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Murder (Provocation)

Volume 202: debated on Thursday 23 January 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department if he will make a statement on the law relating to provocation as it affects cases of murder.


I am aware of concerns that have been expressed about this aspect of the law. The defences to murder have been reviewed on several occasions, most recently in 1989 by the House of Lords Select Committee on Murder and Life Imprisonment. There has been no recommendation to change the rule that provocation applies only where the defendant acts with a sudden and temporary loss of self-control. Any change must not make it easier for a defendant to escape conviction for murder in cases where there is a planned or revenge killing.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his interest in the subject. Is he aware that among women serving life sentences in Bullwood Hall women's prison for murdering their husbands there are several whose lack of command of English meant that they were not aware that there was anywhere that they could run to, that some women who had tried to run away from extreme brutality were dragged back by their families, and that some were terrified of leaving their children with a brutal partner, and that therefore they had to wait until they could do something about it and were driven to commit murder? Technically, they did not qualify for the defence of provocation, but their cases are heart-rending and should evoke a change in attitude towards the type of defence that women in those circumstances can claim.

My hon. Friend has been to see me about this matter with a group of colleagues. I am sure that she will appreciate that I cannot comment on individual cases, particularly those among the ones that she has mentioned that might come before me.

I understand the concern that has been expressed in the House and in the country about this. However, I cannot condone, as a response to violence, the killing of the person who does that violence. There is concern about the law in this area and I believe that the arguments on it are finely balanced. Before we rush into changes to the homicide law, we must ensure that such changes do not do more harm than good. I assure the House that I shall keep this matter under the most careful review.

I welcome the fact that the Home Secretary received a deputation and undertook to consider taking on my Bill. I accept that the right hon. Gentleman could not go any further at that time, but is he aware that his argument that a change in the defence of provocation might allow for revenge killings is wrong and invalid because juries would not accept it in the case of revenge killings? Will he bear it in mind that the law as it stands does great injustice and that many women are suffering life sentences that they should not be suffering? Will the Home Secretary think again, please?

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for the way in which he presented his case to me, although I hope that he did not take away from our meeting any belief that I was totally persuaded by the argument that he put forward. The House of Lords Select Committee looked into this matter just two years ago. I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman will recall that the Committee recommended that the defences of provocation and diminished responsibility and the offence of infanticide should be retained.

This is an important matter, particularly as it affects violence, and violence more perpetrated on the woman than on the man. One must not open up the possibility for either partner in a marriage or a relationship to murder their partner, not as a result of a sudden, temporary loss of control, but as a result of a careful, well thought out and premeditated plan. That is why the balance of the argument in this matter is so fine.