Although Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, is known to be sympathetic to arguments that some categories of murder deserve mercy, he believes the public would perceive any leniency as going soft at a time when violent crime is on the increase. Many people also still favour the death penalty.
When he meets Lord Nathan, the independent peer who chaired a 1989 select committee recommending abolition of mandatory life sentences, Mr Clarke is likely to tell him change is not a priority.
Nevertheless, the fact that he may at some future stage consider the issue is in marked contrast to some of his predecessors. When peers last year embarrassed the Government, by trying to amend the Criminal Justice Bill to incorporate a clause giving discretion over murder sentences, Lord Waddington, a former home secretary said: 'All the wrong signals would go out . . . Murders do vary in their heinousness. But most people do look on the taking of another's life as uniquely horrible.'
Lord Nathan's view, which is known to be shared by many of the senior judiciary, is that the present system of automatic life sentences has brought the law into disrepute since it overlooks the varying degrees of seriousness of murder.
The issue was put back on the agenda again this week, when Kiranjit Ahluwalia, who killed her husband after 10 years of brutality, began her appeal against her murder conviction and life sentence. Lord Taylor, the Lord Chief Justice, indicated during that hearing that the appeal may not have been necessary if the court could have reflected some sympathy in its sentence.Reuse content