Joint Committee on Human Rights Minutes of Evidence

3. Letter from Rt. Hon. David Blunkett, Home Secretary, to the Chairman


  In response to the judgement of 25 November 2002 in the case of Anderson, in which the House of Lords declared the power of the Home Secretary to fix minimum terms in murder cases to be incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, I announced my intention to legislate this Parliamentary Session to establish a clear set of principles within which the courts would fix minimum terms in the future.

  At second reading of the Criminal Justice Bill on 4 December, I stated my intention to bring forward amendments to the Bill in this regard and to give as much notice as possible of the detail.

  I now enclose a copy of the draft clauses and explanatory notes to accompany them. These proposals are to be announced on 7 May and amendments to the Criminal Justice Bill will be tabled on 13 May for debate on the third day of Report on 20 May.

  The principal objectives of the scheme to be established are:

      —  to provide for minimum terms to be judicially determined;

  —  to provide for release to be determined by the Parole Board;

  —  to take account of the special place of murder in our criminal justice system;

  —  to recognise the seriousness of certain kinds of murders, particulary those involving the killing of children;

  —  to retain Parliamentary accountability in the setting of minimum terms in murder cases;

  —  to be robust and comprehensive;

  —  to provide a clear and fair regime affording adequate rights for offenders while ensuring the primacy of public protection;

  —  to maintain public confidence in the criminal justice system.

In this regard, the amendments to the Bill will provide for the following:

  —  the fixing of minimum terms by trial judges in open court following conviction;

  —  an enhanced role in the sentencing process for prosecution counsel allowing for representations to be made as to the seriousness for the case for sentencing purposes (no statutory provision required);

  —  a right of appeal for the offender;

  —  a mechanism by which the Attorney-General can challenge the minimum term as unduly lenient; and

  —  a set of statutory principles that a court must take into account when sentencing for murder.

  The principles contain three starting points, corresponding to three categories of murder. A whole life term will be the starting point for the most serious kinds of murders, for example the killing of a child following abuction or a terrorist murder. Other very serious cases, such as the murder of a Police officer during the course of his or her duty will have a starting point of 30 years. Most murder will have a starting point of 15 years. The court will choose the appropriate starting point and then adjust it taking into account any aggravating and mitigating circumstances there may be. The principles give examples of aggravating and mitigating factors. If the offender is a juvenile the starting point will always be the 15 year point. Those aged 18, 19 or 20 will be subject to either the 30 year or 15 year starting point but not the whole life starting point.

  It is of paramount importance to ensure that sentences for the most horrendous, shocking crimes reflect the punishment required and give the clearest possible signal to perpetrators that we will not tolerate their presence in our society. Accordingly, I expect these principles to bring about increases in minimum terms for some types of murder. For example, previous policy on setting minimum terms had ensured that murders of Police officers or prison officers, terrorist murders, sexual or sadistic murder of children and murders by firearm in the course of a robbery, attracted tariffs of at least 20 years. Under the new principles the norm for the sexual or sadistic murder of a child will be a whole life term as would that for terrorist murders. For murders of Police or Prison officers, murders committed during the course of a robbery and any murder using a firearm the norm will be 30 years.

  Finally, with regards transitional arrangements, in accordance with the ruling in the case of Anderson, and in seeking to afford the prisoners their rights under Article 6 of the ECHR, those serving an existing minimum term will be offered the opportunity to have this reviewed by the High Court. For those already convicted of murder and awaiting the determination of a minimum term, the amendments create a duty on the part of the Secretary of State to refer these cases to the High Court. In these cases, the reviewing court must take into account the new statory principles and any other relevant guidance.

6 May 2003

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