Lords rebel over life sentences

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The Government was yesterday shaken by defeat when the Lords voted to end the secrecy surrounding the mandatory life sentence for murder.

By 142 votes to 126 the peers backed calls from Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, and Lord Ackner, a former Law Lord, for convicted murderers to be told in open court the judge's recommended minimum sentence and for them to have a formal right of appeal against it.

The Government's defeat is seen as a further indication of the influence of the senior judiciary in the Lords - they were one of the main driving forces behind opposition to the controversial changes to the criminal injuries compensation scheme, which the Home Secretary was ultimately forced to amend.

Currently those convicted of murder automatically receive a life sentence.

The trial judge and the Lord Chief Justice make recommendations in private to the Home Secretary about how long they think the murderer should actually serve, and the final sentence or "tariff" is set by him.

Both Lord Taylor and Lord Ackner insisted that their amendment to the Criminal Appeal Bill would not affect the right of the Home Secretary to set the final sentences.

It is expected that Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, will seek to reverse the defeat when the Bill returns to the Commons before the summer recess next month.