MPs question 'political' murder sentences

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The Independent Online

Home Affairs Correspondent

The Home Secretary should no longer decide if, or when, murderers like Myra Hindley should be freed, according to an influential committee of MPs.

The Conservative-dominated Home Affairs Select Committee said Michael Howard might be in a better position to respond to "public will" in high- profile cases, but "public opinion is not the surest guide in making such a decision".

The MPs said it was wrong in principle for a politician to play a role in what should be a matter for the judges. Mr Howard has made no secret of the fact that he takes public acceptability of release into account before reaching a decision.

But the MPs disappointed peers, lawyers and senior judges by failing to recommend abolishing the mandatory life sentence for murder, thus giving the judges the power to fix sentences for murderers. "Abolishing the mandatory life sentence for murder would risk sending a signal to the public at large that causing the death of another person was in some way less seriously regarded than previously," they said.

The issue of who decides how long murderers should spend in prison has long been the source of heated debate, as campaigners demand the release of criminals such as the Moors murderer Hindley, who has now served nearly 30 years. The European Court of Human Rights has already abolished the Home Secretary's role in deciding when to release prisoners serving "discretionary" life sentences for offences such as rape or manslaughter.

The mandatory sentence was brought in to reflect public intolerance of murder, when capital punishment was abolished in 1965. At present, anyone convicted of murder must receive a life sentence. The trial judge then makes a suggestion on the minimum period the killer should serve, known as the "tariff". This, with the views of the Lord Chief Justice, is passed to the Home Secretary who decides the term a murderer must serve to satisfy the demands of "retribution and deterrence".

A committee of peers, and an independent committee headed by Lord Lane, the former Lord Chief Justice, have demanded that the compulsory life sentence for murder be abolished. They concluded that the mandatory penalty fails to allow for varying degrees of wickedness.

The MPs disputed claims that it was inflexible saying that tariffs can be set as low as three years up to natural life - thus reflecting the heinousness of each crime. Last year 15 killers, including Myra Hindley were told they would never leave prison alive. The average length of a mandatory life sentence is about 14 years.

However, the MPs called for more clarity and openness in the system, suggesting that murderers, victims families and the courts are informed of the tariffs - and recommending that an appeal system be set up so that either the defendant or the prosecution could challenge it.

Paul Cavadino, chairman of the penal affairs consortium, said ending the Secretary of State's power to decide whenand if murderers should be set free would remove "one of the most objectionable features of the mandatory life sentence".

The committee said its findings were "preliminary" and it is to call further evidence before making final recommendations next year.

t Murder: The Mandatory Life Sentence; HMSO; pounds 12.15.