Below is the text of the speech made by David Mellor, the then Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, in the House of Commons on 29 January 1986.
I do understand the very great sense of commitment that my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridgeshire, South-West (Sir A. Grant) feels about this sad case, and I am most grateful to him for the acknowledgement he has made of the exceptional treatment this case has received in the Home Office, details of which I shall be happy to put on the record this evening.
As he has indicated, my hon. Friend has taken a personal interest in the case of this unfortunate woman, and he has written to me about it on several occasions. I have also received numerous other representations on Mrs. Megginson’s behalf. As my hon. Friend has said, it is an unusual case. In September 1983, some two years and four months ago, at the Central Criminal Court, Mrs. Megginson, who was then aged 62 was convicted of the murder of her 79-year-old co-habitee. Although the offence had taken place in the south of France, it was justiciable here by virtue of the Offences against the Person Act 1861. The relationship between the couple was of long standing but, in 1980 or 1981, Mrs. Megginson’s co-habitee started an association with a younger French woman. Matters came to a head in October 1982 and Mrs. Megginson killed him by striking him at least three times with a champagne bottle. She immediately returned to this country and confessed to the killing.
At her trial, Mrs. Megginson invited the jury to convict her of the lesser offence of manslaughter because, first, when she struck her co-habitee she did not intend his death or to cause him grievous bodily harm and, secondly. when she struck him it was because she had been provoked to such a degree as to cause her to lose self-control. That issue went before the jury, as happens in all criminal cases, but after hearing all the evidence presented by the prosecution and the defence, the jury decided—albeit by a majority of 10:2 — that the charge of murder was proved. The law provides that only one penalty may be imposed following a conviction of murder, and that is life imprisonment, and my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary has no authority to vary such a sentence. Mrs. Megginson exercised her right of appeal without success and, in the absence of any evidence to the contrary, we must proceed on the basis that she was rightly convicted of murder and properly sentenced to life imprisonment.
There is no other basis on which Ministers could exercise the powers given to them by Parliament, which do not include any powers to impose any different views other than those which the courts have taken on these points of conviction and sentence.
The release of a life sentence prisoner is at the discretion of my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary, but, under the provisions of section 61 of the Criminal Justice Act 1967, he may authorise release only if he is recommended to do so by the parole board, and after he has consulted the Lord Chief Justice and, if available, the trial judge.
There are two essential ingredients to the decision whether a life sentence prisoner should be released: has he or she been detained for long enough to satisfy the requirements of retribution and deterrence for the offence, and, is the risk to the public acceptable? My right hon. Friend looks to the judiciary for advice on the time to be served to satisfy the requirements of retribution arid deterrence and to the parole board for advice on risk. He is, however, not bound to accept a recommendation for release made by the parole board; nor is he bound by the views of the judiciary, although, of course, he attaches much weight to them.
There are no fixed times at which the release of a life sentence prisoner must be formally considered by the parole board machinery. It is for my right hon. Friend to decide when this should be done. Under the revised procedure for the review of life sentence cases announced on 30 November 1983 by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Richmond, Yorkshire (Mr. Brittan) when Home Secretary, the date of the first formal review is decided by the Home Secretary after obtaining an initial view from the Lord Chief Justice and the trial judge on the length of detention necessary to meet the requirements of retribution and deterrence for the offence. The first formal review will normally take place three years before the expiry of that period to give sufficient time for preparation and, where necessary, further testing before release is finally authorised, if the parole board should recommend it.
The decision when to fix the first formal review of a life sentence prisoner’s case is not normally taken until after the prisoner has been detained for at least three or four years. However, it was recognised that there were unusual and exceptional features about Mrs. Megginson’s case and, in those circumstances, it was decided to ask the judiciary for its views on the retributive and deterrent element of the sentence at a much earlier stage than usual. This was done in May 1985—a little over 18 months after Mrs. Megginson’s conviction. In the light of the judiciary’s views, I decided that the case should be referred to the local review committee at the prison within weeks after receiving the judicial view. I decided also that the review should take place commencing in September 1985 as the first stage of the formal parole board review mechanism.
It might assist if I make clear the stages that were then followed. When the local review committee considers the case of a life sentence prisoner, it has before it all the information available about the offence for which the life sentence was imposed and the circumstances in which it was committed; the prisoner’s history, including any previous offences; the assessments and opinions of doctors who may have examined the prisoner before the trial; and any remarks made by the trial judge. It also has copies of all the reports made previously by the staff at the prisons in which the prisoner has been detained and reports prepared specially for the review, together with any representations which the prisoner may have made to the committee, as he or she is entitled to do. In the light of all this information, the committee makes a recommendation on the prisoner’s suitability for release.
All the papers are then sent to the Home Office, with the local review committee’s recommendation. The case is very carefully considered in the Home Office, in consultation with the Department’s professional advisers. Sometimes, reports from independent doctors, including psychiatrists, are obtained. An assessment is made of all the considerations, including the possible risk to the public if the prisoner were to be released and the case is then referred to the parole board. All this takes time, and prisoners are themselves warned not to expect a decision in their case until at least six months after the local review.
The parole board, which does not necessarily endorse the recommendation made by the local review committee, may recommend either that the prisoner should be given a provisional date for release or that the case should be reviewed again after a specified period. If it does the latter, my right hon. Friend has no power to authorise the prisoner’s release and the further review follows the same procedure, starting once again with the local review committee in the prison in which the prisoner is located.
Mrs. Megginson’s case was duly reviewed by the local review committee at Durham prison in September last year. The internal procedures to which I have referred have been completed and the papers have been referred to the parole board. The case will be considered by the parole board next month—only five months after the local review committee procedure began.
That is another sign of recognition in the Home Office that the circumstances of the case merit processing faster than we are generally able to achieve, given the pressure of work, in all of the many cases that come before us. I know that my hon. Friend will understand if I cannot speculate on the outcome of the parole board’s consideration of Mrs. Megginson’s case or when she might be released. I can assure my hon. Friend that the decision will be conveyed to her as soon as possible after the parole board gives its decision to us.
Sir Anthony Grant
I think that my hon. Friend said that the case will be considered by the parole board next month—in February.
The lifer panel of the parole board will consider the matter next month. The decision will be conveyed to me. I can assure my hon. Friend that I shall personally ensure, as I have tried to do throughout the case, that matters are then handled expeditiously.
What happens then will depend very much on what the parole board says. Obviously, I must not say anything that would influence its decision one way or another. Parliament established the parole board procedure to ensure that the public had the additional safeguard, and fetter on the Home Secretary’s discretion of independent evaluation by a lifer panel, which consists of a High Court judge, a psychiatrist and two other members.
I understand my hon. Friend’s proper concern to ensure that Mrs. Megginson should not be in prison for any longer than is necessary. My right hon. Friend has to act within the statutory framework and he has to give due weight to the views of the judiciary when deciding when it would be right to commence the formal review. We have done that. He then has to await the parole board’s deliberations, which will happen next month.
I assure my hon. Friend that we have treated this case exceptionally and given it considerable priority by comparison with the normal run of murder cases, and I hope to be able to give him further advice before too many weeks have elapsed.