Report (1st Day)
1: After Clause 2, insert the following new Clause—
“Required life sentence for manslaughter of emergency worker
(1) The Sentencing Code is amended in accordance with subsections (2) to (15). (2) In section 177 (youth rehabilitation orders), in subsection (3)(b)(i), after “258” insert “or 258A”.(3) In section 221 (overview of Part 10), in subsection (2)(b), for “section 258” substitute “sections 258 and 258A”.(4) In section 249 (sentence of detention under section 250), in subsection (2)(a), for “section 258” substitute “sections 258 and 258A”.(5) In section 255 (extended sentence of detention), in subsection (1)(d), after “258(2)” insert “or 258A(2)”.(6) After section 258 insert—“258A Required sentence of detention for life for manslaughter of emergency worker(1) This section applies where—(a) a person aged under 18 is convicted of a relevant offence,(b) the offence was committed—(i) when the person was aged 16 or over, and(ii) on or after the relevant commencement date, and(c) the offence was committed against an emergency worker acting in the exercise of functions as such a worker.(2) The court must impose a sentence of detention for life under section 250 unless the court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances which—(a) relate to the offence or the offender, and(b) justify not doing so.(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(c) the circumstances in which an offence is to be taken as committed against a person acting in the exercise of functions as an emergency worker include circumstances where the offence takes place at a time when the person is not at work but is carrying out functions which, if done in work time, would have been in the exercise of functions as an emergency worker.(4) In this section “relevant offence” means the offence of manslaughter, but does not include—(a) manslaughter by gross negligence, or(b) manslaughter mentioned in section 2(3) or 4(1) of the Homicide Act 1957 or section 54(7) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (partial defences to murder).(5) In this section—“emergency worker” has the meaning given by section 68;“relevant commencement date” means the date on which section (Required life sentence for manslaughter of emergency worker) of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2021 (required life sentence for manslaughter of emergency worker) comes into force.(6) An offence the sentence for which is imposed under this section is not to be regarded as an offence the sentence for which is fixed by law.(7) Where an offence is found to have been committed over a period of 2 or more days, or at some time during a period of 2 or more days, it must be taken for the purposes of subsection (1)(b) to have been committed on the last of those days.”(7) In section 267 (extended sentence of detention in a young offender institution), in subsection (1)(d), for “or 274” substitute “, 274 or 274A”.(8) In section 272 (offences other than murder), in subsection (2)(b), for “or 274” substitute “, 274 or 274A”.(9) After section 274 insert—“274A Required sentence of custody for life for manslaughter of emergency worker(1) This section applies where— (a) a person aged 18 or over but under 21 is convicted of a relevant offence,(b) the offence was committed—(i) when the person was aged 16 or over, and(ii) on or after the relevant commencement date, and(c) the offence was committed against an emergency worker acting in the exercise of functions as such a worker.(2) The court must impose a sentence of custody for life under section 272 unless the court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances which—(a) relate to the offence or the offender, and(b) justify not doing so.(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(c) the circumstances in which an offence is to be taken as committed against a person acting in the exercise of functions as an emergency worker include circumstances where the offence takes place at a time when the person is not at work but is carrying out functions which, if done in work time, would have been in the exercise of functions as an emergency worker.(4) In this section “relevant offence” means the offence of manslaughter, but does not include—(a) manslaughter by gross negligence, or(b) manslaughter mentioned in section 2(3) or 4(1) of the Homicide Act 1957 or section 54(7) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (partial defences to murder).(5) In this section—“emergency worker” has the meaning given by section 68;“relevant commencement date” means the date on which section (Required life sentence for manslaughter of emergency worker) of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2021 (required life sentence for manslaughter of emergency worker) comes into force.(6) An offence the sentence for which is imposed under this section is not to be regarded as an offence the sentence for which is fixed by law.(7) Where an offence is found to have been committed over a period of 2 or more days, or at some time during a period of 2 or more days, it must be taken for the purposes of subsection (1)(b) to have been committed on the last of those days.”(10) In section 280 (extended sentence of imprisonment), in subsection (1)(d), for “or 285” substitute “, 285 or 285A”.(11) After section 285 insert—“285A Required life sentence for manslaughter of emergency worker(1) This section applies where—(a) a person aged 21 or over is convicted of a relevant offence,(b) the offence was committed—(i) when the person was aged 16 or over, and(ii) on or after the relevant commencement date, and(c) the offence was committed against an emergency worker acting in the exercise of functions as such a worker.(2) The court must impose a sentence of imprisonment for life unless the court is of the opinion that there are exceptional circumstances which—(a) relate to the offence or the offender, and(b) justify not doing so.(3) For the purposes of subsection (1)(c) the circumstances in which an offence is to be taken as committed against a person acting in the exercise of functions as an emergency worker include circumstances where the offence takes place at a time when the person is not at work but is carrying out functions which, if done in work time, would have been in the exercise of functions as an emergency worker.(4) In this section “relevant offence” means the offence of manslaughter, but does not include—(a) manslaughter by gross negligence, or(b) manslaughter mentioned in section 2(3) or 4(1) of the Homicide Act 1957 or section 54(7) of the Coroners and Justice Act 2009 (partial defences to murder).(5) In this section—“emergency worker” has the meaning given by section 68;“relevant commencement date” means the date on which section (Required life sentence for manslaughter of emergency worker) of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act 2021 (required life sentence for manslaughter of emergency worker) comes into force.(6) An offence the sentence for which is imposed under this section is not to be regarded as an offence the sentence for which is fixed by law.(7) Where an offence is found to have been committed over a period of 2 or more days, or at some time during a period of 2 or more days, it must be taken for the purposes of subsection (1)(b) to have been committed on the last of those days.”(12) In section 329 (conversion of sentence of detention to sentence of imprisonment), in subsection (7)(a), after “258” insert “or 258A”.(13) In section 399 (mandatory sentences), in paragraph (b)(i)—(a) for “258, 274 or 285” substitute “258, 258A, 274, 274A, 285 or 285A”;(b) omit “dangerous”.(14) In section 417 (commencement of Schedule 22), in subsection (3)(d), for “and 274” substitute “, 274 and 274A”.(15) In Schedule 22 (amendments of the Sentencing Code etc)—(a) after paragraph 59 insert—“59A_ In section 285A (required life sentence for manslaughter of emergency worker), in subsection (1)(a), for “21” substitute “18”.”;(b) in paragraph 73(a)(ii), after “274” insert “, 274A”;(c) in paragraph 101(2), after “274,” insert “274A,”.(16) In section 37 of the Mental Health Act 1983 (powers of courts to order hospital admission or guardianship)—(a) in subsection (1A)—(i) after “258,” insert “258A,”;(ii) after “274,” insert “274A,”;(iii) for “or 285” substitute “, 285 or 285A”;(b) in subsection (1B)—(i) in paragraph (a), after “258” insert “or 258A”;(ii) in paragraph (b), for “or 274” substitute “, 274 or 274A”;(iii) in paragraph (c), for “or 285” substitute “, 285 or 285A”.”Member’s explanatory statement
This amendment inserts into the Sentencing Code provisions that require a court to impose a life sentence on an offender who is convicted of unlawful and dangerous act manslaughter against an emergency worker acting in the exercise of their functions as an emergency worker.
My Lords, it is my pleasure to open the debate on the Report stage of this Bill. I stand to add the proposed new clause, after Clause 2, as printed on the Marshalled List.
This amendment, known as Harper’s law, will impose mandatory life terms on those who are convicted of unlawful act manslaughter, where the victim is an emergency worker who is acting in the exercise of their functions as such a worker. The amendment will apply to adult offenders, and to 16 and 17 year-olds. As the House will see, it contains a judicial discretion for the court to impose an alternative sentence in exceptional circumstances.
It may assist noble Lords if I provide a brief overview of manslaughter—I do not propose to turn this into a lecture—and the manner in which this amendment will work. The amendment applies to those convicted of manslaughter, but the proposed new Sections 258A(4), 274A(4) and 285A(4) of the Sentencing Code are provisions to explicitly exclude those convicted of gross negligence manslaughter, as well as those convicted of manslaughter following a successful partial defence to a charge of murder—for example, manslaughter by reason of diminished responsibility, loss of control or in pursuance of a suicide pact. As a result and by process of statutory elimination, the provisions will apply only to those who have been convicted of manslaughter by an unlawful and dangerous act, more commonly referred to as “unlawful act manslaughter”.
The Government are making this amendment following the death of PC Andrew Harper in August 2019. I am sure the House is familiar with the horrific facts of that case. PC Harper was responding to reports of the attempted theft of a quad bike. He suffered fatal injuries when he became caught in a strap trailing behind a getaway car and was dragged behind it. At their trial in July 2020, PC Harper’s three killers were acquitted of murder but were all convicted of unlawful act manslaughter.
The jury was therefore satisfied that the unlawful and dangerous actions of the defendants, namely the plan to steal the quad bike and then escape apprehension by whatever means possible, including driving dangerously along winding country roads, amounted to manslaughter. The court did not impose life sentences on any of the defendants. Each received sentences of between 13 and 19 years for the manslaughter of PC Harper, sentences that were subsequently upheld by the Court of Appeal. They will therefore all be incarcerated for a significant period. But the Government believe that, where a person is convicted of unlawful act manslaughter, and the person who has been killed is an emergency worker acting as such, that should be punished with life imprisonment.
The court will be able to impose a different sentence where there are exceptional circumstances. As covered in Committee, that term is already used in law and is deliberately undefined in legislation to allow for interpretation and application by the court. This will ensure that the court can apply a different sentence where justified, such as where there are exceptional circumstances relating either to the offence or the offender.
The successful campaign of PC Harper’s widow Lissie Harper and the Police Federation drew this issue to the Government’s attention, but this was not an isolated incident. While, thankfully, emergency workers are not often killed on duty, they are required to put themselves at particular risk when carrying out their duties and protecting the public. As is often said, they run towards the danger when others run away from it. I therefore beg to move Amendment 1.
I rise to express my grave concerns about this new clause, which I hope will not be enacted, although I am bound to say that I am rather pessimistic about that.
I will begin by saying something about procedure. I regret that this new clause is being brought forward on Report. The formal announcement of it was by way of a press release on 24 November this year. As the Minister has said, the new clause was triggered by the very distressing case of the killing of PC Harper. We need to keep in mind that the relevant trial took place in July 2020, and it came before the Court of Appeal for consideration in December that year. I suggest that it is hard to see why the new clause could not have been introduced in the House of Commons or, if that were not possible, in Committee in this House. In either event, there would have been a greater opportunity for discussion, both inside and outside Parliament.
All of us will have the greatest sympathy for PC Harper’s wife and family. However, we should be very cautious about legislating as a consequence of a single case or even a number of cases, however distressing they may be. I have referred to the trial in 2020 and the decision of the Court of Appeal in December that year. My noble friend referred specifically to them. In both those cases, very serious and detailed consideration was given to the appropriate sentence, and, as my noble friend has said, the Court of Appeal rejected the submission of the Attorney-General that, in the case of the defendant Long—the most culpable of them—the sentence should be increased to a life sentence.
I suggest that anyone who studies the judgments of the courts, together with the guidelines of the Sentencing Council—the relevant ones were published as recently as November 2018—will be satisfied that the existing law makes proper provision for the punishment of offenders convicted of serious offences of manslaughter and gives proper protection to emergency workers.
As your Lordships will know, manslaughter covers a very broad spectrum of culpability, extending from the very serious—the killing of PC Harper is an example of this—to many things that are very much less serious, such as a single blow that fells an individual, who strikes his head on the pavement and dies. In all conscience, that is an act of common assault, although the consequences are dreadful.
In the case of PC Harper, the trial judge stated that, had the defendant Long been a few years older— he was 19 at the time of the trial and 18 at the time of his offence—he would probably have been given a life sentence. So we need to be clear about this. A life sentence is already available for serious cases of manslaughter, where the trial judge, who has heard all the relevant facts, thinks that such a sentence is appropriate. Your Lordships are being asked to approve a mandatory life sentence in circumstances in which the trial judge might otherwise determine that one is not appropriate. I am deeply uncomfortable with that, especially when I consider the broad spectrum of culpability that arises in manslaughter cases.
Consider a police officer who intervenes in a street brawl, in or out of uniform—it might be a plain-clothes officer. The officer is struck by a single blow or trips in the course of a scuffle. He or she falls, hits their head on the pavement and dies. If the deceased person had been a civilian killed in such circumstances, the court would impose a relatively modest determinate sentence, but, in the case of the police officer and subject to the subsection (2) provisos, which I will shortly mention, the court would have to impose a life sentence. I do not believe that that can be right.
I said that I would speak briefly, if your Lordships would allow me, to proposed new subsection (2), which was briefly referred to my noble friend the Minister. Subsection (2) refers to the exceptional circumstances that relate to the offence or the offender and make it just not to impose a life sentence. The question that arises and must be considered is: what does that mean? Does that mean that, if the judge thinks that the offence falls at the lower level of culpability, a modest determinate sentence can properly be imposed? If that is the case, what is the purpose of the new clause? If such a discretion is not available to the trial judge, it is surely inevitable that injustice will happen on occasions.
At that point, we come to a related matter. We are talking here about not “whole life” cases but life-sentence cases in which a trial judge must impose a custodial tariff. Is the trial judge entitled under these provisions to set a modest determinate tariff in order to address a low level of culpability? If that is the case, what is the point of the new clause? If it is not the case and the trial judge may not impose a modest tariff, it is extremely unjust.
I have one final point, and I acknowledge that it is about drafting. Consider the following circumstances, which fall within proposed new subsection (3)—I will not read it out because it is on the Marshalled List and I do not want to detain your Lordships’ House. An off-duty officer in plain clothes, whose identity as a police officer is not apparent, intervenes in a street brawl or seeks to apprehend a fleeing thief. In the scuffle, he or she falls over, hits their head and dies. Is it right that, in those circumstances, such a defendant should automatically face a life sentence, unless the subsection (2) provisos apply?
I am profoundly uncomfortable with this new clause, and I would like to think that it will not pass.
My Lords, I share the serious concerns of the noble Viscount. Given the degree of pressure that the Government have been under, understandably, after the shocking death of the police officer, they may have strayed too far into imposing upon the judiciary something that is not necessary, in my view. If they remain concerned about the extent to which the Sentencing Council may not have properly reflected the seriousness of an emergency officer being killed, it is perfectly simple to ask it to reconsider this. I suspect that, in the light of PC Harper, it might well do so.
Following what the noble Viscount has just said, I am particularly concerned about the off-duty, plain-clothes police officer, fireman or anybody else who intervenes—very properly, feeling it is his or her duty—and suffers a fatal injury. The situation is as the noble Viscount said: it really does go too far. I understand very well why the Government think it needs to be done, but I wish they would reflect on this, and think again before it goes back to the House of Commons.
My Lords, I cannot speak as eloquently as the speakers we have just heard, but I want to say that this feels so much like law made by press release, and law made to virtue-signal, that I feel incredibly uncomfortable about it.
We want to say to emergency workers that we will protect them if they are at risk, but we know that the emergency worker in this instance, PC Harper, was not the target of the crime; it was not intentional to kill an emergency worker. So I do not see even how this operates as a deterrent, because it is not aimed at people who have put those emergency workers at risk, even though those workers have accidentally been killed in the pursuit of a criminal act that is, I accept, dangerous.
There is an exception, which is that the trial judge can make an alternative sentence in “exceptional circumstances”. But, as has been pointed out, the trial judge can already make an alternative sentence—a full life sentence in some circumstances—so why emphasise it, unless it is a political policy statement? It is not a matter of law; it is a question of saying, “We will be hard”, and it will inevitably lead to great injustice. The fact that 16 and 17 year-olds have been included means that very young people could now have mandatory life sentences for manslaughter, with no discretion, and no discretion encouraged. It is so wrong and brought in for all the wrong reasons.
My Lords, I share many of the reservations expressed already and the analysis given on both the provision and the circumstances which have led to it. I ask the Minister, in his response to the debate, to deal with one of the points raised by the noble Viscount, which is the discretion that might be available to the judge in deciding what tariff accompanies the sentence, as opposed to the provisions of proposed new subsection (2), which give slightly more power—I refrain from defining it as a wider power—in exceptional circumstances to the judge to impose a different sentence altogether.
One thing the Minister did not cover in his helpful introduction was the extent to which the tariff provisions interact with this. I would be grateful if he could explain that, in case he can give us any reassurance about what seems to be the danger of making general law out of a particular case.
My Lords, if I may, I will add a point that follows on from what the noble Lord, Lord Beith, said. To require a life sentence is pure deception because we all know that life sentences are not life sentences, and there is a strong feeling that the life sentence for murder is a deception. Other than in the most exceptional circumstances, the person concerned will be released, and the judge pronounces, in open court, a tariff. I entirely understand why the Government wish to give comfort to the unfortunate relatives and friends of those heroic emergency workers who suffer this appalling treatment and die in service of the country, but it is a gesture—a misleading gesture. We really should not be perpetuating more and more life sentences when the reality is that people receive a term of years.
My Lords, arguing this case is far beyond my pay grade, but I support everything that my noble friend Lord Hailsham said in opposition to these amendments. I do not support Amendment 1.
My Lords, we have more and more life sentences and less and less judicial discretion. The point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, that deterrence is not a factor in this really should not be glossed over; it is very important.
My Lords, I am puzzled by the mechanism that the Government are trying to use to increase sentences, which, in some cases, should rightly be higher, in relation to the deaths of emergency workers. After a long period of development, we created a completely new mechanism: the Sentencing Council. Judges must have regard to sentencing guidelines in every case, and those guidelines are complex. They give examples of levels at which sentences should start in certain circumstances.
I see a number of noble Lords around this Chamber who have either acted as police officers or have prosecuted and defended manslaughter cases. In my case, I have done, on one side or the other, a number of one-punch manslaughter cases, in which there was a conviction, and perhaps a sentence of three or four years’ imprisonment. One can imagine circumstances in which that could have arisen where the person who died was an off-duty emergency worker trying to help someone, and the perpetrator of the offence had no idea that that person was an emergency worker.
Surely the better mechanism is to use the flexible, living instrument of the Sentencing Council, and the sentencing guidelines, and not to inhibit the discretion of judges. The Sentencing Council and the judges will, of course, respond to the pressure that rightly arises from the awful case that has given rise to this discussion and this amendment. With great respect to the Minister, relying on “exceptional circumstances”, a description that is always determined in a restrictive way—rightly so—by the Court of Appeal, seems to be the wrong mechanism to achieve the right result.
My Lords, on these Benches we share the shock and revulsion at the death of PC Harper and the way that it came about. We support the principle that a life sentence should be available, and even possibly the norm in serious cases, for the manslaughter of an emergency worker. But where we part company with the Government is in sharing the concerns of the noble Viscount, Lord Hailsham, and everybody else who has spoken. We are unhappy with the proposal that such a sentence should be mandatory unless a judge can find “exceptional circumstances”.
The word “exceptional” has been seen in the past as requiring circumstances that are quite out of the ordinary. Frankly, I took issue with the Minister when he treated the word as allowing more latitude than the usual interpretation of “exceptional” would permit. The MoJ press release uses the phrase “truly exceptional” to describe what is required. In that connection, the noble Baroness, Lady Fox, rightly made the point about legislation by press release—a point echoed by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, when he talked about the knee-jerk nature of this type of legislation in particular cases.
We would have far preferred the amendment to permit judges the discretion to depart from the life sentence where the circumstances and the interests of justice required. The Government’s determination to prevent judges exercising discretion, as seen throughout this Bill, is frankly depressing. This is despite Victoria Atkins MP saying in the other place only yesterday, in answer to a question from my right honourable friend Alistair Carmichael MP, that:
“Fundamentally, the judiciary and magistrates should be trusted in their sentencing decisions.”—[Official Report, Commons, 7/12/21; col. 206.]
Frankly, we agree. I made these arguments in Committee in connection with my amendments to the minimum fixed sentence provisions in Clause 101—now Clause 102 —and I will make them again when we come to debate my amendments later on Report.
The Explanatory Note to these provisions asserts that they require a court to impose a life sentence on an offender who is convicted of unlawful and dangerous act manslaughter against an emergency worker. That is misleading. There is no requirement in the proposals that the manslaughter be dangerous, in the sense that there was danger to the life of the victim, as there so obviously was in the Harper case. The requirement for danger in the case of unlawful act manslaughter, on the cases and in the CPS guidelines to prosecutors who apply those cases, it is very limited indeed. It is necessary only that the unlawful act exposed someone—not even necessarily the victim who died—to the risk of “some harm”.
I take a hypothetical case, similar to that mentioned by the noble Viscount, of a bad-tempered 17 year-old suspected by a shopkeeper of shoplifting. The shopkeeper accosts him. A row ensues, which turns into a fight—not serious, but serious enough to draw a passing police officer to come into the shop to intervene. The officer tries to arrest the youth. The youth resists arrest. He throws a punch at the officer—not hard, but plainly an assault on a police officer in the execution of his duty and enough to be obvious to everyone that it could cause some harm. The officer falls backwards and sustains an injury that turns out to be fatal.
All the elements of unlawful manslaughter are there. The guideline sentence would probably be two to four years. The required sentence under these proposals would be life imprisonment. Are these circumstances “exceptional,” as that word is known to the law? No. is the sentence just for that 17 year-old, whose very bad behaviour had such tragic consequences? I would suggest clearly not, when one considers the overall criminality of the offence and the offender. Of course, the death of the victim would significantly aggravate the sentence. That is true for all manslaughter cases. And of course, the fact that the victim was a police officer acting in the course of his duty would be another seriously aggravating factor. But should those circumstances lead to detention for life for a 17 year-old?
The manslaughter excluded from the operation of these provisions is, as the Minister helpfully explained, manslaughter by gross negligence—a very sensible exclusion—or manslaughter mentioned in certain sections of the Homicide Act or the Coroners and Justice Act, which cover diminished responsibility by reason of a recognised mental condition, suicide pacts and loss of control, reducing murder to manslaughter if the specified conditions are met. But that leaves the whole area of unlawful act manslaughter within the provisions, and any such manslaughter of an emergency worker would attract the mandatory life sentence.
The current sentencing guidelines mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile of Berriew, which came into force as recently as 1 November 2018, suggest a range of sentences for manslaughter of between one and 24 years. They divide culpability into four ranges, from A at the top to D at the low end. The factors indicating lower culpability are as follows:
“Death was caused in the course of an unlawful act … which was in defence of self or other(s) (where not amounting to a defence) OR … where there was no intention by the offender to cause any harm and no obvious risk of anything more than minor harm OR … in which the offender played a minor role,”
or where the
“offender’s responsibility was substantially reduced by mental disorder, learning disability or lack of maturity.”
Those factors, or some of them, could quite easily be present in many cases of manslaughter of an emergency worker. So these sentences might—perhaps even often—cause serious injustice.
A further point was alluded to by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. When a life sentence is passed, the release date is ultimately in the hands not of the courts but of the Home Secretary. Any Home Secretary, not just this one, is subject to political pressures. Were a victim, for example, the holder of a Queen’s Police Medal, and there was a campaign to keep the offender in custody on that account, how easy would it be for this or a future Home Secretary to succumb to pressure to keep the offender subject to a life sentence in custody, for far longer than would be just?
We have not sought to put down amendments to these very rushed and very late proposals, because we have no confidence that our doing so would change the course the Government have embarked upon. But I have indicated to the Minister our concerns and I would ask him for an assurance that the Government will keep these sentences under review and, if there comes a time when it is right—and appears right to the Government—to restore discretion to judges in these cases, they will be prepared to act accordingly.
My Lords, I had a problem with this amendment myself but, not being a lawyer, I thought I would leave it to those who are. And, having heard the lawyerly wisdom pouring from your Lordships’ Benches on this amendment, I am astonished that there has not been an attempt to block the amendment. It is the only power we have to stop this Government overreaching. I am utterly disappointed and I deeply regret that I did not get more involved. I just hope the Minister actually listens to these very eminent views in your Lordships’ House and understands that this is not a smart move. I understand the public optics are very attractive, but, really, it just sounds foolish.
My Lords, I stand on these Benches to support, or at least not to oppose, the Government. But I have to say that I am reluctant to go ahead and make this speech, based on the contributions we have just heard. The amendment inserts provisions into the Sentencing Code that require a court to impose a life sentence on an offender convicted of unlawful and dangerous act manslaughter against an emergency worker. As we know, this is known as Harper’s law, and it has been campaigned for by PC Andrew Harper’s widow after he was killed in the line of duty in 2019.
I listened very carefully to the Minister, and he made much play of the word “exceptional”. My noble friend Lord Carlile made the point about the interpretation of the word being fairly narrow in the Court of Appeal. I have to say, in the more “wild west” approach of magistrates’ courts, we interpret “exceptional” quite liberally at times. Having said that, I acknowledge that the Minister did make the point that this excludes those convicted of gross negligence manslaughter and includes only those convicted of unlawful act manslaughter, which I thought was an important point.
As I say, we on this side will support the Government in their amendments. However, I do recognise that some very serious points have been raised in this debate.
My Lords, I am grateful to all those who have contributed and I can start by reassuring the noble Baroness, Lady Jones, that I always listen. We may not always agree, but I certainly always listen. I can also reassure the noble Baroness, Lady Fox of Buckley, that this is not law made by press release, nor is it law in the guise of a political policy statement. We have considered this issue very carefully. Indeed, it is because we have taken time to get the policy right as we see it that the amendment is here now and not earlier—to deal with one of the points made by my noble friend Lord Hailsham.
We believe this is the right approach to these circumstances. Of course, I carefully read the judgments in the Harper case, in particular the Court of Appeal judgment. I hope it goes without saying that, standing at this Dispatch Box, I have great respect for that court, as indeed I do for all courts. But that does not mean that Parliament is unable to or should be cautious to legislate in the area of sentencing, or should be prevented or inhibited from doing so. We are entitled to do so, and in this case, we ought to.
I will pick up on a couple of the points made by contributors. First, on exceptional circumstances, I seem to be being criticised both for refusing to define “exceptional circumstances” and for putting it too broadly. I deliberately did not gloss or parse the phrase. “Exceptional circumstances” is a phrase used in other legislation, for example the Sentencing Act 2020 and the Firearms Act 1968. We believe it is best to leave it to the courts to interpret and apply that phrase, and not to parse or gloss it from the Dispatch Box.
The noble Lord, Lord Marks, picked up on the word “totally”, which appears, as he said, in a press release form the Ministry of Justice. That shows the importance of leaving it to the words in the statute and not looking at anything else when the courts interpret those words.
An example was given of an off-duty police officer intervening in a fight in a pub. It is right to say that there is no requirement for the offender to know that the victim is an emergency worker acting as such. We stand by that. That is already the approach in other legislation passed by Parliament—for example, the Assaults on Emergency Workers Act 2018. There is no requirement in that Act, either, for the defendant to know that the victim is an emergency worker, although in most cases that will be apparent to the defendant.
For the unlawful act of manslaughter offence to apply in this case, the defendant must have been committing a criminal offence. If the actions of someone are such that they not only commit a criminal offence, but their actions further result in the death of an emergency worker who may be attempting to relieve that very situation, the Government believe the behaviour warrants a life sentence.
I come now to what we mean by a life sentence. I have already dealt with the “exceptional circumstances” point, so I turn to the point on life sentences raised first by my noble friend Lord Hailsham—regarding tariffs—and then more directly by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick. When a person is sentenced to a life term and not a whole life term, the judge will set out what the tariff is. Then it is a matter for the Parole Board to determine release, and the person will be under a life licence thereafter.
These provisions do nothing to circumscribe the ability of the trial judge to impose whatever tariff they think is appropriate in the circumstances. If the trial judge thinks a lower tariff is appropriate—the word “modest” was used by my noble friend—no doubt that is what they will impose. As in the case of murder, we believe the offence warrants a life sentence with a tariff and the consequences therewith.
I hear the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Pannick, that a life sentence does not normally mean that the person stays in prison for their whole life. That is the case across a swathe of criminal law, and maybe on a future occasion the House can decide whether that is an appropriate way to continue. Given that that is our sentencing structure—which I think is correct—it is also appropriate in this case.
I think the debate comes down to whether one accepts that the example given by my noble friend Lord Hailsham of the off-duty officer in civilian clothes who intervenes in a fight—
I am grateful to the Minister for giving way. One point he has not dealt with, as I understand it, is why the Sentencing Council and sentencing guidelines are not seen as an adequate and flexible mechanism for dealing with cases of this kind. We need a reasoned explanation for the rejection of that proposition.
The reasoned explanation is that the Government believe that this is an offence which should be marked by a life sentence—a mandatory life sentence. The amount of time the person serves can be set by the judge in a tariff.
The Minister has just given the game away by his slip of the tongue. He said it is a case which should be marked by “a life sentence”, and then he said, “a mandatory life sentence”. He was right before he made the slip of the tongue. That is exactly what judges can do and exactly what the Sentencing Council can deal with. I am afraid that I do not accept that his explanation so far has been reasoned.
We are now having precisely the opposite debate to the one we had in Committee. In Committee, when someone said to me—I think it was the noble Baroness, Lady Jones—“this is a mandatory sentence” and I said, “but there are exceptions”, it was said to me, “no, it is mandatory”. Now, when I am trying to point out that it is not mandatory, in the sense that it is a mandatory life sentence but it does not mean you serve life in prison, that is said to be a slip of the tongue. I absolutely meant what I said: this provision sets out a mandatory life sentence, because the Government believe that is the right way to mark society’s horror at the killing of emergency workers, in the same way that we do for murder.
However, with murder, and in this case, the trial judge will have the ability to set an appropriate tariff. Also, unlike with murder, the trial judge can, in exceptional circumstances, depart from the sentence entirely, something which society and Parliament does not enable a trial judge to do in any murder case. With great respect to the noble Lord—
I am sorry to interrupt again, but the Minister has said something completely untenable. He said that under “exceptional circumstances”, the judge has the power to depart from the sentence entirely. That is absolutely not the case. If the sentencing guidelines in front of any judge sitting in a criminal court lead to the conclusion that the starting point for the sentencing process is a life sentence, but there are circumstances at which different levels can be set, they will operate on that basis. This provision is unnecessary if we trust the judges. The Government are telling us, on the basis of belief, as the Minister said—which I do not necessarily regard as reasoned—that they do not trust judges to pass appropriate sentences in these cases, on the basis of one or two instances, when there is a perfectly good living instrument for dealing with this.
My Lords, with genuine respect, the noble Lord is wrong if he thinks that that is what I have said. Let me be clear: if there are exceptional circumstances, the judge is entitled to depart from the sentence. In other words, the judge does not have to impose the life sentence. The judge will then decide what sentence to impose. With the greatest respect, I was right to say that if there are exceptional circumstances, the life sentence does not apply. If there are no exceptional circumstances, the life sentence does apply, and the judge will then set a relevant tariff.
But does not all of this imply that we are really not serving any purpose by the new clause, partly because of the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, and also the point conceded very fairly by the Minister to the effect that the trial judge can impose in reality a very low tariff? So the question is, what is the point?
My Lords, I have explained that. There is a difference between being given a life sentence with a 10-year tariff and being given a sentence of 10 years. That is a point that we all accept in the case of murder.
That is true, too, but the case of murder arises from the original bargain made with Parliament and the country at the time when capital punishment was abolished. That does not apply as an argument to what we are doing now.
My noble friend is absolutely right to say that that is the origin of the life sentence for murder. It was a deal done, if I can put it in those respectful terms, but we have life sentences elsewhere in our legislation as well. The point that I was seeking to answer—and, with great respect, I think I have answered it—was, as I understood it when it was put against me: what is the difference if the trial judge is going to give a tariff of x years, why not just have a sentence of x years? However, there is a difference, as we all recognise, between a life sentence with a tariff of x years and a sentence of x years. We can have a debate—
My Lords, does the Minister not run the risk of ending up, in the case of the pub brawl, with the offender being sentenced to life but with only a four-year tariff?
I would not use the word “risk” at all. On the one hand, I am being charged with not trusting the judges and, on the other, giving the judges too much discretion. I am entirely happy with a trial judge having the ability to set an appropriate tariff in these cases, as trial judges do in all cases of murder. Whether the tariff given is four, 10, 15, 20 or 30 years is entirely a matter for the judge. I am entirely happy to trust the judge. However, it is absolutely right for Parliament to say that, in these cases, where somebody has committed an unlawful act that has led to the death of an emergency worker who was acting as such, a life sentence ought to be the correct response from the court. Two points arise. First, with great respect to the noble Lord, Lord Carlile, if there are exceptional circumstances, that sentence does not apply at all. Secondly, if it applies, the judge can impose a tariff.
Forgive me—and I thank the Minister—but perhaps I might ask him whether it is reasonable that a 16 or 17 year-old should be on lifetime licence when alternatively he might get the time of detention plus another three or four years. A lifetime licence means that he is under the control of probation officers from the age of 16 for the rest of his natural life.
My Lords, we have considered this. We restricted the new sentence to 16 and 17 year-olds to ensure that only older children who are convicted of this serious offence are given a mandatory life sentence, unless there are exceptional circumstances that mean it is not justified. Of course, exceptional circumstances are not just those relating to the offence but those relating to the offender. There is a precedent for this age distinction. The Criminal Justice and Courts Act 2015 also uses the age of 16 as a threshold to begin applying minimum sentences for knife-crime offences. So we have considered the point made by the noble and learned Baroness.
I am so sorry, but I do not understand why we are arguing about this. We are all dissatisfied with what the Government are doing, yet none of us can stop it. It is all angels dancing on the head of a pin, as far as I can see. I am really distressed at this and wish that I had spoken to more people and perhaps got some others onside. The Government are making a mistake and that is what the Minister should hear from this debate.
I am not a lawyer, I am very pleased to say—I am just a simple sailor. However, it seems from the complexity of the debate that this is quite a significant amendment that was brought in quite late. I find that rather worrying, because the feeling around the House is that if there were a vote on this, it might well not pass; I think it would fail. That is a worrying position to be in and I do not know how we can resolve that. It is not really very satisfactory.
I was not going to say anything, but I am, I think, the only former police officer in the Chamber. Is the Minister saying that he would be satisfied if somebody were sent to prison for four years for killing a police officer on duty in these circumstances? That seems to be what the noble and learned Lord is saying. In which case, what is the point?
I know it is bad form, but perhaps I can answer in reverse order. I certainly was not saying that. Indeed, the point that I was trying to make was that I was not going to get into what an appropriate tariff would be in any case; I regard that as absolutely a matter for the trial judge. It is not helpful for trial judges or indeed anybody else for Ministers on their feet to hypothesise as to what they might think an appropriate tariff would be in a particular case. The tariff is entirely a matter for the trial judge, who will decide it in the way in which they decide tariffs in other cases of life sentences as well.
To the noble and gallant Lord—forgive me, I am not sure whether I have that right; he is proud not to be a lawyer, a point with which I sympathise—I say that we brought in this amendment as soon as we had thought about the policy and, we think, got it right. When we were thinking about this issue, there were there were a number of points in the policy that required very careful consideration. That took time and that is why it is happening now. I cannot say any more than that.
I was going to acknowledge another point made, but I think I have already responded.
I apologise for not being here at the outset, but I have listened very carefully to what has been said and it seems to me that it would be wrong simply to steamroller this amendment through now when virtually everyone who has spoken has done so very eloquently against it. Would it be possible to take it away, talk to learned Members of this House and come back at Third Reading with something that might be more acceptable ?
Like the noble Baroness, Lady Lister, I, too, apologise for not being here at the outset when my noble friend Lord Hailsham began. I know that next week we are going to talk about IPPs. That subject carries with it all the problems that this subject will bring with it. We now know that IPPs went wrong and have created injustices, and that there are people who have IPPs but short tariffs well past their expiry date and who are still in prison 10 or 15 years after their sentencing. Could we not learn the lessons from the IPP problem and, in order to help us learn those lessons, postpone a decision on this clause until after we have had the IPP debate, so that together we can draw a united conclusion about how best to move forward with justice?
My Lords, the joys of the IPP debate are ahead of us. That raises very different points. The IPP sentence has different characteristics and the problems that it has given rise to are entirely different. I listened very carefully to the debate in Committee on IPPs, when a number of noble and noble and learned Lords expressed disquiet and tabled various amendments. They will know that I have had conversations with them about it. So I am entirely alive to the IPP issue, but that is completely separate from this issue. We consider that this measure is an appropriate response to this form of offending.
The Minister listened very carefully to the debate in Committee on IPP. Some of us have read that and thought about it a lot since then. The problem is that noble Lords have not had the opportunity to listen very carefully to the debate on this particular amendment: that is the problem, in a way. It is not a straightforward amendment. I learned of it by hearing about it via the media and thought it could not possibly be being brought forward in relation to this Bill; I actually explained to people that they did not understand the way in which legislation was made, and that that was just something that the media said. Then, I realised that it was happening.
The Minister was very good and answered some of my queries and made sure that I did not fight any straw men when I went to him with particular arguments. He was very considerate in answering them. However, I do not think that the House has had the chance to consider this amendment. It is not without parallel to the IPP, inasmuch as it is a controversial sentencing change that has very big implications. We know that, because in the press release and the media reports, it was said that this would change everything. That is how it was announced: it was proclaimed as something that would change everything. Therefore, if it is going to change everything, people in this House should have a chance to debate it more thoroughly than now, so it is reasonable to ask if it could be brought forward later on in the Bill in order for some consideration to be given.
I do not know which of the no-doubt multifarious press releases the noble Baroness read, but it was clear in the ones that I saw that the matter was going to be brought back here. This amendment was, I understand, tabled on 1 December, so the issue has been live. I am very happy to take any further interventions. That was probably not a good idea.
My Lords, I cannot resist the temptation. Would the Minister be prepared to express some uncertainty about the “exceptional” rule? If he expressed that uncertainty, it would mean that a Third Reading amendment to the noble Lord’s amendment would be acceptable.
My Lords, I am not quite sure what I am being asked to accept, but I do not have any uncertainty as to what “exceptional circumstances” is. It is a phrase used in this legislation; it is used in other legislation; it is a phrase that is well known to the courts. It is a phrase that they are perfectly able to deal with.
The relevance of IPP sentences to this debate is that, when IPP sentences were introduced, rather similar speeches were made from the Front Bench to the one that the Minister is making tonight. I know his style his different, but the fact remains that it was a disaster and a scandal. It developed in ways in which all those who introduced it did not anticipate, and now concede was wrong, but they had not fully understood at the time what the consequences were. This has all those hallmarks about it.
As I said, I am very alive to the IPP issues, as the noble Lord knows; but the IPP issue and the IPP sentence was a novel sentence which did things that other sentences did not do. Indeed, that is why it was brought in. The shape of this sentence, however, is not novel. It is the application to this particular offence that is new. With the greatest of respect, therefore, I disagree with the comparison to IPP sentences, which were themselves novel.
I hope that I have set out the government position clearly and fairly—
My Lords, the noble Lord started his contribution to this debate by saying that he was listening. Surely, he has heard from the House that the House is not content to allow this amendment to pass at this stage. Surely, the only reasonable thing to do in these circumstances—because nobody wants to divide on this issue here and now—is for the Minister to say that he will take it away and bring it back at Third Reading once noble Lords have had a chance to discuss the issue with him between now and Third Reading.
As I hope the House knows from this Bill and plenty of other Bills, I am very happy to discuss issues with anyone at any time. However, points of principle have been made, and points of principle have been answered by me as clearly and cogently as I am able to do. I think that the appropriate thing to do—relative newcomer as I am to this House—is that the Question on the amendment should be put. If people want to—
My Lords, I have another suggestion for the noble Lord, as we can all see that he is in a difficult situation. The Government have put forward their protest amendments, which are coming at the latter stage of Report. There is nothing to stop the Government from withdrawing this amendment now and bringing it back at the latter stage of Report. It will give everyone time to consider their position and the Government would not lose time. They could do it via Third Reading, or they could do it the way I am suggesting now. I hope that the Minister will consider that suggestion constructively.
I am sorry to make a second intervention before the Minister has had a chance to answer the first. The point I wanted to make to the House and for the Minister’s consideration is really a very similar one. It seems to me that the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord West, is a viable one and the suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is also a viable one. The noble Lord mentioned listening. We all know that he does listen and that he is prepared to listen. That listening generally involves talking and having meetings about amendments and proposals. This is a government amendment, and the Minister is quite right to point out that it was publicised on 1 December. That was one week ago for an important change in the law. The suggestion of the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, allows this to be considered and discussed with noble Lords about the House during the rest of Report, and it could come back in January, because we have this very long period due to the Christmas break. May I suggest that that is the fair and sensible way to proceed, rather than insisting on putting the Question on it tonight, landing the House with an unexpected vote if there were to be a vote, and failing to discuss it with noble Lords around the House in the meantime, which could quite easily be done?
My Lords, I am not convinced that the noble Lord, Lord Ponsonby, is correct because if we delay the amendment, we would be putting it at the back of the Bill, but it has to be in this position in the Bill. Therefore, I think we should leave it until Third Reading rather than delay it.
My Lords, I am not going to try to adjudicate on that point, which seems to be a point of procedure, better left to those who know more about it than I do. I have listened very carefully to the debate, and points of principle have been raised. With genuine respect, however, I believe that I have set out the Government’s position on those points of principle. Kicking the can down the road—attractive as that can sometimes appear—will not achieve anything substantive.
This is pretty shocking. There is a lot of support for the principle that the amendment could be so much better if it could be debated. I completely understand the noble Lord’s embarrassment. He does not want to go back to the Ministry of Justice and not have the amendment, but if you want good law, recognising that the Government want this, there is so much that could be discussed to make this provision better.
The noble Baroness, Lady Williams, agreed without any pressure on two things in relation to the additional protest measures. First, she agreed that they should come at the end of Committee and secondly, she did not move them in Committee because of the exact problem that has arisen in this case. She indicates the right way forward. We would greatly appreciate in the House if the noble Lord would show us the same courtesy that the noble Baroness, Lady Williams, showed us.
I am very happy to be accused of all sorts of things, but I hope that nobody in this House believes that I act either towards it or towards any of its Members with discourtesy. We may have disagreements, but they are always, I hope, courteous. I am not in the least embarrassed about going back to the Ministry of Justice with or without anything. My task, as I see it, is to set out the Government’s position in this House and then the House has to take a view.
With great respect to the noble and learned Lord, I do not accept that this is a question of tweaking the provision or making it better. The points that have been put to me are really points of principle—people do not agree with this at all, while saying, “Of course we agree.” The matter ought to be presented to the House and dealt with by it today.
Following on from the remarks of the noble and learned Lord, Lord Falconer, can the Government agree to the House being adjourned for half an hour or so, so that there can be a discussion between the usual channels and between the groups in the House as to how this should continue? We would be very grateful and it would be seen as a matter of utmost but necessary courtesy.
I have an alternative suggestion; perhaps the clerk can tell us whether it is legal. Is there anything to stop any of us calling for a vote once—
No. We can.
Then if the Minister puts the Question, I will call for a vote.
Any Member of the House can call a vote but, if the Minister is not willing to accede to any of the suggestions that have been made, it is the obligation of the Front Benches to indicate that they are so dissatisfied, in the light of all the debate and the fact that we have only had a week to consider this, that they will divide the House. If they were so to indicate, that might impose a bit more pressure on the Minister.
In the last week, as is my wont, I have had discussions with a number of Members of this House on this matter. Any Member of the House knows that my door is always open to them, metaphorically and often literally. All the discussions that I have had on this amendment have been ones that I have reached out to others to have. Nobody has knocked on my door. In those circumstances, I cannot say that we will adjourn. If I am told differently, that will be for others to decide. At the moment, I will ask the House to vote on my amendment.
My Lords, I hate to intervene on my noble friend but I will formally move that the House be adjourned for one hour.
My Lords, I ask the House to vote on my amendment.
That the House do adjourn for one hour.
I beg to move.
My Lords, I want to put it on record that in the last week, when this amendment has been tabled, all the engagement I have had on this matter I have facilitated, and I have reached out to. Not a single Member of this House has reached out to me about this amendment. I beg to move the amendment.