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Murder

Volume 886: debated on Wednesday 12 February 1975

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asked the Secretary of State for Scotland if he has considered the penalty for murder in the light of the reports of the Emslie Committee and the Criminal Law Revision Committee.

I have examined the penalty for murder in consultation with my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary and my right hon. and learned Friend the Lord Advocate. We have reached the following conclusions.Both committees gave cogent reasons why, to mark out the most dreadful crime and for the protection of the public, the mandatory life sentence as at present is the most appropriate sentence for murder, rendering the convicted person liable to be detained—and, if released, to be recalled to detention—for the rest of his life. The committees disagreed, however, about the use to be made by the trial judge of his power under Section 1(2) of the Murder (Abolition of the Death Penalty) Act 1965 to recommend a minimum period to elapse before the convicted person is released on licence under a life sentence, the Emslie Committee proposing new legislation requiring that a recommendation be made in all but exceptional cases and the Criminal Law Revision Committee favouring the present selective use. There was clearly a difference of opinion also between the judiciaries of Scotland and England and Wales on this issue.The Emslie Committee rightly described the mandatory life sentence as an "awesome sentence". A person sentenced

to life imprisonment is never "free"; he is not released on licence unless, after a careful screening process, it is deemed safe to do so. This means that some life sentence prisoners may require to be detained indefinitely. This is the true nature of the penalty, though it is often misunderstood. The Emslie Report said that

"the removal of misapprehensions about the sentence of life imprisonment should in our view strengthen significantly its deterrent value and it is incumbent on those responsible for influencing public opinion to ensure that correct information on the realities of penalties is presented".

We regard this recommendation to be of substantial importance. We take it as part of our duty to stress the realities of the penalty and we hope others in responsible positions will do likewise.

We have carefully considered whether the implementation of the Emslie Committee's proposals regarding the extended use of judicial recommendations would add substantially to the deterrent effect of the life sentence and we have concluded that until fuller experience has been gained of the present legislative provisions the added deterrent effect is more likely to be achieved through an accurate appreciation by the public of what the life sentence means, rather than by new legislation.