HC Deb 30 January 1931 vol 247 cc1400-2

Order for Second Reading read.


I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

I am afraid with the time at my disposal I am not likely to get the Bill through with the facility with which a previous Bill has gone through the House, because, while the previous Bill has no opposition, this is a new Bill which will undoubtedly provoke opposition. I should like to make quite plain that it does not deal with corporal punishment in schools. It proposes to abolish merely corporal punishment given by the courts, both birching and the cat. The battle against the birch has practically been won. It has been won in the courts, and not in this House. The experience of probation officers extending over 20 years has been so adverse that now there is practically no birching administered by the courts. In 1911 there were 1,675 cases of sentences of the birch. In 1928, the last figures I have, taken from the criminal statistics, they had dropped to 199. In other words, owing to the experience of probation officers, the infliction of the birch has dropped practically to one tenth and is rapidly decreasing.

With regard to the cat, which is limited to offenders over 18 years of age, there is still a large body of public opinion which believes in this method of punishment which, had I the time, I should like to show is both barbarous and unncessary. The cat is really a relic of the day when the torture of the rack and the screw was part of our usual method of administering justice, I am fully aware that the cat, as administered to-day, is very different from what it was in its administration a century ago when a thousand lashes were given, often resulting in death. Although there has been a very considerable modification in the administration of the cat, I do not want any hon. Member to under-estimate the severity of the punishment. I have spoken to a number of people whose business it has been to watch and to inflict it, and, almost without exception, they made statements which almost made me sick. There is no question about the severity of the punishment. It can be inflicted, or it is inflicted, now for three particular crimes, robbery with violence, procuration, and living upon the immoral earnings of a woman, and also, of course, for breaches of prison discipline. The two Acts under which it can be inflicted are the Garrotting Act of 1873 and the Criminal Law (Amendment) Act of 1912. These two Acts are rather exceptional Acts. They are the only two instances of a tendency to increase the severity of punishment. They are exceptions to the general progress of the amelioration of our penal code which has gone on for a century. If we examine their genesis and ask why these two Acts were passed, in both cases, we shall find that it was a result, not of any particular need or of any particularly careful consideration, but of panic and hysteria.

I am willing to admit that the crimes for which the cat is inflicted are beastly and revolting. No one in this House has a greater loathing of these crimes than I, but, however natural may he the desire to punish severely, even savagely, beastly and savage crimes, the whole tendency of our penal code has been to get rid of the idea of retribution, which is the old instinctive form of justice. The axiom "an eye for an eye, and a. tooth for a tooth" springs from the fundamental impulses of human nature. Civilisation has been a gradual process of curbing those impulses, and our penal code to-day exists, not for the purpose of inflicting retribution or for the purpose of making the punishment fit the crime, but for two purposes only—to deter, and, if possible, to bring about the reform of the criminal. It is not a question of whether the particular crime is revolting, but whether it is the particular form of penalty most suited to the achievement of those two objects—first of all, deterrence, and secondly, reform. I claim that the cat answers neither of them.

It being Four of the Clock, further consideration of the Bill stood adjourned.

Whereupon Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to Standing Order No. 3, until Monday next, 2nd February.

Adjourned at Four o'Clock.