Life Sentences: Public Understanding

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:22 pm on 30 April 2024.

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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.