Leading Article: Life for murder is not always right

Click to follow
MICHAEL HOWARD cannot be allowed to get away with it. Just a few hours after the publication of a report - from a committee chaired by Lord Lane - that called for the abolition of mandatory life sentences for murder, the Home Secretary dismissed it, saying that murder was a unique offence and: 'I am not persuaded by anything I have so far heard.' That was not just arrogant and rude, but suggested he had not yet read it. He would have been wiser and politer to have said he would give it careful consideration.

No one who puts the interests of justice above those of party politics and career could argue with the logic of the case laid out in Lord Lane's report. Mr Howard's reactions suggest that, like most other recent home secretaries, he lacks the courage to back a reform that might reduce his own popularity.

Yet even those most convinced that drastic steps are needed to stop the rise of violent crime can surely distinguish between a killing resulting from domestic tensions (the commonest cause) and the cold-blooded murder of a policeman by an armed robber or terrorist. As the Royal Commission on Capital Punishment pointed out in 1953: 'There is perhaps no single class of offences that varies so widely both in character and in culpability as the class comprising those which may fall within the comprehensive common law definition of murder.' Yet all those convicted of murder, even those who had no intention of killing, must be given a life sentence as the law stands. The requirement is a hangover from the Act abolishing the death penalty in 1965, under which the death sentence was replaced by a mandatory sentence of imprisonment for all types of murder.

The actual term that convicted murderers must serve is determined not by the trial judge but by the Home Secretary: influenced it may be by the judge's recommendations and those of the Lord Chief Justice, but no doubt also by civil servants and personal prejudices. It consists of two main parts: the so- called 'tariff', satisfying the demands of retribution and deterrence, and any further addition required for the safety of the public. Lord Lane deplores not just the secrecy in which this is done, but the assumption by the executive of a plainly judicial function.

He particularly criticises Mr Howard's addition this summer of a further criterion: that release would not be 'acceptable to the public', in which case he claims the right to continue the prisoner's detention. Mr Howard should be pressed to drop this nakedly political interference - and to give Lord Lane's report the attention it deserves.