HC Deb 28 April 1836 vol 33 cc466-70
Mr. Aglionby

, in rising to move for leave to bring in a Bill to repeal so much of the Statutes, 9th George 4th, cap. 31, and 10th George 4th, cap. 34, as relates to the period of the Execution of Persons convicted of Murder, and the Prison Regulations as to Murderers under sentence, observed, that although the subject was one upon which great public interest prevailed, he should best consult the wishes of the House in its present state, by not trespassing upon its attention in enforcing the principle of the measure, which he understood was not to be opposed. The discussion on the Bill, therefore, might well be deferred until the second reading, when he should be prepared to enter into detail on the evils of the present system, and the objects he had in view. He should be enabled to prove from facts and Returns, that the criminal code of this country was not based upon the best principles, and that the severity of the law had failed of the effects which it had been intended to produce. On the contrary, he should show that where the Criminal-law had received some mitigation, the number of commitments and convictions had declined, thereby showing that it was advisable to mitigate still further the severity of the penal code. He must state the course which he had pursued, and which he intended to take with respect to this measure. He had applied to the noble Lord at the head of the Home Department to know when it was likely that the Commissioners at this time inquiring into the state of the Criminal-law would make their Report. The noble Lord had informed him that the Commissioners were now in possession of all the facts necessary to enable them to make up their Report, but that they desired time until after the present term, about the middle of next month, to do so. The House he did not suppose would wish to hasten that Report, and therefore it was, that he asked for leave to bring in this Bill, which was merely to repeal that part of the Statutes which made it obligatory on the Judges to order execution to be done upon persons convicted of murder on the day next but one following the conviction and sentence. He proposed to give instead a period between sentence and execution of not less than fourteen or fifteen days (as in Scotland), nor exceeding twenty-seven days. If he succeeded in accomplishing this object, it would then be necessary to follow up the second part of his notice of motion with a view to alter that part of the Statute which provided, that persons convicted of murder should be kept on bread and water alone, and that no person but the gaoler, except on special order, should be admitted to them. His object was to afford time for further inquiry before the full powers of the law were carried into effect, which under the present system was impossible. In proof of this he need only mention that the learned Judges adopted the practice of trying murder cases on Fridays, by which another day was afforded for that inquiry before the execution of the sentence. With this short explanation, and reserving all discussion till the second reading, he hoped to be allowed to bring in this Bill.

Mr. Ewart

seconded the motion. The law, as at present, was contrary to the dictates of justice and humanity. No time was allowed for an application on behalf of unhappy individuals convicted of murder for mercy, though cases might be stated where reprieves had arrived after the sentence of the law had been carried into effect.

Mr. Sergeant Jackson

expressed a hope that the hon. and learned Member would extend the provisions of his Bill to Ireland, where the practice was precisely the same as that which prevailed under the law in this country. He for one felt deeply grateful to the hon. and learned Member for having brought forward a measure which he was satisfied both the interests of justice and humanity demanded. The fact that, even if a conviction took place on erroneous grounds, it was impossible, from the shortness of the time, to appeal for mercy, was in his judgment alone decisive, and ought to induce the House to concur in the motion.

Mr. Aglionby

would willingly extend the provisions of the Bill to Ireland.

Mr. Brotherton

supported the motion, and expressed a hope, that at no very distant period, the capital punishments would be abolished altogether. He was convinced that capital punishments did not tend to prevent crime—that they were not consistent with sound policy, and he was satisfied in his own mind that they were contrary to the law of God.

Mr. Hume

adverted to some facts which, he had stated on a former evening, to show that the mitigation and the severity of punishments, and especially capital punishments, had been attended by a reduction in the extent of crime. The hon. Member instanced the case of horse-stealing, for which offence it appeared from the Returns, that, in the five years ending 1829, thirty-seven persons had been executed, out of 990 persons committed, the average number of committals being 198 for each year. For the five years ending 1834, there had been 966 committals, and not one executed, and for the last year, 1835, the number of individuals committed for that offence was 163, being thirty less than the average number of any of the preceding years. Now, the House would be surprised to learn, that in the three years ending 1st December, 1829, no less than 4,622 persons had been committed for trial on charges of burglary, coining, forgery, horse, sheep, and cattle stealing, and larcenies in dwelling-houses, and that of these ninety-six were executed; while for the last three years, ending 1st December, 1835, 4,292 (being 400 less than the former Return) were committed for those offences, and only two persons executed. The other nations of Europe were abolishing capital punishments except in cases of murder, and he thought this country ought not to be the last in the cause of humanity, and in the abolition of exhibitions which tended rather to brutalize than to improve the habits and the feelings of the people. With respect to the motion now before the House, it had his most cordial support.

The Chancellor of the Exchequer

thought the House generally was agreed upon the principle of the Bill of his hon. and learned Friend, and it might be convenient that he should now state that it had the entire acquiescence of his Majesty's Government. He thought it was hard to deprive persons convicted of murder of an opportunity for that appeal to the Crown which was allowed in all other cases. The proposition of his hon. and learned Friend embodied, as he understood, the adoption of the practice in Scotland—a practice which, since the Porteustrials, had been productive of no mischief. With respect to the mitigation of capital punishments in other cases, though that had been the principle of legislation since the inquiries under his late Friend Sir James Macintosh, he must say, that he could not attribute the diminution of crime entirely to that system of legislation, but rather to the existing state of the country. He would not at present say more, than that he entirely concurred in the motion for the introduction of this Bill.

Mr. Lennard

said, that, in addition to the evidence which the Returns, quoted by the hon. Member for Middlesex, afforded of the happy effects resulting from a mitigation of the criminal law, he held in his hand Returns showing a similar diminution of crime in the metropolitan district. He would, however, first refer to the Returns from England and Wales, excluding London and Middlesex. By these it appeared that upon the eight circuits there were, for the three years ending 1829, 3,950 committed, and fifty-four executed. For the three years ending 1835, 3,643 were committed, and only one was executed. Thus showing, under a relaxed criminal code, a diminution of 307 committals and fifty-three executions. In London and Middlesex, for the three years ending 1829? there were committed for coining, forgery, horse-stealing, sheep-stealing, and larcenies above 5l. in dwelling-houses, 672 persons, and of those forty-two were executed; while, in the subsequent years, when those crimes were no longer capital, but secondary punishments substituted, the actual number of these offences fell to 649; it showed, therefore, that though the law had been mitigated, still it had been rendered more efficacious. He tendered his best thanks to the hon. and learned Member for Cockermouth for the introduction of this Bill.

Leave was given to bring in the Bill.

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