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Homicide Law Reform

Volume 612: debated on Thursday 30 June 2016

I beg to move,

That this House has considered the matter of reforming the law on homicide.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, on this auspicious day. I wish to make crystal clear that the debate is about the law of homicide, not fratricide.

Putting that to one side, the real point is that the law of homicide is a mess. That was put more elegantly by the Law Commission in its 2006 report “Murder, Manslaughter and Infanticide”, in which it said that the law of homicide is

“a rickety structure set upon shaky foundations.”

In essence, the problem is that the law lacks a rational or defensible structure. It does not chime with common sense—and in this area of the law perhaps above all others, it should.

As long ago as 1874, a Select Committee stated:

“If there is any case in which the law should speak plainly, without sophism or evasion, it is where life is at stake; and it is on this very occasion that the law is most evasive and most sophistical.”

That remains the case more than 100 years later, and that will not do. In the words of the Law Commission, the time has come to

“promote certainty…in a way that non-lawyers can understand and accept.”

But the problem is far more serious than mere opaqueness. The problem is that the law of homicide creates injustice—injustice to defendants and injustice to society—and that is something that we in this House must always stand ready to confront and resolve.

What is the solution? It is very simple: to split the current offence of murder into two categories, one of first degree murder and another of second degree murder. Manslaughter should remain as before, albeit more tightly circumscribed.

What, as a matter of law, is murder? It is committed when someone unlawfully kills another person with an intention to kill that person or to do them serious harm. That second element is really important. It means that someone who reasonably believed that no one would be killed by their conduct is placed in the same offence category as the contract or serial killer. That, in a nutshell, is the problem.

Let me give an example. Imagine a retired colonel living in my constituency of Cheltenham. He is aged 65, has lived an utterly unblemished life and served his country with great distinction, and is known for his charitable work. He is upstanding in every way. He lives with his wife, who has Parkinson’s disease and for whom he is the sole carer. A neighbour moves in next door who has a string of convictions for antisocial behaviour. Every night, he holds noisy parties that go on into the small hours. Endless polite requests from the colonel are ignored. Endless local authority noise abatement notices are ignored. So, after the umpteenth such party, with his and his wife’s already poor health suffering, the colonel goes round at 3 o’clock in the morning to remonstrate with his neighbour. He takes with him—this is important—a cricket bat in case there is a violent confrontation. The neighbour, who is very drunk, becomes abusive and the colonel, overcome with anger and frustration and at the end of his tether, says, “Right, that’s it. Let’s see how you party when your big toe is broken,” and strikes the neighbour’s foot with the cricket bat. The neighbour falls back, hits his head on a crate of beer standing in the hallway and is knocked unconscious. The colonel immediately calls 999 and tries to resuscitate him, the police and ambulance arrive and the colonel tells them exactly what happened, but the neighbour is rushed to the local hospital, diagnosed with a bleed on the brain, and dies.

The post-mortem report reveals that the deceased’s toe was broken. When interviewed, the distraught colonel admits that he lost his temper. What happens in this case? The only charge that the law allows for is murder. That means that the only sentence that the judge can impose, despite the colonel pleading guilty at the first opportunity, is life imprisonment, because he intended to do grievous bodily harm by breaking the toe. It is because he took a weapon to the scene—the cricket bat—that the starting point for the minimum term that he must serve is 25 years’ imprisonment, and because the offence is murder, he must serve every last day of that term. In effect, the colonel goes to prison for the rest of his life—25 years. He has a mandatory life sentence.

That is unjust. Although it is clear that a person who kills in such circumstances should be guilty of a serious homicide offence, it is equally clear that because he did not intend to kill, the offence should not be in the top tier or highest category. The current law does not chime with common sense. Academic research into public opinion tells us that, but frankly, we do not need academic research; we need simply to consult our common sense. The particularly daft thing—I hope that that is parliamentary language—is that when Parliament passed the Homicide Act 1957, it never intended a killing to amount to murder, which at that time was a capital offence, unless the defendant realised that his or her conduct may cause death. The law of murder was widened because of an unexpected judicial development immediately following the enactment of the 1957 legislation—the case of Vickers, which is about interpretation of the expression “malice aforethought”. In my view, that colonel should be guilty of second degree murder.

The injustice is further underscored when we add the potential for what are known as secondary parties or accessories to be convicted of a murder. Imagine that before the colonel had set off, his frail wife had told him where the cricket bat was stored and in frustration said to him, “Now, go and use it. Teach him a lesson.” She, too, could find herself facing the punishment and disgrace of a murder conviction and the same 25-year minimum term. She should of course be guilty of an offence, but again, she should be guilty of second degree murder, with the judge having the discretion not to impose a mandatory life sentence.

This issue is particularly topical because the Supreme Court has looked at the case of Jogee and more tightly circumscribing accessory liability—the so-called prosecutor’s friend—but still we are left with a situation in which the unsatisfactory law of homicide leads to manifest injustice.

I wonder whether my hon. Friend has in his mind what the range of sentences should be for second degree murder.

Certainly, on any view, life imprisonment must remain the maximum sentence—that is the maximum in the United States for federal offences where second degree murder is charged—but the key point is that the judge should have discretion. The Sentencing Council has done a terrific job of laying down guidelines—not tramlines—and the courts have shown themselves to be well able to dispense justice.

The case for reform becomes even clearer when we consider manslaughter, another homicide offence. Whereas, as I have indicated, the law of murder creates injustice for defendants, the law of manslaughter creates injustice for society. What is manslaughter? It can be committed in one of four ways, but just two of those are relevant for these purposes: unlawful act manslaughter and gross negligence manslaughter. The latter largely speaks for itself for these purposes, but let me explain what happens when a killing is the result of a defendant’s unlawful act—that is, one that all reasonable people would realise would subject the victim to the risk of some physical harm, albeit not serious harm.

Take this example. The defendant barges into a nightclub queue in Cheltenham. He has a string of criminal convictions for assault and criminal damage. In the queue, he is being drunk and obnoxious. He is insulting women for what they are wearing and telling them to get out of his way. The victim is the mother of two children. She works at nearby GCHQ and she is on a hen do. She politely asks the defendant to move to the back of the queue. His response is to say, “You silly cow; you need a slap.” He then strikes her repeatedly and hard to the side of the face with his open hand. She falls back, hits her head on the kerb and is knocked unconscious. The defendant runs off. The victim later dies, and the post-mortem shows that she suffered bruising—albeit no fracture—to her cheekbone and the fatal injury was caused by the impact on the kerb. The police arrest the defendant, who denies everything, but CCTV proves his guilt.

Under the law at present, that defendant can be charged only with unlawful act manslaughter, because the harm that he caused falls short of grievous bodily harm. The net effect is that he will be convicted of an offence that carries a far lesser stigma than murder and for which there is no mandatory requirement for a life sentence, and if he gets a determinate sentence, he will serve only half of it. Is that thug, I ask rhetorically, less culpable than the retired colonel or his wife? The only distinction is that the colonel intended to break a toe and the thug intended to commit a marginally less serious assault. In my view, that is a distinction without a difference—it is a distinction that is completely lost on the general public and, frankly, on me.

So, what needs to happen? This is not some academic exercise. Those two examples are not entirely artificial and they expose fundamental injustices. The first, as I have indicated, is to the victim, in the case of the colonel, and the second is to society in the case of the pub queue thug. The solution is clear: we need an offence of first degree murder that would encompass intentional killing only. I recognise the Law Commission, in 2006, wanted to add

“killing through an intention to do serious injury with an awareness of a serious risk of causing death.”

That is fine, and I understand it, but in my view it is a complexity that unnecessarily detracts from the simplicity of the proposal I put before the House.

An offence of first degree murder would simply and coherently communicate to the public the particularly heinous nature of the crime of taking life and would attract the special condemnation and opprobrium that that deserves. To paraphrase Colonel Tim Collins’ famous eve-of-battle speech in 2003, anyone convicted of such an offence would truly live with the mark of Cain upon them. That offence should also, as at present, attract a mandatory life sentence.

Under my proposal, second degree murder would encompass killing through an intention to do injury that is more than merely transient or trifling. In plain English: it would encompass killing through unacceptable violence and thuggery. That would include the colonel and the pub queue thug—people who committed a significant assault on others but who did not intend to kill. That category of offence would not require a mandatory life sentence. Instead, judges would be free to do justice, weighing in the balance all of the aggravating and mitigating factors. For clarity, that would not include the case of the most minor assault. Think of someone creeping up behind a person, playing a trick on them and flicking their ear as a piece of horseplay. That is technically an assault, of course, but is obviously very minor. If that person fell over and died that should remain as manslaughter.

So, where does that leave manslaughter? Manslaughter would remain predominantly focused on cases of gross negligence. That is, offences in which there has been no unlawful assault or intention to kill, but in which the negligence has been so dreadful as to become criminal. The advantage of that is that people get it; people would understand that—it chimes with common sense.

Those are not outlandish suggestions. Other jurisdictions—most obviously the United States—have two categories of murder. For murders in the US over which the federal Government have jurisdiction, life imprisonment is only mandatory for first degree murder. For second degree murder the mandatory sentence is described as

“a term of years to life.”

So why now? Because it is long overdue. The current distinction between murder and manslaughter is almost certainly more than 500 years old. No further general category of homicide has been developed in the intervening period, despite the fact that society, values and knowledge have changed out of all recognition.

The need for modernisation was obvious to our Victorian forebears. In this place, William Gladstone himself indicated his willingness to rationalise the law but nothing came of it—it keeps getting put off. That approach led one cynical criminal lawyer to remark at the beginning of the 20th century that the hope of a criminal code being enacted by Parliament that would address the problems of the law on homicide was as remote as

“expecting to find milk in a male tiger”.

We cannot keep putting this off. Modernising this key area of law is, to borrow the words of the Law Commission

“an essential task for criminal law reform.”

It is time for this generation to take up the challenge and to create a law that is truly fit for the modern age.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk), who is a fellow member of the Select Committee on Justice, on his prescience in calling for this debate. It is a very important subject and has been for many years now, and it seems to me that the time is right for change in this area.

As a constitutional lawyer, I do not always keep up with the intricacies of criminal statutes and sentencing. In preparing for today I was slightly surprised that the definitions of “murder” and “manslaughter” had not moved on substantially since I was a student many years ago. We were taught that the law was outdated and not really fit for purpose; very little has changed. The Law Commission in 2005 declared that:

“The law governing homicide in England and Wales is a rickety structure set upon shaky foundations. Some of its rules have remained unaltered since the seventeenth century, even though it has long been acknowledged that they are in dire need of reform.”

Sadly, that is even more the case today than it was then.

I next came across the effects of the law on murder in my work for the Government Legal Service, when the Prison Service was a major client throughout my career. At the start of my time there, the concept of whole-life tariffs was being tested in the Myra Hindley case. I became fascinated by psychopathy—though clearly not a practitioner. I learned that, though truly psychopathic murderers crossed my desk often, those cases, while newsworthy, were happily extremely rare and made up only a tiny proportion of those in our criminal justice system.

Just over 80 whole-life tariffs have been given since 1983 when they were introduced. Those guidelines are clear, judges seem to apply them sensibly, and there is also the right of political appeal where necessary. That system seems, to me and to the European Court of Human Rights, to work reasonably well, and is a good example of judicial discretion in action.

Later on in my career I was often called on to act for the Parole Board in cases of judicial review. There were frequent challenges to the legality of decisions of the Parole Board to refuse to release life-sentenced prisoners, who had often been accused of murder, either because they had not fully admitted their guilt or because they had not been able to do courses that would demonstrate that they had overcome their offending behaviour. Many of the young men imprisoned for murder were boys who had got tanked up in the pub and used a broken glass to inflict serious damage on somebody they did not like the look of.

Glassings in those days usually attracted sentences of around 10 to 12 years, but the variations in the availability of offender behaviour work meant that it was difficult to predict the length of time that anybody would serve. That has not got any easier with the pressures on the Prison Service currently, but we now know that the average length of a sentence for murder has risen from 13 years, which I think was measured in 2004, to about 17 years, which was measured recently. In those circumstances, it is more important than ever that we sort the law out.

I am in no way belittling the crushing effect of murder on the families of the victims. However, those sort of crimes, which my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham so clearly explained, are very different from the pre-meditated, sadistic murders carried out by psychopaths which passed my desk. It is important that the law recognises that. Many years ago, the Law Commission published a report in which it proposed changes to homicide sentencing. Its most radical suggestion was explained very clearly by my hon. Friend—in brief, it was to split the offence of murder into first and second degree murder, which itself can be categorised as voluntary or involuntary. After that, partial defences to murder of “diminished responsibility” and “loss of self-control” could be taken into account.

What is important is that those proposed changes would allow sufficient discretion for judges to choose from a far wider range of sentences. Yes, it would be more difficult for the public to understand at first, but with a concerted effort—possibly in a fictional context—our fascination for murder and serious crime would soon mean that the situation was clearer than it is now. After all, many of us have learned a great deal about coercive control recently, though happily not in a fatal context, through the goings on in Ambridge. Am I the only fan of “The Archers” in the room?

Sorry. I, too, have real concerns about the law of parasitic accessory liability, or joint enterprise. We have heard much about the joint enterprise law in recent months following the Supreme Court’s ruling in the Jogee case that

“foresight is simply evidence (albeit sometimes strong evidence) of intent to assist or encourage”.

The ramifications are far-reaching. In the Supreme Court’s words, the law has taken a “wrong turn” for more than 30 years. No longer must young adults out to rob or perhaps to drive a getaway car, but with no thought of killing, end up with life sentences through the actions of their colleagues. We must confront the problem of the breadth of behaviour and culpability encompassed by the offence of murder.

Progress has been virtually non-existent since 2006, despite further consultation undertaken by both the last Labour Government and the coalition Government. So much is changing in the areas of prison reform and rehabilitation of offenders at the moment; both the Ministry of Justice and the Home Office are filled with reforming zeal. I can see that the Minister is smiling at me—surely this is the moment to make long-overdue changes to the law of homicide as well.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans, and it is a pleasure to follow two fellow members of the Justice Committee, my hon. Friends the Members for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and for Banbury (Victoria Prentis). I did not intend to speak in this debate, and I am sure many people would rather I did not, but I have been prompted to speak briefly.

If I am well known for anything—I am probably not well known for anything at all—it is for being a hard-liner when it comes to dealing with crime and sentencing. I despair at the shocking sentences that are given out by judges and at some of the sentencing guidelines, which do not do justice to the crimes that have been committed. It may well be that my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham thinks that I am instinctively opposed to his plans. I thought it worth saying that, as it happens, I am not instinctively opposed to his plans. He made a very compelling case, as anybody who knows him would expect. I would not say that I am wholly persuaded, but I still have an open mind on this particular issue. I hope that the Government will have an open mind on this issue, because it is worthy of further debate.

One of the attractions, it seems to me, of what my hon. Friend is proposing is that it may lead to some more honesty in sentencing. One of the things that really irritates people about the criminal justice system is that we have sentences that sound tough, and make politicians sound tough when they say they are going to extend life sentences for this and that, but in reality are not tough at all. Dishonesty in sentencing is one of the worst parts of our criminal justice system and brings it into disrepute. If my hon. Friend’s plans were to lead to more honesty in sentencing, that in itself would be a good thing.

I appreciate what my hon. Friend is saying about sentencing. Of course, we now have the Sentencing Council and, without wishing to create a bit of a love-in for members of the Justice Committee here, we do have the power to review sentences and comment on them. Is he suggesting that we should take a harder line on those in order to get the sentencing right? I get the feeling that the judiciary are simply following our guidelines.

My hon. Friend is another member of the Justice Committee who is more talented than me. Yes, we should concentrate more on sentencing guidelines as a Committee and as a Parliament, because these matters are of great importance to our constituents. They are the ones, at the end of the day, who feel that the law comes into disrepute with some of the sentences that are handed down. I do not think we should leave it to unelected people to determine sentencing guidelines. We should be taking a greater role in those guidelines, absolutely.

I have an open mind about what my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham proposes, and I hope that the Government will look at it, because I think there are some merits in what he said. I would certainly not rule out supporting some of the changes that he articulated. We should not rush into this either. There are other things that we should think about. My hon. Friend the Member for Banbury mentioned the fact that the average minimum tariff for murder had increased from 13 years to 17 years. I was not entirely sure, if she was making a point about that, whether that was a good a thing or a bad thing. Most of my constituents would say that the increase in that tariff is a good thing.

Just to clarify, I was making the point that that was the reality of the situation; that sentences for murder were getting longer and that it was important for judges to have the full range of sentences open to them so that they could match the sentence to the offence.

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that intervention. I think most of my constituents will be pleased to know that the average length of the minimum tariff given for murder has gone up. I suspect that if I were to do a straw poll of my constituents, most of them would be shocked that the average minimum tariff for the crime of murder was so low. I suspect most people in the country would be shocked that the average minimum tariff for murder was as little as 13 years in the first place. This is one of the great disconnects that we have with the general public at large; they expect murder sentences to be much tougher than that.

One of my notes of caution, therefore, for my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham is that his proposal might be used as a mechanism to try to weaken sentences for murder. That would fly in the face, I suspect, of what the public want to see. If somebody’s agenda is that penalties for murder at the moment are too harsh and this is a way of weakening them, that would be a terrible development. One of my notes of caution is that this does not get hijacked for all the wrong reasons by some of the penal reform groups that seem to have a view that nobody should be sent to prison at all. That is my first note of caution.

My second note of caution, and the reason why we need to tread carefully, is that in the cases that my hon. Friend alluded to, most people would accept that somebody’s life had been taken with some form of malice aforethought. At no point should we belittle the fact that somebody has had their life taken away with malice aforethought.

My hon. Friend is making some very helpful and important contributions. What he says is absolutely right, but whether it is the retired colonel who goes round to his noisy neighbour or the pub thug, under my proposals they would both be convicted of second-degree murder. That would mark society’s condemnation and give the judge power to sentence.

I agree with that point; as I said at the start, I do not necessarily disagree with my hon. Friend. It is just worth making the point that in all the cases he referred to—hypothetical or not—somebody’s life had been taken, with some degree of malice aforethought associated with that. It would be dangerous if we did not give at least some recognition to that fact when considering these things. I certainly would not ever want to get into a situation where we seem to belittle one form of murder in order to form a distinction. We need to make it clear that both are terrible offences in their own particular ways.

If what my hon. Friend envisages is, perhaps, tougher sentences for first-degree murders in order to draw a distinction, I would welcome that. I think that there are many people in the country who, as it happens, think that life should mean life when it comes to murder, as it so often does in the United States of America, but very seldom does in the United Kingdom. If that was what he had in mind, I think he will get a great deal of support. If he was trying to use this as a Trojan horse to reduce sentences for murder, I suspect he would get very little support from the public. Knowing him as I do, I do not think he has that kind of agenda; he genuinely wants to make sure that the law is fit for purpose and is not brought into disrepute. He does a fantastic job in Parliament in pursuing that agenda, both in the House and on the Justice Committee.

This is something we need to debate further; there is not a clear-cut case one way or the other. I will retain an open mind—people who know me well know that that does not happen very often. All I ask of the Government and of the official Opposition is that they also keep an open mind and discuss all the implications of any such change in the law. My hon. Friend’s case is a very good one and is certainly something that I can envisage happening at some point in the future.

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. This is my first time doing so, and I am very pleased to see you in the Chair. I want to take this opportunity to welcome the proposal made by my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) and highlight why I support it.

I want to raise the case of Stephen Martin. He is a 55-year-old man from West Sussex. I have sought the permission of my hon. Friend the Member for Worthing West (Sir Peter Bottomley) to mention the case, and he has said that he is happy for me to do so. He worked hard to rectify what I considered to be a miscarriage of justice.

I am keen on scuba diving, and I dive in Malta with my good friends Viv and Alan Whitehead. I often dive at a location called the Blue Hole in Gozo, which was where Mr Martin went diving with four other people. As he was considered more qualified than the other divers, it was decided that he would be the dive leader. However, during the dive, two of the participants—Mr Martin’s partner, Larissa Hooley, and another diver called Nigel Haines—lost consciousness. Larissa Hooley was taken to the surface, where she later died. Nigel Haines was missing for just a few moments before he was found and dragged to the shore.

The coroner’s court in Brighton and Hove decided the deaths were accidental, but the magistrate in Gozo sought an extradition warrant against Mr Martin, who spent six months on curfew. He had to report to the police station three times a day and was forced to wear a tag. The Maltese magistrate sought a charge of involuntary manslaughter. I bring up that case to demonstrate that we should consider an extension of murder offences and having an offence of involuntary manslaughter. No such charge exists in the UK.

As a British national, Stephen Martin was subject to the whim of an overseas judiciary for an offence that is not a criminal offence in this country. I would like not only the charge of murder but that of manslaughter to take in a different range of incidents. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) is right that there should be no change to the law to reduce the sentence tariff, but there is an arguable case for extending the variety of charges available to the Crown Prosecution Service when bringing a case against an individual. I wanted to raise that case in the House and extend to Members my views on changes to murder legislation.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am pleased to respond to the debate, which I thank the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) for securing. I very much enjoyed serving with him and other hon. Members who are here today in my brief time on the Justice Committee. So much has changed for all of us in the Conservative party and the Labour party since those straightforward and timid days.

The hon. Gentleman brings the expertise of someone who sits on the Justice Committee, whose work I will refer to later, and the experience of a distinguished legal career. His former legal practice described him as “a first-class practitioner” and a “persuasive and forceful advocate”. As he has persuaded the hon. Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) to keep an open mind on this matter, I can certainly say that I agree with his former legal practice.

The hon. Member for Shipley, a fellow Yorkshireman, said that people would not want hear from him in the debate. On that, as on many other things, I fundamentally disagree with him. I was pleased to hear from him, as we all are, because one thing we do respect him for is that he always says what he thinks, which is very important. It was a pleasure to hear from the hon. Members for Banbury (Victoria Prentis) and for Hendon (Dr Offord), both of whom made interesting points about this most serious of matters. I thank the Backbench Business Committee for allocating this slot for the debate and ensuring that such important topics are debated in the House.

As hon. Members know, this is my first debate as shadow Secretary of State for Justice and shadow Lord Chancellor. I am pleased to follow in the footsteps of Lord Falconer and my other predecessor, Sadiq Khan, who is now the Mayor of London. Not only have I had the pleasure of briefly serving on the Justice Committee, but for 10 years I was a lawyer in my home city of Leeds, and for eight of those years I practised employment tribunal work. I am yet to meet my opposite number, the Lord Chancellor and Secretary of State for Justice, but I understand that he is rather busy at the moment. I am sure that he will be agreeable to meeting me at some point and I look forward to that.

There have not been many speeches in this debate, but they have all been excellent, and I feel with confidence that we can move the debate forward. I want to give the Minister the maximum time to respond—he may get a full hour to respond, who knows?

Some people would like me to hold my breath, maybe for a long, long time but, on this occasion, I will not. I will limit my remarks to briefly addressing joint enterprise, an issue that has been raised in this debate and that the hon. Member for Cheltenham mentioned in his submission to the Backbench Business Committee.

Any change to the law of homicide, no matter how small, is of the utmost importance to the public and the House. That is because homicide offences are some of the most serious criminal offences that any individual can commit against any other individual or individuals. The state, as a signatory to the European convention on human rights, must undertake a positive obligation under article 2—the protection of the right to life—to take all appropriate steps to safeguard life, and to put in place a legislative and administrative framework to provide effective deterrents against threats to the right to life. That is what we are debating and why, in my new role, I am keen to listen carefully and engage with as many key stakeholders as possible. I am keen to hear more from the Minister about the Government’s next steps.

On joint enterprise, it is important to refer to Lord Neuberger’s judgment, in which he said that the Supreme Court ruling did not automatically mean that all previous joint enterprise convictions were unsafe, and that

“a person who joins in a crime which any reasonable person would realise involves a risk of harm, and death results, is guilty at least of manslaughter”,

the maximum sentence for which is life imprisonment. He also said that the rule that

“a person who intentionally encourages or assists the commission of a crime is as guilty as the person who physically commits it”

was not affected, and that it remained open to a jury to decide whether a person had intentionally encouraged or assisted a crime—for example, through knowledge that weapons were being carried. As the Prime Minister has said, we are dealing with a narrow change to the law, but one that could have massive implications for many people.

I am probably the only non-learned Member present in the room, apart from my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies), but I understood that the ruling was quite specific. I thought that the Supreme Court had said that the interpretation of the law had been wrong but that there was no need to change the law. The judgment was quite specific about that.

I thank the Minister for making that important point, and I look forward to hearing about that in more detail in his response.

The lawyer Simon Natas, who has worked with the impressive campaign group Joint Enterprise Not Guilty by Association, said that the “historic” ruling would make the law “fairer for everybody”. He is right, but it is important to make it clear that if someone goes out as part of a gang carrying guns or knives, and their actions encourage or assist in a murder, they should face the consequences. I am sure that is broadly the view of reasonable people, and that the public would support that. After listening to the views of my friends, neighbours and constituents, I know that, by and large, that is people’s view.

The judgment was right to acknowledge the growing call for change following the concern that quite peripheral members of a gang involved in a killing, who had no real clue what they had been caught up in, were being prosecuted. That is why I welcome the judgment. I press the Government to commit to conduct a review of the effects of the change after two to three years.

I am concerned by evidence that the Cambridge Institute of Criminology provided to the Justice Committee revealing that the proportion of black and mixed-heritage young men serving very long sentences for joint enterprise offences is much higher than their representation in both the general population and the overall prison population. Will the Government commit to reviewing that, alongside the wider review by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tottenham (Mr Lammy)?

We have heard today about so-called one-punch killers. The hon. Member for Cheltenham provided examples, hypothetical and otherwise, showing the difficulty of the issue and the serious consideration it requires. I am concerned about the public perception that attackers who kill with a single punch seem to receive jail sentences that could be seen as lenient, despite the December 2009 Court of Appeal ruling on single-punch killings led by the former Lord Chief Justice, Lord Judge. The ruling’s conclusion stated that acts of violence resulting in death should be given “greater weight” in sentencing, even if the conviction is for manslaughter rather than murder. Will the Minister confirm whether he is reviewing that ruling?

I will close my remarks to give the Minister as much time as possible, although I suspect he will not take the maximum time available. The Labour party is clear that the criminal justice system relies on the fundamental principle that the public must have confidence in it, and it is our duty to ensure that victims and witnesses who come forward have confidence that their case will be dealt with thoroughly and fairly, and that people who break the law of the land and who are found guilty of some of the worst offences—homicide devastates families across the country—are punished accordingly.

I thank all hon. Members who took part in this debate, and I thank you, Mr Evans. I look forward to the Minister’s response.

As usual, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans—I really mean that. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Cheltenham (Alex Chalk) on securing this debate. It is honestly a real shame that more colleagues are not here for such an important debate—a debate that should continue beyond this afternoon. Far be it from me, in my lowly position, to suggest that this debate should be on the Floor of the House or that a Select Committee should hold an inquiry, but if I were a member of the Justice Committee, I would probably look to hold an inquiry. Like my predecessors, I will keep an open mind on this subject for as long as I am in the job, and probably long after.

The Supreme Court judgment has been mentioned a couple of times, and the five judges who made that ruling specifically said that they were referring to a very narrow part of law, which they said had been interpreted incorrectly in the judgments handed down by different judges. The Supreme Court specifically said that its ruling required not a change of law but a change in how judges interpret the law. I say for the first time that the Government accept that ruling, and we accept that the law in this particular area does not need to be changed.

The Sentencing Council is currently looking at one-punch manslaughter cases, about which the public are understandably concerned. In the case mentioned earlier, such concern is only right and proper, but Parliament has rightly given the Sentencing Council responsibility for setting guidance—Parliament traditionally had that responsibility. I also fully accept that some parts of guidance are still set in statute, and there is an ongoing sentencing review.

I apologise for not welcoming the hon. Member for Leeds East (Richard Burgon) to his new post. I wish him every success in his very important position and, as with his colleagues who preceded him, I will give him as much support as possible. I wish him longevity in his position as a shadow spokesman—[Laughter.] That can probably be taken in many different ways, but I mean to be nice.

We have heard about sentencing and for how long people are imprisoned. Of course, the changes made in 2003 are still coming through the system. As politicians, we all bandy around numbers for how long people serve, but people are, correctly, starting to serve longer sentences. As previous Justice Secretaries and Justice Ministers have said, we have no plan to abolish the mandatory life sentence. I cannot be a hypocrite: as a Back Bencher, I appealed against several unduly lenient sentences, and most people know that I have concerns about the restriction on appeals against undue leniency. People can appeal against basically any sentence they are given, but we are restricted in appealing against unduly lenient sentences. The Attorney General and the Justice Secretary are working on a review of that restriction.

At this interesting time in politics, in Westminster and in the country, it would not be right for me to indicate whether we agree or disagree with the proposals. I was asked whether the Department and I will keep an open mind, and we certainly will. Further debate on this issue is important. I am also conscious that the subject might drift if we are not careful. My notes say that in December 2010 the then Secretary of State, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr Clarke), indicated that he was not minded to implement the Law Commission’s recommendations, but he qualified that by saying that he would keep an open mind about proceeding at a later date. We are now at a later date. Although I am probably shooting myself in the foot, especially if I stay in this position under the new Prime Minister—we will have one in the not-too-distant future—I think it has been too long. We now need to consider whether we accept the Law Commission’s 2005 report. Time has moved on. Although the report was important, and parts of it were accepted at the time, we must ensure that the report is still relevant, particularly in relation to subsequent changes to sentencing guidance. I cannot think of anything that can be done to another human being that is as bad as taking their life. There are myriad appalling things that people do to each other, but surely, in any society, taking a human life is the worst.

I will keep an open mind. I will ensure that whoever is Justice Secretary in the Government formed by the new Prime Minister sees my comments—the current Justice Secretary knows my views. We cannot let this matter drift for another five or 10 years. If something can be done, we must do it now. It sounds simple, but the lawyers in the room will know that it is not so simple in practice.

I congratulate everyone who has taken part in this debate, particularly the more learned Members. I look at the proposal from a simple point of view as a constituency MP—I think about what my constituents would think—so I agree with many of the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies). I probably have not answered all the direct questions asked by the shadow Minister, so I will write to him, and I will make those answers available to members of the Justice Committee, too.

This has been a helpful debate. I introduced the topic to see whether there was an appetite for discussing it, and it seems that there is. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley (Philip Davies) made some important points. He is absolutely right to say that in respect of this offence, perhaps beyond any other, there must be clarity, consistency and logicality. Members of the public must be satisfied that the law reflects common sense.

My hon. Friend’s point about the need for sentencing power to be transparent is also a good one. It is particularly relevant in the issue of homicide. If someone gets a life sentence and is told that they have a minimum term of 15 or 17 years to serve, that is the period that they must serve, yet if they are convicted of an offence of grievous bodily harm and the judge sets a determinate sentence of 15 years, they will in fact serve only half of that.

Yes; a maximum of half. My hon. Friend the Member for Shipley made an important point, and there is a further agenda to put forward.

To return to my central point, if we could divide the law of murder into first and second degree, those charged and convicted of first degree murder, which would be the most serious crime in the criminal calendar, would be convicted of something that would earn—if that is the right word—the opprobrium of society. People would understand that someone guilty of that offence intended to take life. I respectfully endorse the point made by my right hon. Friend the Minister that we need particular clarity on issues involving the taking of life.

What attracts me to the idea of second degree murder is that we could then lump in—if that is not too inelegant—all the other offences that deserve society’s condemnation, as my hon. Friend the Member for Shipley indicated, because life has been taken through an unlawful act. If we grouped those offences under second degree murder, we would not need a mandatory life sentence, but if the judge thought—on the facts of the case—that that was required, that is precisely what could be imposed. Taking into account how the law has moved on in respect of Jogee and of our modern mores and understanding, it seems to me that this is a reform whose time has come.

Question put and agreed to.


That this House has considered the matter of reforming the law on homicide.

Sitting suspended.