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Life Imprisonment

Volume 202: debated on Thursday 23 January 1992

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To ask the Secretary of State for the Home Department whether he will make a statement on the guidelines for the period of imprisonment to be served before prisoners sentenced to life imprisonment will be released on licence.

The main considerations in deciding whether to release such a prisoner are whether he or she has been detained long enough to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence for the offence and whether the potential risk to the public is judged to be acceptable.

The Minister will be aware of my concern about the period of imprisonment served by persons who murder members of the security forces. A clear disparity exists between the guideline in England and Wales of 20-plus years' imprisonment and the practice in Northern Ireland of about 13 years' imprisonment before murderers of soldiers and policemen are released. Does the Minister agree that if that issue came before the European Court of Human Rights, under the reasoning in the Dudgeon case, the court would almost certainly hold that it is contrary to the anti-discrimination article in the convention to have two different regimes operating within one country? Would it not, be advisable, therefore, to have a uniform regime—which need not necessarily be the same as either existing regime—rather than wait until such a system is imposed on us?

What the European Court of Justice may decide is a matter of pure speculation. In essence, the matter is for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that in some classes of cases, retribution and deterrence are never satisfactory? In the case of terrorist crimes, it is about time that we had a sentence of indefinite imprisonment until terrorism ends.

My hon. Friend is right. We regard murders committed in this country by terrorists as deserving a minimum of 20 years' imprisonment for those people. That marks the public's revulsion at acts of gratuitous violence against innocent victims. No matter for how long a period lifers are detained, the Home Secretary will release those people only if he considers that it is safe to do so.