Report (5th Day)

Part of Legal Aid, Sentencing and Punishment of Offenders Bill – in the House of Lords at 9:00 pm on 20th March 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord McNally Lord McNally Deputy Leader of the House of Lords, The Minister of State, Ministry of Justice, Liberal Democrat Leader in the House of Lords 9:00 pm, 20th March 2012

My Lords, the better argument is that if I accepted the amendment, the Labour Party would, as it has done on most law and order issues over the past 20 years, try to outbid the hard right to the right. If the noble Lord is announcing a new Labour Party policy on this issue, I shall give way. No, he is not, so let us not go too far down that road.

I acknowledge that this is a cautious amendment. We have heard from some very distinguished and learned Members of the House and I shall not try to match them in legal skills. However, I have been around politics for quite a few years and, in many ways, one has to make political judgments. If we had been debating this in the 1960s along with Sydney Silverman or in the 1970s with Roy Jenkins, we might have found a political atmosphere in which to discuss these issues. Sadly, things have moved on since then and if you are a legal reformer like me you try to make progress where you can.

Part 3 of the Bill carries us forward significantly in two areas of legal reform: reform of IPPs, which we will be discussing later, and the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act. I believe that those are worthwhile measures. I do not think that we are in a position at the moment to move as far as this amendment suggests, cautious though that may be in rational terms. Just as there are passionate arguments about the possibility of ultimate rehabilitation for even the most dangerous offenders, there are equally passionate arguments that there are some prisoners who should never be released under any circumstances. Both views were reflected in the debate in Committee. I do not think that we are in position-never mind the opinion of the other place-to carry public opinion with us on this matter.

When we are discussing a whole-life tariff, we are discussing something that is judicially imposed, bearing in mind all the facts of a particular case. The Court of Appeal has said that there is no reason in principle why a sufficiently heinous crime should not deserve a lifelong imprisonment for the purpose of pure punishment. The seriousness of the offence does not diminish over time and the tariff reflects that seriousness. That is an argument that the Government find extremely persuasive.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Ramsbotham, gave the example of the serial killer Dennis Nilsen, who is serving a whole-life sentence but whose activities in prison have apparently achieved some great benefit to the community. Such activity is to be commended for the good that it does to others and it shows that an offender can engage in purposeful activity even where there may be no prospect of release. Whole-life tariff prisoners have the same opportunity as other prisoners to engage in interventions, education and work, depending on risk assessment. There is no doubt that an offender can do good while in prison, but that does not necessarily mean that his risk is diminished.

I was a little bit interested in the opinions about the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights. I am not sure whether, when the noble and learned Lord, Lord Lloyd, was a Law Lord, the narrowness of the majority affected the validity of the verdicts that came out. We will see whether triumphs are momentary or not, but the fact is that the European court recently found in our favour, and noble Lords will be aware that our domestic courts have found that our law and practice are consistent with the convention and the court's case law. They have found that judges can legitimately find that lifelong imprisonment is a necessary punishment.

When one talks about people, however wicked, and public confidence, I should say that I am old enough to remember the battle to get the Sydney Silverman Bill through. One of the tipping points in that battle was the promise that life would mean life. We have no obligation to take any action at this stage and we do not intend to do so. There is already a mechanism for a whole-life prisoner to be released on compassionate grounds where his or her continued detention can no longer be justified and becomes inhuman or degrading.

I know that the noble and learned Lord has come back to this issue on a number of occasions and what I am saying may sound hard in his terms. He is using his legal judgment while I am using my political judgment. I think that I have things in this Bill of which I can be proud. I do not believe that, with a coalition Government in the present political atmosphere, the balance in Parliament, the real attitude of the Labour Party and public opinion, pushing this any further is realistic. I urge him to withdraw the amendment.