Howard clings to powers on life sentences

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The Independent Online
The fixing of minimum terms for adult murderers serving mandatory life sentences, and decisions on their release, must remain with the Home Secretary, the Government insisted yesterday.

Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, rejected calls by MPs to abolish his right to decide "tariffs", and whether to release prisoners on licence, saying his role in dealing with adult murderers marked the unique nature of the crime, and should remain.

The Government was responding to Commons Home Affairs Select Committee recommendations in June that while the mandatory life sentence should remain, and that there should be no changes to the definition of murder, the final authority on the tariff - the proportion of sentence reflecting punishment and deterrence - should be the Court of Appeal, and Parole Board lifer panels should decide on release.

The committee reached that view after David Ashby, Conservative MP for Leicestershire North West, voted with Labour members.

Mr Howard said yesterday that the Government "would not lightly disagree" with the committee's conclusions. But he insisted the move would reduce public confidence in the criminal justice system, prevent direct accountability to Parliament for decisions on tariff and release, limit the considerations made when reaching those decisions, and signal that murder was no longer viewed as a uniquely heinous crime.

He added: "I have made it clear, like my predecessors, that those responsible for the worst sort of murder, including terrorists, the murders of police and prison officers, sexual and sadistic murderers of children and those who use firearms in the course of robbery, will normally serve at least 20 years in prison.

''Many will serve longer than that and some will never be released."

The response comes in the wake of the Court of Appeal's ruling that Mr Howard wrongly exercised his discretion to increase the tariff to be served by the child murderers of the toddler James Bulger, and persistent calls from rights organisations and the judiciary for murder to be punishable by the discretionary life sentence, which would give courts more freedom to tailor sentences to the circumstances of the crime.

Following a European Court of Human Rights ruling in 1990, the Home Secretary has already lost his powers to decide on the release of discretionary life prisoners - those jailed for serious offences other than murder, such as manslaughter or rape - once they are assessed as being no further risk to society. But Mr Howard is determined to resist any further erosion of his powers.

Nor is it likely that a Labour government would make radical changes to the overall regime governing adult killers.

Under the current system, the Home Secretary can alter tariffs recommended by trial judges and the Lord Chief Justice. Likewise, he can reject parole board recommendations for the release of mandatory lifers in some cases; the Law Lords have ruled that "broader considerations of a public character" can be taken into account at that stage.

Yesterday's response said: "The Home Secretary is himself in a unique position. No other authority, either judicial or independent, can be held directly accountable to Parliament for the safety of the public, and for the effectiveness of, and public accountability in, the criminal justice system."

The Government has also rejected the committee's suggestions that victims' relatives be given the right to nominate a legal representative to attend life panel hearings, and for the tariff recommended by the trial judge to be publicly declared in open court.