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Life Prisoners: Release Procedures

6.41 p.m.

The Earl of Longford rose to ask Her Majesty's Government whether, in the light of recent comments by the Lord Chief Justice, they will consider applying the same procedure to the release of mandatory life prisoners as is applied to discretionary life prisoners.

The noble Earl said: My Lords, I begin by welcoming the distinguished speakers who are to follow me in the debate. I am only sorry that each of them will have only nine minutes in which to speak. I am allowed 10 minutes but I shall not use those 10 minutes in order to leave a little margin for the other orators. I am particularly pleased that the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn is honouring us by making his maiden speech tonight. I believe that he will bring us good news from the Synod. The Home Secretary is his "constituent" and therefore I think we can regard him as the Home Secretary's spiritual adviser, or even director. I hope that the Home Secretary will pay close attention, to say the least, to what his spiritual director says tonight.

I take my text from some recent remarks made by the noble and learned Lord the Lord Chief Justice at the end of an appeal case concerning Myra Hindley. I pass over his actual judgment and refer to his final comments. He said that he left the case with a certain uneasiness because he felt that the deepest issues underlying the situation had not been discussed and were not before the court. He was referring to the whole question of whether the Home Secretary should be allowed to make the final decision about the length of time that mandatory life prisoners spend in prison. He hinted that that ought to

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be debated. He appeared to desire an urgent debate on the issue of whether mandatory life prisoners should still be left to the mercy of the Home Secretary, or whether they should be placed on the same footing as discretionary life prisoners where the final decision rests with the judiciary. That is the issue I raise tonight. I realise from the quality of the speakers that it is one which interests many of your Lordships.

The real arguments against leaving such matters to the decision of the Home Secretary are two. The first is one of principle and the other is one of practice. The matter of principle concerns whether any Home Secretary, however enlightened--we know that the present Home Secretary is a good Christian socialist--should be placed in the position where he may have to choose between what is right and what appeals to the multitude. That is the present situation. If I draw on the case of Myra Hindley it is not because she is the only person convicted of murder I have ever met; I have met many. Off and on I visit half a dozen "lifers" at the moment. However, I take that one case out of the 3,000 mandatory "lifers". I believe that there are 400 or 500 discretionary "lifers". I return again to the remarks made by the noble and leaned Lord the Lord Chief Justice as regards Myra Hindley. He pointed out that her counsel had argued that she would never receive a fair trial because of the emotion that had been stirred up against her by the tabloid press and others. Was that an unreasonable contention in that case, and would it be unreasonable in other cases? What would be the situation of the Home Secretary if he had to consider what kind of woman she is?

The other day a taxi driver drove me home after I had visited a prison. He did not know that I knew Myra Hindley and he confided in me that he had four children and if "that woman", as he called her, came out of prison he would fear for his children. He showed that amount of hysteria about a middle-aged lady who has been in prison for 31 years. Where does that hysteria come from? To some extent it comes from politicians in the background, but primarily it stems from the tabloid press. The Sun newspaper has played a leading and discreditable part in generating that hysteria. Not long ago the Sun had a headline which ran, "Myra Hindley, the most evil woman who ever lived". We in the House of Lords may say that no one takes the Sun newspaper seriously. I read it every day but I think I am the only person here who does. Noble Lords may brush it aside and decide they need not bother with it. However, when I asked the taxi driver where he got his information from he told me it was from the Sun newspaper. As a result he told me that he feared for the life of his children if Myra Hindley were to leave prison. That is what we have to cope with and that is what the Home Secretary has to cope with.

If the Home Secretary were to tell his Cabinet colleagues that he was thinking of giving Myra Hindley a chance, they may reply, "That might suit your conscience, but what about our careers and our party. Would it suit the party?" It would be difficult for a Home Secretary to act in that way. It is frequently said that no Home Secretary would ever dare to let her out. I hope that is not true but it is frequently said. The Home

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Secretary can ignore the good opinion of her held by old-fashioned "do gooders" like me. However, even if he ignores me and people like me, a succession of priests have known her well. Perhaps people may wonder whether she is ministered to by Catholic priests. She is a Catholic. However, there is also the opinion of the Reverend Peter Timms who is a former governor of Maidstone Prison and is now a Methodist minister. I must refer to one recent opinion of a Catholic priest who ministered to Myra Hindley for four years in Cookham Wood. He said that he found her to be sensitive, caring, intelligent and polite. There is that opinion on the one hand, but on the other hand there is the opinion of the Sun newspaper.

That is the situation today and that is what the Home Secretary is faced with. People may ask whether the Home Secretary would want to give up this responsibility we are discussing. I should have thought that he might be quite pleased to be rid of it. However, that is neither here nor there. Therefore there is the argument that we should take such a decision away from someone who, to some extent, is bound to be at the mercy of popular emotion.

The other argument concerns practice and how one arranges matters. At the present time a discretionary life prisoner can make an application to the Parole Board and can be represented before it and can, of course, appear in person. The decision of the Parole Board, with a judge presiding, is final. If the Parole Board decides that a prisoner should be released, that prisoner is released. That is the existing machinery. That is much fairer than the present arrangements for Myra Hindley. She or her lawyers have to make representations in writing to the Home Office and a reply is given without providing any real reasons, unless you call some reference to deterrence and retribution a reason. That is the difference between the machinery in the two cases. I do not say that the present arrangements for discretionary life prisoners are perfect. I regularly visit two discretionary life prisoners who find the arrangements unsatisfactory. If one seeks to apply the arrangements to 3,000 prisoners instead of 400 or 500, they need modification. I only say that in principle it is correct that the decision should be removed from someone who is at the mercy of popular emotion. Arrangements should be made to give the prisoner proper representation before a tribunal whose decision would be binding.

I hope that other speakers will bring their own expert knowledge to bear in different ways. Although I cannot expect a positive answer today, I hope that we shall at least hear from the Government that they are giving the matter careful attention.

6.50 p.m.

The Lord Bishop of Blackburn: My Lords, it is with some trepidation that I speak for the first time in your Lordships' House in this debate on a sensitive matter which provokes strong responses in people of opposing views. I do so not because I am told that the diocese of Blackburn contains more prisons than any other in the northern province, nor--despite the remarks of the noble Earl, Lord Longford--because the Home Secretary is

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the much respected Member for Blackburn in another place. My concern goes back over 30 years to the time when I was curate of the parish of St. Anne in Wandsworth. Three weeks before my ordination, the parish had no accommodation for its new curate. Parishes behaved like that in those days. So I ended up with a room in the gatehouse of Wandsworth prison. Every day as I sat at my desk I looked out on prisoners exercising in the yard below. Later, as a relief chaplain in that prison, I got to know some of them including a number serving life sentences. That experience has never left me.

Mandatory life prisoners and their release was the subject of a debate in the General Synod of the Church of England in July 1995. It was on the motion from the Diocese of Sheffield,

    "That this Synod recognises that the system of mandatory life sentence gives rise to many injustices and therefore recommends that the penalty for murder should be a maximum of imprisonment for life".

The motion was carried by a massive 317 votes for to only one vote cast against. The debate, as I remember it, was both sombre and serious. Members of the Prison Service, the Probation Service and the judiciary all took part. There was a widespread recognition of the pressures facing the Home Secretary in relation to the sentence for murder. Synod members felt that the present system of mandatory life sentence for murder led to injustice because it was not possible for the sentence to be fitted in individual cases to the particular crime. Nor was the Synod happy with a situation in which the length of the custodial sentence is determined by the exercise of the Home Secretary's discretion rather than by a judicial decision in open court.

In the light of that debate, and in response to it, in 1995 the then Home Secretary said that retribution, deterrence and public safety would all be factors to be taken into consideration, but so too would public opinion. The real concern that that raises is that in principle, even if not in practice, it could lead, as we have heard from the noble Earl, to individual cases becoming vulnerable to the political influence of the day and could be altered with a change of Home Secretary.

The mandatory life sentence for murder is based on the assumption that murder is a crime of such unique gravity that the offender should forfeit his right to freedom for the rest of his life. I believe respectfully that such an assumption is perhaps a fallacy. It arises from divisions between the legal definition of murder and that which lay people believe to be murder. The common law definition of murder embraces a wide range of offences, as I understand it, some of which are truly very grave indeed. But logically, constitutionally, and in jurisprudence, surely the decision on punishment should be made in open court. The judge after trial should be able to pass such sentence as is merited by the facts of the case which have been laid before the court.

The Christian Church has always believed in the importance of human life and its dignity under God who created life in his own image. In that context we look to the prison system not only for deterrence and punishment but also for the rehabilitation of offenders so that they may know the gravity of their offences.

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Sadly, at present, prison does not always help the rehabilitation process and does not allow individual decisions to be considered for individual people. Christ always treated individuals as unique in their own right. As I think back to those men in the prison yard at Wandsworth all those years ago, I am very conscious that the present system of sentencing for murder may be denying to some individuals the proper particular attention that the facts of the case demand.

These are very grave and sensitive matters. But I believe truly that if judges were allowed to have specific powers in the case of murder our judicial system would be the better served for the future.

6.56 p.m.

Lord Rowallan: My Lords, it is my pleasure on behalf of the whole House to congratulate the right reverend Prelate the Bishop of Blackburn on his maiden speech. We have waited for this speech since 1995 when he first entered your Lordships' House. It has been well worth waiting for.

The right reverend Prelate is a Countryside Commissioner as well as a bishop and is keen on the right to roam, although not a member of the Ramblers themselves. He has spoken robustly on the subject, stating about the idiom that an Englishman's home is his castle that, "It is not their castles, brother, that we're talking about. It is their open spaces".

He has also spoken on the subject of my right honourable friend William Hague spending his time in his diocese in a double-bedded room with his then fiancee who is now his wife. He disapproved of that. But he has given his blessing for ITV's new religious series, "Heaven knows", described as the ultimate quiz.

He is a man of many thoughts. In fact he might have been a journalist. But he also possesses a deep religious fervour, and now that he has broken the ice here in your Lordships' House, I trust that we shall hear from him on many more occasions.

I must also thank the noble Earl, Lord Longford, for introducing this most interesting debate. Discretionary life sentences are set by the judiciary, and mandatory life sentences by the Executive. But that has come about only as a result of the abolition of the death penalty. I agree with the right reverend Prelate that it must be right that judges, the judiciary, should decide on the length of a prison sentence. They are on the spot, so to speak.

But it is also important that the judge is given parameters from the Executive within which to work, otherwise sentencing depends on the judge's own moral code. Several judges seem to have had very different views upon the subject of rape--first, second, or even third-time rapes--and on murders. That cannot be right. We must have a better system.

I believe that the whole system is the wrong way round. Judges set the term, and prisoners have time off for good behaviour. Why on earth do we do it that way round? Surely the judge should set the term and then there should be "add-ons" for bad behaviour. A prisoner's behaviour should always be good. That is the purpose of the custodial sentence. The whole idea of

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putting someone into prison is to make them better and to enable them to see the error of their ways and the unacceptability of their behaviour towards the community. So if a judge passes a sentence of 15 years, the public think, "Well, he might be there for 10 years, or it might be seven years". But they do not really know how long it will be.

The transition period would be difficult. But the general public would be happier knowing that if someone receives a sentence of 15 years, that is what they are getting.

As for Myra Hindley, as the Lord Chief Justice said, in a recent extract from his judgment to the Secretary of State:

    "The applicant clearly feels that she is held hostage to public opinion, condemned to pass the rest of her life in prison, although no longer judged a danger to anyone, because of her notoriety and the public obloquy which would fall on any Home Secretary who ordered her release".

I feel sure that when the noble Earl, Lord Longford, says that she is a reformed character, he sincerely believes that; and I honestly believe that an awful lot of other people sincerely believe that. But I also believe that the general public would not let her survive for five minutes outside gaol. She is the most reviled woman in Britain, and she will never be forgotten or forgiven--

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