HC Deb 26 March 1834 vol 22 cc719-22
Mr. Ewart

, pursuant to his notice, moved for leave to bring in "a Bill for abolishing capital punishment in cases of letter-stealing, and returning from transportation, and in certain cases of burglary." The hon. Member said, that within the last few years the punishment of death had been taken away from seven offences which theretofore were capital: much of this was owing to the great and praiseworthy exertions of the right hon. Baronet, the member for Tamworth. By returns which had been laid before the House, since that change had been made in the law, the number of commitments for those offences in London and Middlesex had decreased, as compared with the same length of time before the change, and the number of convictions and punishments had increased, as compared with the number of commitments. This was perfectly in accordance with all that experience had shown of the statistics of crime,—that where the extreme severity of punishment had been changed for a milder, but more certain punishment, crime had decreased. There was no reason why it should not be so in the cases of the crimes to which his Motion referred, in all of which he thought the punishment of death much too great for the crime. It might be said, in objection to his Motion, that they ought to wait to ascertain what would be the Report of the Commissioners who had been appointed to consider the state of the Criminal-law; but he thought that might be too long; but, at all events, he did not think, whatever might be the nature of that report, it ought to affect a case of this kind. Our Criminal-law had heretofore the character of being unchristian, inhuman, and, in many instances, barbarous in its punishments. Much of that had been removed; but much still remained; and the cases to which his Motion referred were of that class in which the severity of capital punishment ought to be removed.

Mr. Aglion by seconded the Motion.

Lord Howick

was unwilling to offer opposition to a Motion of this kind, but he did hope, that when the hon. Member considered the circumstances, he would consent to withdraw his Motion. The hon. Member had adverted to the Commission now occupied on the state of our Criminal-law. The Report of that Commission might soon be expected; and he would ask, whether, under these circumstances, the house would proceed to legislate on a portion of the Criminal-law until they had the advantage of the inquiries now going on? He would admit, that the offences to which the hon. Gentleman's Motion related ought not to be punished with death; and, in fact, no such punishment was now inflicted for them. He believed the hon. Member could not name one instance, of late years, in which the punishment of death had been inflicted for any of those offences. On the ground of humanity, therefore, there was no urgency in the present case, for there was no fear that any life would be sacrificed under the present state of the law from any delay of the proposed Bill. There was another Motion for another change of the law, which stood for some day after the recess; so that it appeared they were not to wait for that report, which would assist their deliberations, but were to go on thus to amend the law in detached parts. He did hope, that the hon. Member would wait for the result of the inquiry now going on. He did not ask him to abandon his Bill, or to put it off indefinitely, but to wait for the Report of the Commissioners, which could not now be long delayed.

Mr. Lennard

was surprised to hear the noble Lord say, that no capital punishment had been inflicted for any of the offences alluded to for some years, for he believed that, in the very last year, one person had suffered death for stealing a letter. He thought that those hon. Members who brought forward measures of this kind were hardly dealt with. When a Motion was brought forward, as in the case of the late Sir James Macintosh, to effect considerable alterations in the Criminal-law, he was told, that that was wholesale legislation,—that in such cases the House ought to proceed with caution, and go to alterations in detail; but now, when hon. Gentlemen came to individual cases, they were told to wait for a Report which might recommend a general revision of our code. This was hard upon those gentlemen, who only undertook this trouble as the Government had delayed what the public expected they would turn their minds to,—a total revision of the Criminal-law. He agreed, that the offence of stealing a letter ought not to be visited with capital punishment; and as to returning from transportation, he thought, that to punish that offence with death was, beyond all measure, too severe; and the more particularly, as no distinction was made as to the offences for which the parties had been transported, whether it was only one for which transportation was the highest punishment, or one the more heavy punishment attached to which had been commuted for transportation.

Mr. Spring Rice

observed, that they had reason to be greatly obliged to the right hon. member for Tamworth, for the great improvements which he had been the means of effecting in the Criminal-law; but it was rather hard, that the whole merit of the changes which had taken place should be transferred to that right hon. Baronet, when, as the House must recollect, so much of what he did had its origin amongst men whose political principles were the same as those of the present Administration. Did they forget the labours of Sir James Macintosh and others in the great work of ameliorating our criminal jurisprudence? Then it was not to be forgotten, that the improvements most sought after were actually those which the present Government had themselves introduced within the short period which elapsed since their accession to office;—for example, the law relating to forgery had undergone a most salutary change; and the laws relating to the coin had been under the consideration of the present Lord Chief Justice of the Court of King's Bench, while Attorney-General; and efforts were being made, and to some extent had been made with success, to place them upon a footing of simplicity, clearness, and certainty. Thus much he thought it necessary to say, in defence of those to whom some portion of the improvement ought, in fairness, to be attributed, though a disposition to do otherwise had, in the course of the present discussion, appeared to prevail. As to the present Motion, he must beg to observe, that the House ought to proceed most cautiously, lest, by carrying individual alterations too far, and getting beyond the length which the state of public feeling warranted, they might endanger important principles by producing a re-action.

Mr. Philip Howard

said, in a commercial country, the security of the conveyance of letters, was one of great moment. Considering the amount of property transmitted through the medium of the Post-office, the breach of trust, and difficulty of detection, great caution should be observed, and no light penalties inflicted upon those depredators who usually plundered the letters of the poor—the hard-earned savings of the widow and the orphan; because the wily villains well knew that the needy and unprotected could with difficulty recover the loss, or prosecute to conviction. From the loss of letters, cases of intense misery had occurred; and when the House considered, that many charitable institutions mainly owed their support to remittances sent in letters, it would be felt humanity was not merely on one side. To repeal the present law, without the substitution of rigorous penalties, would not be a public benefit.

Mr. Hughes Hughes

said, he was happy to inform the House, and it would be highly satisfactory to the friends of humanity throughout the country to learn, that, such was the growing repugnance to the punishment of death, and such its diminution consequent upon that feeling, and upon legislative enactments, that the Corporation of the City of London had felt at liberty to discharge, as unnecessary, one of the two salaried executioners, whom, for a number of years they had been in the habit of retaining in their service. He trusted, indeed, that the effect of the present, and of similar humane propositions, which he heartily supported, would be, shortly, to render unnecessary the other of those personages as a regular servant of the Corporation; and that only occasional resort would be had to the services of such an officer of justice.

Motion agreed to.