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Crime: Murder

Volume 724: debated on Monday 24 January 2011


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they plan to reconsider their decision, announced in the Ministry of Justice Green Paper Breaking the Cycle: Effective Punishment, Rehabilitation and the Sentencing of Offenders, not to abolish the mandatory life sentence for murder.

I thank the noble Lord for that Answer. Is he aware of recent research that shows that the public are not in favour of a life sentence in every case of murder, as is so often thought, especially not in cases where the conviction has been of a mercy killing? Seventy-nine per cent of those consulted in face-to-face interviews last May said that they thought that nine years or less would be sufficient in such cases, which corresponds almost exactly with a recent decision in the Court of Appeal that reduced the minimum term from nine years to five years. Against that background, why do the Government continue to think that a life sentence is necessary in every case of murder? Why not leave it to the judge to decide on the facts of the particular case? Why not at least consult the public on this in the consultation exercise that is currently taking place?

My Lords, the noble and learned Lord is referring to the Nuffield Foundation report Public Opinion and Sentencing for Murder. I know that because he was generous enough to send me the report, which, in my reading, shows that there is a good deal of public confusion about the law of murder. Perhaps there is a need for greater education and explanation. The blunt fact is that the Government considered these and other proposals in the recent, or not so recent, Law Commission report on the matter. However, they came to the conclusion that the time was not right to take forward such a substantial reform of our criminal law.

The noble Lord has referred to public confusion about the law of murder. Does he accept that a thoroughgoing review and reform of the law of murder, including the abolition of the compulsory, mandatory life sentence, would be a jewel in the crown of the coalition Government if it could be achieved in the next five years?

I hear what my noble friend says and I am sure that many in the Government will concur with that assessment. Proposals to act now were given consideration, but we came to the conclusion that the time was not right to take forward such a substantial reform of our criminal law.

My Lords, was the statement that the Minister made today approved by the right honourable Kenneth Clarke, who said, in the same week as the publication of the Green Paper indicating the view that the Minister has just given, that he did not think that mandatory life sentences were suitable except in the most serious cases and that they were quite inappropriate for mercy killings by a husband or wife of the other?

My Lords, over the past few months when these matters have been discussed, a number of views have been given—I have given some views myself—but the fact is that the collective view of the Government is that the time is not right to take forward such a substantial reform of our criminal law.

My Lords, there is considerable time. I am aware that the noble Lord, Lord Walton of Detchant, has been magnanimous in giving way twice. Perhaps we can hear him first and then from my noble friend.

Is the Minister aware that the House of Lords Select Committee on Medical Ethics, which I was privileged to chair, reported in 1993 that in its opinion the mandatory life sentence for murder should be abolished to allow flexibility in sentencing? The Home Office reported to that committee 23 cases in which a positive act by a family member had resulted in the death of a loved one suffering from terminal cancer. In every case, a charge of murder was considered. However, because the conviction of the individual would have given rise to a mandatory life sentence, the charge in all but one case was amended to attempted murder, as it was recognised that no jury would be likely to convict. Was that not therefore a case in which the law was being manipulated?

My Lords, I do not try to mislead the House in any way in acknowledging that some of these issues have been before successive Governments for a very long time. On some of the issues, such as when the plea is on grounds of a mercy killing or a related defence, successive Governments have taken the view that this is a matter for Parliament rather than the Government of the day. Within their broad decision not to attempt a major reform of the law at the moment, the Government are trying to look at the guidance so that it may be simplified and to trust the judgment of judges in these matters.

Can my noble friend tell us how many convicted murderers who have been given life sentences have actually died in prison? Surely the reality of a mandatory life sentence is that it does not actually amount to that at the end of the day.

My Lords, I do not have that specific figure to hand, but I shall write to the noble Lord on it. The point that he makes is perhaps the one that causes the public confusion—that a life sentence does not mean inevitably that the person convicted is going to die in prison, although sometimes they do.