§ 2.41 p.m.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Why and on what authority Mr. John Witney, who had been sentenced to life imprisonment for participation in the murder of a policeman with a minimum of 30 years' detention prescribed by the trial judge, was released from prison after a substantially shorter period.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, Mr. Witney was released on life licence after almost 25 years in prison on the authority of my right honourable friend the Home Secretary. This was in exercise of his powers under the Criminal Justice Act 1967 following a recommendation which was made by the Parole Board in 1988 and after consultation with the Lord Chief Justice.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that when sentencing the trial judge said:I think it is likely that no Home Secretary regarding the enormity of your crime will ever think fit to show mercy by releasing you on licence. This is one of the cases in which the sentence of imprisonment for life may well be treated as meaning exactly that"?Is my noble friend also aware that the trial judge felt bound to state a figure for a minimum sentence of 30 years? Will he explain why in those circumstances, and in view of the clear views of the trial judge, the man was released five years before the expiry of those 30 years?
My Lords, I understand my noble friend's anxiety. I remind him that the judge's recommendation is not binding. The detention of life 1207 sentence prisoners is determined by the length of time considered necessary to mark the seriousness of the offence and by the risk which release would present to the public. After consultation with the Lord Chief Justice in 1985 the then Home Secretary decided that a distinction could be drawn between Witney, who did not fire any shots, and the other two co-defendants who did. In November 1988 the Parole Board advised that he no longer presented a risk to the public. That is why in February 1989 my right honourable friend decided that Witney could be released after a further two years.
§ Baroness Phillips
My Lords, is the Minister aware that many members of the general public are genuinely disturbed about, first, the light sentences which are being passed; secondly, the fact that some people are not sentenced at all; and thirdly, that people, as this Question shows, are released before the end of their sentence? Is that fair to the police who worked on the case? And is it fair to the rest of us?
My Lords, he was not released before the end of his sentence. He was given a life sentence, and the life sentence continues. The question for the Home Secretary's judgment is how much of that time should be spent in prison. There is anxiety about people who commit these terrible atrocities. I share that anxiety. However, the fact is that my right honourable friend must take advice from the Parole Board. In this case it was considered that Witney was no longer a risk to the public. That is why he was released.
My Lords, I should declare an interest in this Question. I was serving in the Metropolitan Police at the time of the murder of three police officers at Shepherd's Bush. One of the officers, Detective Sergeant Christopher Head, was a personal friend of mine.
I am sure that the Minister will be aware of the disappointment which I feel at his Answer. In saying that, I am sure that I speak for every serving police officer in this country. Will the Minister give an assurance that no others who have been sentenced in this way are likely to be granted early release, particularly the third defendant in the case—Harry Roberts—who was also recommended to serve 30 years?
Does the noble Earl agree that there is a certain element of farce, not in the sentencing procedure but in the way in which matters are interpreted in later years? Last week we discussed the Criminal Justice Bill: we heard arguments on both sides. Some people argue that life imprisonment should mean that; others hold different views. However, if sentences are to be overturned, such as in this case, does the Minister not agree that there is a certain element of farce?
My Lords, I appreciate the anxiety of my noble friend Lord Nelson, considering his personal involvement. Understandably, any person who has had such an involvement is more concerned than those of us who have not had such an experience. I regret that my replies have been disappointing to my noble 1208 friend. I believe that he means that he is disappointed by the early release of Witney. We must bear in mind that the principle of a life sentence, as it is now determined, is that there should be the possibility of release when a person is considered to be safe for release. It was considered in Witney's case that his participation was different from that of the other two. That is why my right honourable friend was advised that release was acceptable. I should point out that he was so advised by the Parole Board in 1985 but that the advice was not accepted at that time.
With regard to the other people to whom my noble friend referred, every case is considered on its own merits. Roberts remains in closed conditions. The next review of his case will be 1992 but there are no grounds to set aside the trial judge's recommendation. With regard to Witney, his sentence is the equivalent of a determinate sentence of around 36 years.
§ Lord Monson
My Lords, does the noble Earl agree that if the Criminal Justice Bill had already become law and if the other place had not thrown out your Lordships' amendment which abolished the necessity of imposing a mandatory life sentence for murder, the trial judge could have achieved his objective by sentencing Mr. Witney to 60 years' imprisonment with the possibility of release after 30 years? If that had happened, there is no way in which he could have been released so soon, except for an urgent medical condition. Therefore, does the Minister agree that those Members of another place who rejected your Lordships' amendment because they wanted to give the impression of being hard on the more heinous forms of murder have shot themselves in the foot?
My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Monson, carries his imagination rather too far. As regards the Criminal Justice Bill, the changes which may take place—and the Bill is still going through Parliament, so we cannot yet tell what will be changed—will not affect mandatory life sentences as proposed at present.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, can my noble friend confirm that this is the first case in which a man involved in the murder of a policeman has been released on licence? Does that change in policy mean that the Parole Board and the Home Office have altered their policy? Will he be frank about that?
My Lords, I do not believe that the Home Office has altered its policy in the slightest. There have been various occasions when people were released early. Other police killers have been released. Witney is the first adult male convicted of the murder of a policeman since 1965, when the death penalty was abolished, to be released.
§ Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge
My Lords, one or two people from this side tend to take a different view from that of the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, and those supporting him. Most of us would like to express our view.
§ Lord Donaldson of Kingsbridge
My Lords, I have been doing this for 22 years; I am sorry to have got it wrong. Is the noble Earl aware that some of us believe that 25 years' imprisonment is a long sentence, though in this case not too long? That somebody is released after 25 years on grounds of no longer being a danger to the public is a good reason for releasing him. I do not believe that the noble Earl has exercised any special privileges in that regard.
My Lords, what the noble Lord, Lord Donaldson, says indicates a variety of views on the subject I can only repeat that it is the Home Secretary's duty—and it is an onerous duty—to decide when such a person should be released. He does not release such people lightly. He has taken advice. The person concerned has been in prison longer than the minimum recommendations laid down by his former right honourable friend Sir Leon Brittan, when he was Home Secretary. I can only repeat that distressing though this case is—and it is—there is a difference between Witney, who did not fire the shots, and the other two who did.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, does my noble friend agree that while there is considerable sympathy and understanding for those serving long sentences in prison that their cases should be reviewed sympathetically, nonetheless there exists unease in the country as a whole that sometimes too much attention is paid to the miscreant and not enough consideration given to either the victim or possible intended victim? Perhaps the Government will bear that it mind.
My Lords, of course we shall bear that in mind. There is no question that when anyone is murdered, release of the prisoner is a matter of prime concern. When it is the murder of a policeman, that concern is even greater. Only this morning I attended the memorial service of one such policeman who was murdered and it was a distressing occasion.