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Homicide Act

Volume 656: debated on Thursday 29 March 1962

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asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he has now completed his review of the working of the Homicide Act; and if he will make a statement, with reference also to the proposal that there should be longer actual terms of imprisonment for murderers sentenced to imprisonment for life.

I have the working of the Homicide Act under continuous review, but, as I said in reply to the hon. Member for Lewisham, South (Mr. C. Johnson) a fortnight ago, I see no prospect of early legislation on this subject. The length of time to be served by a person sentenced to life imprisonment depends on the circumstances of the case. Since the Homicide Act came into force each case has continued to be examined and decided on its merits, having regard to all the relevant considerations, including the character of the crime and the public safety. In what may be regarded as an average case—that is to say, a case in which there have been mitigating circumstances justifying a reprieve—the period of imprisonment served has for some time been about nine years. But there are many cases in which it has been longer—and of course a number in which, for special reasons, it has been less. In future, as I have said on several occasions, I expect that many prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment for non-capital murder under the Homicide Act will have to be detained for periods much longer than hitherto.

When the right hon. Gentleman says that the workings of this Act are under continuous review, may I ask whether there was not some obligation on him to make a special review after five years of its working, a time which, roughly, has now arrived? Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the working of the Act is really not considered satisfactory either by abolitionists or by anti-abolitionists?

I am quite aware of difficulties both in the working of the Act and its general operation, but I can find no specific undertaking about a review after five years, though there is a widespread belief that it would be so reviewed.

Surely, in any case, my right hon. Friend would not consider revising the Act, pernicious and illogical though it may be, at any rate until the country has had the opportunity of expressing a view about it, especially since, as my right hon. Friend knows, there would not be sufficient prisons to hold these prisoners?

I certainly think that our new prison building programme would make a great difference to prison accommodation. As regards the operation of the Act, we must be extremely careful in considering its review with the present state of crime in the country.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that his explanation about the length of time served by some life prisoners is most welcome, because there is a good deal of misunderstanding about this and some people feel that nine years is the maximum? I hope that on every occasion the right hon. Gentleman will make it quite clear that he has powers to detain in special circumstances prisoners for a much longer period.

That is why, in answer to the original Question, I gave a fairly long reply for Question Time to illustrate what is happening.

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind that the task of reviewing these life sentences is likely to become progressively a heavier burden on him and his successors?

I must say that it is heavy enough already, and I fully realise the truth of my hon. Friend's remark.

Would the right hon. Gentleman consider the suggestion contained in the question asked by his hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sir T. Moore), namely, that revisions or alterations in this law should, in some way or another, be submitted to a vote of the country? Is there any way in which this could be done?

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that divisions of opinion are substantial on this subject and cut right across party lines and that it would be extremely inconvenient to adopt on this question what we reject on every other question—the principle of a referendum?

If, as many of us agree, the position has become absolutely intolerable, will the right hon. Gentleman either take the responsibility as the responsible member of the Government for proposing changes or allow the House to do so at its own discretion on a free vote?

I could not undertake that the House would be given a free vote in this matter. One of the difficulties about the present law is that there has been very great doubt about it, but I doubt whether a free vote would resolve the position. The hon. Member must rely on the fact that the Secretary of State principally responsible has this matter continually under review.