HC Deb 05 March 1880 vol 251 cc431-8

asked the Secretary of State for the Home Department, Whether his attention has been drawn to the stringent conditions laid down by the High Sheriff of Lancashire for the admission of reporters to Kirkdale Prison during the executions on Tuesday last; whether he is aware that the editors of some of the Liverpool newspapers declined to accept such conditions of admission, as being of posed to the spirit of freedom in which English journals are conducted; and, whether, as the coroner and jury who held the inquest upon the bodies unanimously condemned the exclusion of the representatives of the Press from executions, he will at once issue regulations which will not only permit a certain number of reporters or other unofficial witnesses to be present at an execution, but will also allow an independent statement to be given to the public of the manner in which the law has been carried into effect?


Sir, I wish to point out that an erroneous impression appears to prevail on the part of the public on this subject. There seems to be an idea that executions are carried out by the officers of the gaol under the direction of the Home Secretary. Nothing could be more erroneous. I have nothing to do with the matter from beginning to end. The condemned man is handed over to the High Sheriff, who, by the law, is the person appointed to carry out the execution, and I presume that the High Sheriff is a person of the highest possible standing in his county. With respect to this particular case, the High Sheriff told me that he was perfectly willing that unofficial persons should be present; but that he had a very strong feeling—a feeling which I believe is shared by every hon. Gentleman in this House—that nothing can be more injurious to the public, in any form or shape, than those description of executions which we were accustomed to see in the newspapers from time to time for a long series of years; and I am quite sure that nobody wants that kind of thing to be revived. Those hon. Members who took an interest in the passing of the Private Executions Act will remember that its object was to prevent the demoralizing scenes that might be witnessed by a mob varying, perhaps, from 200 to 2,000 persons at the outside; but if these descriptions are to go on, they will be read, not by 2,000 persons, but by millions throughout the country, and great harm cannot fail to be done by them. Therefore, as I have said, I do not believe that anybody would care to revive that state of things. The High Sheriff in this case, according to my mind, did quite right. He was quite willing that the representatives of the Press should be present, but he wanted to take precautions that no such descriptions as I have referred to should appear. I think that he was quite right. I am quite aware that the liberty of the Press ought not to be interfered, with or controlled. I believe it is very likely that some of the representatives of the Press said that whenever they did go they must go unshackled. But if they were to be admitted to executions, and if the descriptions that we used to have are again to go forth without any control, then I say that the mischief will be increased tenfold. What I stated the other night I now state again—that these matters are entirely in the hands of the High Sheriff, and I do not think that I, as Home Secretary, ought to interfere. I have not the smallest objection that the matter should be left to some independent authority, but the difficulty is to get independent persons to act. What I stated was, that I would communicate with some of the principal High Sheriffs, and also with the Visiting Justices, to see if any arrangement could be made; but, whatever is done, I must enter my most emphatic protest against any revival of those old descriptions which we used to have of executions, which caused much demoralization.


Sir, I suppose I am not in Order in following the right hon. Gentleman; but the right hon. Gentleman has made a speech upon a very important, I think a very painful, subject. He has referred to what was recommended by the Commission on Private Executions. One of the objections made before the Commission—[Cries of"Order!" and "Move!"]


If the right hon. Gentleman desires to put a Question arising out of the Answer of the Secre- tary of State for the Home Department, he would be in Order in doing so.


Sir, that I may put myself in Order, if the House will allow me, I will conclude with a Motion. Amongst the witnesses whose evidence was taken by the Capital Punishment Commission, upon which I sat, there was one witness who was entirely against public executions, but he said that he was greatly afraid that if private executions were permitted capital punishment would very soon be abolished. He believed that the public would not stand such a monstrous state of things as that a man should be strangled in private and the public should know nothing about it. That is my opinion. I was against public executions; I am against capital punishment. But I believe that the present system is one which is outraging the feelings of the public, and that the High Sheriff of Lancashire has done much to make it impossible to continue private executions as they have been carried on. I beg to ask them the question—I will not intrude further—if we and the country are to understand that the right hon. Gentleman the Secretary of State washes his hands entirely of the whole matter, and leaves it in the hands of the High Sheriff, who may be anybody? I have been at Council meetings where the high sheriffs are chosen, and I know how they are chosen and how they are nominated, and I happen to know several of them. They are only appointed for one year; they are not, generally speaking, men of experience. They may bring their own particular fashion and their own particular thought into such a transaction as this just for one year. I wish to ask the right hon. Gentleman if the House and if the country is to understand that he, as Home Secretary, has nothing whatever to do with the matter, and that Parliament has no remedy whatever, except declaring by Resolution its of opinion on this question? It is something painful to think that a High Sheriff may exercise his private judgment as he pleases in a matter of this kind. I beg to more that the House do now adjourn.


in seconding the Motion, said, it was right that the House should know that executions as they were now conducted were in many respects experimental. The present executioner was an individual who seemed to be at liberty to put into practice any particular theory. The question was a much more serious one than hon. Gentlemen of opposite seemed to think. It was quite clear to his mind that if the matter were left in the position in which the Secretary of State seemed determined to leave it—that was to say, to the caprice or judgment of one person, the High Sheriff, who varied in accordance with the number of counties and from year to year—the public would no longer tolerate private executions at all. The lecture, he might add, which the right hon. Gentleman had read to the newspapers must, if it were to be attended to, be extended in other directions, and their columns must be revised in connection with other subjects. What he desired particularly, however, to point out was that those executions were in the nature of experiments. Formerly criminals were executed in this country by the process of strangulation; but at present they were deprived of life by the dislocation of the neck and the tearing of the muscles which united the neck to the head, and the House ought to know that on one occasion when an experiment of the kind was made, a man's head was actually pulled off. In the case which he referred to, the rope was of a particular character and the drop of a particular length. The rope was too unyielding and the drop too long, and the result was that the man's head was jerked off his body. If there had been no reporters present, the circumstances of that case would never have been known to the public; and the country, he was sure, would not stand having executions carried on in private unless there were independent witnesses who would narrate to the public as much or as little as they pleased, on their own responsibility, of the horrifying and bungling incidents that frequently occurred. He entered his protest against the doctrine which had been enunciated by the Secretary of State, and he trusted that the right hon. Gentleman would himself lay down regulations, and not leave the matter to the caprice of High Sheriffs.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. John Bright.)


wished to explain the reason why he had put his Question. He quite agreed with the desire of the right hon. Gentleman to do away with sensational reports in newspapers; but the reason he had asked the Question was that, owing to the passing of the Prisons Act, the position of matters had been entirely changed. When the Act was passed substituting intermural for public executions, power was retained to the High Sheriff and Visiting Justices to allow a certain number of the general public to be admitted to executions. By the Prisons Act, however, the powers of the Visiting Justices in regard to the admission of independent witnesses had been transferred to the Home Secretary. Therefore, he (Mr. Hibbert) thought he was justified in asking the Home Secretary whether, as the Visiting Justices had now no power to permit the admission of a limited number of persons at the time an execution was taking place, he was prepared to lay down regulations which would admit of the presence of some of the public at executions? But he should like it to be clearly understood that he had not the slightest sympathy with the publication of sensational articles, nor had he the least desire that any member of the Press, or others who were admitted into the prison, should make use of their presence for that purpose.


I must, Sir, if I may be allowed to do so, rather deprecate discussion on this matter. It seems to me rather contrary to the ruling which fell from the Chair a few days ago, and this certainly cannot be a matter of imminence—["Oh!"]—there is no execution immediately pending that I know of. The right hon. Gentleman will have an of portunity—[Mr. JOHN BRIGHT: No!]—well, I think the right hon. Gentleman will have an ample of opportunity another time of putting a Question on going into Committee of Supply or otherwise; and rather than interrupt the ordinary course of Business, which appears to me to be distinctly at variance with the ruling of the Speaker twice over in one night, it appears to me that it would be better to take that course. Having said that, I am perfectly willing to answer the right hon. Gentleman's Question. I do not think he could have been in the House when this question was raised a night or two ago; but what I stated then, and what I believe I stated this afternoon, was that I had promised to put myself in communication with the High Sheriffs and Visiting Committees of the prisons to see what understanding could be come to. [Mr. JOHN BRIGHT dissented.] I have stated so twice over. What I stated was, that I should put myself in communication with them to see what arrangements could be made. What I state now is, that no one wishes that sensational paragraphs should appear, but no one would object to independent criticism. That is all I wished to say.


Sir, I do not rise to continue the debate on this question; but I wish to protest against the lecture which the right hon. Gentleman has thought it necessary to administer to my right hon. Friend. I see no analogy whatever between the ease which has arisen to-night, and that which was adverted to by the Speaker a few nights ago. Upon that occasion the Speaker ruled—and ruled very properly, I think—that it was irregular to refer to debates which had taken place in this House during the present Session, and also irregular and highly inexpedient to occupy the time of the House by Questions on the conduct of Members as to pledges they had or had not given to their constituents; and the Speaker pointed out that those irregularities were not covered by a Motion for the Adjournment of the House. It appears to me that it is a very different case, indeed, when an hon. Member rises to make some observations which, in his opinion, are called for by the very elaborate Answer—which amounted almost to a speech—which has just been given by the right hon. Gentleman. Whether Answers of the kind are desirable, or whether it is desirable that debates on short Notice should arise in this way or not, I will not say. Certainly there is no analogy whatever between the case adverted to by the right hon. Gentleman and the present case on which my right hon. Friend has spoken; but I do not think my right hon. Friend has fairly laid himself of en to the strictures of the right hon. Gentleman.


Sir, I likewise do not desire at all to enter upon the subject to which the Question refers; but I do think it is of importance that, if we are to have any regularity in our proceedings, there should be care exercised in allowing the practice of raising debates upon Ques- tions in this way. If it is always to be held that when a Question is put to a Minister, and the Answer does not satisfy the Gentleman who puts it, an of opportunity is to be taken of moving the Adjournment of the House, and of springing a discussion upon it, we destroy the whole of the system by which Motions get precedence one of another, and at any time we may have questions raised without Notice. Without saying that there are no cases in which some latitude ought to be allowed, we ought to carefully restrain the practice; but I have heard you, Sir, on former occasions reprobate or deprecate the practice of raising discussions on Answers which were given by Ministers relative to Answers which were not considered satisfactory to the Questions as one most injurious to the order of our proceedings.


Sir, like my noble Friend near me, I did not intend to enter upon this question; but a point of considerable importance in connection with the order of our proceedings has arisen out of the debate. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, I think, is providing against a danger that does not exist. He seems to suppose that there is a disposition somewhere on this Bench to hold that whenever an Answer given by a Minister is unsatisfactory to the questioner, a Motion of Adjournment should be moved. I will go as far as the right hon. Gentleman in deprecating the Motion of Adjournment. Many a time I have winced and smarted under them, especially on one or two occasions on which I remember they had been made by Gentlemen whom I see sitting opposite. But the real case, I think, is this, the right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary was led—and I cannot in the slightest degree blame him for it—to reply to a Question by what was virtually a speech upon a subject which is not viewed with the same warmth of feeling by all Members of the House, but which is viewed with great warmth and depth of feeling by certain other Members. I am sure my right hon. Friend would be the last man to encourage Motions of this kind upon slight occasion; but it did appear to him that this was one of the exceptional cases on which the Chancellor of the Exchequer thinks that Motions may be made. I cannot see that censure is due to my right hon. Friend for having set forth very clearly, and by no means at undue length, his views on a question of great interest and importance. I never made a Motion under such circumstances myself, and I trust I never shall; but my right hon. Friend, having a strong feeling on the matter, had, I think, a very fair justification for the Motion out of the speech made, also, I think, without blame, by the right hon. Gentleman. I think we may now let the discussion drop, especially as nobody has been very much hurt.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.