Life Sentences: Public Understanding

– in Westminster Hall at 5:10 pm on 30 April 2024.

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Photo of Mark Hendrick Mark Hendrick Labour/Co-operative, Preston 5:10, 30 April 2024

I call Dr Kieran Mullan to move the motion and will then call the Minister to respond. As is the convention for 30-minute debates, there will not be an opportunity for the member in charge to wind up.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

I beg to move,

That this House
has considered public understanding of life sentences.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I welcome this opportunity to discuss crime and justice, one of the topics that motivated me to enter politics and that I have focused on in my time as an MP. As the son of a policeman, and having spent time volunteering as a special constable, I am acutely aware of the way that crime can destroy families and upend the lives of decent, law-abiding people. Wanting the victims of crime and their families to benefit from a more just justice system is something that I feel passionately about. I always aim to contribute to the debate and to edge the system in a direction that I think better delivers the justice that it should be set up to deliver. I have spoken before in this place about my concern that all too often the victims of the most serious crimes and their families do not see justice done.

Before I speak about the use of the term “life sentences” specifically, I will set out the background. My time campaigning in this area has taught me that there is what I have described previously as “intellectual snobbery” about people who think that our justice system is at times insufficiently punitive. There are well-meaning and in many respects important groups that lobby hard to make the system less punitive, and nothing that I believe invalidates their arguments or counteracts efforts to deliver reform and rehabilitation of offenders. If such efforts work and overall there are fewer victims of crime, that will be a good thing, but as a Conservative, I believe that we should keep one eye on reality as well as one eye on the ideal future. Criminal behaviour is not going anywhere any time soon, and even the best rehabilitative systems see recalcitrant and very serious offenders.

Also, we have to recognise that, in and of itself, punishing offenders is a public good; in fact, it is recognised in the law as one of the purposes of sentencing. Whether we like to admit it or not, it helps victims and their family and friends to feel that justice has been done, and in the aftermath of a serious crime, whatever comfort we can bring to victims’ families is incredibly important. I would argue that punishment is fundamental to our system. It tells victims and their families that they should not take matters into their own hands, because the justice system will deal with things fairly.

Of course, there are no black-and-white answers stating what that will mean in every case, but almost nobody who argues for less punitive measures would suggest, for example, that a murderer—even one who we could guarantee would not offend again—should spend just four weeks in prison. Nearly everyone accepts that punishment is necessary, and it is easy to suggest outcomes that 99% of people would agree instinctively are too lenient. In the most serious cases, there is in my view a huge—indeed yawning—gap between what most fair-minded people would think constitutes justice and what actually happens.

I am also concerned that the Department itself—the Ministry of Justice—does not sufficiently engage with this issue. That engagement is sometimes missing from impact assessments and policy changes, and perhaps even more worrying is its absence from the MOJ’s own annual report. The focus is on victims’ experiences of the processes of the justice system, which is of course important and to be welcomed, but I think that what most victims and their families want most of all is for justice to be done, and the MOJ has little to say on whether or not the justice system as it stands is actually delivering that. I have suggested before that we could start by at least asking people what they think about this issue, but there has been little appetite for that.

I will never forget what the father of Sarah Everard said when the murderer of his child was sentenced to a whole-life order—a very rare thing in our justice system. He said that it was the only thing that brought him any comfort. I do not think that he would have felt any different if the perpetrator had not been a policeman, even though it was only because the perpetrator was a policeman that a whole-life order was given. I believe that the view that father expressed is common among the families of murder victims.

Because this is a subjective issue, I think that the views of victims’ families and the public at large should act as a powerful and important standard against which we hold ourselves, albeit it should not be the only consideration. I remember discussing this question with Elsie Urry, a lady whose three children were brutally murdered in 1973 by a man who she thought was then sent to prison for the rest of his life, only for him to be released in 2019 when he was considered to be no longer a danger to others.

That brings me on to the use of the term “life sentence”. The first thing we need is transparency about what our justice system is actually delivering. Without it, the public do not necessarily know what is happening, and if they do not know what is happening, politicians will not be held to account properly, which is very unfortunate in a democracy. The focus of my debate is to highlight the fact that, in the current system, what is happening is frequently misreported and misunderstood, giving the impression that our justice system is more punitive than it is, particularly when it comes to the most serious offences.

What is called a life sentence is in fact, in sentencing practice—a sentence of a minimum term of imprisonment, after which there is an opportunity for release with the remainder of the offender’s life spent on licence. But what is actually reported? What do the public get told? I was pleased to be able to explore this issue in more depth in the Justice Committee’s report, “Public opinion and understanding of sentencing”, which states:

“The use by major news outlets of the phrase “jailed for life” when they are not referring to a whole life order is an example of how media coverage risks perpetuating misunderstandings of the law on life sentences among the public. Reporting of sentencing that potentially inflates expectations of how long a person will serve in prison risks damaging public confidence.”

A whole-life order is a term of lifelong imprisonment; it is different from a life sentence.

Since late last year, my office has regularly monitored this issue, and I am afraid that it is not just the media that spreads this misunderstanding. Even more concerning is the fact that police forces and, on one occasion, the Crown Prosecution Service have incorrectly used the phrase “jailed for life” to describe a life sentence. Just today, Nottinghamshire police force released a statement with a headline saying that two murderers had been “jailed for life”. That is simply not true. The two individuals had received life sentences with minimum terms of 16 and 19 years. That is very different from being jailed for life, as we can reasonably expect both of them to be released.

Since October 2023, we have had to contact eight police forces for using the phrase “jailed for life” in their headlines about 13 cases. On six occasions, the police forces in their opening paragraphs failed even to explain the minimum tariff set by the courts, and once a police force failed entirely to mention that there was a minimum tariff. I am pleased to say that three police forces admitted their mistake and subsequently changed their statements after we contacted them, but the majority have not. That matters. People do not always read all the details of a news article, let alone of an official press release from a police force. Every time “jailed for life” is used of someone subject to a life sentence, people get a false impression of what is happening.

I do not want to diminish the many positive things that this Government have done to introduce what I think are fairer punitive elements into the system, not least the big step change away from Labour’s halfway early release to a two-thirds release for the worst offenders, and the introduction of a whole-life order for premeditated child murder. I welcome the planned introduction of whole-life orders when there is a single victim whose murder involved sexual or sadistic conduct, instead of the existing requirement for two victims.

There is much for me to welcome, but I am clear that we must go further on child murder. I think the requirement for significant premeditation is too high a burden, as it excludes, for example, a parent battering their own child to death in a rage. In addition, where multiple offences are involved, our system is too quick to have sentences served concurrently. We have seen this in cases of historical child sex abuse, where there are sometimes dozens of victims and hundreds of offences. Measures need to be in place to impose whole-life orders in some cases of that type.

Such changes are difficult to make. They are expensive changes for the Government, and there is always pressure on prison places. We can hope for success only if people understand how rarely whole-life orders are used, and that life sentences are not in any way comparable, especially given the usual minimum terms. If most people serving a life sentence did in fact spend most or all of the rest of their life in prison, this would be less pressing, but they do not. On average, they serve 20 years.

Some people will argue that the term “life sentence” is accurate because it describes the rest of an offender’s life being served on licence. When we make that argument, however, we risk offending the victims and their families. Families of victims of murder are really serving a life sentence of grief, trauma, and terrible memories of what happened to their loved one. Someone serving their sentence on licence out in the community is basically just being asked to do what all of us are asked to do, which is to not offend. That is a burden that we all face, and I do not see it as in any way equivalent to spending time in prison. None of this is an issue for those familiar with legal jargon, but when a member of the public who is less well informed of what the terminology means reads “jailed for life”, they are being misled.

I am aware of an almost diametrically opposed view of the public understanding of sentencing, though. A commonly made argument is that, broadly, away from the issue of what a life sentence means, the public underestimate sentencing lengths and think we are less punitive than we are. That is undoubtedly driven by media reporting, where journalists, who have a good innate sense of what the public will think is reasonable, are quick to report cases where they sense that that has not happened. Often, however, an unjustified logical step is made by advocates of less punitive approaches: that because of that, we do not need to make the system more punitive. That approach forgets that two things can be true at the same time: people can think our system is less punitive than it is, but they can also think, even when presented with the reality, that it is not punitive enough.

There is another argument based on research in which the public are asked to go through more detailed theoretical cases and sentencing exercises. Studies suggest that people agree with the sentences normally given when they have the full picture. However, almost universally, these exercises look at less serious offending and cases that are full of mitigating circumstances. My focus has always been on the worst and most serious offending. I do not think I have ever seen one of these exercises take someone through the case, for example, of a serial rapist in and out of prison who refuses to engage in behavioural change programs, or of a parent who batters, tortures, neglects and then murders their own child. That leaves me still firmly of the view that, in the most serious cases, the problem of misreporting remains important.

There are things we can do about this. First, as part of the Justice Committee’s inquiry into the public understanding of sentencing, the Committee travelled to Finland and the Netherlands to speak to officials and stakeholders about how they approached reporting sentencing to the public, including the role of media or press judges engaging with the media on reports. The press judges undertake their media duties in addition to their role as a judge, so that when a sentence is handed down, communication with the media is managed by a press judge rather than the sentencing judge. I was not able to be there, but I know the Committee heard that press judges actively engage with the media on public interest cases in particular, even participating in interviews. Committee members also visited the Helsinki District Court, where judges were encouraged to write their own press notices following the passing of a sentence, in order to take the news into their own hands. As a result, early reports on a sentence were often based upon the judge’s press notice, ensuring greater accuracy in initial media accounts of the sentencing decision. That is something we could consider.

Ultimately, we have to accept that the term “life sentence” is at the root of the problem. It is too easily misunderstood and therefore too easily misreported. If terminology is causing a problem, we should change it. We just do not need the term. The judiciary can describe and report what they are doing: passing a minimum term with an opportunity for future release, followed by continuous monitoring on licence. I do not expect extinguishing the term to cause an overnight change. The media and public bodies are used to using it and “jailed for life” is a catchy headline, but over time we could see a change and have a more honest understanding of our judicial system.

It may be that I and those who share my views have no more success in making the case for changes on the matter of substance—the sentences actually being served—but at least we will be making that case in a more honest environment. I am arguing for transparency in sentencing, because I know that that is important to victims of crime and their families, and to the public. I hope the Minister sees the value in that, and will reflect on what I have said and try to find a positive way forward.

Photo of Gareth Bacon Gareth Bacon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice 5:22, 30 April 2024

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Mark. I start by thanking and congratulating my hon. Friend Dr Mullan on securing a debate on this important subject. I commend him on his excellent work supporting victims, bringing these important issues to the attention of parliamentarians, and campaigning for sentencing changes. I completely agree that sentencing fitting the crime and improving public understanding is vital to public confidence in the justice system. As he mentioned, he is an active and engaged member of the Justice Committee, whose vital report, “Public opinion and understanding of sentencing”, I will refer to later in my speech.

A life sentence is the most severe punishment that our courts can impose. It is vital that the public have confidence in sentencing, and are able to understand the circumstances in which sentences are given and how they operate in practice. Our efforts to ensure that the justice system is open and transparent are embedded in the working cultures, procedures and practices of our courts and tribunals; consequently, such considerations will always form part of the ambitions for reforming the justice system.

The availability of judgments and the accessibility of sentencing remarks, including those given in life sentence cases, are key components of the principle of open justice, helping to build understanding and confidence in sentencing. The Sentencing Act 2020 puts a duty on the courts to explain how they have determined the sentence and what the sentence means for the offender.

My hon. Friend has extensive knowledge of the sentencing framework, but it may be helpful if I set out some information on life sentences. Life sentences, which apply to a range of offences, usually have a minimum term, which is set by the court, as my hon. Friend said. This period must be served in prison in full before the offender can be considered for release, at the discretion of the Parole Board. The minimum term is for the purposes of punishment and deterrence. It is essential that sentences for the gravest offence—murder—and other offences sufficiently serious to attract a life sentence have a minimum term that punishes the convicted offender and acts as a deterrent to others.

Mandatory life sentences must be imposed on anyone convicted of murder. Schedule 21 to the sentencing code contains the statutory framework for setting the minimum term. The schedule includes starting points depending on the circumstances surrounding the murder and non-exhaustive lists of aggravating and mitigating circumstances. For adult offenders, those range from 15 years right the way through to a whole-life order, as my hon. Friend the Member for Crewe and Nantwich said. Many offenders on life sentences remain in prison beyond their minimum term, and some may never be released. If they are released, they will, as my hon. Friend said, remain on licence for the rest of their life and will be subject to recall to prison at any time if they breach any of the conditions of their licence.

We have delivered and continue to deliver several initiatives aimed at strengthening public understanding of sentences, some of which we set out in January in response to the insightful report produced by the Justice Committee, of which my hon. Friend is a member. Our response described a wide range of actions that we have taken. I want to focus on a few specific issues that my hon. Friend has raised today, especially the terminology in sentencing and the points he raised about the murder of a child.

Sentencing terminology is at the heart of today’s debate. I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that this terminology should always be accessible and comprehensible to the public. On terminology used for life sentences in particular, the Government recognise the concerns raised by my hon. Friend around understanding how life sentences work and the phrase “jailed for life”. We acknowledge his concern around the lack of understanding that the minimum tariff set by the judge represents the punishment part of the sentence, and the decision from the Parole Board concerns only the public protection element after the minimum tariff is served. It is not an avenue for early release, as some consider it to be; however, I accept that it can be misunderstood by the general public.

We have also noted that the Justice Committee’s report highlights the Sentencing Academy’s work to review the terminology of sentencing, which is an important piece of work that could contribute to broader initiatives or proposals in this domain. The Government, like the Justice Committee, await its findings, and will review them with great care.

Most important, as I am sure my hon. Friend would agree, given his speech, is the question of how we can support victims in understanding this terminology. Under the victims code, victims, including bereaved families, are entitled to be told the sentence the offender received, including a short explanation of the meaning and effect of the sentence by the witness care unit, which is a police-led function. If they have any questions about the sentence that the witness care unit is unable to answer, the victim will be referred to the Crown Prosecution Service, which will answer their questions for them.

To ensure that agencies know what is expected of them, the Victims and Prisoners Bill places a statutory duty on the relevant agencies to provide services in accordance with the victims code, unless there is good reason not to. It introduces a compliance framework by placing a new duty on criminal justice bodies to collect and share code compliance information with police and crime commissioners. We will hold a full public consultation on the code once the Bill receives Royal Assent, which I hope shows how seriously we treat today’s topic.

It is important that we turn for a few moments to the role of the Parole Board, which determines whether to release offenders eligible for automatic release by deciding whether it is necessary for the prisoner to remain confined. The Victims and Prisoners Bill, which is currently before Parliament, introduces a range of reforms to the parole process that are designed to help to protect the public and to bolster public confidence in the system. Through the Bill, we will codify the release test, making clear that minimising risk and protecting the public are the sole considerations for release.

The Bill introduces a new power to allow Ministers to direct a second check by independent courts in cases where the board has directed the release of one of the most serious offenders, which would, of course, include those convicted of murder. We hope that this measure will reassure the public that the process is as rigorous as possible, and that there is an extra safeguard in the release process for the most serious offenders.

In recent years, the Government have introduced several policies to improve the openness, transparency and public understanding of the parole process. In 2018, we introduced decision summaries, which enable the Parole Board to provide victims and others with an explanation of the reasons for its decisions. In 2019, we introduced the reconsideration mechanism, which provided a way to challenge a parole decision if it appears legally or procedurally flawed. Finally, in 2022 we amended the Parole Board rules to enable parole hearings to be heard in public, if it is in the interests of justice to do so. There have been four such hearings to date.

I now move on to my hon. Friend’s points about child murder. I want to acknowledge that all murders are terrible acts, but those where the victim is a child are particularly so. The murder of those most vulnerable in our society causes extreme grief and devastation for the loved ones left behind. I understand entirely why society feels it necessary to ensure that those responsible for these terrible crimes are properly punished.

As my hon. Friend set out, under section 21 of the Sentencing Act 2020 the starting point for the murder of a child involving sexual or sadistic motivation, or their abduction, is normally a whole-life order. There may then be aggravating factors that could result in an increase to the minimum term due to the victim being a child. I understand my hon. Friend’s concern that a requirement for premeditation is too high a threshold for imposing a whole-life order, but I contend that it is right that we set a high threshold in legislation for the imposition of such an order, which is the most severe punishment that our courts can impose.

In this way, the requirement for premeditation is on a par with the other circumstances that govern when the murder of a child would normally attract a whole-life- order starting point—namely, the murder of a child if the abduction of the child is involved, or sexual or sadistic motivation. All cases of child murder are rightly punished severely by the courts, and all those who are convicted and given minimum custodial terms face long prison sentences, possibly with no prospect of Parole Board release.

Photo of Kieran Mullan Kieran Mullan Conservative, Crewe and Nantwich

I recognise what the Minister says, but if he cannot express an opinion from the Government on whether the situation should change, that does leave a yawning gap. The cases that most upset the public can be when a parent kills their own child, and the circumstances are very often without premeditation. When the public have heard us wanting to deliver a promise on child murder and see these cases reported without the whole-life order being applied, does he think that will lead to further frustration, even if he thinks it is justified frustration?

Photo of Gareth Bacon Gareth Bacon The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Justice

I am a father, and I read some of the cases of child murder with the same level of horror that my hon. Friend does. I have to say that if my child had been brutally murdered in that way, I would expect and hope for a whole-life order.

However, the point that has to land in the Chamber today is that judgments are made, particularly in the press and in the general public, that are not based on full knowledge of the facts presented to the court. That is why we are trying to educate the public on how and why sentences are being given in the way they are. It is not possible to do that in every case, but it must be done based on the facts presented to the court for the jury to find the defendant guilty.

The Government have also increased the powers available to the courts by raising the maximum penalties for acts of cruelty. As I mentioned earlier, I just want to reiterate that there is no early release for those who commit child murder and are given a life sentence. The minimum term must be served in prison in full before the offender can be considered for release at the discretion of the Parole Board.

In the time that I have remaining, I want to touch quickly on my hon. Friend’s point about concurrent sentences. Judges will generally impose concurrent sentences where there are multiple offences arising from the same incident, or where there is a series of offences committed of the same or similar kind, especially against the same person. Consecutive sentences are generally imposed where the offences arise out of unrelated-factor incidents, even if they are part of a wider pattern of behaviour.

As I hope my hon. Friend will appreciate, however, sentencing is a matter for our independent courts. Parliament has provided them with a broad range of sentencing powers to deal effectively and appropriately with offenders. Courts also have a statutory duty to follow sentencing guidelines developed by the independent Sentencing Council for England and Wales.

Although sentencing is a matter for independent judges, the Government have committed to locking up the most dangerous criminals away for longer—to protect the public and deliver the justice the public expects. Since 2010, average sentence lengths have increased by 49% to the year ending June 2023. We have introduced tougher punishments for the worst offenders, including extending whole-life orders to premeditated child murders and ending the automatic halfway release for serious crimes, which my hon. Friend acknowledged in his speech.

We are going further still, and the Sentencing Bill will ensure that rapists and serious sexual offenders serve their full custodial term in prison. As acknowledged by my hon. Friend, in the Sentencing Bill we are also adding murder with sexual or sadistic conduct to the list of those offences that will become the subject of a new duty to impose a whole-life order, unless there are exceptional circumstances.

In conclusion, I am grateful for the opportunity to respond to this debate, to my hon. Friend for securing it and to others for attending—although I think they may be here for the next debate. I found the debate very valuable in my consideration of the issues at hand, and I hope I have reassured my hon. Friend and those in attendance, at least to an extent, that I and the Government continue to take these issues into account as we strive to improve the criminal justice system.

Question put and agreed to.