit the most horrendous murders will get what used to be called, in old-fashioned language, their just deserts. Secondly, when people have confidence in the system and there is consistency in the treatment of the most difficult and dangerous crimes, they might be prepared to listen to a broader debate about sentencing policy, the sentencing framework and the work of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, and about how we stop lower-level repeat offenders reoffending. We can have, in the House and in the country, a much more rational debate if people believe that we have got it right at a level that they currently do not understand.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I thank the Home Secretary for his typical generosity in giving way yet again to me. In the next bunch of amendments, we will create a sentencing guidelines council, which is designed to achieve a broader-based consensus on sentencing across the board. In the present group of amendments, we are taking from the council's ambit a number of key offences—murder through driving and firearms offences. Does my right hon. Friend accept that if his case is as strong as I believe it to be—I know that he believes passionately in it—he could win his case around the table with the Lord Chief Justice, other members of the judiciary, and a broader-based group including prison governors and police officers, being present, himself as a full member? That would be a way of making sentencing command public support not just today, because of an impassioned argument arising from a particular offence, but for a long time, so that we could end the problem of megaphone diplomacy between his Department, the judiciary and others who are concerned about the issue? Will my right hon. Friend put the offences before the Sentencing Guidelines Council and get consensus?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

If I believed it was appropriate, following the decision on tariffs, simply to leave the matter to the future, I would have done so. We cannot do that. As we made clear at the beginning of the year, we must make decisions about how we proceed following the judgment. I believe that these are decisions that should be taken by the House. We cannot deal with the multiplicity of sentencing guidance required, and I could not possibly sit on the Sentencing Guidelines Council. I have a slot each day somewhere between 12 midnight and 5.30 am.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I could depute someone. The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend Paul Goggins would probably not be too pleased if I put him on such duties as well, although he would perform them extremely well, on the basis of yesterday's performance.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Oh, all right, I will do it.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

My hon. Friend has volunteered, and I have every confidence that he would come to the same conclusions as the House will reach later this afternoon. We know that there are certain cases on which the House has historically ruled, such as when it ruled that there should, and eventually that there should not, be a death penalty, and the kind of sentences that we are debating this afternoon arising from death by dangerous and careless driving or firearms offences. There have been certain historic sentences for which the House has taken responsibility.

It is right that the House should take responsibility. Democracy is the stronger for politicians who take decisive action, who are seen to be held to account, and who can say to the public, "If you make representations to us, if you want to change, we are here and available to make it happen." In our democracy, people are not aggravated by politicians taking responsibility and making decisions. They are fed up with politicians not taking responsibility, not making decisions, not making them fast enough and not responding effectively to rapid change economically, socially and in the criminal justice system.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the Home Secretary and to my hon. Friend. I agree with the Home Secretary in the sentiments that he expressed, but it is important, is it not, that Parliament should not raise unrealistic expectations about what it intends to do, which prove not to be feasible? The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the guidelines on sentences. That sends out a signal about what Parliament wants, but in view of the way that they are framed, and in view of the fact that the 15 and 30-year sentences may be considered too high by the judiciary, it may well not be what the public get. Will not that bring Parliament into disrepute, as much as the judiciary?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

It would, if the will of Parliament were flouted without good cause. I do not believe that the senior judiciary—it will be members of the senior judiciary who deal with these matters—will do that. They may be reluctant, as many of them were, to commit people to the condemned cell, but they did, and they did so because that was the will of Parliament. I believe that they will respond, and that where they exercise their discretion, they will explain in court why they did so.

That is eminently sensible. It does not flout human rights. It will not run us into the difficulties that we faced in relation to the abolition of the tariff-setting powers. It will give Parliament and the people of this country confidence that they have provided judges with the principles and framework to carry out the will of the people.

Photo of John Bercow John Bercow Conservative, Buckingham

The Home Secretary has been generous in giving way. Decisiveness should not be a synonym for rigidity. Although most of us would accept that those who commit the most bestial murders and who show no sign of repentance or rehabilitation should remain incarcerated indefinitely and probably for the duration of their natural lives, will the right hon. Gentleman concede and put on the record that those who commit the most bestial murders but who, over a period, show sustained evidence of repentance and rehabilitation should always have the hope that they might be released?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

No. I do not agree. Although the conditions in which such people are held may be commensurate with the changes brought about in their apparent character, the kind of multiple and sadistic murders that would warrant a life sentence, meaning life, are such that we could not have confidence, whatever the psychiatric appraisal may be, that those people would be safe in the community or safe to the community.

If those who have committed bestial murders are let out into society, their own lives may be at risk. I am not interested in a wild west society of vigilante retribution. It is in everybody's interests to try to get the issue right and to ensure that people understand that, while conditions may change—they have done so in respect of lifers—we must stand firm. We are talking, thank God, about a small number of people, but we are also dealing with the nature of the impact that they have.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:00 pm, 20th May 2003

Given that the Home Secretary has accepted that his proposals will ratchet up sentences for many categories of people convicted of murder, and as more people are already serving life imprisonment in England and Wales than in any other country in western Europe—in the whole of Europe, only Cyprus and Moldova have proportionately more—did he consult the senior judiciary before the practice direction was issued last May and has he consulted on his proposals since the relevant court judgments at the end of last year? Does he believe that the proposal will change people's behaviour or reduce crime at all, given that many other countries have much lower sentences and do not have nearly as much serious crime?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

If I might use a term from yesterday, the jury is out in relation to the nature of the response to the most severe sentences—

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

It will be coming back on the horrendous murders. As I pointed out yesterday, we are not reintroducing the mode of trial legislation.

I think that a contradictory set of precepts is advanced by those who oppose what I am doing. It is hard not to conclude that the reduction in the most bestial murders and violence in the United States has been a response to the way in which that country has dealt with such criminality. Yet it is also interesting to consider other forms of punishment and the response to it in other parts of Europe, as opposed to Britain. We need to look at the nature of society, the tendency towards an increase in violence, the response of society to such incidents at a local and not only national or parliamentary level and the way in which family and community life provide a different framework in which people respond.

Those are very big and important issues. I would like to recognise the sort of response that is made in some parts of Europe to the way in which the maintenance of family life and community pressure change the nature of violence. At the same time, there is a need to send signals in the way in which we lay down sentencing principles and frameworks so as to make everyone understand where we are coming from and the actions that will be taken. That is about consequences, and from the actions of children to those of horrendous murderers, consequences really matter.

Photo of Edward Garnier Edward Garnier Conservative, Harborough

As the Home Secretary accepted a moment ago, if the provisions take effect, one of the consequences will be a growth in the already high prison population. Can he assure us that, if it does grow, there will be sufficient prison places to house the increased number for long periods?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes, I can. Not only am I taking steps to increase availability this year by 960 prison places, but I am mindful that we will have to change the nature of prison accommodation to accommodate the relatively small increase in the number of people spending longer in jail. I shall speak tomorrow at the Prison Officers Association conference, which will obviously be one of the experiences of my life. I shall acknowledge that the proposal is a challenge for the Prison Service and prison officers, and that we need to help them with that. At the other end of the scale, I have joined the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor in seeking ways of reducing the prison population, including ideas proposed in the Bill—one of them, custody minus, is mine—and to try to help with rehabilitation and the avoidance of reoffending, not least for first-time offenders. If we can get that right, we will be able to reduce the prison population by dealing with those who should not be in prison and can be quickly rehabilitated and provide reparation, while getting tough with those who should stay in prison a lot longer and threaten life and limb when they come out.

For instance, two years ago, when I became Home Secretary, I did my best to prevent a multiple rapist from being released into the community without compulsory supervision. That was not required at the time, but the Bill puts that right. Within three months, he had abducted and raped a young student—as it happens, the crime was committed in my city—in highly predictable circumstances. The man should never have been allowed out in the first place. If he had not been released, a young woman's life would not have been ruined.

We see such issues day in, day out, and I appreciate that we have not addressed them by waving such cases in the air. As I said, we should address them calmly. I am not seeking headlines. Indeed, in the past few months, I have been the one who has taken on at least two of the tabloid newspapers in a way that has got me some very adverse headlines, but I am interested in responding to the needs of the public, which is a very different matter.

On new clause 39 and causing death by dangerous driving, careless driving while under the influence of drink and the way in which people take life, we are responding to what some judges want. In my locality, a judge recently gave a sentence of more than the 10 years specified. Of course, it was revised on appeal because he had exceeded the sentence that was available to him in respect of a most horrendous case in which a person who had killed somebody in such circumstances carried on drinking. We need to say to people that we will not wait for anyone else to do something about the issue, but allow judges discretion to do something about it themselves.

Photo of Denis Murphy Denis Murphy Labour, Wansbeck

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. I welcome the new clause, but will he consider introducing a new offence of aggravated death caused by dangerous driving that carries a life sentence? He is aware of the case in my constituency involving the tragic death of young Rebecca Sawyer, who was killed by a criminal motorist who had 89 previous convictions, one of which was for causing death by dangerous driving. Does he agree that the public need to be protected from these very dangerous individuals?

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Yes. Where people are sentenced on only one count—I shall refer to this issue on Third Reading—but other major counts should be dealt with at the same time, we will pick up the Law Commission report in taking that forward. In helpfulness to the House, I point out now that I shall seek the pre-legislative scrutiny of the Select Committee on Home Affairs before introducing such a measure in the House of Lords in order to fast-track the Law Commission recommendations and deal with a terrible anomaly whereby people do not get the sentence required, but a specimen sentence resulting from the length and complexity involved in dealing with a multiplicity of issues. Of course, where somebody has been sentenced previously—this relates to what I describe a parquet flooring effect, rather than building a wall—we also need to take that into account, so that previous convictions can be dealt with in the sentence as well as the judgment.

I accept, however, that that will not wholly deal with the case on which my hon. Friend Mr. Murphy has been campaigning. I commend him and many of his colleagues from the north-east for highlighting what tragically appears to be a cluster of cases in that region demonstrating that we have not yet got things right. I have agreed with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport that we should undertake a full review of road traffic offences, including the question whether we should introduce manslaughter.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

As a patron of RoadPeace, may I praise and welcome the new clause? As part of the review that will be conducted, will my right hon. Friend ensure that the issues are considered from the point of view of the victims' families? From their point of view, death in violent circumstances means just that, irrespective of the nature of the weapon used. That is the absurdity that road traffic victims' families do not understand—the comparison between an accidental shooting with a shotgun and being mowed down with a tonne of steel.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Let me deal with the principal point. It is very important that the voices of victims and their families should be heard. There have been the most terrible occasions on which families have been unable to come to terms with what has happened for the rest of their lives and believe that they have not been listened to and that their voices go unheeded. We need to find ways of addressing that.

Photo of Rt Hon David Trimble Rt Hon David Trimble Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party

There is a very serious problem in Northern Ireland with regard to so-called joyriding, which has caused a significant number of fatalities, with all the suffering for families that flows from that. A couple of months ago, a group of bereaved parents of persons who have been killed as a result of joyriding lobbied this House and met a wide range of Members from both sides of the House. A serious problem needs to be addressed as regards the law in Northern Ireland. If the welcome changes in the Bill go on to the statute book leaving out Northern Ireland, that will send a wholly wrong message to the public in Northern Ireland, as well as to the judiciary, who need a wake-up call on this issue.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for reinforcing the wider point. I take up the cry from the heart that was echoed by Lady Hermon yesterday evening, when she described the importance of recognising the issues in Northern Ireland and addressing them as quickly as possible.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

How could I not give way to the hon. Lady, who is not only charming, but assiduous, and continues to make an important contribution?

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

The Home Secretary has just turned the colour of my face quite scarlet, but I appreciate his warm comments. They are, of course, reciprocated—I hold him in the highest regard.

As always, I listened carefully to what the Home Secretary said in the course of his speech. A few moments ago, he put emphasis on consistency in sentencing throughout the United Kingdom, which is absolutely fundamental. He also remarked—I hope that I remember correctly—that the death of a police officer warrants the very clear signal that it warrants a life sentence. Speaking as someone who comes from Northern Ireland, where 302 members of the police service have died as a result of 30 years of vicious terrorism, it behoves the Home Secretary to send a very clear message to serving members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland that their lives are worth every bit as much as the life of a police officer in Manchester, London, or anywhere else in the United Kingdom.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

My original remarks had the benefit of accuracy and veracity, whatever the sedentary and ungallant comments of Mr. Hogg may have suggested. I agree entirely with the hon. Lady that the life of a police officer in Northern Ireland deserves, and has, the same importance as that of a police officer on the British mainland.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way and compliment him on encouraging a very positive debate.

To return to the broader picture, the new clause refers to dangerous driving and death by driving. That set of sentences will be abstracted from the Sentencing Guidelines Council that will be newly created. My right hon. Friend says that it is up to Parliament to decide on certain matters, but we all know that in reality the Home Secretary will put them to the House of Commons and invariably get his way. We all look to my right hon. Friend with affection and trust, but future Governments and Home Secretaries may introduce other categories of offences that can be taken away from the Sentencing Guidelines Council and put to the House. Does he fear that if that happens, we could get into a bidding war between various factions in the House. If someone says, "Five years for burglary", someone else will say, "Do I hear six, seven or eight?" Perhaps this is not the best, most measured way in which to decide on sentencing guidelines.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

Invariably, I hope; inevitably, never. We are beholden to this House and to the electorate. I fear that my hon. Friend, flattering though his remarks are, misses the point that there is no chance that the House will constantly return to these issues through criminal justice and sentencing legislation. That is why the Sentencing Guidelines Council makes good sense in terms of its light touch vis-à-vis Parliament and its broader touch in terms of reflecting and responding to changing circumstances and needs. I hope that it will work effectively.

Let me be clear. We cannot keep returning to sentencing policy: there is not sufficient parliamentary time to do so, even if we wished it. There has not been a bidding war. That is partly because of the measured approach of the shadow Home Secretary and of the Liberal Democrat spokesman—although I do not always agree with him—and partly because of our willingness to try to address the broader issues. We have reached agreement with the Lord Chief Justice and the Lord Chancellor on a general framework, which experienced a slight hiccup at the turn of the year, but is back on stream again. If we can get that right without hyping the heat, rather than the light, so much the better.

We are asking the House to agree to a mandatory five-year sentence in relation to firearms. We have discussed that matter in the House on several occasions, and hon. Members are very familiar with it. I merely want to report to the House that the amnesty that we held in April succeeded much more effectively in achieving the handing in of weaponry than we had expected. More than 40,000 weapons have been handed in, compared with 23,000 in the post-Dunblane period, as well as almost 1 million rounds of ammunition. I commend all those who took part in supporting and working for that: the young people who worked with us; radio stations and the press; the people who organised the youth concert; and the police. It has been a remarkable success that bodes well for the future.

As well as the new five-year minimum sentence, we are raising the penalty for smuggling from seven years to 10 years to bring it into line with legislation that we have already introduced, including the Nationality, Immigration and Asylum Act 2002.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 2:15 pm, 20th May 2003

I am interested to see the proposals on firearms, which, as hon. Members will hear in a moment, we support. I would be fascinated to learn, however, why the decision was taken to confine the mandatory sentence to prohibited firearms, because that is quite contrary to what the Prime Minister has said on about seven occasions during Prime Minister's questions.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

It is interesting that the hon. Gentleman should have hit upon that, so let me share, in the quiet confidence of this Chamber, the fact that the very same question passed my lips a short while ago. I said, "Look,"—as the Prime Minister would say—"this is something that we need to address." The logic of being able cleanly and clearly to deal with what is prohibited is self-evident. The question of whether we should broaden prohibition to other areas is one that this House and the wider public should debate more thoroughly before we return to it. It is an interesting question. I am tickled by the fact that the hon. Gentleman has also been reflecting on it, and I look forward to him and his hon. Friends providing me with the solution that I did not have time to come up with.

Today, Parliament lays down a principle and a framework, provides discretion, but within specific bounds, and demonstrates that democracy can respond to the needs of the public and the wishes of the people. We can also ensure that the signals are clear and that we get the benchmarks right. In my view, that strengthens liberty, freedom and democracy. Above all, it strengthens confidence in justice. If we have clarity, consistency and confidence, we also have a better debate about the way in which we deal with the underlying issues of prevention and bring other forces of social policy to bear so that we have a safer, more sustained and desirable community in which to live.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I thank the Home Secretary for his explanation of these important provisions. I do not criticise the manner in which he did that, but it is profoundly unsatisfactory to have one debate on three such distinct and important topics. As always, the devil lies in the detail of the proposals, and the amount of time available for hon. Members to do them justice is inadequate. The Opposition will not try to divide the House on any of the principles or the policies that the Home Secretary is introducing. However, I know from my reservations about some aspects that they will require detailed scrutiny, which can now be done only in another place. I deeply regret that, because the House will thereby abdicate its responsibility for the matter.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

I compliment the hon. Gentleman on his conduct and that of his party in Committee, where our proceedings were extremely constructive. However, the shadow Leader of the House and shadow Chief Whip have cried wolf day after day about programme motions. When an issue of substance arises—I concede that the hon. Gentleman has a point about the amount of time that should be devoted to the new clauses—several hon. Members who might otherwise be sympathetic are not, because of the way in which some of his colleagues clown around on programming.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

As the hon. Gentleman knows, when the Bill went into Committee, we said that we intended to try to make programming work. I do not want to go over ancient history, but the measure's progress in Committee showed that programming could be made to work, because we got 90 per cent. of the way there. However, we did not cover 10 per cent., and some aspects of the Bill were not properly scrutinised in Committee. I can recall several examples of important aspects that were not considered.

Photo of Sylvia Heal Sylvia Heal Deputy Speaker

Order. I have given hon. Members some leeway, but I hope that we shall now discuss the new clauses and amendments, not the programme motion.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

Indeed, Madam Deputy Speaker. Clearly, Report affords the Government an opportunity to table further amendments. However, the Government amendments are massive, and the time for their consideration is insufficient.

I want to consider the Government's proposals for guidelines on sentencing for murder. First, I welcome the principle behind them. Indeed, the support of my right hon. Friend Mr. Letwin has been cited publicly and he has advocated the principle on several occasions. We believe that Parliament should have a role in setting sentencing guidelines. We go further than doing that only for murder. As hon. Members know, we have tabled amendments in the next batch that would provide for parliamentary input—not decision making—into sentencing guidelines more generally. The principle is therefore welcome. The Home Secretary's decision to be of like mind with my right hon. Friend is reassuring.

Secondly, new schedule 2, which deals with a whole-life order, appears to have been properly drafted to respond to public anxiety on the topic. The criteria that the Government have set—

"a substantial degree of premeditation or planning . . . abduction . . . sexual or sadistic conduct . . . the murder of a child if involving the abduction of the child or sexual or sadistic motivation . . . a murder done for the purpose of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause, or . . . a murder by an offender previously convicted of murder"— appear clearly set out. There is also the possibility of making an exception if necessary. The guidelines therefore strike us as sensible. If that were the scope of the Home Secretary's intentions, he would have our wholehearted support.

However, greater problems arise because of the attempt to lay down guidelines on other categories of murder, depending on their seriousness. Again, I have no objection to the principle, but when Lord Falconer explained what was going to happen at a meeting after sending us some detail in advance, for which we were grateful, we were startled by the Government's proposed method of achieving it.

The "Starting points" in new schedule 2 give the impression that the Government have sought to find a median point in taking 30 years for some serious categories of murder, and 15 years as a minimum term for other categories. It has already been said that sentences of 30 years are at the top end of the tariff for the worst sorts of murder. I have no doubt that statistics would show that, and it would be interesting if the Government and the Home Secretary could provide them. I acknowledge that the Home Secretary said that a tariff sentence of 35 years had been awarded. I believe that longer sentences have been given in one or two exceptional cases: for example, the Home Secretary has imposed a sentence of 50 years, to which I shall revert shortly.

The proposals are remarkable, because in future the Home Secretary intends cases that have attracted 35 or 50-year tariffs to fall squarely within the parameters of the whole-life order. He nods. Given that we shall include more convicted murderers in the remit of whole-life orders because of the appalling nature of their offences—I do not disagree with that—a sentence of 30 years for those who fall outside that classification is at the top of the tariff, not a median point that the judge can increase or reduce. The same applies to the minimum term of 15 years. The Home Secretary may correct me, but many people who commit murder do not serve 15 years in prison or anything approaching that. He made a comment that may have been a bit of a giveaway when he said that in the past few weeks people in the Home Office had been running around trying to ascertain the effects of past tariff fixing on prison population numbers.

The rapidity with which the proposals have been put together shines through them.I always worry about material that is put together extremely rapidly, because it often does not bear close scrutiny, and above all tends to prove unworkable when implemented.

The Home Secretary wants to convey a message of which I wholly approve: that Parliament wants murderers to receive proper sentences, that those who commit the more serious offences should go to prison for a long time, and that those who commit the most serious offences should never be released. We must be realistic, however. If the guidelines we are establishing, particularly those specifying 30 and 15 years, bear no relation to the reality of sentencing practice, or indeed to the diversity of the criminals to be sentenced, we may be straying down the wrong road.

It might be better to substitute the sentences—I think they are of 20 and 12 years—suggested in amendments tabled by my right hon. and learned Friend Mr. Hogg. I do not advocate that to the Home Secretary; I merely say that such an alternative should still allow very long sentences to be imposed within tariff sentence fixing. Something troubles me about the period of 30 years in particular: it sends out an unrealistic message, whose recipients potentially include prisoners who, despite having committed grave crimes, might be suitable for release in a rather shorter time.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 2:30 pm, 20th May 2003

The hon. Gentleman is assiduous in these matters. Has he seen any evidence of what considerably higher sentences for murderers would mean in practice? Does he accept that one problem of the whole-life sentence, although it is not the only problem, is that it means very different things to different people? It will not mean the same to a 60-year-old as it will to a 21-year-old.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I entirely agree with the last point. It will mean enormously different things to a 60-year-old and a 21-year-old, and it will mean something different again to the one or two people who have been imprisoned for murder in their 70s.

I visited Her Majesty's Prison Kingston in Portsmouth, which contains many extremely elderly lifers. One was completely senile, and I questioned whether there was any point in his continued detention. Adopting a characteristically bureaucratic approach, the Home Office expressed the view that it was very proper for someone who was completely senile and suffering from Parkinson's disease to be in one of Her Majesty's prisons, but I found it difficult to see the purpose of the man's imprisonment given his unawareness of his own surroundings.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

The hon. Gentleman and the shadow Home Secretary may not have a list of other offences for which they might wish to decide the penalties should they take office, but—perhaps to frighten my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—will the hon. Gentleman consider whether Mr. Howard might enjoy using a power of this kind to deal with a range of offences? He might wish to put his proposals to the House, with a majority, and to push them through.

It is not the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham who would propose changes in tariffs; there could be a bidding war in the House, in which we would all have to prove how tough we would be on the various offences. That would lead to an irrational process of sentencing which, sadly, the judiciary would be right to try to strike down in various ways.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I entirely agree. We should certainly try to avoid such bidding wars. In fairness, I do not consider that the Home Secretary is embarking on one: I have never suggested that, and would not dream of suggesting it. These are perfectly cogent and sensible proposals. When the House comes to deal with our proposals for sentencing guidelines generally, it will be seen that one of the things we wanted to prevent was a bidding war. We would prevent it by not allowing Parliament to initiate the sentencing guidelines process.

We will not oppose the Home Secretary's proposal today, but we shall want to look carefully at the periods of 30 and 15 years, because we are concerned about them. We are even more concerned about something else, however. As far as I recollect, the Home Secretary did not once mention the position of juveniles, although his proposals affect them just as much as they affect adults.

In this country we have always differentiated between adults who commit murder and juveniles who commit murder. That is enshrined in the different sentencing regimes, if only in the words involved. Adults receive a sentence of life imprisonment, while a different order is applied to juveniles, described as "detention at Her Majesty's pleasure". Whatever the words imply, however, I saw a clear differentiation. The Home Secretary may not disagree with my perception of a much greater emphasis on rehabilitation in the case of juveniles. The view seemed to be that although they must clearly be punished, it was in the widest interests of society for them to be released as soon as possible if it had been satisfactorily established that rehabilitation had indeed occurred.

Some of those involved may be very young indeed. They may be children of 11 or 12. They may also have committed murder in a variety of circumstances, from a fight outside a school in which knives were produced to something with sadistic overtones. The murder may have been committed by a person approaching his or her 18th birthday, or by a person aged only 11.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

My understanding is that under new schedule 2 the starting point of the sentence of the two people who killed James Bulger would be 30 years—and they were very young at the time.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

That is an important point. I feel that attempting to be prescriptive in setting guidelines in relation to children who commit murder is a very dangerous exercise. Certainly I am mindful of the case of the murderers of James Bulger, because it excited a huge amount of public comment. Interestingly, the trial judge made a recommendation at the time of their detention, and ultimately that proved to be the period that they served. It appears—and one can only hope that it is the case—that they had been properly and completely rehabilitated during that period, which may be significant.

I do not want to get involved in discussing individual cases, however, because there is an infinite variety of cases. I feel strongly that the application of these rules to juveniles moves us on to very shaky ground, and is capable of doing great injustice. When I met Lord Falconer, I asked him—among other things—how a judge who felt that the proper period allowing retribution, deterrence and probable rehabilitation was likely to be very short in the case of a 12-year-old would get around the problem of the minimum 15-year term proposed in the new schedule. His response was that the judges were ingenious people, but I must tell the Home Secretary that I do not think we should have to ask the judiciary to exercise ingenuity in wriggling around rules which it would be better not to apply to juveniles at all.

I realise that this is a difficult issue to which there is no easy answer. I accept that a 17-year-old who has committed a sadistic killing may have to be detained for a very long time, possibly for as long as an adult would be in the same circumstances, if he is showing marked psychopathic tendencies. Equally, however, if we consider the generality of such offences—heaven knows, these offenders come in all shapes and sizes and the offences themselves, of every kind, are appalling enough—this kind of prescriptive guideline seems rather far removed from what is probably required. Even though we will not vote against these proposals, I would urge the Home Secretary to go away and think very carefully about whether this is the correct approach.

I would be much happier to see juveniles taken out of the guidelines altogether, because we have come to a point at which we rely on the judiciary's discretion to say that cases are likely to be so varied that we cannot lay down prescriptive guidelines on the number of years to be served. If the Home Secretary were minded to introduce a measure to lay down criteria on which a determination might take place, I would certainly be happy to help, support and co-operate with him. I would much prefer that, because I think that prescribing figures in a schedule will lead to many problems and be unlikely to do justice.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am sorry to press my hon. Friend on this point, but if he is saying that, in respect of juveniles, the matter should be left to the discretion of the trial judge—which, incidentally, is my view—I have some difficulty is seeing why he does not extend that general proposition to the sentencing of adults. I believe that that, too, should be left to the discretion of the trial judge, unfettered by the schedule.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am well aware of the strong views that my right hon. and learned Friend has on this issue, and he advances a perfectly good argument. Speaking for myself, however, and for the Conservative Front Bench on this matter, we believe that there is a proper role for Parliament here, especially in view of the changes that have unfortunately come about in the Home Secretary's ability to exercise a discretion on tariffs—

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

It is a very good thing that he cannot.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I know that my right hon. and learned Friend thinks that that is a good thing, but—

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I know that my right hon. and learned Friend did it, but I believe that the public have an entitlement, which stems ultimately from the time when capital punishment was abolished, to expect that there will be more than just judicial input into the fixing of the periods that murderers will spend in prison. That said, one of the ironies of the situation that we must bear in mind—I am speaking generally about the proposals now—is that, in the days when we hanged the worst murderers, those who were reprieved tended to serve much shorter sentences than the generality of murderers do now.

That brings me back to where I started. We must be careful that, in seeking properly to address public disquiet about the most serious murderers, we do not simply introduce a ratcheting up of tariffs for every murderer, including those who could properly be rehabilitated and safely released. The Home Secretary is going to have to consider that question carefully. Indeed, if I understood him correctly, he is already doing so, given that he is making inquiries into what happened the last time tariffs were adjusted. It would be helpful if, before the Bill becomes law—and certainly in another place—we could have access to the information that the Home Secretary is collating about how this measure might work in practice.

I am conscious of the passage of time, and I would like to move briefly on to two other matters that must be considered in the amalgam before us. The first relates to road traffic offences. We welcome the proposals for increasing the sentences for aggravated vehicle-taking involving killing from five to 14 years, for causing death by dangerous driving from 10 to 14 years, and for causing death by careless driving while under the influence of drink or drugs from 10 to 14 years.

Those provisions are wholly compatible with a measured response to public outrage at the perception that the courts have been fettered in their ability to deal with people who commit very serious offences. Some of those people clearly pose a serious risk to other members of the public through their inability to restrain themselves from repeating their past behaviour, particularly when using motor cars. That seems to be a real problem, and the provisions still allow for all the necessary discretion for the judiciary to do justice in individual cases.

The second issue relates to firearms offences. At the risk of repeating myself, I can only express pleasure that the provision on firearms offences that has finally come out of the Home Office seems to be extremely sensible. I am bound to say that, when it was first floated, it looked as though common sense had disappeared, because there were suggestions of mandatory five-year sentences, and no suggestion of exceptions. When the earliest announcements were made, there was no suggestion that the measure would not apply to every type of firearm. Somewhere, however, common sense has prevailed, even if the Prime Minister himself seems to have been suffering from a certain cognitive dysfunction, in that he was unable to realise what was going on. He has repeated on many occasions an entirely contrary story on what this legislation was going to be about. Anyway, I am glad that even the occupant of No. 10 Downing street has finally cottoned on to the fact that a sensible and measured response might not be the one that he has been proclaiming to the public. The provision before us seems to be a sensible one.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North 2:45 pm, 20th May 2003

Would the hon. Gentleman concede that the measures are so sensible that the same conclusions could have been arrived at by a broad-based sentencing guidelines council?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I have to say that I think the hon. Gentleman is right. [Interruption.] I hear the Home Secretary say, "In time." Of course, we cannot create something that does not currently exist, but in the later stages of our debate today we might go some way towards achieving that. In the meantime, I agree with the hon. Gentleman.

These measures seem sensible, and I am also pleased that the Home Secretary has provided a mechanism by which they might be suspended for those under 18 if the rate of gun crime were to decrease. At the moment, that would probably be difficult to do because there is a lot of evidence that many under-18s seem to have got into the habit of carrying handguns. That is a serious problem.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I am sorry to keep on nagging my hon. Friend. He welcomes the provision on firearms offences, but does he recognise that the mandatory minimum sentence of five years would apply to the possession of a revolver that happened to be a souvenir from the second world war, and that the only way in which a veteran could escape being sentenced to five years would be by pleading exceptional circumstances? Whether exceptional circumstances applied would be a matter for the courts, so, prima facie, the veteran would get five years.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point. It is one that I was about to come to, so he pre-empts me, but he does so very properly. I have seen the amendment that he has tabled. He clearly has an anxiety, which I fully understand, that although there is a mechanism by which it might be possible to suspend the operation of the mandatory minimum sentence in exceptional circumstances, that would not necessarily meet the sort of case that he has just described.

In a letter written to me by a Minister in the Home Office—it might even have been by the Home Secretary himself; I am afraid I cannot remember now—it was specifically pointed out that the sorts of person whom the Government would expect to be spared from the mandatory sentence would include someone who found a handgun among the personal effects of their late father, the day before the police turned up. I see that Mr. Miller is already nodding in recognition. Perhaps such a handgun belonged to his father. The point that my right hon. and learned Friend has most pertinently raised is this: should the provision have applied to the hon. Gentleman's father, or should the hon. Gentleman have gone to prison for the period in question because he had held on to the souvenir?

My right hon. and learned Friend raises an important point, and I seek clarification from the Home Secretary as to whether the scope of exceptional circumstances would extend to a person in such a position. There is a clear difference between finding in somebody else's personal effects a revolver that is a leftover from the second world war and not declaring it for several weeks, during which time the police come to visit and make an arrest, and a septuagenarian holding on to a second world war revolver and then being visited by the police. If that septuagenarian, or octogenarian, would be subject to the mandatory minimum sentence, my right hon. and learned Friend is right, but I do not want such a circumstance to occur.

This is where the devil lies in the detail, and I certainly hope that we may hear from the Home Secretary—if not today, then at some later stage—how he sees the provision operating. I have to say that my reading suggests that the exceptional circumstances measure would provide for the example of the father of the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, but if I am wrong I shall be exceptionally grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend for bringing the matter to the House's attention.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

The truth is that it is not for any of us to determine whether the exceptional circumstance applies. We must determine whether the language of the statute obliges the court to impose a five-year sentence. The truth is that the language of the statute obliges the court to do precisely that, unless there are exceptional reasons. How can we say that a person who has chosen to keep a handgun for more than 40 years is an exceptional circumstance?

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to my right hon. and learned Friend, and I hope that the Government will look at the issue. I hope also, and intend, that if it remains unsatisfactory, it will be rectified in the other place, and I give him an assurance that we shall participate in seeking to achieve that. One of the problems that we face is that, the measure having been published only in the past few days, it is difficult to work out in detail how it would operate in practice. However, I certainly take the view that there has to be some flexibility for those people who hang on to ancient weaponry as souvenirs, rather than those who clearly have guns in their possession for a nefarious purpose.

Photo of Graham Allen Graham Allen Labour, Nottingham North

Under the proposed structure for examining sentencing guidelines, there is a preliminary body called the Sentencing Advisory Panel, which already exists. That gathering of boffins, officials and academics would take away a proposal on sentencing guidelines, look at it thoroughly, commission research if necessary, and, after many months, produce a report for the Sentencing Guidelines Council. The council would then take several months, or as long as it needed, to issue new and appropriate guidelines.

We should not legislate according to reflex, although we are all desperately anxious about situations such as the one that arose when two young ladies were shot dead in Birmingham. Going through a cool, protracted, double-barrelled period of consideration would produce sentencing guidelines that involved an examination of the very questions that the hon. Gentleman is talking about. It would also have saved my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston from perhaps being arrested when he went to collect his father's belongings.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I shall be careful to avoid abusing parliamentary privilege by joining in as aspersions are cast towards the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston. I shall restrain myself wholly in that. Mr. Allen is right—of course he is. The difficulty here is that we have had only a few months to consider proposals, and I am sure that the Home Office had not even thought about them until the events of Christmas and of January this year.

Photo of David Blunkett David Blunkett The Secretary of State for the Home Department

I have enjoyed the entertainment, particularly at the expense of my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston, but we ought to put the record straight. It was very clear indeed that the growth in gun crime and associated violence exercised all Members of the House during the autumn. We said in December that we would take action. That was a response not to the crimes committed on new year's eve but to growing concerns: we published the material, called the round-table talks, and made it absolutely clear in the first week of January that that was the case. I do not want myths to get their boots on around the world again.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs)

I apologise to the Home Secretary. Indeed, I realise that, as there was a great deal of publicity last year surrounding the arrest of a singer who had a firearm in his car. The sentence passed on him, whether it was correct or whether it should have been much greater, was the subject of considerable public debate. I accept that.

It is important that we provide for exceptions. We have said throughout that there has to be a mechanism by which the force of the law can be moderated in cases where it is clear to the court that it is not dealing with a person bent on criminality or using that firearm. Clearly, he may be either innocuous or a little foolish and naive in having it around his house because it is a family relic, or there may be other extenuating circumstances.

I say to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham that it is far too early to say, on what is effectively the Bill's Second Reading, whether there are sufficient proper mechanisms—I should perhaps not say loopholes—by which the court may temper the rigour of the law. They must be there. If they are not, the provision will be rapidly brought into disrepute, and it will not have the intended virtue that is sought by the Home Secretary.

As I said to the Home Secretary, we do not intend to vote against the proposal, but we will certainly give it the most detailed scrutiny in another place and it may be amended. If it is, I hope that he considers that pragmatically and that, if he thinks that there has been an improvement, he accepts those amendments. I do not intend to take up more of the House's time. I am grateful to the Home Secretary for the way in which he presented these matters.

Photo of Neil Turner Neil Turner Labour, Wigan

I support Government new clause 39 on dangerous driving. Last night, I presented a petition to the House on behalf of Frank Round and Paula Sharrock, the father and sister of Kerry Adamson, who was killed as a result of dangerous driving. The petition was signed by 21,000 people in the Wigan area, which shows the depth of concern about the sentence passed.

The facts of the case are clear. There was a fracas in a pub, which spilled out into the street. Mr. Daniel Beeston Rose got into a car. He drove straight at Kerry Adamson and dragged her for a quarter of a mile, breaking both her arms and her leg, and almost severing her ear. She suffered horrendous friction burns. He then fled the scene without giving any assistance or seeing whether Kerry's life could be saved. He did not give himself up for over three days, in which time, of course, there was no possibility of the police proving whether he had been drinking or taking drugs.

Initially, Mr. Daniel Beeston Rose was charged with murder, but the Crown Prosecution Service decided that there was insufficient evidence for the charge, which was dropped and replaced with one of manslaughter. That was also replaced by a charge of causing death by dangerous driving, as he indicated that he would plead guilty. The family agreed to that, on an understanding from the CPS that the 10-year maximum was equivalent to the sentence that he would have received for manslaughter. There was no trial, however, and the family felt that they had no opportunity to put their case.

The judge took account of all the alleged positive factors in favour of the defendant, but no obvious account of those that went against him. For instance, the judge wanted him to return to work, yet he took no account of the fact that this person had been sacked for stealing. The judge wanted him to return to his partner and child, yet he took no account of the fact that this person had already fathered other children and had since left his new partner and their child. He accepted that this person did not see Kerry Adamson, yet there was forensic evidence that her palm prints were on the bonnet of the car. He took no account of this person's previous convictions, or of the fact that he had left the scene. The sentence passed was two years, one of which was suspended.

We have to recognise the consequences. Clearly, Kerry Adamson died—her life was cut short. But it was worse than that. Her husband is now a widower, and her children Daniel and Tamzin are left motherless. This is not a one-victim crime; it affects the whole family, traumatising them dramatically. The family understand that nothing will bring Kerry back, but they want to ensure that theirs is a positive campaign with a positive result. They want to ensure that sentencing sends the clear message to everybody that society does not accept that the death of a fellow human being is in any way acceptable. Those committing such an offence have to be taken out of society because they pose a danger, as was said earlier, and to ensure that others are deterred from acting in this way. If we can achieve that, we will prevent other families from going through the same trauma that Kerry Adamson's family have experienced.

My constituents' campaign has been a success: we have new clause 39, which increases the maximum sentence from 10 years to 14 years. The Government and Parliament have heard their pleas and those of many Members on both sides of the House, some of whose constituents have had similar experiences; however, it is also essential that the courts recognise them. In Kerry's case, the sentence could have been 10 years, but in effect it was one year. If raising the maximum by 40 per cent. ensures that the sentences imposed are increased only by 40 per cent., in Kerry's case the killer would have been out in less than a year and a half. People would still have felt that the sentence given was inadequate in the extreme. If that is all that happens, the victory of my constituents and those of other Members will be extremely hollow.

The petition that I presented last night called not only for the sentences to be increased, but for the courts to recognise that they are available and that use should be made of the increased maximum. I hope that the Home Secretary will impress upon the Lord Chancellor, the Lord Chief Justice and the entire court system the view of this Parliament. We want the sentences to be increased, but we also want the courts to make full use of them, so that when people such as Kerry die, those who commit such offences are properly punished. They should not be left, like Kerry Adamson's killer, with just a year to serve. He was thereby able to come out and, in effect, laugh at the courts and at her family, leaving them totally dismayed, disgusted and feeling let down by the way in which the courts handled their case.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs) 3:00 pm, 20th May 2003

In following Mr. Turner, I should point out that on reaching Report, my hon. Friends and I tabled new clause 9, which called for the maximum penalty for dangerous driving to be increased to 14 years. We were therefore very pleased to discover that the Government followed our suggestion in respect of those who cause death through that means of aggression. Others made that suggestion too—we do not claim it in any party political way—but I should point out that we have been very clear on this matter, collectively and personally.

I am among those in this House who have been too close to families in this position. I pay tribute, as other colleagues have done, to the way in which such families have made their own grief and tragedy a public policy matter. My constituents, Christine and Jim Bradford, lost their 14-year-old son, whom I knew; indeed, I had recently presented prizes to and spoken to him, and enjoyed his company. Through RoadPeace and other organisations, the Bradfords and others have ensured that we cannot run away from this issue, and we are not doing so.

The Home Office advised at the beginning of the Bill's passage that we could not add such a clause because it was outwith the Bill's purview, so I am relieved to discover that that advice has been reviewed. The Home Office now accepts that it can be included, as some of us said from the beginning that it should. So there is joy over the collective sinner that repenteth and see'eth the wisdom of their ways.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East

It is heartening that there is a degree of consensus in the House on this issue. We have all been touched by great personal tragedies in our constituencies and regions. Indeed, in our region, Madam Deputy Speaker, the Evening Mail has run the "Justice for Isobel" campaign. All such families who see us united today will be pleased that we are taking this action.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his remarks. This is an issue that can and should unite us. This measure should provide great consolation to those who have suffered personally through seeing people act criminally and get away with it, because they will know that it will not happen again. Indeed, you and others well know, Madam Deputy Speaker, of the benefit that it will provide if we get it right.

Photo of David Kidney David Kidney Labour, Stafford

What about the other half of the equation that my hon. Friend Mr. Turner mentioned? When judges have a higher maximum sentence, they still use nothing like it.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

That raises the general issue about what we do and what judges should do, which I shall come to shortly. My hon. Friends and I take the view that it is for Parliament to set the maximum sentence, and for the courts to use their discretion about what sentence to impose. However, it is fair to say that courts reflect, by and large, the view of a society from which judges, too, come. Thank goodness, it is now possible to appeal against a lenient sentence to make sure that inconsistent leniency will not disadvantage a victim's family.

I turn to the final issue that flows from the speech of the hon. Member for Wigan, and which is a concern for us all. Through this legislation, we are, I hope, trying to ensure that we get the balance right in terms of what judges and magistrates can do. We need to ensure that the mechanisms exist for maximum consistency, but there must also be the maximum ability to reflect the individual circumstances of a particular case, because each case is different.

I will not elaborate on the point, but I share the fundamental objections to the process that have been expressed. We have a two-and-a-half hour debate on four substantive subjects: the setting of tariffs for murder cases—a huge and complex subject, as speeches from Labour and Conservative Front Benchers have shown—mandatory sentences in general, dangerous driving and firearms. It is unacceptable for elected Members of Parliament first to come to these matters on Report, rather than in Committee.

I share the Home Secretary's view that we do nobody a service by having a histrionic and aggressive debate on these matters. They are serious and difficult, and all of us want to get the balance right between punishing those who commit serious offences, protecting the public from their reoffending, rehabilitating offenders so that they do not offend again, and tempering justice with mercy. Behind all of that lies a desire to reduce violence in our society, which is at far too high a level and is often fuelled, it may be said, by drugs in general and alcohol in particular. They are the cause of many of these offences.

I share absolutely the view of Mr. Allen that we must not sentence by reflex. Getting sentencing right is a deliberative process in the light of experience. It is clear that Parliament has needed to come back to this issue since capital punishment was abolished. We put in place a mandatory life sentence for murder for an obvious reason: to give the public the consolation that there would be a serious punishment for what previously might have resulted in the death penalty.

Without wishing to be rude, Madam Deputy Speaker, you, like me, will remember—although we were both young at the time—that a major debate took place during our early years about whether there should have been two types of homicide and a different penalty for culpable homicide; indeed, that debate rages in the United States to this day. In setting out three types of murder, the Government proposal categorises murder in a simplistic way. The advice of the Sentencing Guidelines Council, the Sentencing Advisory Panel and the judiciary is that is impossible to classify murders in that way. It is right to have a maximum sentence, which Parliament should set but, since I have been in the House, Liberal Democrats have opposed Parliament setting a mandatory sentence—in our book, that applies to murder, too.

On Saturday, I read in the paper about someone who was given a non-custodial sentence for murder because he had murdered his parents, who were both ill and disturbed and had been violent towards him for many years. He was driven to kill them in desperation. We believe that sentencing must reflect the difference between someone who commits a sadistic, violent, aggressive and unprovoked killing and the person who is provoked over a period of years, eventually snapping and taking someone's life. I share the Home Secretary's view that we need something that achieves, in his words, clarity and consistency, and gives confidence. Although our view is different from the Government's we do not disagree about those principles.

We also agree that we need to reflect the views of our communities. What is said in court is sometimes not what happens in reality—what you hear is not always what you get. I strongly advocate that the sentence set by the judge must be the sentence that is served. Under the proposals, it would be explained carefully to an offender that he will receive a sentence of 20 years, half of which will be served in prison and half outside. If they misbehave when they are outside, they will go back inside. That does not mean that they will serve all their time inside, but they should understand what sentence they are being given. I therefore subscribe to the view that a sentence of life imprisonment means life imprisonment—if it does not, we should not say that it is life imprisonment. We need that clarity to give people confidence. When I was a youngster, I remember that someone was given life imprisonment but, not many years later, they were walking around the village. In such cases, people's confidence in the system is undermined, so I hope that the provision will provide such clarity.

A judge might tell a defendant, "You will serve a minimum of 10 years," or that part of the sentence will be served in custody and part outside. I look forward to the day when we carry the public with us in showing that prison is a softer option than a sentence in the community. Prison is often quite a soft option—it is not a hard option at all, because everything is done for people and they do not have to think at all. Going out into the community and having to work for rehabilitation is often much more difficult.

There is another way in which we can ensure consistency. I do not claim the authorship of this proposal—it appeared recently in an article by Louis Blom-Cooper. We could make sure in every murder case that the prosecution has the right of appeal if it thinks that the sentence is too low. We could provide that safeguard to guarantee consistency.

Liberal Democrats will vote against the new clause, as I have made clear to Ministers, because we believe that, although Parliament should set the principles, it should not prescribe the minimum number of years to be served for certain offences. Indeed, the statement that the Home Office issued on 25 November last year, after the court case that ruled that the Home Secretaries of the future should not be able to set tariffs, talked about Parliament setting the principles, not sentences. Things have moved on, in our view, in an unhelpful way. We share the view of the hon. Member for Nottingham, North, who has maintained in Committee and on Report that the Sentencing Guidelines Council, together with some indirect parliamentary representation, whether through Government nomination, representatives of the three major parties or in another form, should set the guidelines for murder, as well as for driving and firearms offences—the three specific offences for which we are legislating in this debate.

Parliament should therefore set the principles, not the specifics, of sentencing, It should set the maximum sentence, but it is not for politicians to announce what sentences will be, nor is that a matter for the press. There should be guidance on sentencing, and specific sentences should left to the discretion of the court. We share the view of Mr. Grieve and many others that the proposals will, in fact, result in sentences being ratcheted up—that is another reason why we will vote against the new clause. There will be many more life sentences, 30-year sentences and 15-year sentences, contrary to all the advice that has been given. That was why I questioned the Home Secretary, who may not have been asked formally to agree with the Sentencing Advisory Panel last year. However, I understand that he was consulted on the practice direction issued in May to which Mr. Hogg alluded. I understand that the Home Office had not previously objected to the advice that was given. I also understand that since the court cases at the end of last year no consultation has achieved consensus with the judiciary—if I am wrong, I am happy to be corrected. The proposal categorising who will get life, 30 years and 15 years is a political one—it is not a proposal agreed by the Home Office and the judiciary.

We must question whether that is right. In this country, we already have a disproportionate number of prisoners serving life sentences—5,352 in England and Wales in February this year, a considerable rise on the figure of 3,092 in 1992. The current number is proportionately higher than that of any other country in western Europe, and is the third highest in Europe as a whole. There must be a logic or argument justifying our actions if we are going to continue putting more people in prison for life. There must be an evidence base—we have not had one yet—and, as Mr. Bercow told the Home Secretary, there must be the opportunity of a new start for most people. Most people, we must assume, are capable of rehabilitation and can start again.

The proposals are objectionable in their current form. May I tell the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that the term "life sentence" is not reasonable if it means entirely different things for different people? A 70-year-old and a 21-year-old who receive a life sentence will clearly not receive the same sentence, so the proposals are inappropriate. Under the proposals, the starting point for the sadistic murder of a child is a 30-year sentence. Why is that not applicable to the sadistic murder of a pensioner or someone with a learning or physical disability? The distinction is an invidious one. A particularly high tariff is suggested for the murder of a police officer. I accept the argument, but why not such a tariff for the murder of a nurse, a teacher or another public servant in the front line? The distinction is invidious.

The starting tariff for young people is miles off current practice and experience. When I checked the figures on prisoners released in 2000 who had been sentenced as juveniles, I found that the average minimum term was 10.8 years; the average time served after sentencing was 13.9 years; the longest time served after sentence was 20 years and the longest minimum term 16 years. Those figures are out of proportion. Sentence recommendations in the past were based on the notion that—for reasons on which others have elaborated—the younger someone is sentenced, the shorter should be the expectation of serving time. The Government are proposing to sign up to the European arrest warrant, but under those proposals, endorsed by the Government, every life sentence must be reviewable throughout Europe after 20 years.

The objections are fundamental and we will have to return to the issue. I sense from the hon. Member for Beaconsfield that there may be some common ground in establishing principles, but not on the specific number of years proposed. We will work with other parties to reach common ground, which should unite the judiciary and, I hope, a much broader base of politicians and public opinion.

Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Shadow Minister (Home Affairs) 3:15 pm, 20th May 2003

There is certainly common ground on some of the principles, but I agree that it is more difficult in respect of the specific figures. It is possible that one figure may not be the correct approach. It might be better to have a bracket and list possibilities of departure from that bracket. That could be another way of approaching the problem.

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

I am entirely willing to have such a debate, but it should have happened long since and we should have sought to reach agreement much sooner. It is always better when some form of agreement is evident, as opposed to highly divergent views.

We cannot vote in the present group of amendments—we will try later—on new clause 7, which proposes that there should never be mandatory sentences. That makes our views on firearms offences closer to the position that the Government have currently arrived at, rather than what they said they would arrive at. I understand why the Government wish to sound tough, particularly after the killings of the two poor young women in Birmingham. Far too many people have been shot dead in my constituency. I had previously known some of them and have had to cope with family difficulties afterwards.

I am well aware of how evil firearms violence can be, but there is no more logic in having a mandatory fixed minimum term for that than for any other offence. A person who carries a gun, given by a cousin, for 10 seconds while he runs into a shop and subsequently has no more contact with that gun no more merits a minimum five-year sentence than someone who also plays a minor subsidiary role in what may or may not be a serious criminal enterprise. A person who goes out with a gun intending to shoot someone deserves a much higher sentence. The punishment should always fit the crime. If the right hon. and learned Member for Sleaford and North Hykeham presses his amendments, which would allow justice to temper the hard-line proposal, we would support him because we believe that the courts should have flexibility, not a prescriptive starting point.

Photo of Sylvia Hermon Sylvia Hermon Shadow Spokesperson (Women), Shadow Spokesperson (Trade and Industry), Shadow Spokesperson (Culture, Media and Sport), Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Before the hon. Gentleman concludes, I invite him to reflect on experience in Northern Ireland. The Belfast agreement included a provision whereby prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment were freed very early, having served only the bare minimum in prison. That did huge damage to the community's confidence in the Belfast agreement. Does the hon. Gentleman not accept that life should mean life?

Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Home Affairs)

Under the present regime in the mainland, which I understand still applies in Northern Ireland, when someone is given a life sentence, the judge quite often does not set a minimum. That allows the decision to be deferred. It might turn out to be a life sentence. Unless it is decided that the prisoner poses no risk to the community, they will not be released. I support the position that a sentence be set, but where there is uncertainty about how long is necessary before it is safe to release someone, the power should be reserved to the court. The court—not the parole board, people hidden away behind closed doors, or officials out of public view—has to hear the evidence and decide whether it is appropriate to release someone. If the judge who made the original sentence is not alive or unavailable, another judge can decide. The hon. Lady and I may not be that far apart. In some cases, no tariff will be fixed because it is inappropriate to do so. Unless it is safe to release someone later, they will have to remain in prison. However few cases there may be, the power should always be reserved to the court.

I conclude by discussing driving issues. I have already said that we greatly support Government new clause 39, which is broadly in line with our new clause 9. We are not going to press it to the vote, but I ask the Government to reflect favourably on our amendment (a) to new clause 39.

I end where I started—by drawing on my personal experience of death by dangerous driving court cases. Currently, people can be prosecuted for having no insurance or other easily provable offences. However, such cases are triable only in the magistrates court, and unless proceedings are initiated within six months they cannot be initiated at all. Often no charge is brought in such cases. I ask the Government to ensure that, if death follows as a result of driving offences, the six-month time bar be removed. They should also make it possible for charges to be heard in either the magistrates court or the High Court. We could then assess what happened in the round and not deprive people of justice by a time rule. I understand the history of it, but it is acting against the justice of individual cases. I hope that the Government are sympathetic to that view: we will work with them, even though we disagree on other important issues in the debate.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

Before I speak to new clause 39, I wish to put the record straight for the benefit of Conservative Members who mentioned my late father. He was well known to Mr. Syms because they served on the town council together and the hon. Gentleman will attest that my father was quite a character. This could perhaps be described as a leak inside the Conservative party, but my father had a wartime relic, which I discovered in his possession when he died. Rather than have my mother worry about it, I removed it from the premises and under the amnesty introduced by the present Government, I asked a police officer whether I should hand it in. I partly agree with point made by Mr. Grieve in that the weapon could not be fired. Like any tube of steel, it could have been converted into something that could fire, but it could not fire as it was. That poses serious questions about the state of weapons in those narrow circumstances. Making exemptions is a problem because it could create a loophole. However, the only offence that my late father committed was being a member of the Conservative party—and even I would not give him five years for that!

In common with hon. Members throughout the House, I welcome new clause 39. The road police believe that some matters should be taken considerably further. I have always believed that the best way to proceed is to create a charge of death by driving, as opposed to what Simon Hughes proposed a few moments ago. One of the absurdities, of course, is that cases in which a death has occurred are often dealt with by the magistrates court, but the fact of a death or serious injury is not even reported to the court. The Lord Chancellor has given guidance to magistrates courts on that point, but the news is not getting through.

Some have argued that provisions to extend sentences in cases of death by driving are an example of the nanny state at its worst, but that is not the case. Having discussed the issue with many families who have been bereaved, I see it as the House's responsibility to provide some leadership on the issue. That is what the clause will do. The motor car is one of the world's most serious killers, and I speak as someone with a constituency in which motorcars are made. We all use them, and we want them to be a safe and effective mode of transport, but—like any other potential weapon—they can be deadly in the wrong hands. The cases include not only momentary lapses of attention but serious acts of recklessness—so serious that those involved must have known that their actions, just before or during the offence, were likely to kill. Those people need to be dealt with most severely. We cannot fall back on the kinds of excuses that society has accepted for far too long when it comes to the motor car, such as, "We are all drivers, and we all make mistakes," or "There, but for the grace of God, go I." Those are not acceptable excuses, especially for those people who kill under the influence of drink or drugs, or who drive at ludicrous speeds, such as those we read about from time to time.

When I intervened in the speech by my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, I pointed out that for once we should put the rights of victims first. A network of obsolete regulations governs the conduct of road traffic law, and most fail to put the victims first. I tabled a question for written answer a couple of weeks ago that sought to tease out from Ministers in the Home Office the absurdity of a situation in which a defendant in a case of death on the road is entitled to copies of all documents collected by the police when adducing evidence, but that some police forces have the gall to charge the families of victims for the documents. That is an absurd injustice that cannot be allowed to continue. The House should take a leadership role and deal with that and many such issues.

I welcome new clause 39 as a step in the right direction. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider the final comment by the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, because in the absence of the creation of a charge of death by driving—my suggestion to address all the problems involved—his point remains valid and is worthy of examination.

Photo of Tom Watson Tom Watson Labour, West Bromwich East 3:30 pm, 20th May 2003

Like my hon. Friend, I agree with the proposal from the Liberal Democrats—a lifelong first for both of us—and I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to consider it.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller Labour, Ellesmere Port and Neston

It is a rare occurrence, but on this issue I have discussed many cases with the hon. Member for Southwark, North and Bermondsey, and we have reached a consensus. I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to listen to the spirit of consensus that has emerged around the debate, and to act accordingly. The Home Office is in better hands than ever before, with the appointment of my hon. Friend, and I know that he will do a good job and listen to the representations from both sides of the House.

Photo of Douglas Hogg Douglas Hogg Conservative, Sleaford and North Hykeham

I shall concentrate on the issues of firearms and the life sentence tariffs. However, I also echo what was said by my hon. Friend Mr. Grieve about the undesirability of the timetable. It has grouped a range of measures together, which are all important, and many right hon. and hon. Members will not have time to speak to them. Nor will we have time to vote on them, and that is a lamentable way in which to carry out our parliamentary business.

I have the advantage of some hon. Members in that I have both represented many murderers and, for some two years as an Under-Secretary at the Home Office, I was responsible for setting the life sentence tariffs. Indeed, because my predecessor did not do many of them, I set more than 600. I have probably set more tariffs than any other Minister who has ever held office, but it is not a process that I would recommend. Although I performed the task with a degree of enthusiasm, I believed that it was not one for Ministers. I am glad that the courts have said that tariff setting should be done by judges, not Ministers. It was a denial of justice done by Ministers. It was done privately, without appeal, supervision or review. It was done without representation and, in my view, it offended every canon of justice that one can readily bring to mind. The decision to do away with the process is long overdue. I thought that when I did it, and I think it even more robustly now.

Have the Government taken the correct approach to the tariff? It is, of course, the penalty imposed by the court for the offence. It is a punishment, and as such I welcome the fact that a right of appeal has been included in respect of the determination of the minimum term and that the judge will be obliged to state his reasons for setting it or departing from it. I tabled amendments to that effect, and the Government's provisions achieve the same end.

A prisoner is not automatically released on expiration of the tariff period. In any event, he is released only on licence, if he satisfies the requirement on public safety. It is worth remembering that the Lord Chief Justice made it clear in his practice direction, issued last year, that the majority of life sentence prisoners are not released at the expiration of the minimum term but at some later date. The Lord Chief Justice also made the important point that a tariff is, generally speaking, the equivalent of a determinate sentence of twice the length. A tariff of 14 years is the equivalent of a determinate sentence of 28 years, and a tariff of 30 years is the equivalent of a determinate sentence of 60 years. We need to keep that in mind when we are deciding the appropriate tariff in each case.

I want to say a word about murder. Again, I emphasise that I have represented many murderers, although not as many as Mr. Marshall-Andrews, and I suspect that Vera Baird has also represented more than I have. However, I have represented enough of them and, as I said, I have also set the tariffs.

Murder is not a homogeneous class of offence. It covers offences from the most bestial to those which, broadly speaking, are little more than assaults. In my experience, many murders are not intended at all. They happen because of loss of control, or through panic or surprise, or because a person has been taken unawares. All those factors can be involved, and many murders are simply the unintended consequences of action, which fall within the judicial definition. We have to keep that in mind when it comes to sentencing, as we need to have a high degree of flexibility in order to do justice.

That brings me to last May's practice direction, when the Lord Chief Justice and the Court of Appeal set out the guidance that the Lord Chief Justice wished to be observed. The starting point was 12 years, rising to 15 or 16 years in due time, then to 20 years, with sentences of 30 years, or whole-life sentences, to be set very occasionally. I see absolutely nothing wrong with that guidance. I want to know why we are trying to subject the judiciary to a straitjacket imposed by Parliament. I cannot find a reason for that.

The intended effect and purpose of the Bill is to drive the life sentence tariffs up, and to constrain the judiciary. I see absolutely no justification for that. It will certainly not reduce the number of murders, which have remained broadly constant these past 15 years. It may make people feel good, but that is a wholly different matter.

What is more, the proposal will cause injustice, as the case of Tony Martin shows. I am not a particular sympathiser of Tony Martin, but let us assume for a moment that his conviction for murder had been sustained, and not quashed. On any view, Tony Martin's offence was at a relatively low level of culpability in the context of murder. However, under this Bill, the starting point for his sentence would have been 30 years, because he used a firearm. What justice lies in that?

Another example, which I raised with my hon. Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, had to do with the killers of James Bulger. They were very young at the time, but under new schedule 2 the starting point for their sentences would be 30 years. What is the justice in that? Once one begins to look at the Government's approach to the matter one sees, not only that there is no justification for it, but that it will certainly do injustice in some cases—or that it will make no difference whatsoever, in which case it is otiose.

I turn now to firearms. I am deeply opposed to mandatory sentences, as a general proposition, yet the Bill introduces a mandatory minimum sentence of five years for firearms possession. We can highlight injustices in various ways, and the sentence covers, for example, the possession of a range of souvenirs from the second world war.

My father-in-law had a revolver and ammunition right up to the moment of his death, at the age of 94. His justification was that he was a reserve officer of the Crown. There is no way for one to argue exceptional circumstances in respect of a man who has chosen to have a handgun in his wardrobe for 50 years. What possible exceptional circumstance could there be?

My father—a very law-abiding man—had as his doorstop an artillery shell. I never inquired whether it had the necessary fuses but, knowing him, I should not have been surprised in the least if it had. That would have been another case of a mandatory five-year sentence—imposed on a former Lord Chancellor.

In addition, lots of people have Sten guns, grenades and this and that from their wartime circumstances. They are not going to be able to argue exceptional circumstances: they will face the minimum five-year term. There is no justice in that, yet it is the inevitable consequence of this House trying to take unto itself the power to impose minimum sentences.

The real truth is that we should leave these matters to the judiciary. Its members have ample powers of sentencing already; they are guided by the Court of Appeal and, in appropriate circumstances, the Attorney-General can refer a case if there has been an under-sentence. Let us not take to ourselves a power that we cannot properly exercise, which is unnecessary in itself and which will certainly do injustice.

Photo of Vera Baird Vera Baird Labour, Redcar 3:45 pm, 20th May 2003

I accept new clause 30 in principle, but I want to raise the troublesome case, under the proposed new tariff, of battered women who kill their violent partners; for example, the famous cases of women such as Emma Humphreys and Sara Thornton.

There is a pattern to such cases. Classically, a woman marries a man who is perfectly fine but who, at some stage, takes to drink. He becomes simultaneously controlling of her and dependent on her. He keeps her subservient by regular beatings, which she simply tolerates. She feels unable to leave because her children would be thrown into poverty if they went with her, and she cannot leave them behind; because her husband might follow her anyway; or because she simply lacks the will to go.

Such situations can run on for many years but they usually come to a head when the man attacks the woman and she realises that some difference makes that attack slightly more serious. Again, there is a pattern. She usually retreats into the kitchen. He follows to attack and she seizes a kitchen knife and stabs him once.

Sometimes, provocation will reduce such a case to manslaughter, but often, because that offence is specifically drawn, it cannot be provocation. The man is attacking the woman with his fists, but she stabs him with a knife so although, in truth, that is self-defence, it is not proportionate; and excessive self-defence is murder. I suggest that it should be open to a jury to find that, in certain cases, excessive self-defence ought not to be murder.

It is important to review that aspect of the law on behalf of that category of women. Someone who has reacted, or even overreacted, in the circumstances brought about by an attack, when they are likely to be acting in the grip of fear, panic or even anger—sentiments imposed on them by another person's conduct—probably ought not to be convicted of murder if they failed to measure, within some bounds, the amount of force to be used. Failure to react proportionately in such a situation is really the fault of the attacker, so excessive self-defence ought to be mitigated to manslaughter.

Battered women are victims of that mismatch in the criminal law. All too often, they are convicted of murder through excessive self-defence. Even before they get to that stage, they are, of course, already victims of repeated domestic violence, of which no one approves. There is now concern that they may become the victims of a new, too-high tariff for such responses.

Will those women fall within the boundaries of the exceptional circumstances provision? As I have indicated that there is a pattern to such cases, it is clear that they are not isolated. Probably eight or more women a year react in that way, which must be compared and contrasted with the fact that two women a week are killed by their violent male partner in the course of domestic violence. None the less, I have some questions.

Granted that there is a pattern and that such cases are not isolated, could it be a proper use of the exceptional circumstances provision to allow the setting of lower tariffs for women who act in excessive self-defence after a history of domestic violence? Ministers on the Treasury Bench are well aware that they can influence the way in which the judiciary implements law by making statements in the House, under the Pepper v. Hart rule, to avoid ambiguity. It lies in the hands of Ministers to say today that it would be a proper exercise of discretion to allow exceptional circumstances in the cases of battered women who have killed in the way that I described, usually by a single blow in the heat of domestic violence. Can Ministers consider that point? If they cannot consider making such an expression today, will they seriously reconsider the position of battered women who have killed, in the light of the proposed, and otherwise entirely appropriate, introduction of a 15-year tariff for a single murder?

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I thank all right hon. and hon. members for their contribution to this important debate. Indeed, I am already learning that, on both sides of the House, there are strong feelings and a wealth of knowledge on these issues. I was struck—as was my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary—by the question from Mr. Grieve, who asked why the minimum sentences for possessing firearms will relate only to prohibited firearms. The answer is that, generally, non-prohibited firearms are not used by criminals, but the hon. Gentleman asked an interesting question and there will be further opportunities for scrutiny in another place.

My first point is that Parliament is not breaking new ground in setting minimum and mandatory sentences for certain offences. In doing so, Parliament is simply asserting its legitimate role in relation to extremely serious matters.

A number of contributions have related to tragic deaths caused by dangerous driving. Indeed, my hon. Friends the Members for Wansbeck (Mr. Murphy), for Wigan (Mr. Turner) and for West Bromwich, East (Mr. Watson) have mentioned a number of cases, and I know of one from my constituency: a young boy, Geoffrey Foy, was mown down by a driver who had no insurance.

Photo of Paul Goggins Paul Goggins Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Home Office

I really do not have time to give way, I am afraid. I have very limited time.

I am sure that hon. Members on both sides of the House will warmly welcome the fact that the Home Secretary and the Secretary of State for Transport have announced a full review of road traffic offences. I can reassure Simon Hughes that the most appropriate mode of trial will be examined in that review.

The Anderson case removed the Home Secretary's power to set the minimum term, and it is now the right time, therefore, for Parliament to set out its own views on sentencing in a way that is not only fair to the convicted person but recognises the seriousness of the offence. We all recognise the persistence of my hon. Friend Mr. Allen, who has just arrived back in his place. He was persistent, if not necessarily persuasive, in the arguments that he used in relation to the Sentencing Guidelines Council. He will have heard my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary talk about the practical impossibility of some of his proposals, but I hope that he took seriously the point about such matters being so serious that Parliament needs to make its position clear.

My second point is to say in the strongest terms that the Government are not attempting to straitjacket the judges with regard to every case. I say that very strongly, particularly perhaps to Mr. Hogg. Obviously, each case and each offender is different, and it is right that the system reflects that.

Again, the hon. Member for Beaconsfield asked some interesting questions about how the provisions apply to juveniles, for whom we would all have greater hope in relation to the possibility and desirability of rehabilitation. The provisions already contain scope for flexibility—for example, age is included in the list of mitigating factors—but he made some very powerful points in his speech, and we shall continue to consider them.

It is important to emphasise that new schedule 2 does not include mandatory minimum sentences for each category of murder, but provides a starting point that can be varied, up or down, according to circumstances. The starting point for most murders will be 15 years. For the murder of a prison officer or a police officer, it will be 30 years. The starting point for terrorists and those who abduct and murder children will be whole life. Those levels reflect the seriousness of the offence and provide a robust framework in which judges will have discretion to reflect individual circumstances. I hope that the House agrees that that represents a fair balance.

My third point is central to the Bill. All Members of Parliament feel that there is a need to restore full public confidence in the criminal justice system. Public opinion is understandably strong on the types of offence that we have been discussing this afternoon, and it is vital that the public's voice is heard and that it resonates in our debates. Judges play a crucial role in the service of our communities, but they are not directly accountable. Members of parliament are directly accountable, and if we do not voice our constituents' legitimate concerns, how are they to have their say?

We do not have mob rule in this country; we live in a democracy and our constituents have a right to be heard. My constituents and those of many hon. Members certainly demand that the severity of sentence outlined in these provisions is put into law and put into practice at the earliest opportunity. The ultimate price is absolutely precious to all of us. If we get the balance right—if people are heard and Parliament establishes a robust framework in which the judges have the final say—not only will Parliament's credibility be strengthened, but so too will the credibility of the judges and the wider criminal justice system.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 325, Noes 52.

Division number 208 Criminal Justice Bill — [3rd Alloted Day] — Government New Clause 30 — Determination of Minimum Term in Relation to Mandatory Life Sentence

Aye: 325 MPs

No: 52 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Question accordingly agreed to.

Clause read a Second time, and added to the Bill.

It being two and a half hours after the commencement of proceedings, Mr. Deputy Speaker, pursuant to Orders [4 February, 5 March, 2 April and 19 May], put forthwith the Questions necessary for the disposal of the business to be concluded at that hour.