HC Deb 30 October 1929 vol 231 cc241-93

I beg to move, That, in the opinion of this House, capital punishment for civil crimes should be abolished. At the outset, I should like to express my appreciation of the help which has been forthcoming from Members of all parties in this House since it became known that this Motion was to be moved to-night. I draw from that circumstance the hope that, whatever may be the fate of my Motion, at least the Division will not be drawn on the narrow lines of party when we go into the Lobby. It is my conviction that there is no case for the continuance of capital punishment. There is a case against its removal, but that is quite a different thing. I believe that there is no man or woman in England, who realises what is involved in capital punishment, who would not be glad to see this country free of it; and that even those who support its retention do so, not because they are less affected by the horror which it represents, but because they consider its retention necessary as a deterrent to murder. I respect that conviction, but I regard it as a mistaken conviction, and I begin to-night by urging that all experience goes to show that, so far from capital punishment being a deterrent to murder, the exact opposite is the case. If that statement can be proved, I hope that those who have hitherto supported its retention because of its alleged deterrent properties, will listen all the more sympathetically to the positive arguments for its removal.

Up to comparatively recent times in this country, capital punishment was the prescribed penalty for all kinds of offences other than murder. Up to 1836, it was the prescribed penalty for theft, and it is recorded that as recently as 1833, a small boy of nine years was condemned to death for stealing two penny-worth of paint. The sentence was not carried out, but that makes no difference to the fact that it was passed, and when-ever, from time to time, appeals were made for the abolition off the death penalty for offences of that kind, those appeals were made with precisely the same kind of argument as is now used when we suggest that the death penalty for murder ought to be removed. Thus, when a, Bill was introduced into Parliament in 1810, the then Lord Chief Justice, speaking in another place, said: I trust your Lordships will pause before you assent to a Measure pregnant with danger to the security of property, before you repeal a Statute which has so long been held necessary for public security. I am convinced with the learned Judges that public expediency requires that there should be no remission of the terror denounced against this description of offence. Such will be the consequences of the repeal of this Statute that I am sure depredations of an unlimited extent will be immediately committed. In spite of the Lord Chief Justice, the capital punishment for offences of the description about which he was then talking was subsequently abolished, and the plain fact is that the effect of the abolition of capital punishment for that class of offence was not to make property less secure in this country, but to make it still more secure than it had been in the days when capital punishment applied to offences of that kind.

If we turn from the experience in this country to the experience of countries abroad, one qualification has to be made. It is often alleged by opponents of the removal of capital punishment that the murder rate in countries where capital punishment has been abolished is higher than in countries where it is still retained. That argument is an unfair argument. The degree of education, the level of social conditions, the degree of civilisation vary enormously as between one country and another, and the real test to apply is not the test as between one country and another, but of the number of murders taking place within the same country before and after the abolition of capital punishment. Norway abolished capital punishment in 1905. In 1925, the Chief of the Norwegian Prison Administration said: Capital punishment was entirely abolished on 1st January, 1905…The number of persons convicted of murder in the years 1905–1924 has diminished considerably. In the case of Sweden, the Chief of the Swedish Prison Administration, speaking in 1925, said: The abolition of the death penalty, so far from leading to an increase of offences of this kind, was actually followed by a noticeable decrease. In the case of Denmark, the representative of the Danish Government on the International Prison Commission, said: The abolition of capital punishment has not in any way contributed to an increase in such crimes as were formerly punishable by "death…The number of sentences for murder has decreased proportionately very considerably. In the case of Holland, the average number of murders for the 20 years immediately following 1870, in which year the death penalty was abolished, and for the 20 years immediately prior to 1870 was exactly the same. In the case of Italy, the death penalty was abolished in 1889. In the five years previous to that year, the homicidal rate in Italy was 10.64 per 100,000 of the population; for the five years ended 1918 it was 3.14 per 100,000 of the population, or roughly one-third of the figure that applied prior to the abolition of capital punishment in that country. In America, where the murder rate is notoriously high as compared with this country, it is a significant fact that the America State which shows the lowest homicidal rate of all the United States of America, is the State of Maine, where capital punishment has been abolished, and of the next seven States in order of low homicidal rate four of them are States in which the death penalty has been set aside.

But apart entirely from any question of statistics, a reduction in the number of murders per annum is precisely what one would expect following the abolition of capital punishment. May I illustrate what I have in mind there by quoting what the Home Office itself said in a document which it published in 1924? In the Home Office Introduction to Criminal Statistics the Home Office said: In consequence of the strong proofs of guilt necessary for conviction of crimes punishable by death, the proportion of acquittals for murder is higher than for most other crimes, or, to put it differently, the very severity of the penalty applied makes it corre- spondingly more difficult to secure conviction of the individual charged; and that is borne out by the statistics for the two periods 1905–1913 and 1919–1927. The figures there, showing the number of murders, the number of persons charged, and the number of persons found guilty, indicate that under our present law a murderer has six chances out of seven of escaping the death penalty. Lord Darling has again and again insisted that what is necessary is not so much severity of punishment as certainty of detection, and the very severity of capital punishment operates to prevent that. The argument that capital punishment is necessary as a preventive measure is not borne out by experience at home, by experience abroad, or by what one would naturally expect from applying one's own common sense to the problem.

May I turn very briefly to the positive case for its abolition? It should be the root of all punishments that they should be remedial, not punitive, in character. Whatever else may be said about the death penalty, it is clearly not remedial, and it is clearly punitive to the last degree. Secondly, no human being and no human Judge should apply any penalty which by its very nature is irrevocable when once it is applied. I am a young man, but I do not feel satisfied, and I doubt whether a single Member of this House feels completely satisfied from the bottom of his heart, that every man who has gone to the gallows during his lifetime has been guilty beyond the slightest peradventure of doubt. At any rate, Lord Birkenhead, Lord Shaw of Dunfermline, and other eminent jurists have publicly expressed doubts as to the guilt of person after person to whom the death penalty has been applied, and I say that we have no moral right, being fallible and human, to administer a punishment which we cannot undo if subsequently our judgment is found to be wrong.

The third reason is that our present system of capital punishment is thoroughly bad from the community's point of view. There is a note of conscious and unconscious sadism running through the public mind which feeds upon newspaper reports of trials for murder. It is not because murderers are tried that the Press give that publicity, it is not the trial that makes the murderer the centre of attraction; it is the fact that a life is at stake which makes the murderer the centre of the picture and produces this unhealthy sadism which is evidenced during any great trial for murder. Moreover, there is reason for believing that the very publicity given to murder trials, because capital punishment hangs on such trials, creates other crimes of a similar nature. When Thorne was arrested for murder, a murder which was very similar in kind to the murder committed by Patrick Mahon, the Crumbles murder, there were found in Thorne's possession newspaper cuttings relating to Mahon's crime, and the Governor of the prison in which Thorne was lodged has publicly testified that, in his opinion, Thorne was influenced to the murder which he committed by the publicity which had been given to the Mahon case a few months earlier.

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Fourthly, I affirm that capital punishment debases every man who has a practical part in its application. I will not quote the words of an hon. Friend who has written of this in a book which he himself has published. May I quote the words of the late Governor of Pentonville, who will not be suspected of mere emotionalism in dealing with a matter of this kind? He said: I can never help asking myself why, when one is called upon to superintend an execution, one should have been affected with such an acute sense of personal shame.


May I ask the name of the Governor?


Major Blake. He added: There must be something fundamentally wrong with a law which has the effect of lessening the self-respect of those whose duty it is to carry it out. Next I ask for the abolition of capital punishment because it imposes upon the relatives of the murderer a punishment which they ought not to be called upon to bear. Hon. Members may ask, and justly ask, "What about the relatives of the murdered man?" but I ask, "What good does it do to the relatives of the murdered man that you should make more widows and more orphans by killing the murderer himself?" It would be a much more practical thing to make the murderer work for the rest of his days to support the relatives of the man whom be has murdered, and we certainly do not advance matters by murdering him too. Finally, capital punishment violates the social conscience of millions of our people here in England. The conviction that there is something sacred about life—about human life, and I would extend it to animal life—is, I believe, innate in almost all of us. In spite of the fact that when we come to apply capital punishment we do our best to sub-divide the responsibility at every stage—one man to arrest, another to keep custody, a third to prosecute, a fourth body of men to determine whether the prisoner is guilty or not guilty, another man to pass sentence, still other men to keep custody, and finally, the last man of all, the hangman to do the job—in spite of that sub-division there is not a man who does not feel on the morning of an execution that something is being done for which he has a personal responsibility, and that what is being done violates something right deep down in his soul. I venture to say that if our law provided that we should have no profesional hangman, but that the Governor of the prison should be able to go out on the street and command the services of the first man or woman he met to come into the prison and to execute capital punishment, capital punishment in England would not last for another 24 hours. In that fact there is the measure of the moral repulsion which the existence of that practice evokes in the minds of the ordinary men and women who make up our community.

Finally, May I say this: In 1886, there was a Royal Commission on this subject, and then, nearly fifty years ago, five out of the twelve people who composed that Royal Commission recommended that the practice of capital punishment should be abolished. In 1874, a committee of the whole of this House resolved that it should be abolished. More than 40 years have elapsed since then, and during that period there has been a further substantial advance in the level of the social conscience of this country; and I do hope from the bottom of my heart that this House of Commons—a House of Commons sitting in the year of Our Lord 1929— will say that so far as we are concerned we will try to find some other method of dealing with those who sin in this way, and that capital punishment shall no longer disgrace the Statute Book of this country.

Lieut-Commander KENWORTHY

I beg to second the Motion. I shall do so very briefly, but it is right that I should congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. W. J. Brown), who moved it, on his very sincere and very well-knit speech, which I am sure must have affected everyone who heard it, even if he did not succeed in converting all our opponents. I congratulate him very sincerely. I under-stand that my right hon. Friend the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel), owing to the fact that we balloted only yesterday, has not been able to put on the Paper an Amendment which he fathers, and that my right hon. Friend, although I am very glad to believe that he is sympathetic to my hon. Friend's Motion, wants to have some form of inquiry or Select Committee. I do hope that I can show my right hon. Friend why we might, perhaps, take the opinion of this House on the clear-cut issue. If my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary wishes to have an inquiry, I am sure, if he asks for it, it will be agreed to, but I think that at least we might express an opinion in this House. The argument which I venture to use to my right hon. Friend the Member for Darwen and those who think with him is that the experience of countries of very different social stages of advancement who have abolished capital punishment —and their number is very great—is all alike; not one of them has ever gone back to capital punishment once it has been abolished.


Several cantons of Switzerland have.

Lieut-Commander KENWORTHY

No cantons of Switzerland who have abolished capital punishment have gone back. Certain cantons in Switzerland have retained capital punishment purely religious matter; there has been no change.


Some of them have gone back.

Lieut-Commander KENWORTHY

The hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman) is right in regard to certain of the cantons in Switzerland, but those who have abolished it have kept it abolished and have not gone back. I have here a list of countries—I will quote only the number—who have abolished capital punishment. Eleven countries of Europe have abolished it. We are actually in a minority. Last year when I introduced a Bill in this House for the same purpose, hon. Gentlemen opposite asked, "What about Russia? They keep capital punishment." Is the argument of the opponents of this Motion that because Russia retains capital punishment we are going to retain it? Are we going to lag behind with Russia when the majority of countries in Europe have already abolished this form of punishment? Eleven European countries, nine South American Republics, our own Dominion of Queensland, and eight States of the United States of America, a total of 29 sovereign or independent States, have abolished capital punishment, and not one of them has gone back to it.

It is sometimes stated that France abolished capital punishment and then reverted to it. That is not so. It was never formally abolished in France, but two successive French Presidents exercised their right of reprieve to a very great extent, and it fell into disuse; and, as a matter of fact, there is I believe at the present time a very strong movement in France to abolish it. Indeed, when I was in Geneva last August I had the advantage of meeting some very prominent French statesmen and jurists, and they told me that the feeling was growing in France, and a very high French official told me that if this country abolished capital punistment, he believed that his country would follow our example within two years. I had at Geneva the advantage of meeting very distinguished jurists and statesmen of countries which have abolished capital punishment, and of hearing at first hand from those men of great responsibility in their own countries of the admitted satisfaction at the actual practical results of its abolition in those States. One of them, was a Mons. Pella, a great Rumanian Jurist, a member of the International Court of Justice at the Hague, and a man whose reputation as a legalist is world wide: and he Was extremely emphatic as to the effect in Rumania of the abolition. If the Rumanian people, who were for so many years under Turkish rule, and have not our long record of self-government be-hind them, are able to maintain law and order in their country without the death penalty, surely England can follow that example. I submit that there is really no case for a Select Committee. This House can decide. I do ask that we may have a clear cut Vote, and I appeal to my right hon. Friend not to press such a request.

My hon. Friend who moved the Motion was, I think, very right in drawing attention to the sensationalism which occurs among the public when a murder trial is before the Courts. You do not have that kind of morbid excitement when a man is being tried for burglary. A trial for burglary is hardly reported in the papers, except perhaps in the local Press. A murder trial fills the headlines and the contents bills of the newspapers, and I am afraid is eagerly read by old and young alike, and the effect on the feelings cannot be healthy. This growing sensationalism, of which we have had recent examples, cannot be healthy in any community. This is an age when I am afraid our people are inclined to become neurotic, and there is a growth of mob psychology which may be dangerous; and that mob psychology is excited and fed by this primitive instinct of the man hunt, sometimes on the side of the accused prisoner, sometimes against him, but in any case unhealthy. I think that is a very powerful argument for abolition.

It is said by our opponents: "Capital punishment is a very valuable deterrent. We would like to see hanging abolished, but we fear that if it were abolished there would be more murders." I would ask those perfectly sincere opponents: "Why have we abolished the public execution?" If it is a deterrent, why should not executions be in public, as indeed in France they still are? I would be very glad to hear the views on this point of any opponents who address themselves to this Motion. In any case, why do we make hanging in this country comparatively instantaneous and painless? In Turkey capital punishment is carried out by strangulation, and in this country also it used to be carried out by strangulation—a very slow process. Now it is supposed to be carried out more humanely by the drop. My information is that in practice it is not in all cases instantaneous, and that some very terrible and awful sights have occurred which have made a vast impression on those whose duty it was to be present; but the popular idea is that hanging is a humane form of killing a convicted murderer. If it is a deterrent, why make it comparatively painless? Why not go back to the older and more barbarous method?

I think I ought to use just one additional argument with reference to this well-worn objection to abolition based on the supposed deterrent value of hanging. Statistics taken- over a long series of years—30 years—of which I have possession, as to the motives for crime, show that the majority of murders are not premeditated. The statistics in this country are these: 29 per cent, of murders were caused through drink, quarrels, or violent rage, and were certainly not premeditated, and 30 per cent. were the class of crime which is caused by jealousy, passion, or revenge on an unfaithful life partner. These were certainly not premeditated. In the majority of cases the question of punishment does not enter into it; the man is in such a mad state of fury through jealousy that he will murder his wife or her lover, and he does not stop to consider the crime; and, when he does, what does he say? He says—and this has happened again and again: "I will swing for you," and then he cuts her throat and glories in the self-sacrifice of going to the gallows for her. Ten per cent. are caused by extreme poverty and are abnormal cases of starving men; and only 10 per cent, can be directly traced to motives of gain and robbery. The others are unclassified, but hon. Members must have observed that the actual cases of premeditated violence leading to death and murder are in the minority. The slow poisoner is, of course, a horrible example of the distorted mind, but these poisoners do not consider that they will be found out at all, and the deterrent argument does not come in there. These are merely oases for imprisonment and mental treatment.

Since I have taken an interest in this matter and succeeded in obtaining a Second Reading of a Bill with this object in view, I have been astonished with the number of letters I have had from gentlemen with prison experience—warders, governors, ex-governors and persons of that kind with long experience in prisons. The most remarkable letter was from the chief warder of the great Sing Sing prison in New York State, and all the letters supported the proposal for the abolition of the death penalty. These letters are of value as showing that those who are brought into direct contact in the course of their duty with this dreadful means of punishing crime have been converted by actual experience in favour of this Motion. The hope of the future in lessening crime is not in the severity of the punishment and the deterrents. I believe that it lies in a higher civilisation and in an increased regard for the sanctity of human life. That is the position of those who support this Motion. If the State declared that human life is so sacred that even in punishment it should not be taken, that example would spread; and it is because I believe that this is a great step forward to the ideal of a Christian State that I beg hon. Members to pass this Motion.


I can put my case in a very few words. I shall not plunge into statistics, because statistics are the most deceptive things in the world. The hon. Gentleman opposite gave us the statistics of the United States. I will reply to him by quoting what President Hoover said soon after his inauguration about the murder carnival of the United States. He said that the one disgrace which his whole tenure of power would be devoted to putting down was the way in which murderers were neither arrested nor tried nor executed in the United States. In places like Chicago, and to a less extent like New York, murder went undetected and unpunished. Statistics in that state of affairs do not seem to be extremely valuable. Do you suppose that the amount of murder in Chicago is lessened or increased by the fact that the death punishment is supposed to prevail there? It is the social conditions in Chicago which cause the murders.

The second point I will make is in regard to the equally hopeless and unreal point that it is the shadow of the gallows which causes the newspapers to publish and the public to read the horrible details of murder cases. That is not true in the slightest. The public and the newspapers revel quite as much in a big financial swindle or a high-class divorce case. Mr. Bottomley got ten times as much space in the newspapers during his trial as did Mr. Smith, the wife murderer, who had drowned three wives in a bath. What the newspapers report is not influenced by the gallows at the end. If a criminal cuts up his victim into 50 pieces, that is what the news-papers and their readers revel in, not the fact that this person is going to the gallows in the end. It is the horrible details of the case which interest the un-healthy public. Our newspapers have had an extreme responsibility during the last 10 or 20 years in stressing the details of horror, whether in a big swindle, or in a divorce case, or a murder, but I do not agree at all that the gallows at the end has anything to do with the demoralisation of the public. The unholy desire of sensation acts equally well in divorce cases or in a colossal financial swindle.

This is not a Motion asking that more care shall be used in the condemnation of all sorts of murderers. There are murderers and murderers. We know perfectly well that Maidstone Gaol is full of unfortunate men who, tempted by a nagging wife, have given a blow too much, and this Motion does not deal with people who commit murders in the heat of provocation. It seeks to release from the gallows the deliberate murderer, who, for most sordid ends, has gone on for a series of years doing murder for gain. May I point out the sort of people which this Motion covers? There is, for example, the Reading baby farmer, a woman who in five years starved seven-teen children to death. It was habitually carried on for a long time and was done for pure gain. The parents of illegitimate children brought their children to her, and said, "We do not want to see them again," and she starved them all Is that the sort of thing you do not feel a hatred for, and is that the sort of thing that should be punished by the woman being merely shut up for life? What good would that woman be to society or herself shut up for thirty or forty years for this kind of crime? I should prefer that she should be left to a greater justice than ours. Take the case of the murderer Palmer of Rugeley who insured his relatives and those with whom he had made gambling bets and poisoned them regularly. He was a habitual poisoner. Is it to be said that for a crime like that he is to be punished merely by being shut up? That would cost the State time and money for no profit whatever. The French are much more ticklish about the death penalty than we are. They quite regularly acquit persons who have committed murders under the influence of sexual excitement, but they regularly guillotine the worst class of the criminals. There was a case far worse than the English one of the man who killed three brides in the bath, the case of Landru, where the number of victims ran into double figures, and where the murders were continued over a series of years—was it three or five years? The French regard a crime of that kind as suitable for the guillotine. Only last week there was a case in the newspapers in which a French court ordered the execution of two farm servants who had murdered a farmer, his wife, his children and two maidservants in order that they might share a large sum of money which the farmer had just received. We say, by this Motion, that those are the kind of people who ought not to suffer capital punishment. I hold that there are extreme cases of turpitude, of deliberate, wholesale murder for the mere purpose of gain, which we dare not take out of the list of offences which should be visited by capital punishment. There are certain classes of criminals who at present do not use their pistols, but if they knew they were perfectly safe from the gallows they might act like the American gunmen and use them. I do not think the police of England will be particularly pleased with this idea that every burglar may use his gun, with no fear of a death penalty before him. Already, I have exceeded the time that I had intended to speak, and all I wish to say is that there are some crimes so bad, so sordid, and so long continued that healthy opinion cannot tolerate the further existence of those who are responsible for them.


I have long felt that the practice of capital punishment was brutal and uncivilised, and I am very glad indeed to be able to take part in this Debate in support of the Motion which has been submitted. I do so from a somewhat different point of view from that of the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. W. J. Brown). I base my case in support of the Motion chiefly on the terrible danger of mistakes. I have gone somewhat carefully into this matter, and have obtained from the Home Office statistics for the first 16 years during which the Court of Criminal Appeal has been acting. Prior to the setting up of the Court of Criminal Appeal in 1908, this country had, for all practical purposes, no form of appeal at all from a jury. Certainly, there was the Court of Crown Cases Reserved, which had been in existence for many centuries, but that court could be appealed to only on points of law, and then only with the consent of the judge who had tried the prisoner. The result was that in practically every case the decision of the jury was final and decisive, and when one contemplates the attitude with which people looked upon life prior to this century I tremble to think of the terrible acts of injustice which must have been committed on thousands of persons before the Court of Criminal Appeal was established. In the first 16 years after that court came into existence it heard no fewer than 1,942 appeals, and in 197 cases the sentences were completely quashed, being practically 10 per cent. of the cases, and in no less than 234 cases the sentences were either reduced or increased or in some way varied; that is to say, the decisions have been upset in an additional 12½ per cent, of the cases.


How many of those were capital cases?


I have not the actual figures of capital cases, but those which I have quoted go to show that judges—and I think our judges are the best and the fairest in the world—and juries are not infallible, and that there is a possibility of error, and, as the hon. Member who submitted this Motion has said, when capital punishment is inflicted we take a step which cannot possibly be undone. Knowing this possibility of error I think the House ought to hesitate before voting against this Motion. That is my first point.

My second point is that in my practice I have always been amazed to note in cases of murder how before the trial and the verdict the whole of the district in which the murder was committed has been horrified at the conduct of the murderer, but that immediately after the verdict that horror has, in some curious way, turned to sympathy and pity for him. I ask myself why that should be. I know that the cases go to the Court of Criminal Appeal, because naturally nothing worse can happen to a man who has been sentenced to death, and so he can confidently appeal. In four cases out of five the public are so incensed at the conviction and the horror which is felt is so strong that a huge petition is prepared, and the Home Secretary of the day is faced with the terrible problem of having what I regard as nothing more than a blackmailing act put before him, and has to decide whether it is to be life or death for a particular individual. I think that is a very unenviable task to put before anyone who happens to be Home Secretary for the time being. I think it is a practice which indicates that there is something wrong with our system of administration of the criminal law—that after a man has been before the Coroner's Court, and before the magistrates, after his case has been before a Grand Jury and a Common Jury and then before the Court of Criminal Appeal, it should be necessary, in order that justice may be done, to appeal to the Home Secretary of the day to have a marl reprieved. That is the only resource which is left. Once the Court of Criminal Appeal have dismissed an appeal all that remains is the exercise of the prerogative of mercy, which is in the hands of the Home Secretary, and if it is necessary in order to get justice for a particular man that the Home Secretary should look at the whole surrounding circumstances, perhaps look rather wider than the Court of Criminal Appeal, then there is something wrong with our system.

I agree entirely with the Mover of this Motion that there is something wrong in a system which requires us to delegate certain men for payment to the ghastly business of taking life. I regard that as a vital point in this argument, and I put it forward quite seriously. The process of carrying out this dread sentence of death, in which gaolers, warders, chaplains, under-sheriffs, doctors and the hangman and his assistant have all to be called in, is, to me, a terribly ghastly business, and one which I sincerely hope this House will not allow to continue very much longer. Personally, I cannot reconcile it with my conscience to remain silent while we in this House are allowing something to be done for payment which we individually would not do ourselves.

I now come to the most vital part of this question, and that is the argument that capital punishment is a deterrent. Again, I am prepared to defend the case for which I stand. I divide murderers into two classes. In the first class is the type of murder which is premeditated— the case in which the murderer thinks out every step carefully, prepares every possible loophole of escape, and commits the murder hoping and believing that he will get off and will never be found out. To such a man the gallows is not a deterrent, although I admit that this class of murder constitutes a minority of murders. In the second class of murders, I place the murders of passion which are the most common form of murder in this country. If a man or a woman is under the influence of some great passion, it is apparent that the cost will not be contemplated, and to that class of murderer the gallows is no deterrent at all.

Those people who argue that capital punishment is a deterrent should be logical, and, if they are prepared to allow this terrible business to continue, they should be prepared to go the whole hog and say that capital punishment should be carried out in public. We know why executions in public were stopped. They were abolished because there was so much drunkenness and debauchery when an execution took place that the police could not control it. On this point I contend that the French are the only logical people in Europe, because they recognise that it is a deterrent to have public executions, and they carry out that principle. I think those hon. Members who sit on this side of the House, and advocate the continuance of capital punishment should be prepared to say that executions should be carried out in public, and that the person hanged should be left hanging in chains for the public to see.

There is one other point which I should like to make, and it is that nearly 100 years have elapsed since capital punishment was abolished in the case of larceny. I know at that time that all the arguments which we shall hear to-night were put up. We were then reminded of the terrible danger to property that would ensue; we were told that no man's horse or ass or sheep would be safe, and that everything would be in danger the moment you got rid of capital punishment. It is quite evident that that argument did not prove to be accurate, and I am equally convinced that if we get rid of capital punishment to-morrow there will be no increase in the crime of murder. But, even, if there should be that risk, I think it is worth taking, because I feel sure that what I have put forward would prove to be right.

It is 97 years since capital punishment was abolished in the case of the stealing of sheep. Since then we have made some little progress, and I will give as an example the case of the Infanticide Act of 1922. Up to the time of the passing of that Act if a girl killed her new-born baby at child-birth she had to stand a trial for murder, and the public conscience was so outraged at this that the judges had to report to the Government of the day that it was impossible to get convicions as the juries would not convict because of the severity of the penalty in the case of those girls. In my own practice extending over 20 years I have seen poor friendless girls standing in the docks of our criminal court charged with murder. They were mostly girls who had been left by the one person who ought to have protected them. I am glad to think that in a more merciful age the Infanticide Act of 1922, which reduced that crime from murder to manslaughter, was passed. That was a great improvement, but are we going to stand still? I think it is time we went forward, and, after having allowed nearly 100 years to elapse since we got rid of the penalty of capital punishment for larceny, we should now go a step further by abolishing capital punishment altogether.

I am convinced, in spite of what the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman) has said, that the notoriety and the morbid interest which people take in criminal trials does not act as a deterrent. I have been in many courts, and I know what happens during a trial for murder. The real reason for all this public interest in a murder trial is the shadow of the gallows which hangs over it. Weak-minded people, who are very susceptible and liable to be influenced by any kind of excitement outside their own lives, are more likely to increase the crime of murder. The fear of the gallows does not deter the real murderer from committing murder.

I hope that hon. Members and hon. Friends of mine on this side of the House will gravely reflect before they vote against this Motion. I know that a great many of them regard the gallows almost as a part of the Constitution of this country, and I expect it will surprise some of them to find me supporting a Motion from the other side of the House. But, while I love the Constitution of this country, and am prepared to defend it as hard as any Member on this side, I shall be very glad when the day comes when we can get rid of this barbarous, uncivilised institution. As to hon. Members opposite, I would equally appeal to them to support this Motion. Hon. Members opposite have not always been too disinclined to resort to force, but I would ask them to think of a higher nobility, a higher ideal in the administration of our laws in this country, and not to allow force to be a ruling influence in our life. What a message it will be to their comrades in Russia when they hear that this Motion has been passed by the House! I can only say that I sincerely hope that to-night will be an occasion when we can pass by an overwhelming majority, if it should be necessary to go to a Division, a Motion in favour of what I believe would be a great step forward by a country which I believe in truth to be really the only civilised country in the world.


Perhaps it is fortunate that we are not called upon very frequently in this House to discuss such gruesome subjects as murder and the punishment at present meted out to the citizen who is found guilty of that crime. I was surprised that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman) could make a humorous speech on that subject; he succeeded in doing something which I would not attempt to perform. We all have a personal disinclination to take part in such a Debate as this, and my only excuse for joining in the Debate is that it was my duty some little time ago, when Under-Secretary of State for Home Affairs, to give a certain amount of consideration to this subject. We have had two very interesting speeches from the Mover and Seconder of this Motion, but neither of them dealt at any great length with the history of the subject, except that the Mover said that the death penalty for theft did not exist to-day, and brought forward some arguments in connection with that fact which I do not think were really of much interest to the House. We have to consider the fact that the death penalty for theft does not exist to-day, and we have to deal with practical politics. If I may say a few words on the history of the subject, capital punishment in this country dates back to the Conquest, and on many occasions the subject has been under consideration by Members of this House. On every occasion, with one exception, to which reference was made by the hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy), the House has decided that it is in the interests of the country that capital punishment should be retained. That one exception was a rather half-hearted expression of opinion when the hon. and gallant Member obtained the leave of the House to introduce a Bill. It did not mean very much. Older Members of this House will know quite well that sometimes the introduction of a Bill is advocated, not only by supporters, but also by opponents of the title of the Bill, in order that it may be seen how wild the opinions of any particular Member may be. In spite of that inquisitive desire on the part of many Members of the House of Commons, leave to introduce that Bill was only given by a majority of one vote. That certainly was not an indication that the Bill itself would have been supported if it had received further discussion in the House. Practically -speaking,, the abolition of capital punishment has never been advocated during the many years that it has been under discussion in this House; in fact, the House has been definitely apposed to the change.

If we consider what has been the opinion of those whose duty it has been to come in close contact with the working of the present system, I believe I aim right in saying that there is only one Home Secretary who has ever spoken against capital punishment, namely, the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel). There is one case on record in which a Home Secretary was actually in favour of the abolition of capital punishment until he became Home Secretary, and then his views were completely changed—I refer to the late Sir William Harcourt. That is the only precedent up to date, but I hope there will be another precedent to-night—

Lieut-Commander KENWORTHY

If the right hon. Gentleman will excuse my interrupting him for a moment, may I ask if he is aware that the Bill of which he spoke rather disparingly was supported and voted for by the then Home Secretary, who is now the Foreign Secretary?


Leave was given to introduce a Bill the contents of which we knew nothing. Many Members may have voted for the introduction of that Bill just to see what was in it, but that was not of necessity an indication that they approved of what was actually contained in the Bill. Hon. Members know that to be perfectly true. If I may repeat what I was saying, I hope there will be another precedent to-night, and that the present Home Secretary, who, I believe was in favour of the abolition of capital punishment in the last Parliament, will to-night reconsider his position and join with Sir William Harcourt in being a man strong enough to change his mind.

Wild statements are apt to be made on this subject, but what actually are the facts? The hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull, speaking in December of last year when he asked leave to introduce his Bill, used these words: Undoubtedly men have been hanged who were innocent of the charge made against them."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 5th December, 1928; col. 1221, Vol. 223.] That has been repeated in substance to-night by the Mover of the Motion, but I would ask whether he has any proof at all of that statement. I would assert definitely, without fear of contradiction, that never has there been a case within the memory of living man in which an innocent person has been executed in this country. [HON. MEMBERS: "Where is your proof?"]. Has the contrary ever been proved? The contrary has never been proved, and I would ask the Home Secretary, if he is going to follow me in the Debate, whether or not, from the records in his possession at the Home Office, he would substantiate my statement.


The right hon. Gentleman is making a statement which he himself cannot prove.

9.0 p.m.


I have not much time at my disposal, and cannot answer every interruption. The hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull made another statement to-day which I think is inaccurate. I think he said that no country or State, having once decided upon the abolition of capital punishment had returned to that form of punishment. If that is what he said, I would like to correct it. Actually there are seven States in America, with a population of 17,000,000, which have re-introduced capital punishment. There are six States in America with a population of 11,000,000, which abolished capital punishment and did not re-introduce it; but there are still 40 States in that country, with a population of 92,000,000, which still retain capital punishment as a part of their law. Among the States that re-introduced capital punishment are Arizona, Missouri, Tennessee, Oregon and Washington. The Mover of the Motion, I think, said the Royal Commission of 1864–66 advocated abolition. That is not true. What it reported in favour of was the abolition of public executions, which is a very different matter. The Commissioners as a whole forbore from entering into the abstract question of the abolition of capital punishment.

The main reason for the retention of capital punishment is undoubtedly because it is a deterrent, and I am sorry here to disagree with my hon. and learned friend the Member for Wirrall (Mr. Grace). The value of a deterrent was never more forcibly stated than by John Stuart Mill in 1868 and, at the risk of boring the House with quotations, I will read a few words that he used. He said:— The efficacy of a punishment which acts principally through the imagination is chiefly to be measured by the impression it makes on those who are still innocent and by the horror with which it surrounds the first promptings of guilt, the restraining influence it exercises over the beginning of the thought which if indulged would become temptation, the check which it exerts over the gradual declension towards a state in which crime no longer revolts and punishment no longer terrifies. As to what is called the failure of the death punishment, who is able to judge of that? We partly know who those are whom it has not deterred, but who is there who knows who it has deterred, or how many human beings it has saved who would have lived to be murderers if that awful association had not been thrown round the idea of murder from their earliest infancy? Those are most remarkable words, used by a most remarkable man. The proof that we have is positive that it is a deterrent. Fifty or 60 years ago the number of murders committed in this country was approximately the same as the number of murders that are committed to-day, in spite of the fact that the population has doubled. We must have something akin to hanging for the worst cases of murder. If we are going to have a sane policy which will help to-wards the safety of our law abiding citizens, we must in the worst cases still extract an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. The punishment must for ever fit the crime. Let leniency, tempered with reason, exist by all means, but it does exist to-day. Why is it that many societies for the abolition of capital punishment receive such scant financial support? The answer was given quite recently by Mr. Tallack, the former secretary to the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. He says:— Owing to the few executions, comparatively, which take place and to the circumstance that in this country only the worst class of murderers are now executed. That is the reason he gave why this society got so little support.

If we do not hang the worst cases, what is the alternative? The alternative suggested in the hon. and gallant Gentleman's Bill was penal servitude for life. That may mean 15, 20, 25, or 30 years, but it means that every year 20 or 30 murderers of the worst type will be let loose to create a public danger which law-abiding citizens should not be called upon to face. Also, if we are to abolish capital punishment, let us not do it until we have an alternative definitely decided upon. If this Motion is passed, I can well see the Home Secretary being in a very difficult position. When cases are submitted to him, as they are now and as they will be in the future, he will have to do one of two things, either flout the will of the House and carry out the spirit of the law or flout the spirit of the law and carry out the wish of the House, Let him think twice before asking the House to accept this Motion, which will place him in such a very difficult position. The abolition of the present practice, if thought desirable, and a definite, carefully thought-out alternative should both be dealt with at one and the same time. They are not and cannot be dealt with at one and the same time under a Motion such as this. Let us not deal picemeal with such an important portion of the laws of our land. If I had to make an appeal to the House it would be: Do not let us be carried away by passionate appeals on behalf of murderers. Let our first consideration be for those men, women and children who, if this deterrent is weakened, or if these murderers are allowed freedom, would undoubtedly be called upon to live their lives in constant danger and fear. I ask Members of the House, in the interest of the safety and happiness of those innocent, well-behaved, law-abiding citizens, to reject this Motion.


I agree with certain of the right hon. Gentleman's closing observations when he addressed himself to the subject of alter-natives, but I fear I shall fail to satisfy the standard which he set for me in asking me to rise to the height of a previous Parliamentary convert and to make a pronouncement in favour of the continuance of capital punishment. On account of certain duties, I was called out of the House for a short time during the progress of the Debate, but I have heard enough of the speeches to say that Members have addressed themselves to this tragic question in terms of the finest human feelings which are generally more evoked from all of us when we are not dealing with party or controversial questions. The Government views the sentiments which have been addressed to the House with complete sympathy, and it welcomes the indication of views from all quarters as interpreting not only the feeling we ourselves have to-day, but the change in opinion of the whole community on this subject. When speaking from this side of the House in previous years, I expressed the view that on these nights, which are distinctly private Members' nights, Ministers and Front Bench men should not take up too much of the time of the House, and I shall, therefore, address myself briefly to one or two aspects of the question which have been brought up.

We are wandering partly in the region of opinion and partly in the region of disputed fact. We cannot be sure of our ground. It is risky, and, I think, un-helpful to dogmatise too much on this question, but that does not mean that the facts should not be ascertained and that we should definitely defer action on this question when the facts have been ascertained. During the last 100 years this subject has been debated in the House of Commons on, I believe, 18 occasions, but on only one occasion was a majority recorded in favour of the introduction of a Bill, and then the majority was only one vote. How keen, then, has been the division of opinion! Some of the greatest humanitarians and parliamentarians have spoken in these debates and no one can rise from any long reading of these discussions without having some doubt as to whether the abolition of capital punishment for the worst cases of murder can safely be enacted. I am thinking of the more horrifying cases, of those foul murders which make the community feel that no punishment can be too great or too bad for the offenders. There are some cases of murder that are so horrible that if the murderer were allowed to live, the whole conscience of the community might be revolted. Then there is the question of whether, say, the murderer himself, in the event of capital punishment being abolished, can turn and congratulate himself upon having faced the last form of punishment and feel that even in prison there is nothing to deter him from a further murder. These considerations we cannot set aside. If such a murderer escaped from prison or murdered a warder what should his position be and what should be the condition of his further detention in order to secure the safety of those who have to look after him?

I agree to a large extent with the remarks of the right hon. Gentleman opposite on this question of alternatives. The question of alternatives to capital punishment is the rock on which projects for the abolition usually split. Until an alternative is found which on the one hand will not be too humane and on the other will duly safeguard the community, the abolition of capital punishment in this country cannot safely be established. Let us admit that times are changing. Our views are being remodelled even on this question of punishment. We are lightening the load for the young and for the old, treating them more humanely, I would even say more gently and more considerately, and in this more en-lightened period we have to face the subject from an angle which is different from that which was faced by those who addressed themselves to this subject, say 100 years ago. That is why it is possible for a House like this to-night to listen as it did with, I think, a great deal of sympathy, to the eloquent reasons offered to the House by the Mover of the Motion.

We cannot settle the matter altogether on statistics, but we must have statistics. My hon. Friend adduced the fact that in the State of Maine in America, where capital punishment has been abolished, the percentage of murders has decreased, but we now hear on the authority of the hon. Gentleman the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hacking)—and I can corroborate what he has said—that while in Maine you have that result, there are eight States—not seven, as the hon. Gentleman said—where the States, having once abolished capital punishment, have recently restored it. But I do not share the view that we can determine this question as between ourselves and other States. It is an issue which, when we are sure of the ground, we can settle for ourselves. I do not accept the view that there is on record any ground for the belief that there are instances of innocent men having been hanged under our system of modern law. For the conditions for defence are so elaborate—I would even say unprecedented—and the conditions for appeal and for retrial are so complete, that, as far as human reason can determine the guilt of any person, that guilt must be established before a man is sent to his death.

Finally, I ask, Where does he want to travel? I believe that those who put down the Motion want some practical results from their proposal. If they merely carry their Motion will they get them? They will get a pious record of opinion that in the view of this House capital punishment should be abolished. There is no indication of any further steps that they desire the House or Government or community to take in relation to that Motion. I think that we should be moved by their motives and their intentions and not precisely by the wording of the Motion on the Paper. I gather, and, indeed, have seen its terms on the Table, that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) intends to move an Amendment which in effect calls for the establishment of a Select Committee to go into the matter and give a report. It is for my hon. Friends who have brought forward the Motion to say whether they accept that Amendment. I merely point out that if they do not accept it and their Motion is carried, the motive and purpose which they have in view will not be carried any further. On the other hand, if the Amendment were accepted and carried by the House it would mean that action could be taken by the constitution of a Select Committee and perhaps some practical result would emerge later on after the House had had the fullest information placed before it.

During the short time that I have been in the position of Home Secretary I have endured the agonies of mind which must have possessed every Home Secretary in turn in having to deal with the appeals in these terrible and lamentable cases. Imagine what my position would be if the House merely recorded an opinion and left it at that! How painful and embarrassing would be the state of any Home Secretary! The hon. Gentleman opposite has pointed out that he would have to act either in defence of the law or in conflict with the recorded Motion of the House of Commons.


Will the right hon. Gentleman reply to the following question? Would it not follow as an automatic consequence of the passage of the Motion now before the House that the Government would thereafter introduce a Bill to give effect to the legislation?




No, Sir, it would not necessarily follow that the Government would be required to introduce a Bill on the passing of this Motion. I think the view of the House would be, as is in fact shown in this Amendment, that some other course would have to precede the introduction of a Bill. A Committee would have to consider the facts presented by authority and brought forward through a channel that could be trusted. While on different sides of the House we have been in doubt on the question of figures and on points of argument, I think that the Government, whether Labour or otherwise, would be disposed to take some steps on whatever report a Select Committee might submit. My view is that in such a case a Bill would have to be introduced, but it could not be done upon a Motion so bare as the one now before the House. Any action must be taken on a Bill which either this Government or any other Government may be disposed to introduce.


I beg to move, in line 1, to leave out from the word "House" to the end of the Question, and to add instead thereof the words, it is desirable that a Select Committee should be appointed to consider the question of capital punishment. I address the House on this occasion because the subject of capital punishment is one to which, owing to force of circumstances, I have given close consideration for some years. Having held the office of Home Secretary, the duty devolved upon me, under the law, to decide upon a number of death sentences, and, when I was High Commissioner in Palestine for five years, I had a larger number of cases brought before me to be decided by me on the advice of my Executive Council. Anyone who has gone through that experience must naturally address his mind most carefully and conscientiously to the principle of capital punishment itself, whether it is right or not, whether it is necessary or unnecessary. Let me make my position quite clear from the outset. My sympathy is not "in the least with the murderers. My sympathy is with the murdered and their relatives, and my prime object is to protect the lives which might be threatened by brutal assault if the law were made too lax against those who commit crimes of that character.

I believe in the sanctity of human life, and I believe that that sanctity needs specially to be safeguarded where it affects the lives of peaceful people of good character, those who may suffer murders, and not so much the violent people of bad character, who commit the murders. If capital punishment is held to be necessary for the protection of the lives of peaceful citizens, I should support it; but if not, and that is the point to which the House must address itself, it is a terrible thing for society, in cold blood, and by a legal process, to put an end to the life of a fellow human being. It is a terrible strain and ordeal that is placed upon the executioners, the warders, yes, and the judges and juries who have to decide these questions. So great is the strain placed upon the juries that it is well known they are often eager to find any plausible excuse for acquitting a person who probably has been guilty of murder.

The hon. Member for Wolverhampton West (Mr. W. J. Brown), in a very able speech, quoted a report of the Home Office of a recent year in which it was pointed out that the proportion of acquittals was distinctly higher in murder cases than in other cases. We may draw from that the conclusion that probably a number of murderers who ought to have been found guilty have been acquitted, owing to the sensitiveness of juries on account of the death penalty, and have escaped all punishment. That is wrong. Yet, in spite of the sensitiveness of the juries and these cases of acquittals, there must be some lingering doubt in the minds of all of us whether instances may not occur in which people who are really not guilty have suffered the death penalty. I agree that there is no proof that any such case has occurred, but proof is exceedingly difficult to get. My feelings were especially stirred owing to the Oscar Slater case. Whatever opinion one may have of the character of that individual, he has been found now, by the highest authorities, not to have been guilty of the murder with which he was charged, for which he was convicted and for which he would have suffered death if he had not been reprieved. How can we be sure that there have not been other Oscar Slaters who have not been reprieved, but who have suffered, and have never been vindicated in subsequent years?

There was another case, a year ago, at Brighton, where two men were charged with murder and sentenced to death. That case went through all the ordinary judicial processes which try to safeguard so carefully the lives of men whose innocence may not be certain or whose guilt may be doubtful. These two men at Brighton were tried in the ordinary criminal court, and the case went to the Court of Appeal and to the Home Secretary. On each occasion it was decided that they were guilty and should suffer the penalty of death. The Home Secretary issued the ordinary notification that he saw no reason for interfering with the process of the law, but within a few hours of the time for the execution to take place the Home Secretary, now the Noble Lord, Lord Brentford, saw reason to doubt whether these men ought to suffer the penalty of death, and, as his duty was, even at the last moment, he frankly altered his previous decision and ordered a reprieve of the men. That was a shock to a great many people throughout the country who feel that an issue so grave as that ought not to rest on the judgment, in this case the vacillating judgment, of one man.

I hold, in general, that if the country can safely dispense with capital punishment we shall have reached a higher level of civilisation. There are many false arguments from one side and the other which the House can speedily dismiss. Some people say that, as a matter of principle, we have no right in any circumstances to take a human life. I do not share that view. If it is necessary to take lives in order to save lives, I think we have a right to do so. On the other hand, there are people who say that it is very unfair to the taxpayers of this country to maintain a large number of condemned murderers in prison. I do not think that is an argument which need carry very much weight. The number of people who are executed in this country is very seldom more than 20 in any one year, usually 10 or 12. If we take an average of 15 a year and assume that all of them serve the full term of imprisonment for 20 years, that would mean that there would be about 300 men of this class in our prisons at any one time. As the ordinary prison population is 13,000—it fluctuates up and down, happily, mostly downward—the question of 300 more or less is not a matter of any importance.

It is said that imprisonment for a long term is really more inhuman than execution and that a man would rather be hanged than be kept in prison for a long time. If so, that is a reason for sending him to prison, because what we want to do is to establish an effective deterrent. Assuming it to be true that a man would rather be hanged than be sent to prison for a long term that, to my mind, is a reason why he should be sent to prison.


Does the right hon. Gentleman suggest that a term of imprisonment is a greater deterrent than hanging?


I do not know. I have never been required to make the choice. I am only answering those who say that capital punishment is wrong to the criminal and that it is so hard on him to be sent for a long term of imprisonment. The argument of the right hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Hacking) was that it was right that we should practise the principle of an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.


In the worst cases.


That is a principle which I believe was never acted upon at any time by any people. It was a mere declaration that was never put into force in any code, so far as I am aware. Even if it had been, it is not a principle that should be acted upon by the modern world. It is not on the principle of tit for tat that we should deal with these matters. We do not gouge out a man's eye if he has gouged out someone's else's. We do not draw his teeth if he has knocked out another man's tooth; we do not steal from thieves; we do not commit violent assaults upon people who have committed violence. This doctrine that the punishment should correspond with the crime is a wrong one.


I was only using a figure of speech.


I know very well that that was what the right hon. Gentleman meant. But the principle is the same in one as in the other. He only used the phrase because he thought that if a person had committed a murder he ought himself to be killed.


If it is a bad case.


The answer to that is that it should never be in a spirit of tit for tat that a great nation should frame its criminal law, but in a calm, august spirit of justice. The only question to which the House need seriously address itself in this—the whole matter resolves itself down to this—Does capital punishment prevent murders, and, if it is abolished, are murders likely to increase? It has generally been assumed by most people that it does, and that, if it were abolished, murders would increase. They say that the burglar does not take a revolver with him for fear he should be tempted to shoot, knowing that if he shoots he may be hanged. And so he leaves the weapon at home. They say, too, that if the punishment were no greater for murder than for repeated burgarly, the burglar might be tempted to shoot in order to escape. That is a very strong argument if it is sound. Here we come to one very important point which has greatly influenced me and largely changed the point of view from which I used to regard this matter. We are not reduced here to surmise or to guesses as to what we think will follow in certain eventualities. The best of guides in these matters is experience. We have not got experience in this country. There has, however, 'been an experience of 20 or 30 years in many other countries very like our own in the character of their population.

That is my point. I do not compare some experience in some Eastern country where life is wholly different, or even in America where social conditions are very different from those here. I take countries neighbouring to our own in North-Western Europe. I find that all our near neighbours in North-Western Europe have abolished capital punishment 20, 30 or 40 years ago. There is not a brief experience but a long experience. In Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Holland and Belgium the abolition of capital punishment, if the statistics are reliable, has not been followed by an increase, but by a decrease of murderous crimes. That is a point of primary importance. If those figures are correct, they may give useful guidance to opinion in this country and in this House. There are, as has been said, many other countries which have abolished capital punishment. There are five others in different parts of Europe and nine in Central and South America. I should like to see all the facts with regard to this matter most carefully investigated. These figures which have been quoted are taken from an able publication by a propagandist organisation, a book by Mr. Calvert, issued by the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment.

I do not think that this House ought to accept straight away any information which is given to it, however conscientiously and sincerely, by anybody who looks at the matter ex parte. Parliament ought to legislate with full knowledge of the facts of the case, deliberately and carefully. That is why, as a Member of this House, with the feelings I entertain and which I have endeavoured to express on the subject of capital punishment, I should feel very chary of voting for the Motion of the hon. Member straight away, unless I knew that all these facts were correct and whether or not there were other circumstances that might put a different complexion on them, whether for instance there were other comparable countries where the experience has been different and has not been fully brought out. All these facts should be ascertained. Further, I think Parliament would be unwise to go too far in advance of public opinion. You want to educate opinion on this point. You might have a violent revulsion of public opinion if suddenly on a Wednesday evening the House of Commons resolved to abolish capital punishment. People would say that Parliament was dealing too light-heartedly with these great matters. That is why I would suggest to the House that the case is one for an inquiry in the first instance. I do not want to block the efforts of hon. Members opposite. Far from it. This is not a blocking inquiry. I would move my Amendment in order that the way might be made clear to a further reform in our criminal law, which I believe is likely to follow from an inquiry of this character.

The Home Secretary has very strongly advised hon. Members opposite to accept an Amendment of this character. I do not wish to force it on the House, and I would not press it to a Division if it was not acceptable to some section at all events of the House. I am inclined to think that a Select Committee of this House would be the best form of inquiry, because I believe this House of Commons better than anyone else represents the real spirit and desires of the whole nation, and that a departmental committee or a Royal Commission would not so effectively reflect its real desires and opinion as a Committee of this House. It has been mentioned to-night that in olden days capital punishment was extended very widely. In the eighteenth century there were 200 crimes punished by death. Any student of the history of our criminal law is well aware that, whenever reforms and mitigations were proposed, there were prophecies, and from authoritative quarters, that, if the code were made more humane, criminals would become more numerous and more ruthless. Every one of those prophecies has been falsified in the event. I think we shall find it practicable—and if so, it will be a very great advance in this generation—without increasing crime and without lessening the safety of the peaceful population, to take one further step in the humanising of our criminal code.

Captain EDEN

I do not think the Home Secretary ever spoke a truer word in this House than when he reminded us that it was impossible to be dogmatic upon this issue to-night. As I listened to some of the earlier speeches in this Debate it seemed to me that some hon. Members in their enthusiasm were not perhaps quite seized of the issue. They seemed to think that because, for instance, we all of us regard capital punishment with a large measure of horror, it was therefore impossible for us to oppose the Motion. Those of us who still have doubts upon this very difficult subject base those doubts not solely on the horror of capital punishment.

We none of us wish to see capital punishment maintained, but we have to ask ourselves this question: ought we to maintain capital punishment? That is the issue. It is not a question of what we may wish, but what is our duty and, therefore, it is quite beside the point for hon. Members to refer to the attitude of the Press in regard to these cases. That is quite immaterial. It is probably true that the Press do make sensations out of these trials and, if they do, the remedy lies not in altering the law in respect of the method of trial or the punishment, but to alter the law in respect of the Press. It is no use trying to put one thing right by making another thing wrong. An appeal was made by my hon. Friend beside me on the ground of humanity. Surely he does not expect that anyone would like to take charge of a duty of this kind. Surely he does not think we are inhuman because we consider that the weight of argument lies rather in maintaining capital punishment than for doing away with it. Most heartily do I endorse the view "thou shalt not kill," and it is quite possible to endorse that and at the same time to support capital punishment because capital punishment, if it has any reason at all, is to enforce "thou shalt not kill." That is the measure of the argument to which this House should address itself.

One other matter was raised by the speech of the right hon. Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel)—the question of alternatives. I think the House should concern itself for a moment with this before it allows the question to pass to a Committee. What is the proposal? It can only be this, that if the death penalty is abolished there shall be substituted for it some lesser penalty such as is inflicted at present for some lesser offence. That is presumably the only alternative. You will alter the degree of punishment. Goldsmith, who commended himself to my hon. Friend beside me, was one of the most eloquent who pleaded against capital punishment, and he used the particular argument which has been used by several hon. Members to-night. He said: When by indiscriminate penal laws the nation beholds the same punishment affixed to dissimilar degrees of guilt, the people are led to lose all sense of distinction in the crime, and this distinction is the bulwark of all morality. Whether that is so or not, this House should pause before it removes a distinction in crime by lessening the penalty against the most heinous offence and bring it down to the level of a less serious offence. That is an aspect of the question which I humbly submit to the House. The whole issue is this: Is capital punishment a deterrent or is it not? All other issues and appeals to sentiment are quite irrelevant. On that I have one thing to submit. It must be admitted that in all our hearts there is nothing anyone of us clings to more intensely than life itself. There are some lines which are fresh in all our minds: The weariest and most loathed worldly life, That age, ache, penury and imprisonment Can lay on nature, is a paradise To what we fear of death. That is perfectly true. No one will deny that the greatest deterrent in our minds is the fear of death, of losing that which is most valuable in life. If that is so, are we right in removing that deterrent? If we can prove that there is no substitute for it, as I fear there is not, then surely we are wrong if we remove that deterrent. That is the whole issue which the House should consider. For my part, and I have endeavoured to balance this matter, the evidence which now exists in Switzerland and the United States is of very little value, and I do not think comparative statistics of other countries help us greatly, because so much more depends on the English point of view, on English character, and other criteria from other countries is more or less worthless. I hope that this House, whenever it decides this question, will eschew all appeals to sentiment and will consider whether the death penalty is a deterrent. If so, it may not be our wish, but it would be our duty, to maintain it.


I must confess, having listened to this Debate as opened by the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. W. Brown), not only with interest but with enthusiasm, but I have been perfectly disappointed with the course it has taken in its later stages. I do not know what decision will be come to by those responsible for the Motion. It may be that the attitude of the Home Secretary makes it impossible for them to do anything with profit to the cause they have at heart by persevering with the Motion as originally framed, but I most respectfully differ from the Home Secretary when he said that nothing could come out of merely passing this Motion. It may be that nothing can come out of it now, but I suggest that it would have been a possible attitude for the Home Secretary to take up to say that as this House has expressed clearly and distinctly its views on this matter, he will act upon it, not necessarily by persuading the Cabinet to introduce a Bill, but by giving certain advice which it is his duty to give on every occasion he has the opportunity. Once he had started on that course it would have been very hard to start this practice again, which I say is repugnant to the conscience of the community. Nevertheless, we have had a Debate of great practical convenience to this cause. It has done good, and I congratulate the hon. Member who moved the Motion not only on his own speech but on the support he has received.

Until we come to the hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman) who cast over it that light touch of delightful humour which is all his own, there was unanimous support for the Motion, but when that speech was being delivered it was impossible to suppose that the House was being seriously asked to discuss this question. The hon. and gallant Member for Central Hull (Lieut.-Commander Kenworthy) introduced a Bill last year under the Ten Minute Rule, and it was stated that those who voted for it did so in order to see what was in it. Did hon. Members expect to see a bowl of goldfish? The hon. and gallant Member explained exactly what it contained and everybody knew that they would be asked to approve of the proposal that this practice should no longer go on. I regard it as a matter for profound regret that there should be any delay in dealing with this subject. It means that in the meantime other sentences are going to be passed and other people are going to suffer this penalty. [An HON. MEMBER: "For murder?"] Yes, for murder. Evidently there are still some people here who cling to the barbaric doctrine of revenge. [An HON. MEMBER: "They do not hang enough!"] These interruptions show that the opinion and the conscience of the country as a whole are in advance of some of those in this House.

We have to realise our own responsibility in this matter. It is not the responsibility of the hangman or the prison governor, who are only paid servants. It is not the responsibility of the prosecuting counsel, who only presents the case, or of the jury, who are told again and again that they are not concerned with the penalty. It is not the responsibility of the judge, who has only one penalty which he can pronounce, or even of the Home Secretary, who, without a clear indication from this House cannot depart from precedent. The responsibility rests upon those who sit on these benches and nowhere else. We are in fact a great grand jury, which does not find the facts, but which renders this sentence possible. I believe we have already present to us quite enough experience to enable us to act now. We are told that we have to wait for statistics, and, at the same time, several Members drive it home to us that statistics are of no value. When I hear an hon. Member say that he will not deal with any statistics in this matter, I can only come to the conclusion that he knows the statistics are against him.

To my mind what we do now is a horror and reproach on which we can decide for ourselves, and I thoroughly agree with my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Central Hull that it would be better to have these executions in public if we are to have them at all. After all, the noblest—the only real apology—for the execution of Charles I was made by that regicide who said that "it was not done in a corner." What we do now is done in a corner. It is done behind four walls because, if everybody knew what was done, the practice would soon be swept away. I admit that the immediate effect of having executions in public would be to minister to that morbid interest, that sadism, to which the Mover referred, but, in the end, and very quickly, the conscience of this country would revolt and the system would be swept away. The question of capital punishment as a deterrent has been dealt with ably by the Mover of the Motion, and it is not necessary to refer to it further. I would only make this appeal to the House. If this subject must go to a Committee, let us give that Committee our best wishes in seeing that the national conscience is brought up to the level of the consciences of each one of us who would not put our hands to such a deed.


The ground has been very well covered by the previous speakers, and I would in the first place, congratulate and compliment the hon. Member for West Middlesbrough (Mr. K. Griffith) on the splendid speech which he has just delivered. With him I find myself in complete agreement, but I would like to ask one or two of those who have spoken already if they really think—[Interruption]. I would point out to the House that this is practically my maiden speech and ask hon. Members to refrain from interruption. I would ask some of the hon. Members who have spoken on this subject, if they really think that the statistical argument is the main argument in a question of this kind. Do we cease to be human beings when we become Members of Parliament? Are we merely automata? The speech which was delivered from the Front Bench opposite was quite inaccurate in a number of details and, as several considerations have been overlooked in the course of the Debate, I hope I shall not be trespassing on the time of the House by referring to them. As a matter of fact, capital punishment is deplorable because it is totally out of harmony with the spirit of this age.


I do not like to interrupt the hon. Member. This is not quite his maiden speech. He has spoken before in the House, otherwise I should be still more reluctant to interrupt him; but the House must remember that an Amendment has been moved and, although it is very difficult in speaking directly upon that Amendment to avoid touching upon the main question of the merits or demerits of capital punishment, yet I must confine the Debate now to the Amendment that this question be referred to a Select Committee, and to arguments for or against sending it to a Select Committee.


I submit that a committee is quite unnecessary and that the original Motion would be more to the point. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) said that we ought to educate public opinion. What could be more vital in the education of the public than the announcement in to-morrow's Press that this House had carried the, original Motion as against the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment. It has been mentioned on several occasions that the only argument which ought to be submitted to the House on this matter is the argument as to whether capital punishment is a deterrent or not. I hope I shall be in order in referring to one particular point which has been challenged by hon. Gentlemen opposite and even by the Home Secretary. It is said that there has never been, in the history of capital punishment in this country, a case in which an innocent person actually suffered. But I can give from the book from which a previous speaker has quoted, or at least from the same author, one specific case of that kind: In Lincolnshire, in the year 1869, Priscilla Biggadyke was convicted of poisoning her husband, taken to the scaffold, and executed, protesting her innocence. Subsequently, a man on his deathbed confessed that he had entered the kitchen and poisoned the food in the woman's absence. That is from Tallock, who has already been quoted to-night: "Penological and Preventive Principles," pages 246 and 247, but the main point is not so much whether a case has actually happened as that cases might happen. Oscar Slater's case has been mentioned, and there was the celebrated case of Adolph Beck, who was not sentenced to death, but there have been innumerable cases where inno- cent persons have suffered, and, as the Mover of the original Motion said, we can never be perfectly sure, and we ought not to countenance an act that is irrevocable. If I am in order, I want to refer to the history of this business.


As long as the hon. Member's arguments are directed against the necessity for setting up a Select Committee, he will be in order.


That Select Committee would have to inquire, in any case, into the history of capital punishment. I will direct myself now to asking the House, from the purely human standpoint, not from the statistical standpoint, if they actually believe that in the days when you could not move out of a great city without seeing a gibbet on every common, when every town and city in the country had its gallows tree, when people were hung by the hundred for stealing not merely horses and sheep but such trumpery things as a few yards of calico, as is mentioned by the novelist Charles Dickens—if they actually believe that, as capital punishment has been abolished for all these petty offences, the world is more inhuman, more brutal, and less civilised to-day than it was 100 years ago. No one can possibly believe that, the "eye for an eye" and the "tooth for a tooth" argument notwithstanding. I always understood that there was a Being Who came to give us an entirely new dispensation and one that was directly opposed to the "eye for an eye" and the "tooth for a tooth" argument, and I should like to quote a passage from a late distinguished right hon. Member of this House, namely, John Bright, who said: Deep reverence for human life is worth more than a thousand executions for the prevention of murder, and is in fact a greater security to human life. The law of capital punishment, while pretending to support this reverence, does in fact tend to destroy it. 10.0 p.m.

One of the greatest arguments against capital punishment is the fact that it perpetuates the very evil that it is designed to prevent. It has been urged to-night that it might foe reserved for the most horrible types of murder, but human logic tells us that the more horrible the murder is, the more abnormal was the mind that planned and carried it out. There are only two kinds of murderers, namely, the insane, whom we do not hang, and the so-called sane, and I cannot believe that any murderer is actually sane. You can divide the so-called sane into two categories, the man who commits a murder on the impulse of the moment and who, therefore, is temporarily insane and ought not to be hanged, and the cold-blooded murderer, particularly the poisoner. We have been hanging people in this country and abroad, not since the Norman Conquest, for the ancient Britons, the Romans, the Danes, and the Normans all hung people—we have been hanging them all these years; and to come to the poisoner, the cold-blooded, brutal poisoner, ever since the days of the Borgias and the De Medicis we have never failed to produce a crop of poisoners. In this country we have had Palmer, and Pritchard, and Armstrong, and the others, with whom we are all fairly well acquainted. All these examples of the calculating, cold-blooded murderer are, to my mind, convincing proofs that capital punishment never deters, the reason being that a man who can sit down and deliberately plan a cold-blooded murder believes that he is clever enough or asute enough to evade the consequences of his act, and therefore capital punishment does not deter him. I submit, in spite of the strictures of the hon. Member opposite, that the statistics given this evening from other countries are important. In this country the average number of murders that take place has been about 150 and that average has been fairly stable for the last 20 or 30 years. Nevertheless, if you take the five years preceding the Great War, you will find that there were 784 murders and only 78 persons were executed, and if you take the five years immediately after the War, you will find that again you have some 788 murders committed and yet only 70 persons were executed. The Mover of the Resolution said that if you commit a murder in this country you have seven chances out of eight of escaping the hangman. These figures again show that capital punishment is not a deterrent. Only the absolute certainty of the law being put into effect and the inevitably of the murderer being executed would be a deterrent.

I am going to close by making the appeal that we are here to deal with this question from a human point of view.

Let us forget a little about these statistics; let us remember that we are a Christian assembly, at any rate, and let us remember the spirit of the age, that we are in an age when aeroplanes, air-ships, locomotives, wireless, and all the other fruits of the fertility of the mind of man surround us, and that this beastly, degraded system or practice of strangling people who are really fitter to be handled by the pathologist than by the governor of a gaol shall be swept off the Statute Book of this country.


I hope the Motion will not be carried and that the Amendment will be accepted by the House, for oherwise I fear that the House will be coming to a decision on very insufficient information. There is here a danger of giving way to that kind of sentimentalism which extends sympathy to the wrongdoer rather than to the person who has been wronged. It seems inevitable that, where you have an individual up against the forces of law and order, popular sympathy should go to the individual, and I am certain that, in coming to a conclusion on this very important question, we must try to leave sentiment out of the question. I think we are all on common ground to this extent, that we all believe that capital punishment is only justifiable if it is necessary for the protection of society, and the question which we have to ask ourselves, and which I feel we are not in a position to answer on the information we have, is the simple question, Is it or is it not necessary for the protection of society? We know that in practice it is a punishment which is reserved only for really bad cases, and whether we like it or not, we have to recognise that history teaches us that there are a number of really wicked people in the world, people who have committed and will commit deliberately premeditated murder.

What are the four points upon which, as it seems to me, we do want guidance? The first is the question: What are you going to put in its place? That is a question which has not been answered to-night. We are told that there are a number of countries in Europe where capital punishment has been abolished. We have not been told what alternative they have adopted, and whether it is an alternative which this country would tolerate. Take Italy, and take Switzer- land; we all know what their alternatives are; we have read of cases where murderers have been sentenced to 30 years solitary confinement. If you are prepared to adopt an alternative of that kind, you can do away with capital punishment to-morrow; but are you? Our only alternative in this country, unless we make a change, is penal servitude, which is the punishment for all sorts of lesser crimes, and a punishment which is becoming less of a punishment year by year. It is the punishment, for instance, which you now inflict upon a murderer who has been reprieved because of extenuating circumstances, and whose sentence of capital punishment is remitted and replaced by sentence of penal servitude for life. You cannot treat the really wicked murderer in the same way as that. That is the first point upon which you want further consideration: What alternative is there which this country is prepared to tolerate?

The next point upon which it seems to me we want more information and more thought is one which has been touched upon already; what punishment remains to be inflicted upon a murderer who has been reprieved and is serving a life sentence, if he commits a further crime? I do not know whether any hon. Members have read a book which was published the other day called "His Majesty's Guests," written by a warder of obviously very great experience. He instanced the case of. a man who was serving a long term, but who was suffering from some tubercular trouble, and therefore the authorities had been for-bidden by the doctors in charge to cut down his food in any way; he could not be put on bread and water, he could not have solitary confinement, and corporal punishment could not be inflicted upon him; and the writer of the book points out how perfectly helpless they were in dealing with a man upon whom they could inflict no further punishment. Hearing the Debate to-night reminded me of that case. That is another point upon which more thought and more consideration is required: what means would you have open to you for preventing a criminal of that sort, who, remember, is ex hypothesi a deliberately wicked murderer from committing similar crimes or other crimes in future?

A third point—and it is quite a good point—upon which one needs further in- formation and inquiry is this. We have always had in our minds the fear of making a mistake, and of doing something irrevocable which might in the end turn out to be wrong. There was a good deal more in that argument before we set up the Court of Criminal Appeal. One has to remember that now every case can be most carefully reviewed by, I suppose, the most highly-trained lawyers that we can produce; and even on the top of that, there is a further consideration of the case by the Home Secretary. Indeed, if there is any doubt in the case, it will surely be disclosed in the course of the two trials and the final consideration.

I must put one thing right. Twice during this Debate the case of Oscar Slater has been referred to, and it has been referred to as a case in which it was established that an innocent man had been convicted. I am not saying for a moment—hon. Members will please not think that I am—that he was not innocent; I am merely saying that the tribunal which inquired into the case came to no such conclusion. What the tribunal found was that there had been such a misdirection to the jury that if there had been an appeal under modern conditions that appeal would have been allowed. The misdirection was that the jury were told that they could take into consideration other incidents in the man's life which made it perhaps not improbable that he had committed a crime of this sort. That was misdirection; but a case of that sort could not occur to-day when we have the Court of Criminal Appeal. Therefore, I think this fear can perhaps be easily exaggerated by people who are not very familiar with the facts. After all, even with the alternative punishment which you might inflict there would be the same doubt. There is always some doubt in a case, whatever be the punishment which you inflict; but I think with our present system of administration of our criminal law there is no real fear of a mistake.

There is one other matter which needs very careful thought, and I think very careful inquiry. The right hon. Member who spoke from the Liberal Benches referred to the fact that once there were 200 offences which could be punished by hanging, and said that they were now cut down to one, but he did not tell us that the reason why you could successfully cut down the severity of punishment was that as time went on a greater certainty was acquired of detection and a greater certainty of capture. Once you can get certainty of capture and certainty of punishment, then you can reduce the severity of your punishment. We know that even to-day in cases where detection is very difficult one still has abnormally severe punishment to make up for the want of certainty of detection, capture and proof. Therefore, this question of making your punishment, if you like to use the expression, more humane or less severe must always be considered hand in hand with the question of certainty of capture and certainty of conviction and of punishment. There, again, we must all feel very disturbed at the number of murders which are committed in respect of which the criminal is never brought to justice. Of all offences to-day I should imagine that that of murder is perhaps the one in which the greatest number, proportionately, of cases is never brought home to anybody. When you have that want of certainty, there again you must be very chary about modifying the punishment; but it is a matter upon which I think inquiry could probably obtain a good deal of information.

On all these points, I am sure that we could get far more information than we have at present, and that a conclusion come to then would be a conclusion which would carry far more weight, because it would be a conclusion based upon the greatest amount of information that you could collect and make available for consideration, than a conclusion come to to-night, which people might think had perhaps been come to rather hastily, without sufficient information, and probably on purely sympathetic grounds. I do urge that the Amendment be accepted.


I find it rather difficult to understand exactly for what reason the proposed Select Committee is to be set up. I understood from the Home Secretary that we were asked to agree to it because there was no proper alternative suggested. If I understood the right hon. Gentleman for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel), correctly, he rather suggested it in order that it might be ascertained whether it would be an expedient thing to do away with capital punishment. It seems to me that if we are to consider the matter from the point of view of deterrence, the facts are already at hand, and that the House is therefore not in any difficulty. I do feel that we have laboured for a long time to-night under a serious misapprehension as to what is the nature of the punishment involved. The strongest argument that I could suggest against the punishment is not that it is too severe for the prisoner who is sentenced to death, but it is the nature of the punishment which I think is the matter involved; and because of the nature of the punishment I suggest that it is no deterrent and that therefore there is no purpose in a further inquiry.

The nature of the punishment perhaps ought to be understood. There is not only a sentiment of pity against which we have been most carefully warned; there is a sentiment of brutality against which we need to warn ourselves. But the effect of the death penalty is surely an effect far greater upon the people who are not called upon to suffer it than upon the prisoner himself. When I was a lad, I happened to be sitting one evening in a hotel in a small county town, and I remember a policeman coming into the hotel to take the names of people to sit upon an inquest. When I inquired who was dead in the town, I learned that nobody was dead, but that in the morning a murderer was to be hanged. Whatever the effect of that death sentence might have been upon the murderer, from that night until now I have never been able to feel absolutely free from some part in the murder of a man who was as alive as I was, and for whose prospective death the next morning they were preparing to make arrangements for an inquest. The effect is far greater upon the family than upon the man.

The right hon. Gentleman who spoke from the Opposition Front Bench rather misled us in one respect. No doubt it was a slip, but it was a rather serious slip from the point of view that I take. He said—and it is the correct thing—that in practice only the very worst type of murderer is hanged. He went on to say, in almost the next sentence, that if we abolished capital punishment and substitute penal servitude, no matter for how long a time, there would be from 20 to 30 very dangerous people set at liberty every year. Of course the statistics do not back him up. The number of execu- tions in the nine years for which figures are available, from 1919 to 1927 inclusive, were 131, which is barely half the maximum number that the right hon. Gentleman suggested. It seems to me that we ought to consider this matter, not so much from the point of view of expediency as from the point of view of right or wrong. If it be right to execute murderers, I fail to see that any question of statistics abroad or at home matters, and if it be wrong to execute capital punishment, I fail to see how its failure or success abroad could influence the question. That learned authority upon the medical side of our prison administration, Dr. James Devon, has declared in his books that he felt outraged every time when, as a doctor, he was called upon to be present at an execution. It was his sacred vocation to restore life and to repair life, and to be called upon deliberately and effectively to see that a man's life was properly destroyed was an outrage upon his profession. The position of a chaplain is a difficult one, and we ought to bear it in mind.

May I, on the question of deterrents, point out what happens for those Members who, more fortunate than I have been, have not had to attend murder trials and visit prisons, and may not be aware of it? A man may be convicted for never so violent an offence, and terribly punished with penal servitude, and he is slipped down the stairs, and no one cares further about him. But if a man is convicted for a most deliberate murder, from that moment every effort is made by the prison authorities to ameliorate his position. It is a fact within the knowledge of hon. Members that when a prisoner is so convicted, he is at once given cigarettes to smoke, even before he is taken away from the place of conviction to prison; that he is never left alone after his conviction, that he is allowed special privileges as regards clothing and books, that he has always with him some prison officials and, unless I entirely misconceive it, the whole duty of the chaplain is to persuade him that it is a much happier thing for him that he should die than that he should live. This is not only a serious discredit upon our religion, but it is absolutely a negation of any deterrence upon the criminal.

The people who really suffer are the families of the criminals. Anybody who has sat, as I sat on one never-to-be- forgotten occasion, from 10 o'clock on a Monday evening until 8 o'clock on a Tuesday morning with the parents of a lad who was to be hanged, and saw that mother watching the clock, knowing there was coming a time when, without any signs to us at all, but with an infallible certainty, she would be without a son—anybody who has had that experience will realise that although the man in prison may be a very bad man, the tragedy of the execution falls upon the relatives, and that the deterrence is not upon the man who commits the crime. I do not think any of us will doubt that long imprisonment is a much more serious deterrent than hanging. I have been present at scores of murder trials, and on many occasions I have heard police witnesses say, as an hon. Member recalled earlier in the Debate, that prisoners had cried, "I will swing for you; I will hang for you." But I have never heard a police witness say he has heard anybody exclaim, "I will do 20 years for you."—nor would they. However, I think more deterrence will be found in a long sentence of imprisonment, and we have it on the authority of a prison governor, Sir Basil Thomson, that the most depressed person in prison is the reprieved murderer a week after his reprieve. The halo, the shoddy halo, of romance has gone, the realisation of years and years of dreadful and exacting servitude is upon him, and as the prison governor says, he is the most depressed person in the prison.

I have had to visit a number of men who have been reprieved, men who have served 15 and 20 years in prison. I will not say it was so in every case, I dare not, but these men have said to me that they wished to God they had been hanged and the whole thing had been done with. I submit that this House could quite freely vote for this Motion and abolish capital punishment, with the certainty that nothing would be lost as regards deterrence.

There are only one or two other points with which I need to trouble the House. One most important point from my point of view is this. It has been said again and again to-night that a great many murder crimes are crimes of passion; and on the other hand we have been reminded, quite properly, that certain murders are slow and deliberate crimes of poisoners. I remember one such case, the case of Armstrong. I attended that case throughout. That man was, no doubt, justly convicted of his crime, and as the law stood was properly executed. That man is beyond the reach of every human penalty or pain, but some of us know that to-night the children of that man, innocent and one time happy, hopeful children, are now living far away from this land under an assumed name. As long as they live those children will pay the penalty of their father's crime. Theirs is the real weight of the punishment.


It would be just the same if he had not been hanged.


The suggestion is that it would be just the same if he had not been hanged. I do not agree. There is that extraordinary psychology which looks upon the gallows as something so horrible that never again—[Interruption.] I do not suggest that a knowledge of psychology is confined to this side of the House, neither do I claim that human feeling is confined to this side of the House, but the families of people who have gone to the gallows are looked upon with superstitious contempt. I myself, although I have endeavoured to preach the Christian religion, do not contend that the whole of my life has been blameless. I do not know why it has been thought that I have not had the same provocations and impulses which other people have had. I do not know1 why it is considered that I have not had those provocations and temptations to violence that come to some people better educated than myself, who stand in altogether different circumstances.

Prison governors and warders will tell you that they have learned to pity and love some of the most extraordinary murderers who have been placed in their charge. I do feel that in this enlightened age we ought to have some regard for our New Testament. The Old Testament has been quoted from the Opposition side, and I think the New Testament may be quoted from the back benches on this side. I remember that the wisest Teacher of all who made no legislation and did not enter into politics—I have never made the mistake of calling Him a Socialist—when He had to decide, His decision was that His own precious life might be given in order that the least might have a chance. I intend to vote for the Motion.

Viscountess ASTOR

I have listened to this Debate with an open mind, but I confess that I have been disappointed with the lead which we expected to get on this subject from the Government. I know that on this subject the Home Secretary feels as strongly as some of us feel on this side of the House. It is no good suggesting that we should collect evidence by the appointment of a committee. I have studied this question and I know there is ample evidence already in existence upon which the Home Secretary could act. For these reasons I confess that we are a little disappointed, and I hope this Resolution will be pressed to a Division. I am deeply disappointed with the opposition to this Motion which has come from the Front Opposition Bench. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for Chorley (Mr. Hacking) began his speech with William the Conqueror; he then quoted from John Stuart Mill, and ended up with the Mosaic law. Of course, we are very grateful to the Mosaic law. We know that mercy is no use without justice, and justice is no use without mercy. But I would like to point out that we have now passed far ahead of the point where the right hon. Gentleman left off.

One hon. Member said that this is a sentimental age, but this is by far the best age that man has ever lived in. Only a hundred years ago a child was hanged for stealing. Is it a sentimental age because we have passed out of that, and now do not treat children as criminals, but try to reform them? Every time that the question of a change in the laws of this land arises, people get up and talk about this being a sentimental age. I remember, when we wanted to change the Criminal Law Amendment Act and raise the age of consent to 16, what a hard fight it was in this House; but the House has changed since then. [Interruption.] Let us see whether the Front Bench has changed as well as the back benches. Governments seem to change, but Front Benches seem to act very much alike; there is a dreary sameness about Front Benches. The hon. Member for Oxford University (Sir C. Oman), who is a very learned man, talked about nagging wives and baby murderers, and it has been sought to pretend to the House that we were standing up for murderers; but I do not think there is a man or woman in this House who has not felt, when they have read of one of these terrible crimes, that they would like to go and murder the man or woman who committed it. But civilisation is not doing what you feel that you want to do, but doing what you ought to do. The whole basis of civilisation is control of that part of us, and going a little higher.

The worst crimes in this country are never punished at all, and the reason is that men for too long have made the laws. Take the case of child assault. It is far worse, to my mind, than murder. I would rather see a child of mine murdered than assaulted, but what can a man get for that? Ten years at the most. It cannot be said that the worst crimes in the country are punished. What we have to think of is whether capital punishment is a deterrent. If I thought that capital punishment really stopped people from committing murder, I should have to say to myself that murder is such a horrible thing that perhaps it ought to be punished in that way for the sake of the community; but I remember that some three or four years ago there was a conference of prison commissioners, experts from all over the world, and there was not one of them who did not speak against capital punishment and say that, so far from its being a deterrent, where it had been abolished crime had gone down. The Home Office knows that. The present Home Secretary could find that out for himself, because the facts are there.

It is absurd to say that the man who wants to commit a murder is thinking about what he is going to get. The murderer is not the worst man. Sometimes the best men lose their tempers and murder their mothers-in-law, while why more drunken husbands have not been murdered is an absolute mystery to me. We are asked to assume that murderers are the worst of all criminals, but everyone who has had anything to do with it knows that they are not. The worst murderers, as has already been pointed out, are generally lunatics—madmen—like the man Landru in France. No one but a madman would have done such things as he did. Ever since I was a child, when I remember hearing about a dreadful murder which haunted me for months, I have been instinctively against capital punishment, and the things that one heard and read during the conference of prison commissioners to which I have referred made me realise that instinct, as usual, was right. After all, what we want to do is to punish the man, but we do not want to punish anyone else except the man. We are not helping the relations of the man who was murdered by executing the murderer. What about the mother or wife of the man who murders someone? Take myself, the mother of many sons. Think of the horror if my boy, in drunken passion or through jealousy or some impulse, murdered someone. Think of the horror of it. Is not that punishment enough without giving him a chance to make his peace with God?

I do not want to be sentimental but I feel that we have to think of this in the Christian sense as far as possible. I, like the hon. Member opposite, do not pretend to be better than anyone else, but I see that every year our laws are getting a little juster and a little better, and the reason is because we are thinking on better lines. It is no longer so much punishment as reform that ought to be the basis of our criminal law. Punishment in itself is no good. We all want to give them another chance. Our Lord's message was a message of hope even to the vilest human being that ever lived. I do not see that we can legislate from countries which have not had their laws founded more or less on our Christian ways of thinking, but here in England, one of the justest countries in the world as far as the law goes, the time has come when we should take one step forward and not be afraid that the whole country is going to turn to murdering because murderers are going to get a life sentence. In Sweden, for instance, where murderers have been sentenced for life and the sentence has been commuted to 20 years, they have gone out and made good citizens. We have many precedents.

I appeal to the Home Secretary not to be like all Home Secretaries and not to be so frightened of his permanent officials. We all know what they are, but they are not the last word in justice. Some of the best laws I have seen passed through this House have been passed in the face of the permanent officials. Sometimes when we stand up for tradition we forget that great saying when our Lord was told the disciples had transgressed the tradition of the Elders and He said, "You, by sticking to the traditions of the Elders, transgress the laws of God." At this stage of social civilisation we can with impunity give up capital punishment and I pray of the Home Secretary to give a lead to many of us on all sides and bring in a Bill as soon as possible.


By leave of the House may I, as the permanent officials cannot in these discussions defend themselves, assure the House that in what I have said I have acted absolutely and solely in accordance with my own individual views and judgment on the question in the belief that the acceptance of the advice I gave would best advance the cause of those who have brought forward this Motion.


May I ask the indulgence of the House to accept the Amendment. I trust I shall not be out of order if in two sentences I indicate why. In the first place, the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Darwen (Sir H. Samuel) obscures the clear issue before the House, and makes it doubtful whether my Motion will be carried. In the second place, the speech of the Home Secretary makes it clear that, if I carry my Motion, I shall still have made no further advance in the cause which I have at heart. I think that the Home Secretary should not have put me in that position, but, having been put in that position, I have to choose between my natural instinct, which is entirely with the hon. Member for the Sutton Division of Plymouth (Viscountess Astor), and my judgment, which says, that in the circumstances created by the speech of the Home Secretary, the cause I have at heart may best be forwarded by the acceptance of the Amendment. I put my judgment before my instinct, and I accept the Amendment.

Question, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question," put, and negatived.

Proposed words there added.

Resolved, That, in the opinion of this House, it is desirable that a Select Committee should be appointed to consider the question of Capital Punishment.