§ 7.30 p.m.
Mr. Vyvyan Adams
I beg to move,That this House would welcome legislation by which the death penalty should be abolished in time of peace for an experimental period of five years.This Motion was to have been seconded by my hon. and learned Friend the Member for East Leicester (Mr. Lyons). In his unavoidable absence, the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson) has readily and kindly undertaken the task. We have just been considering those violent deaths which accidentally happen upon the highways. I must now invite the House to turn to another kind of violent death, not accidental, but deliberate, cold-blooded, controllable and ceremonious. Perhaps some of my hon. 955 Friends might be inclined to say that this theme is not important enough to challenge the attention of the House of Commons at such a time as the present, but if that is said, with respect I cannot agree. The death penalty is a most important element in our penal system. It is important to the condemned man, to his relatives, to the Home Secretary, and, indeed, to the whole community in whose name this terrible sanction is invoked. It is a matter of concern, not only to that limited group of men and women whom it may be hoped to deter from murder, but also to the whole vast public which has not the remotest desire to commit any act of violence. Only to the victim of a murder is it no longer of any concern at all. To him all the executions in the world will not avail to restore a single moment's life. I believe that within the minds of all of us from time to time there inevitably rises the hideous spectacle of an execution. I cannot help believing that my hon. Friends in all quarters of the House would gladly dispense with this penalty if they could be convinced that no evil consequences would follow, so I think I can at least assume much good will in favour of this Motion. I have to try to show that desire and duty coincide.
The words "in time of peace" have been included in the Motion because, if war were to break out, it would be necessary for the State to reserve to itself abnormal powers. We cannot merely by legislation expect to modify the savage incidents of international conflict. The purpose of including the experimental period of five years is two-fold. First, it agrees with one of the recommendations made by a majority of the Select Committee of the House presided over by the hon. Member for Coatbridge (Mr. Barr), which heard evidence and reported in the years 1929 and 1930. Moreover, that provision emphasises the power of this House to reverse any decision which legislation might produce. Of course, it will always be open to Parliament to restore the death penalty, to suspend it, or even to extend its application; and all of us, in our more flippant and less charitable moments, have said we would like to enlarge the net to catch a number of undesirable and unattractive fish. For my part, however, I am convinced that, if once the death penalty were abolished, it would not again 956 within measurable time find a place within our penal system. If I imagined that this reform which I am proposing would be likely to produce a spate of murders, or even by a very few to increase the annual total, I would not for a moment dream of supporting it. Every hon. Member, I hope, will agree that the community is entitled to protect itself. Indeed, most of us would say that, if this country or its friends were attacked, we should not shrink from war itself to defend our national existence.
I imagine that in a civilised community the functions of a penal system are three. You seek to punish the offender; you try to reform him; and you aim at deterring others from renewing his offence. There seems to me to be no case for precise retaliation and for exact retribution. Our penal practice is not founded on any such theory. When a crime is committed, nobody is permitted to wreak private and personal vengeance upon the offender. If, for example, I am maliciously wounded, the courts intervene against the culprit and take charge of the offence. If a relative of mine is murdered, however passionate my anger may be, I am not allowed to destroy the murderer. Nor do we repay the offender by doing him the wrong that he has done to others. We do not maim the man who has maimed another. If a man commits arson, we do not burn down his house. We do not steal from thieves. So I cannot think it is rational to argue that, simply because a man has committed a murder, he should therefore himself be killed. Indeed, if a murder is wrong, how can an execution be right?
The text, "An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth," may perhaps be cited to-night. I have never been able to understand why that maxim should ever be quoted in a Christian community. With the greatest possible respect, I must say that we cannot in this controversy evade our religious duties. That Mosaic precept which I have just cited was specifically repealed by the Founder of the Christian faith. The death penalty, therefore, seems to me to offend grossly against Christian teaching. It cannot be remedied; it cannot be repaired; and it cannot be revoked. By using it we take it upon ourselves to blot out a man or a woman from earthly existence, to wipe them off the scroll of the living, to drop them into eternity. It is, indeed, strange 957 to correct one killing by perpetrating a second.
One of the worst features that marks the trial where a man's life is at stake has always seemed to me to be the false heroism with which he is sometimes invested. But, when once he is condemned, I believe that the punishment he then has to sustain—that of waiting during the final period of three weeks for the terrible moment that he knows is coming—often greatly exceeds the sufferings of his unwarned victim. I suggest that the purpose of a healthy society should be as far as possible, while seeing that the community is protected, to reform the offender. I have never heard of anyone who has been improved by hanging. For my part, I cannot believe that any of those sane men and women who alone can be visited with the death penalty are totally incapable of leading better lives.
I think, therefore, that we can come now to the main issue, which is contained in these three questions: How far is the death penalty necessary as a deterrent? Is it the best deterrent? Will any other deterrent do equally well? Clearly the death penalty is not successful in deterring in every case. It is not a perfect deterrent, because we still have murders. In 1929, there were 131 murders known to the police; in 1932 there were 125. The annual average between 1932 and 1935 rose as high as 154. The death penalty, therefore, which has long been practised in this country for murder and for three other offences which we need not consider to-night, cannot be said to have reduced the rate of murder. I do not think that is surprising. One of the worst features of the death penalty is its unavoidable uncertainty. Yet it has always been agreed that a punishment is most likely to deter if it is certain. Certainty is much more important than mere severity.
The elements in this uncertainty can, I think, be easily discerned. First, there is the big possibility of a reprieve, to which nobody can object. I should think, indeed that the Home Secretary feels intensely relieved in the exercise of his terrible, anxious, and, as I think, unnecessary jurisdiction when he feels himself able to commute a sentence. Over the last 10 years, rather more than half the persons sentenced to death have been reprieved. Each year during the last 958 decade, on an average, approximately 55 persons were charged with murder, excluding those who were guilty of the special crime of infanticide, which, as hon. Members are aware, has not incurred the death penalty since 1922. Infanticides, on an average, number yearly about 15. The total number of death sentences varies each year. Twenty is a normal figure. As a rule rather fewer than 10 are actually executed.
Some persons charged are acquitted in the early stages, before the Assizes are reached. Some are found guilty of a less degree of homicide than murder. But I cannot reject the belief that juries are not infrequently reluctant to convict on capital charges, and every hon. Member in this House, I will be bound, would share precisely the same reluctance, the same dread of making a frightful and irremediable mistake. A certain weight of evidence would satisfy us in cases where in the background there did not loom the gallows; an equivalent weight would be insufficient on a murder charge. Compassion, emotion, the perfectly natural fear of a mistake, may all work on the minds of a jury. Evidence which on any other charge would have involved a conviction can be so ignored that one of two courses may be taken by the jury. They may bring in a verdict of "Not Guilty." Or they may return a verdict of "Guilty but insane," when a man will be sent, as everyone knows, to Broadmoor for life. Either result is liable to happen when a penalty is being preserved which no longer in this country commands full public approbation.
This submission which I am making to the House is not mere personal conjecture. I was myself present during the whole of a murder trial in court—I will not specify which it was. At the end a verdict of "not guilty" was returned. One of our most eminent judges observed to the man in the dock, in my hearing, "You have been exceedingly fortunate in your jury." I happened on that occasion to agree with the jury; the judge did not, and said so.
Considering the other question, of the possibility of a verdict of "guilty, but insane" being returned, Lord Darling, when giving evidence before the Select Committee on the Abolition of the Death Penalty, said:In cases that I have read I have felt certain that the person ought to have been 959 convicted of murder, but the jury, being incited and having evidence given to them about epilepsy and things like that, have returned a verdict that he was insane. I have heard people in charge of criminal asylums say that there are several people in the asylums who are as sane as the judges who tried them—and they are perfectly sane.If it is argued that the death penalty deters a convicted murderer from committing a second murder, that is an argument which has a certain crude validity. But the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson), now Lord Privy Seal, who was then Permanent Secretary to the Home Office, said, in giving evidence before the Select Committee:It is certainly not a common experience that a murderer who has been released after serving part of a life sentence returns to prison. As to murderers on commuted death sentences committing further murders on release, that may be entirely ruled out.It may be asked: "Even supposing that we admit the case for abolition so far, how many potential murderers may not have been deterred by the fact that death may follow their crime?" If the only test available were the experience of Great Britain we should be in the dark completely, and we could only set one opinion against another; but we happen to have the best criterion of all: that of the experience in those countries where the death penalty is no more. So we are able, those of us who believe in abolition, to pit fact against opinion and feeling when they masquerade as fact. First of all, I had better refer to France. That country has had a variable homicidal record. For three years, from 1906 to 1908, M. Fallieères liberally exercised the President's prerogative of mercy. The number of convictions for murder rose. The guillotine was again set to work; and for one year, 1909, the convictions decreased. But from 1910 onwards, in spite of the guillotine's renewed activities, there was a steady increase in the number of convictions. So, if the death penalty was responsible for the fall in 1909 it can be argued no less cogently that it was equally responsible for the increase in convictions from 1910 onwards. The experience of France furnishes no argument in support of either side. I am glad that my hon. and learned Friend agrees.
But about 30 other countries and States have abolished the death penalty. Over a long period of years, in countries whose 960 populations are racially akin to ours, the death penalty has not been practised. Some of those countries are highly important. In Norway, Belgium, Denmark, Holland and Sweden the murder rate today is less than it was in the days when executions occurred. In some cases it has sunk to be a mere fraction of the former figure. Here is another instance, actually in the British Commonwealth of Nations. In Queensland, the last execution occurred in 1913, and capital punishment was legally abolished in 1922. It is interesting to learn that in July of this year the whole of Switzerland, as a State, officially abolished the death penalty.
I am not going to try to exaggerate the significance of those figures. I am not going to say post hoc propter hoc, even though I might be entitled to. All I will say is that the death penalty is not an indispensable method of deterring murderers, and that its abolition abroad has not retarded the downward trend of crimes of violence. And if it be such a great deterrent why do we not have public executions? For the very reason that experience proved that the spectacle had a degrading and brutalising effect, and that it, in fact, encouraged murder, and did not deter.
It may be apprehended that abolition would encourage burglars to use firearms. That is another argument that one sometimes hears. That misgiving was evidently in the minds of members of the Select Committee which took evidence in 1930, because witnesses from abolitionist countries were specifically examined on that point; and no evidence at all was forthcoming to sustain that fear.
The argument about the additional expense of keeping murderers seems to me to be not worth a brass farthing. It has been estimated that, with no decrease in the number of murderers and with a sentence of 20 years imposed in every case where men are at present executed—both very considerable hypotheses—there would be an increase of 300 in a prison population which at present exceeds 10,000. That, I suggest, is a consideration which need not trouble us much. Indeed, the argument of expense could be applied with much greater force to the incurable inmates of lunatic asylums.
The alternative proposed is a long term of imprisonment, subject, of course, to the 961 existing powers of remission—not an ideal penalty perhaps for a man whose mind may be only momentarily unbalanced or diseased; but we have not yet an ideal penal system. The Home Secretary's proposed prison reform Bill is a proof of that; and I would submit to the Under-Secretary that the first stage in any proposed prison reform should be to abolish a penalty which can never be repaired and for ever stifles any plea of innocence which may be uttered by the chief witness for the defence.
For no one can say that justice has never miscarried. It happens, notoriously and admittedly abroad, where the death penalty is still practised. The late Lord Birkenhead was in doubt about the guilt of Edith Thompson—and so, if I may say so with respect, have I always been. Sir Edward Marshall Hall firmly believed in the innocence of some of his convicted clients. Oscar Slater, as the House is aware, escaped the noose only by the merest hair's breadth, and yet he was proved absolutely innocent, although it took him 18½ years to establish his innocence. If he had been executed, as he very nearly was, society would have ceased to trouble about him, because when a man or a woman is dead we are tempted to ask, "Why worry about someone who is beyond our reach? What good could a reversal of the verdict now do to him? How can you prove innocence with the chief witness dead?" Men have been charged with murder, have narrowly escaped conviction, and have been shown afterwards to have been utterly innocent; indeed, the true offender has afterwards been brought to light when a man's life has been in the greatest jeopardy.
But if I may say so without causing offence, in this controversy I think of the community rather than of the accused or the murderer. Is is really a healthy thing, or a credit to the nation, that we should continue to employ an executioner to despatch offenders whom we say it is too expensive for us to try to reform? The criminal has to be both sane and mature before we can hang him; and, with those two qualities, he can surely be converted into a citizen respecting others and himself as well. Indeed, many, if not most, reprieved murderers have proved worthy of another chance.
To-day, in many places in the world little value is set on human life, which 962 is the most marvellous and mysterious thing that we know, and I believe it would be a recognition of that marvel and that mystery if we were to do what I believe we are able to do with safety and advantage. I know well enough that every mitigation of penal severity has prompted loud protests and dark predictions. One of the former leaders of my own party, Sir Robert Peel, who is often said to have been a model Prime Minister, could not decide in 1832 on the remission of the death penalty for horse stealing, and as for its abolition in cases of the stealing of more than £5 from a dwelling house, Sir Robert Peel regarded that as "a most dangerous experiment."
But we in Great Britain profess a belief in Christian principles. I can imagine nothing more discordant with the spirit of our Creed than the death penalty. While I contend, as I do, that it is futile, unnecessary and primitive, I think I ought not to forget that it is unchristian as well. Therefore, I seek to commend this reform to the House on the very highest and most conclusive grounds: "Blessed are the merciful."
§ 7.59 p.m.
§ Mr. Benson
I beg to second the Motion. I think that, as the hon. Mover has said, the main fact that this House is likely to consider is whether the death penalty is essential as a deterrent; and upon that point, and that point alone, is the House likely to come to a decision. There are a large number of people who very passionately believe that the death penalty is essential; and they do so on the general grounds that severe penalties are particularly effective, and that the more severe the penalty imposed, the more likely is that penalty to be an effective deterrent. That, I admit, sounds an extraordinarily logical point of view. If you increase your punishment you make that punishment a more effective deterrent—that is a logical argument, and it is very widely held, but I suggest that it has no backing of fact. On the contrary, the whole of penal history tends to disprove the idea that you can steadily increase the severity of the punishments and thereby increase their deterrent effects.
A century ago there were nearly 200 crimes for which the death penalty might be imposed, yet despite that state of affairs lawlessness was 963 rampant. The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that these public executions ought to have been far more effective warnings to criminals than those carried out in private, yet as deterrents to crime they completely failed, and Wilson has left a very grim picture of the execution of a small boy for picking pockets, with the crowd gathering at the public execution and small pickpockets plying their trade under the very shadow of the gallows from which the pickpocket had been executed. There is no evidence whatever that beyond a certain point severity of punishment has any greater effect.
If I might for a moment deal with a parallel case I would draw the attention of the House to the question of flogging. Flogging with the cat, just as has capital punishment, has always been defended as being a punishment of particular efficacy. We have been told that there are certain individuals who are so degraded that nothing but the lash has any effect upon them. There are wonderful legends of the efficacy of the cat and flogging and a large number of people who believe, almost with the fervor of religious belief, that garotting was stamped out by the cat. Some 12 or 18 months ago a Departmental Committee was appointed to inquire into this matter. It inquired meticulously into the question and examined all the available evidence. What did it find? That this belief in the efficacy of the cat as a particularly good deterrent was nothing more or less than moonshine and imagination. In its report the Departmental Committee said that it could find not one shred of evidence in favour of flogging, and in the Criminal Justice Bill, which was released an hour-and-a-half ago from the Vote Office, provision is made in Clause 32 for the abolition of the cat on the ground solely that it was proved beyond a shadow of doubt that ordinary imprisonment was just as effective as a deterrent, and that the addition of this savage penalty did not make a scrap of difference.
The report of the Departmental Committee on flogging shows quite conclusively, what has already been shown by penal history, that, if you increase penalties beyond a certain point, the increase of severity is entirely ineffective, 964 and that the law of diminishing returns sets in, and you get no commensurate increase in deterrent from increasing the severity of the penalty. As the hon. Mover of the Motion said, a far more important matter in deterrence than severity of penalty is certainty of conviction. Savage penalties have very frequently been tried for the purpose of supplementing ineffective police work. If, for various reasons, the police were inefficient and had captured only a small percentage of criminals, and the authorities, in order to supplement that weakness in detection, increased the severity of penalties on such as are caught, that policy invariably proved a failure. It has never led to the maintenance of law. But increased certainty of detection has invariably led to a better maintenance of law, irrespective of the type of penalty imposed.
The question of certainty of detection is very important in murder cases for the simple reason that in no other branch of crime is it so certain as in murder. The hon. Member gave the number of people murdered. The actual number of individual murders fluctuates somewhere between 80 and 100 per annum. If you include the cases of multiple murder it brings up the number of victims. Thus my figures are lower than his. In the last five years the average number of individual murders has been 93. The average number of cases in which the police have failed to put their finger upon somebody whom they suspected was only four out of the 93, and in nine cases per annum they have failed to secure convictions. Of the four murders in which they have failed to suspect anybody, half were cases, not of normal murder, but of death following illegal operations, which, I think, comes into an entirely different category, psychologically at any rate, from murder. Therefore, you get two cases out of 93 in which the police are at a loss and you get nine cases out of 93 in which the police fail to secure a conviction. That is 11 cases out of 93. Approximately in nine cases out of 10 in this country the murderer invariably comes to a speedy end, and I do not think there is any other crime which can show such a proportion of conviction.
The statistical figures of murders published in the criminal statistics are very interesting. They show that murderers are a highly selected group of individuals and are by no means a normal sample 965 of the population. Taking the average of the last five years, 40 per cent. of the murderers have committed suicide and 24 per cent. have been found insane, either upon arraignment or after conviction, or have been found guilty but insane. Thus practically two-thirds or 64 per cent. of the murderers in this country year by year are either insane or commit suicide. I am not suggesting that all the 40 per cent. of the suicides are technically certifiable as insane, but I do suggest that a man who, after having committed murder, immediately commits suicide, is far beyond any consideration of pains and penalties, and that whatever form of deterrent you like to impose for murder has little or no concern for him. These figures prove that two-thirds of the murderers are entirely unbalanced. Some of them may be unbalanced merely temporarily, but nevertheless they are unbalanced. It must not be assumed that the other third are perfectly sane and normal beings.
Insanity in the courts is still judged under judges' Rules which are practically 100 years old and take no account of modern views of what is and what is not insanity. The hon. Mover of the Motion referred to the remarks of Mr. justice Darling when a jury, excited by talk of epilepsy possibly, were inclined to take what he apparently considered to be too lenient a view, but a man who is an epileptic is not a normally-balanced person. One third of the group of murderers probably are people who range from those perfectly sane in any ordinary sense of the word to those who are not quite certifiable. I think that we can assume unquestionably that in this country to-day, whatever the reason may be, murder is the work or the crime of the unbalanced mind, possibly permanently unbalanced as in the case of the insane and many of the suicides. but certainly unbalanced in the case of the vast majority even if temporarily unbalanced. Murder may happen from various causes, such as depression or when a man gets to the end of his emotional tether and suddenly commits murder and suicide, or it may be the result of some psychological explosion. The evidence, at any rate, shows that the actual crime itself is to all intents and purposes the work of an abnormal mind.
Two deductions may be drawn from that fact. They are entirely incapable of 966 proof and incapable of disproof and are entirely opposite deductions. The first is that if a murder is under our present laws and conditions the work of unbalanced minds, then the death penalty is practically 100 per cent. efficient as a deterrent so far as normal-minded people are concerned. If hon. Members like to use that argument they can. I cannot disprove it any more than they can prove it, but I suggest that it is false because it cuts right against the long experience that savage deterrents are not especially effective. Further, when the penalty of death was imposed in the 200 odd cases of minor crimes it proved singularly ineffective.
If a century ago the penalty of death proved incapable of stopping pickpockets from picking pockets and horse thieves from stealing horses, it seems to me highly improbable that it has suddenly become so incomparably more effective than any other deterrent that it completely prevents the normal, healthy man from committing the crime of murder. There is another and very much truer deduction to be made. The real reason why the normal, sane man does not commit murder is not due to the fact that he is deterred by the death penalty but that he is deterred by his own inner inhibitions, and that the normal, sane man who is capable of weighing up the consequences of his action, who is capable, in other words, of being deterred by a severe penalty, is incapable of committing murder when it comes to the point, because he cannot bring himself to do it. There is the mental deterrent, which is a far more effective deterrent than the death penalty. The respect for human life is ingrained in us. I do not suggest that in times of turmoil this inhibition is necessarily effective, but I do suggest that in an ordered and orderly society such as our own this inhibition against taking human life is sufficiently strong to prevent the normal, mentally-balanced man, who is capable of being deterred by penalties, from committing murder.
Hon. Members may say that this inhibition in itself arises from the death penalty. I think that is a logical mistake. If I am right in saying that this inhibition is the main reason why normal men do not commit murder, surely, if the State itself takes human life by imposing the death penalty, it is far more likely to weaken any inhibition in the individual than to strengthen it. I do not believe that the 967 question whether we impose 10 years' or 15 years' penal servitude, or whether we boil a man in oil, has any real effect upon the actual number of murders that are committed in our society to-day. I believe that murder is the outcome, in 99 cases out of 100, of mental unbalance, that the whole history of penal reform shows that severe penalties are not more effective than far milder ones and, finally, I am convinced that the real deterrent to crime to the man who is capable of being deterred is not some remote possibility of the death penalty but the almost inevitable certainty that he will be found out and brought to account.
§ 8.20 p.m.
§ Mr. Maxwell Fyfe
In rising to ask the House to negative the Motion I hope that hon. Members will not think it an impertinence if I first pay tribute to the sincerity, the wit, the knowledge and the eloquence with which the hon. Mover and the hon. Seconder have put forward their case. I could not help feeling a little apprehension when the hon. Mover announced his support of this thesis, because I remember that in 1790, only a few years before he plunged the streets of Paris into blood, M. Robespierre supported a similar Resolution in the French Chamber. Knowing the somewhat outspoken views of my hon. Friend the Member for West Leeds (Mr. V. Adams) I could not help wondering what might be the fate of his opponents if he suffered a similar sea change.
The two hon. Members have approached this matter from the two logical lines of approach. First, is any community entitled to use the death penalty, and, secondly, is the death penalty of any practical avail in the State? I should like, first, to deal with what I may call the first philosophical plane of my hon. Friend. It is my conception of the function of the State that it should give protection and provide the means of advancement to humanity, and I consider that if anyone deliberately does an act which strikes against the purpose of the community, then the determination of his fate and his life is in the hands of the community which he has chosen to scorn. Just as it is difficult for anyone to oppose the right to take life in self-defence, so I consider that capital punishment is the 968 first defence of the community, and is justifiable on these grounds.
When my hon. Friend says that the abolition of capital punishment would create a greater sense of its sanctity among citizens, I ask him to consider that it is among the section of society who scorn the community and treat it as a means to their own end that he expects that the abolition would give that sanctity. I suggest, however, that the view he has put forward is far removed from actuality. I ask the House to consider that we have narrowed and delimited the causes for the death penalty to treason and some kindred offences which strike at the safety of the State, to murder, and to piracy, which strikes at safety on the seven seas. These very limitations have given the penalty of greater standing and a greater effect. It is in these circumstances, not in the widespread adoption of the penalty but in its limitation to the absolute necessities in our society, that the State protects itself, even to the extent of taking life, against violence, whether it be shown against the State, against the individual or against ships on the high seas. That is the basis of our system.
I pass to a consideration of how the system works. The statistics which I propose to ask the House to consider are those cases of murder that have been brought to trial. As the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson) will appreciate, that rules out cases of suicide and so on that he mentioned. In the first decade of this century the average figure was 66, or two per million of the population. From 1930 to 1934, the corresponding figure was 55, a decrease to 1.4 per million of the population. For last year the figure was 46, or a decrease to 1.2. The House, I am sure, will pardon me asking them to go a little further and consider the figures just out for last year. During 1937 there were 46 cases of trial for murder. Of these 13 were unfit to plead, 11 were found guilty but insane, and three were acquitted. Of the remaining 19 who were convicted, one was ordered to be detained as a child; two were detained at His Majesty's pleasure because they subsequently became insane, eight had their sentence commuted to penal servitude and eight were executed. I suggest that if these are the results which the system of the double deterrent 969 has brought about, then, judging by results, they are very difficult to animadvert against.
I want to join issue with hon. Members on the points they have raised. The hon. Member for Chesterfield has said that the most important question is what he calls the deterrent. Where I disagree with him is in considering that the people who should be considered are the present murderers, the class of person convicted up to date of murder. In my view the importance lies in the effect on those who do not commit murder to-day. The class of criminals who use violence to property to-day, in the sense of being burglars or housebreakers or office breakers, are the men the hon. Member has in mind. Last year the number of these crimes detected by the police was over 45,000, nearly four times as much as the average figure for the first decade of the century, and it is amongst those who commit these 45,000 crimes, the burglar, the housebreaker and the office breaker, that we have to consider whether a deterrent is necessary. To-day they do not carry either revolvers or truncheons.
I have had as much experience as anyone of seeing the criminals of this country during the last 15 years, and the burglar and housebreaker to-day is one of the tamest creatures in creation. A noise above stairs is enough to frighten him, because he knows that if he is involved in the most casual struggle in the commission of the offence and someone is killed, a verdict of murder might be returned against him and he might have to pay the penalty. I put that forward as against the opinion that there would be a freedom from violence among the people who commit this rapidly increasing number of offences if there were not the deterrent of the 8 o'clock walk. I know that a charge of exaggeration is always levelled against those who put forward this view. I think that no case can be made out to show that this section of society, the section who to-day are prevented from using violence, would not change if this deterrent were not removed.
The hon. Member for Chesterfield has raised an interesting point with regard to murder as an attitude of mind, if I may so paraphrase his exposition. I should like the House to consider a case which is very often quoted, the murder of women. Figures have been used by a predecessor of mine in the constituency 970 I have the honour to represent. I refer to Lord Birkenhead, who said that in 1927 there were five men convicted of the murder of the women with whom they were living, their wives or their mistresses, and he also pointed out that during that same year 14,000 husbands were brought before the Courts for brutal conduct to their wives. In these cases of the murder of women, the motive is usually satiety or boredom and one cannot help wondering how many of these 14,000 would not have shown their sense of satiety and boredom by going further than mere brutality ranging to murder were it not for the deterrent which we are supporting to-night.
The Mover of the Motion said that it had the effect of causing juries to return bad verdicts. There again one can speak largely from experience, and it certainly has not been my experience, on whatever side I have appeared in murder cases, that juries shrink from the unwelcome task. This is borne out by the figures which the Home Office gave with regard to the last 200 murder trials before 1929 when they were preparing the evidence for the Committee of the hon. Member for Coatbridge (Mr. Barr). They pointed out that in only 58 of these 200 cases did the jury add a recommendation to mercy, and it is striking that if there had been a feeling on the jury against capital punishment, or a feeling of reluctance or desire to shrink from the unwelcome task on their hands, they did not at any rate seek the half-way refuge of adding a rider recommending the defendant to mercy. Therefore I do not think, from experience or from the collated facts, that that charge can really be sustained.
I want only to touch on the question raised by the seconder of the Motion in regard to the present law of insanity. I think it is clear that the law of insanity as administered in the criminal courts does, to-day, present a clear problem and a well-defined sphere of action for the jury as judges of fact. There are three requirements. First of all, it must be shown that the prisoner has a disease of the mind. No one would quarrel with that requirement for the defence being found. Secondly, it must be shown that through that disease his reason is affected. Again, I do not think anyone would quarrel with the requirement that the jury must be satisfied that the part of the mind that judges the quality of the act 971 shall be proved to be affected before a verdict can stand. Thirdly, it has to be shown that the reason is so affected that he did not know the nature and quality of his act or that what he was doing was wrong. I do not want to become involved in that discussion beyond what is relevant to this issue, but I do say here that if there is, as there must be—and it is conceded there must be—evidence of some disease of the mind, the rest of the matter is left for the careful consideration of the jury of ordinary men and women who have to apply their knowledge and reasonable experience of ordinary life. Certainly, I cannot subscribe to the intended reflection that, because of the state of the law of insanity to-day, there is an additional reason for urging the abolition of this penalty.
Before concluding my remarks, I want to pass to two points made by the hon. Member who moved the Motion. The first was with regard to certainty. The hon. Member quoted one case, that of Oscar Slater. Oscar Slater was freed as soon as the neighbouring Kingdom of Scotland set up a Court of Criminal Appeal. The defect there was in the procedure that existed in Scotland in not having a Court of Appeal to review matters of law and fact from the lower court.
§ Mr. Silverman
How could the absence of a Court of Criminal Appeal lead the jury which tried Oscar Slater to come to a wrong conclusion?
§ Mr. Fyfe
With all respect to the hon. Member, I think that he is not following my point. What I am saying is that under the system as it existed then, there was not a court of review. What I am urging is that if you have the procedure which we have to-day—namely: first, inquiries by the police; secondly, committal; thirdly, trial at the assizes or Old Bailey; fourthly, appeal to the Court of Criminal Appeal; fifthly, appeal to the House of Lords on difficult questions of law; and sixthly, the prerogative of mercy exercised by the Home Secretary—the chances of mistake are reduced to such an infinitesimal number that if we were to act on chances of mistake like that, if we were to try to make any decisions in our lives in regard to such chances of mistake, we should never make any advance of progress.
972 The other point with which I wish to deal is my hon. Friend's question as to what has happened in other countries. I respectfully submit that what he said about France—to which I assented silently—is true about the comparative method of argument in dealing with this problem. It is not a sound argument to say of Norway, Sweden and Denmark, countries which are both by temperament and temperature places where humanity is mild, countries which have been outside the disturbing movements of the last century, that whether they have the death penalty or not is any serious help in deciding as to the improvement of their homicide statistics. It is as though one cut out of this country certain districts which I shall not arouse any local antipathy by naming, but where we could find perhaps a quietude which does not exist in others. The same applies, as my hon. Friend must know, with regard to the United States, for it would not really help us to say that in Maine, Vermont and New Hampshire, where they have not the death penalty, there are low homicide statistics; but it may be of help if one considers those many States in the United States where they have tried to do without the death penalty and reimposed it.
One finds that in the case of Missouri and Oregon, after the reimposition of the death penalty just after the War, those States went through one of the most terrible crime periods which have ever been experienced by any country—the Prohibition period in the United States—without any serious rise in their homicide statistics. As far as these comparisons can ever be a guide—I suggest it is a very slight guide, for you have to face the problem on the principles and practices as seen among our own people—they tell in my favour. I was interested to observe that neither the hon. Member who moved the Motion nor the hon. Member who seconded it, based any argument on the abolition of the death penalty in Mexico, Costa Rica or Honduras; it may be that in a later Debate they will get an opportunity of providing us with some interesting information on that score.
Whatever hon. Gentlemen opposite may think of me, I believe sincerely that liberty and freedom are essential to justice, that you cannot have justice, work justice or apply justice without liberty 973 and freedom; but I am equally clear that justice is essential to liberty, and that unless we are prepared to maintain a punishment which complies with the three requirements of certainty, celerity and appropriateness to the crime, then we shall be striking at the security of our State. We must all recognise that one of the things that have overthrown liberty has been the lack of security of the ordinary decent citizens of all classes and sections of society in certain States. It is because I feel that we must not disturb the balance between our generous impulses towards the individual and our true view of the necessity for protecting society, that I ask the House to reject this Motion.
§ 8.44 p.m.
§ Major Rayner
I speak as a complete layman. I know sufficient of the law only to keep myself out of trouble, and I feel that my opinion is representative of the opinion held by a large body in my own division and in the divisions of other hon. Members. During the reign of the four Georges capital punishment became more prevalent than it was even in mediaeval times. One hundred and fifty-six new offences were brought within its purview, and the fathers and grandfathers of many hon. Members would have been able to tell us of men being hanged for forgery, blackmail or even for poaching pheasants or trapping rabbits. A novelist of those days has drawn for us a vivid picture of an old judge sitting in his lodgings on the last night of the assizes, looking through the long list of those whom he has condemned to death and striking out the few names of those whose sentences he was prepared to commute—the others being duly hanged two or three days after he had left the town. The hon. Member who so eloquently moved this Motion would have us believe that having trodden the path of humanitarian progress, step by step, up to the present, we ought to take the final step now and do away with capital punishment. I do not agree with that point of view. I believe that murder is still in a class by itself. I think no one should be allowed to deprive another of that great blessing, life itself, without risking the suffering of capital punishment.
As an ordinary citizen my feelings in this connection are based on the following 974 points. In the first place, I believe that most judges are against the abolition of capital punishment, and as I have great respect for our judges and would go to them for advice on questions of crime and punishment, just as I would go to great medical specialists for advice on physical disease, I believe their view to be right. In the second place, I do not agree with the argument, which has not been advanced to-night but has been advanced on other occasions, that because we have given up the barbaric practices of maiming and torturing, we should give up the death penalty. The bloody crushing of the thumb-screw and the wrench of the rack, the disembowelling, the cutting into butchers' quarters, were deeds which gradually sickened and revolted public opinion, but my feeling is that the death penalty, as carried out to-day, accords with the average man's ideas of justice.
In the third place, I cannot go very far with my hon. Friend the Mover of the Motion in his argument as regards the irreparability of the death sentence. I agree that there have been cases in which men have been found innocent after having met with judicial death. If I came in contact with a case like that, for my own part I doubt whether I could sleep comfortably in my bed for many nights afterwards. At the same time, the Select Committee which investigated this question, did admit that the odds were thousands to one against that sort of thing happening. I have great faith in the British jury. I think we have a greater certainty of justice in this country to-day than ever before, and more certainty of it in this country than in any other country in the world. I feel that there would never be any advance in human affairs if we were held back by such a slight element of doubt as that which is involved in these cases.
My hon. Friend also referred to the reluctance of juries to convict. That has been dealt with by my hon. and learned Friend who preceded me and in that connection I would only refer the House to what the present Lord Privy Seal said when giving evidence before the Select Committee:It is sometimes said that juries, because of their aversion to capital punishment, more often acquit persons charged with murder than they acquit persons charged with other crimes of extreme gravity. The argument 975 is sometimes advanced that if penal servitude were substituted for the capital sentence, it would be easier to get convictions for murder. As far as the Home Office is concerned, there is no foundation for such an argument.I am convinced that the main factor in the minds of most men as regards capital punishment is that which has been so ably dealt with by my hon. and learned Friend, and that is the deterrent effect of the death sentence. We have a great deal to be thankful for in this country, but we still breed a number of brutes and we still import them, and horrible crimes are still committed. I feel—and here I again disagree with the Mover of the Motion—that we do not know how many murderers are deterred by the death penalty. That great economist John Stuart Mill, speaking in this House in 1868 on the death penalty, said:We partly know who are those whom it has not deterred, but who is there who knows whom it has deterred?And those words are just as true to-day as they were then. Again, I cannot agree that life imprisonment is as much a deterrent as the death penalty. Murder is such an awful thing that I feel that the deterrent must not be weakened. I believe the double deterrent of capital punishment or life imprisonment, the one swift, dramatic and final, the other hard, monotonous and hopeless, is a splendid combination which will deter a variety of potential murderers. The Mover of the Motion suggests that capital punishment does not deter as much as we think. I cannot agree with him. I remember only too well those days on the Western Front when some poor fellows, their nerves broken by privation and shattered by shell fire, wounded themselves in order to get to the comparative peace of the back areas. Some hon. Members here may recall that such cases became more and more common. No army fighting with its back to the wall could let that sort of thing continue. When the death sentence was introduced for such offences, the rot was stopped immediately, and some gallant fellows were literally saved from themselves by that fear of certain death which is the greatest fear that any man can have.
The hon. Member and my hon. and learned Friend between them have referred to a good many countries that have adopted the abolition of the death penalty, 976 but I would like to refer to one more. I have not contributed anything to the Debates in this House on Spain, but I have some land there and a house, and I was often in Spain up to the beginning of the present conflagration. I have always felt, and still feel, that if the first Republican Government of Spain had not abolished the death penalty, some of those atrocities and murders which led up to and brought about the present horrible conflict might not have occurred. I feel that savagery in that case bred savagery, and who is to say that the present civil war there might not have been averted altogether if the perpetrators of those early incidents had been restrained by a healthy fear of judicial sudden death? We live in dangerous times. Tempers are running high and dreadful deeds are being done, and I feel that never was there a greater need than to-day for stern justice. I believe, like most Englishmen, that British justice is the best justice that can be procured in the world. I do not think this is a time for us to allow our hearts to rule our heads and to embark on a questionable humanitarian experiment which involves the removal of a well-tried plank in our judicial edifice. Just as I do not think we can go easy on armaments until the fear of attack and war is exorcised, so I do not think we can give up capital punishment until the number of brutal murders that occur in this country becomes very much less.
§ 8.57 p.m.
Mr. Creech Jones
I hope the House will reject the advice which has been offered it by the last two speakers. We have for years had these arguments in opposition to our proposal, used in much the same terminology. We have been warned of the effects on our social life if "stern justice" is not imposed and if a "healthy fear" is not cultivated among the masses of the people to prevent them from participating in crime. But I do not want to-night to follow in detail the arguments that have been advanced by those who are in opposition to the Motion before the House.
I want to give my support to the Motion on broad human lines, and I want to point out, in the first place, that if the House carries this Motion, it will do so conscious that there is a considerable body of opinion in this country which would welcome this change. We have 977 often heard from the Government Benches that we cannot legislate ahead of public opinion, but it would be a tragedy if Ministers never departed from that maxim. In point of fact, the Home Secretary himself on many occasions in the past, by administrative order as well as by legislation, has gone well ahead of public opinion and thereby has contributed to its education. But in the present instance I would like to point out that there is already a considerable section of opinion anxious that this experiment should be made. There are certain organised bodies of the Nonconformist Churches which have passed resolutions in favour of this reform; there are sections of the Liberal party, which is not too adequately represented in the House to-night; there is the Labour party which by resolutions has asked for this reform; many of the national trade unions have also resolved in the same way, and there are many distinguished lawyers and leaders of the Church of England, including the Archbishop of York, who are anxious that the Home Secretary should have power to make this experiment. I think the House will agree that the bodies I have named make up a considerable section of the British public.
I, of course, agree that the commission of a hideous murder creates in most of us a deep desire for revenge, and then it seems to us that nothing can be too cruel for the punishment which should be meted out to the person who has perpetrated the cruelty. But I think the more society progresses, and the more sensitive we become, men become increasingly aware that such feelings are invoked when they are emotionally disturbed and not in a rational mood for weighing-up the purposes of punishment. I do not want to restate the case which has been put forward with such remarkable skill by the Mover of the Motion, but I accept his view that punishment, when it is administered, should not only be a deterrent, but also, in a civilised world—and it is the case with a great deal of our legal practice—it should aim at being reformative as well, and it is just on this point that a penalty so severe as capital punishment breaks down. As a punishment it is irretrievable if wrong has been done. Murder is often a crime of passion, due often to squalor, to the social degradation of the people committing the crime, and to anxiety and worry. The penalty for 978 it, imposes on a Home Secretary a very grave responsibility. He has to decide when considering the infliction of the penalty, the measure of these factors in the crime committed, and it is, I think, too grave a responsibility for any Minister to carry.
There has been discussion this evening as to the degree to which the death penalty deters the criminal population. I should have thought that the argument advanced by the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson) sufficiently met that case. It is obvious that you do not prevent the population from committing crime merely by imposing terrifying penalties for certain anti-social acts. The whole experience of the world is in the other direction. The more civilised a nation becomes, the more its citizens become socially-minded, the more educated, the less crime occurs. We had in our own country the experience of 100 years back, when, as has already been pointed out, there was a very wide range of crimes, and it was obvious then that however severe the penalties, even if they were the death penalty, the crimes were still committed. The abolition of those penalties in no way increased the resort to crime. Rather, as the social sense was built up, so crime decreased; as men became more educated, as they played their part increasingly in the life of the community, less crime occurred.
If we are concerned with deterring people from crime, we should try to build up tolerable social conditions so that crime would not breed. It has been said that the penalty deters the criminal class from murder. I would only submit that most men who commit murder do so, not as the result of cold-blooded deliberation, but as a result of passion and other temporary aberrations. Consequently, I do not think it is the existence of the penalty which holds off a criminal from carrying his crime of robbery into violence to the degree of murder.
There is the experience of many countries in Europe. It may be suggested that it proves very little, but I do not think that we can explain the absence of a great deal of crime in the Scandinavian countries, as a previous Member suggested, merely on the grounds of their geography and climatic conditions. One recollects in early British history how very violent these people could be, and that they wreaked their violence on us. I suggest that the explanation of the absence 979 of crime in the Scandinavian countries is largely the high civilised and social standard which the people have achieved. Therefore, it seems to me that crime does not increase when the death penalty has been abolished, but that, if we want to abolish crime, we should build up the quality of life of the masses of the people.
I support the Motion because I want a more compassionate code in a civilised State, and because the death penalty creates among people when a murder is done a very unhealthy atmosphere. It panders to sensation, and incidentally causes a great deal of suffering. I hope that I may be pardoned if I make a personal reference on the last point. I spent a period of my life as a hard labour prisoner in a number of local prisons. My crime was opposition to the War. I was detained for roughly three years, and during that period a number of executions took place in the prisons in which I was serving time. I once had a cell which was opposite the hanging shed, above the condemned cells, and just near the graves of those who had been executed in the past. When a condemned man was brought into the prison it soon became known to practically every prisoner. The news could not be hidden from the prison population. The preparations in the prison beforehand always tended to create an unhealthy excitement among the prisoners, and on the morning of the execution there was felt an uneasiness and a depression among them. The prisoners are confined to their cells. A hushed silence creeps over the prison and every prisoner, sitting in his cell, waits for the hour of doom. It is utterly bad for the prisoners. They are men turned in on themselves, without any emotional outlet, who are nursing their grievances and living rather unnatural lives.
It is even worse for the warders. I have seen them after executions and have spoken to them. They have told me how terrifying the experience has been through which they have just passed. From the governor, the doctor, the chief warder downwards, they all hate the work of having to do to death one of their own kind in such a cold-blooded manner. It is no wonder that the executioner and the warders are haunted for a long time afterwards by the sight of the horror in which they have been engaged. I appeal to the House to permit this experiment for a 980 trial period of five years. If it fails, the House can return to the present method, but I submit that, with no wish to condone crime or murder, but on common grounds of humanity, this Motion ought to be passed, and I beg the House to pass it unanimously.
§ 9.12 p.m.
§ Mr. Culverwell
I am grateful for the opportunity of taking part in this Debate, because the hon. Member for Londonderry (Sir R. Ross), the hon. Member for Coatbridge (Mr. Barr) and I are the only Members present to-night who sat on the Select Committee which considered capital punishment. I. should like to congratulate the Mover of the Motion on the able manner in which he put his case. There is a type of mind which always seems to be soaring in the clouds and out of touch with realities, a type which is prepared to go to the stake for its convictions, however wrong they may be, and which bases its views rather on sentiment than on experience and expediency. I make no reflection on those who have spoken in favour of this Motion, but it is curious that two of them, the last speaker and the Seconder, should—and I admire them for it—in defence of their sincere convictions have spent a considerable portion of the last War in prison. It is an equally curious thing that when I was a member of the Select Committee and approached the matter with a completely open mind, prepared to be swayed either way by the burden of the evidence, there was what an hon. Member was pleased to term another "old lag" on the Committee. He was a member of the Society of Friends and he was accompanied in our labours by another member of that Society. I cannot imagine any members of the Society of Friends who believe in the sanctity of human life, sifting the evidence in favour or against the abolition of capital punishment.
I think the attitude of these gentlemen was put very clearly by the Secretary of the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment. He put their case very ably and fairly to us when he said that he regarded all human life as equally sacred and considered that—the life of a criminal who has carried out a series of callous and brutal crimes is of equal value to the life of an innocent child who has been murdered.I am bound to say that I do not take that view. We were called upon to 981 examine witnesses from this country and from various foreign countries, and out of the 29 witnesses from this country 21 were in favour of the retention of capital punishment. But it is not only the numbers in favour of the retention of capital punishment which should impress the House, it is the experience which they have had. When I tell the House that these 21 included five governors of prisons, two chief officers, one senior medical officer, one chaplain to His Majesty's prisons, two Prison Commissioners, two ex-Home Secretaries, two judges, the representatives of the Council of the Law Society and of the Home Office, and that among the minority in favour of the abolition of capital punishment were the Secretary of the Society for the Abolition of Capital Punishment, the Secretary of the Society of Friends, which opposes capital punishment on principle, and an experienced prison doctor who considered that abolition should await a thorough reform of the whole penal system, I think the House will agree that, so far as the ability, experience and capacity of the witnesses to judge of this matter is concerned, the weight of evidence certainly lay with those who favour the retention of capital punishment.
My hon. and learned Friend, in referring to the deterrent effect of capital punishment—and it is the deterrent effect, of course, with which we are chiefly concerned—mentioned that in 1927 over 14,000 wives sought the protection of the courts mainly on the grounds of assault or persistent cruelty by their husbands, and in that year there were 293 cases of aggravated assault by males, many of which would be assaults upon wives or housekeepers. That is the evidence of the Home Office. In that year five men were sentenced to death for the murder of their wives or the women with whom they were cohabiting. We know that these five men were not deterred, but we do not know how many of the thousands of others may have been deterred by the fear of the death penalty from murdering the women whom they were persistently assaulting and ill-treating.
It is the fact that we are largely in the region of theory, and do not know how many were deterred by the death penalty, that makes this question so much a matter of opinion as opposed to a matter of fact, but those witnesses with 982 practical experience of prison administration whom we examined expressed the opinion that there is in this country a small class of callous, immoral and professional criminals. Prison warders, judges and governors of prisons all expressed this view. Mr. Paterson, the Director of Convict Prisons, and the English delegate to the International Prison Commission, said:We who are in daily contact with professional criminals can safely say that with them the dread of the gallows is a strong deterrent, and I think the capital sentence is still necessary for a certain type of professional criminal.I could quote much other evidence from those who have personal experience of prison administration. The hon. Member for Chesterfield (Mr. Benson) suggested that certainty of conviction was much more of a deterrent than the form of the punishment inflicted. I do not know to what lengths he would carry that theory. Obviously it is easier to make the punishment less of a deterrent than it is, and we had evidence from America, from Judge Kavanagh, who had great experience during the Prohibition period, of the tremendous amount of crime in Chicago and of the effect which the reimposition of capital punishment had had. As showing how the deterrent effect of punishment is lessened if you modify the form of the punishment he said:There are 1,200 prisoners in the eastern prison of Pennsylvania and 780 radios in the cells to keep the gentlemen from getting lonesome.He took the view, quite rightly, that if you make prison too comfortable, if you lessen the severity of the punishment which you inflict for murder, you naturally lessen its deterrent effect. Hon. Members have referred to the question of retribution and argued that in this civilised age it is not permissible to take retribution against a murderer. The last hon. Member, I think, said that it was an evil thing to take revenge upon the murderer. I agree that we do not take an eye for an eye or a tooth for a tooth, and that we do not want to inflict upon the murderer the exact punishment which he inflicted upon his victim, but I do feel that the murderer deserves somewhat similar treatment to that which he has been prepared to give to his victim, and, indeed, this view was shared by some of the witnesses whom we examined. Lord Darling, a very experienced judge, said: 983I think it is fair that he who unlawfully and purposely takes the life of a human being should forfeit his own. … I believe that if you did not admit that view at all in regard to punishment that society would not wait for the law to take vengeance.That brings me to another point which has not been mentioned by those who have spoken to-night in favour of abolition, and that is the question whether, if we abolish capital punishment to-day, we should not be going in advance of public opinion. If we did go in advance of public opinion we might well create a situation in which the public would take justice into their own hands, and we might have lynch law in this country. Indeed, this view was expressed by the Home Office. They stated:This proposal for the abolition of capital punishment ought not to be adopted unless Parliament is satisfied that it is supported by the great body of public opinion in this country.With all due deference to the hon. Member who has just spoken, I do not consider that the bodies he mentioned are necessarily representative of the general public opinion of this country.It is important that public sentiment should not merely accept abolition in the abstract but should be strong enough to overbear the passions which may be excited by the contemplation of the harrowing details of some brutal outrage. If this test were not satisfied the country might well be exposed, for the first time in its history, to all the horrors of lynch law.I think that view deserves the consideration of the House—that we should not legislate in advance of public opinion lest after some horrible crime the public, believing that the criminal would get off too lightly, should take the law into their own hands.
A reference was made to the reluctance of juries to convict owing to the growing sense that capital punishment was too harsh and too cruel for this civilised age, and that there should be more recommendations to mercy. Again this is a complete misapprehension. During the period from 1901 to 1916 61 per cent. were not recommended to mercy, but during the period from 1916 to 1929 71 per cent. were not recommended to mercy, which shows exactly the opposite tendency on the part of juries. Reference has been made to the question of fallibility. It is true that, when you hang a man, you cannot bring him back to life, but you 984 cannot legislate for individual mistakes of that kind. I feel that, if by experience you have proved that capital punishment is beneficial to society and that it restricts the number of murders, the fact that you may make a mistake and that an individual may suffer should not be allowed to override other considerations. I believe that our process of law and justice is such that the danger of any mistake is practically negligible.
One hon. Member referred to the effect upon warders and prisoners of executions taking place. Although he has been some time in prison and I have not, that was not the burden of the evidence that was given before the Select Committee. A prison chaplain who had attended 15 executions said there was little effect upon prisoners nowadays because the procedure had been much improved. It may have been improved since the hon. Member was in prison. We have been assured that every step is taken to conceal from the other prisoners the fact that an execution is taking place, and I believe that even further steps could be taken in that direction. We might, for instance, have one special prison where only executions should take place. But that is no argument against the desirability of retaining capital punishment because those are matters of practical detail which can be, as indeed they have been, remedied. The black flag is no longer hoisted, the date of the execution is kept secret from the other prisoners, and two witnesses informed us, whilst admitting the naturally unpleasant and distasteful nature of their duty, that the effects of any execution upon themselves and the prison population were purely temporary. [Interruption.] Hon. Members may laugh but those bad effects upon the prison population are no excuse for abolishing a weapon which if retained, may be beneficial to society. These are matters which administration can remedy, and which to a large extent have been remedied.
There is the further question of the sensationalism which a murder inspires in the public. I do not think that the abolition of capital punishment would remove the sensationalism. It is the gruesome details of the murder and the plight of the man who is on trial in which interest is taken. I do not imagine that the morbidity would be lessened were the man to be sent to penal servitude at the end of 985 his trial instead of being sent to the scaffold. Perhaps the evidence to which many Members attach most importance, though quite misguidedly in my opinion, is that which we have received from foreign countries. Very little assistance can be obtained from the evidence from foreign countries. They vary one from another in area, size of population, whether they are agricultural or urban, whether they have political crimes, whether they have ardent or placid temperaments, and so on. For these reasons it is impossible, in my opinion, to draw any useful deduction from evidence provided by other countries. The hon. Member referred to Denmark. One witness from Denmark, when we asked him whether there was a criminal class there, said, "I should say No." One can understand that. There is only one big city; otherwise it is a small agricultural country whose conditions are quite different from those here or in America, where there are large manufacturing centres with organised criminal classes. Therefore it is a great mistake to put too much trust or to draw deductions from the evidence that one receives from foreign countries.
Mr. W. J. Brown, who first broached this subject and was the cause of the committee being set up, said in 1929 that the real test to apply was not a test as between one country and another but the number of murders taking place within the same country before and after the abolition of capital punishment. That is a perfectly reasonable statement but, unfortunately, he went on to quote foreign countries, such as Norway, Denmark, Holland and Italy, where again the figures are not reliable. For instance, in Norway the last execution took place in 1875, and up to 1864 there were no reliable statistics. In Denmark no statistics are available prior to 1866, and since that year only four executions have taken place, the last being it 1892. Those who seek to draw any deductions from the position in Denmark should ask themselves whether they really gain much benefit from the study of figures such as that. In Holland reliable statistical data beginning from the middle of the century show that death sentences were rare and executions quite exceptional. Since 1860 there have been no executions. In Belgium the last execution took place in 1863. So that one cannot with complete statistics before one 986 say that before capital punishment was abolished there were so many murders and so many executions and after there was a diminution or an increase. They are either quite unreliable or non-existent.
Hon. Members may try to make deductions and to suggest that statistics prove that if capital punishment were abolished this crime would not increase, but one cannot be too sure of one's ground. In Italy the most severe form of solitary confinement you could find took the place of capital punishment. One witness from Italy said that it was a grossly inhuman form of punishment which few survived, either physically or mentally. One may well say that although they abolished capital punishment they substituted for it a punishment which was equally, if not more, severe. As regards the United States, the same holds good. It is no use comparing a negro state with a white state or an agricultural state with an urban state. You must take like with like. When you consider the information available you must remember that the Home Office say that in those States which have abolished the death penalty the homicidal rate is higher than in the others.
I sum up. I am sorry to have taken so much time but I understood there was not a great rush to speak on this matter. [HON. MEMBERS: "There will be, after you."] It is no good to rely upon the statistics and experience of foreign countries. In England we have the certainty, upon conviction, of a perfectly definite penalty. That is the best deterrent. All those who have practical knowledge of the criminal class, like those who gave evidence before the Select Committee, having personal experience, thought that capital punishment was the greatest deterrent and necessary for the protection of society; that miscarriages of justice were remote and almost impossible and that the execution had no brutalising effect, such as an hon. Member suggested, upon warders and prisoners, and that if it had, that could be avoided by administrative methods; that the prerogative of mercy which the Home Secretary exercises can be used to adjust the punishment to suit the crime. I hope that this House will not decide this question, as many Members have been prone to do in the past, upon sentiment, and principle, but that they will base their decision upon the results of experience and upon expediency.
§ 9.38 P.m.
§ Mr. Mander
The hon. Gentleman has spoken of improvements that have taken place in the carrying out of the death penalty, but I am afraid that, whatever advance in technique there may have been, death will remain the end of life. I do not think there is much consolation to be drawn from that situation. I rise to support the Motion that has been proposed, and I hope that this question, which is a non-party one and interests all sections of the community, will receive support and be carried to-day in the moderate and experimental form in which it appears upon the Paper. The hon. Member opposite referred to the need for carrying public opinion with us. I believe public opinion would be behind a Motion of this kind. He referred to the Home Office, but I believe public opinion is far in advance of the Home Office on those questions. I do not think we have to wait until the Home Office is satisfied. As the hon. Member was speaking I could not help thinking how speeches of that kind had been made all down the ages in defence of the law dealing with the death penalty as it has existed in its various stages.
I should like to refer to an example of which I know and which occurred in Wolverhampton about 120 years ago. Two men in a rather drunken condition, I think, were fighting in the main square. A shilling dropped out of the pocket of one of them. A policeman was standing by and, knowing that £40 of blood money could be obtained if there were a conviction, he arrested those two men. They were taken to the Stafford Assizes and both were condemned to death. At that time that was the normal course and seemed right, but the end of that incident was that one citizen of Wolverhampton, being apprised of the facts, went to the Home Office and saw the Home Secretary, who was then Lord Sidmouth. He got back to Stafford just in time to save the men's lives. Perhaps the House will permit me to refer also to the fact that the rescuer happened to be my great-grandfather.
It has been said that this is sentiment and that we cannot make an advance. That argument could have been used for hundreds of years and, if it had been accepted, would have prevented any advance being made. I was quite convinced by the statistics given by the hon. 988 Member who has just spoken that there was a very strong case for the abolition of the death penalty. It seemed very convincing that countries of similar kind to ours, where people have the same stolidity, or whatever our nature may be, have got on quite well without it for a considerable period. That is true also of people of a more fiery nature. I see no reason to suppose that we should not be just as secure as we are at the present time. All the facts seem to stand for that.
It may be said that a moment when the whole world is organising to indulge in mutual slaughter on a scale that has never been known in the history of the world is not the moment to choose to make an advance of the kind suggested, but I say that in our little island we should show the world an example of the right way to conduct matters of this kind. It may be that brutality is showing itself in other countries in a way which is shocking everybody and making a return to medieval and barbaric times and manners, but if that is so, let us see that we, at any rate, can continue to move along the path of humanity.
§ 9.43 P.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Geoffrey Lloyd)
I agree with the remark that was made by the hon. Member for West Leeds (Mr. V. Adams) in moving this Motion that it would be wrong not to take the view of this House and not to discuss a matter of this kind at this moment On the contrary, it is highly satisfactory that we should be doing so and that our constitutional arrangements make it possible, for example, for my right hon. Friend to introduce his Bill and for us to make a careful study of whether the death penalty ought to be continued in our country. We all recognise the deep importance of this subject, but those in active work in the Law Courts and in the Home Office feel it even more intensely, for the reason that they are brought more closely into contact with it.
In the Home Secretary's room at the Home Office stands, by long tradition, a frame which contains a list of the condemned. Day by day it has reminded Home Secretaries of the final responsibility which, as shown in the memoirs of Home Secretaries, many of them have felt deeply. I remember that when the 989 present Chancellor of the Exchequer was Home Secretary he made an addition to that frame. He had engraved upon it a remarkable line from a Roman poet. Perhaps the House will permit me, although I am not a classical scholar, to quote the line and to give the free translation of it which my right hon. Friend has given to me. The line is:
§ Nulla unquam de morte hominis cunctatio longa est.
§ Freely translated this means that you cannot take too much forethought before deciding that a man should die. I think that that is the spirit in which we also ought to approach this question.
§ Perhaps the House will grant me some indulgence if I choose my words rather carefully to-night in speaking on behalf of the Home Office on this important subject. The proposal in my hon. Friend's Motion is not for the total abolition of capital punishment, but for its abolition for an experimental period of five years. The question of the abolition of capital punishment is, of course, one on which there has been a good deal of discussion, and proposals for legislation to abolish the penalty of death have been put before the House on previous occasions, but this is the first occasion on which the House has been asked to declare itself in favour of an experiment of this kind. I think it is true to say that opinion on the subject of capital punishment is divided between those who think it necessary as a deterrent, those who are convinced that some other deterrent is possible and ought to be adopted, and, lastly, those—probably the largest class of all—who, while they dislike capital punishment and would wish that it could be dispensed with if that were possible, hesitate to come to a final conclusion on the question of its total abolition. I think it is clear that my hon. Friend's Motion is intended to claim the support of this last-named class of people.
§ The first and principal objection to the suggestion that capital punishment should be abolished for a period of five years is that the period proposed is much too short to enable the general effect of abolition to be judged, or any really useful conclusion to be drawn. Even on the basis of a comparison of the statistics for murder during the five years of the proposed experiment with those in the immediately preceding period, it is clear that 990 the period of five years is not long enough. It would be difficult, in so short a period as five years, to be quite certain as to the causes of any variations which the figures might show as compared with those of a previous period. What would be involved in such an experiment, however, is not merely the correlation of the statistics relating to murder over a short period of years with the statistics for the period before capital punishment was abolished, but an estimate of the effect upon men's minds of the removal of the deterrent of capital punishment as a penalty for murder, and of the new conception that murder is a crime the penalty for which is some form of penal detention, and probably a form of detention of the same general character as that which is imposed for other crimes. Before any generalisation from the results of such an experiment could be securely based, it would be necessary, in the view of the Home Office, to have the experience of the change for at least a generation.
§ The period proposed is not only too short, in our view, to enable an opinion to be formed on the question of capital punishment as a deterrent, but also to enable any judgment to be formed as to what the appropriate alternative penalty is, or whether an alternative is practicable. The Motion is silent on the question of the penalty to be substituted for that of capital punishment, but presumably the penalty would be a long term of detention in prison. The question arises as to what should be the conditions of this detention. It may be suggested that, in order to preserve the distinction between the penalty for the worst forms of murder and the penalty for other forms of crime, a special type of imprisonment involving some specially severe and rigorous treatment, should be instituted as the penalty for certain categories of murder. A special system of rigours and severities for a selected class of prisoners would run counter to the whole spirit of the modern prison regime; would in our view be impossible to administer in practice; and would be bound to have evil effects, both upon the individual subjected to it and upon prison officers whose duty it would be to apply it.
§ Mr. Benson
Mr. Alexander Paterson, one of the Prison Commissioners, and, I think, a Prison Commissioner of many years' standing, opposed the abolition of the death penalty because he thought that, 991 even under modern prison conditions, a penalty of 10 years' imprisonment was more severe than the death penalty. There seems, therefore, to be no need for imposing special conditions.
§ Mr. Lloyd
That is the view that the hon. Member takes, but I do not think it is the view of a great many other people inside and outside this House, and I do not think that the House would be prepared to accept as an alternative to the death penalty a sentence of imprisonment for less than 10 years. If, however, the alternative suggestion is that all convicted murderers should be detained in future under the ordinary prison régime but for a long period, I think it would be strongly opposed both in this House and outside. Under the existing system a sentence of penal servitude for life rarely exceeds the equivalent of a 20 years' sentence, that is to say, 15 years' actual detention; but if the death sentence were abolished, it would presumably be necessary to detain the worst type of murderers for a longer period than this, and there might be cases of murderers, for example, some poisoners, whom it would be unsafe ever to release. The question of the detention of human beings in prison for their natural life, or for periods so prolonged that they are practically without hope in regard to their release, must necessarily raise for the prison administration problems of an entirely new character, and it would clearly be quite impossible to expect that any light on these problems would be thrown by the experience of five years. Many people would regard the detention of a prisoner for the whole of his life as a penalty as inhumane as the punishment of death which it is sought to abolish, but the choice might lie between such detention and the return to society of a person who ought never again to be allowed the opportunity of committing further crime.
If, on the other hand, as seems much more likely, it were found impracticable to detain even the worst type of murderer for periods substantially in excess of the longest periods served at present, it would become impossible to make any effective distinction as regards the penalty between the most appalling type of murders, whose nature is such as to arouse special abhorrence and detestation in the public mind, and other murders, or, indeed, other 992 crimes punishable with penal servitude for life. The effect of this change upon public opinion—whether, indeed public opinion would tolerate it at all—could not possibly be gauged during the experimental period of five years for which capital punishment was in abeyance. The whole crux of the question of capital punishment is the question of an alternative penalty, and the many difficulties involved in any alternative could not be expected to become evident within a period of five years.
The suggestion of an experiment is open to the further serious objection that, if the experiment proved unsatisfactory, it might be necessary to consider the reintroduction of the penalty of capital punishment. It is obvious that, once the penalty were abolished, there would be the greatest difficulty in securing its reintroduction. Although the penalty is to be abolished according to the terms of the Motion, for an experimental period, on the basis that the time has not yet come for complete abolition, the onus of effecting a change in the law is at once shifted from those who propose abolition to those who propose re-introduction. No humane person is in favour of this penalty for any reason except its necessity, and the task of securing the passage of legislation to re-introduce the penalty, once it had been abolished, would, even if such legislation were in fact necessary and justified, be a most invidious one. In effect, therefore, the proposed experiment would prejudice the whole future consideration of the question, and the House should realise that what is proposed under the guise of an experiment may in fact mean the complete abolition of capital punishment.
As the suggestion underlying the Motion is that the time is ripe for the abolition of capital punishment, it may he desirable to consider the matter from a more general point of view. Without embarking upon any theoretic discussion of the general issues raised by the controversy on the subject of capital punishment. there are certain considerations which may be mentioned, as deserving very great weight and placing a very great responsibility upon those who suggest the change in the existing law at the present time. The first is that which has already been touched on, as to the difficulty of devising a suitable alterative. The dreadful character of a long sentence of 993 detention may be less obvious than the dreadful character of a death sentence, but it must be recognised as the evil thing; and the choice between the two as a choice between evils. There is, on the other hand, the difficulty that anything less than prolonged or even life-long detention may have the result of abolishing the present distinction between murder and all other crimes, with results, both in relation to the question of deterrence and to the effect upon the public mind, which it is quite impossible to foresee.
Secondly, whatever the view taken of the general efficacy of deterrents other than capital punishment for the crime of murder, there is good ground for the belief that there exists in our population a class of persons, professional burglars, housebreakers, and criminals of that type, who do not carry lethal weapons because, while they are fully prepared to take the risk of imprisonment, even for long terms, which is the penalty for the crimes they commit, they will not expose themselves to the risk of execution. The substitution for the death penalty of a sentence of penal servitude, nominally for life, would not, it is believed, prove a deterrent to such persons from taking life in the course of their felonious enterprises or in order to escape. This is the opinion formed by police officers and others who have experience of this class of criminal, and it must be given very great weight.
It is, however, impossible to confine the consideration of this question to an abstract discussion of whether some other penalty than the penalty of death would be efficacious deterrent from the crime of murder. It must be recognised that the existence of this penalty for a crime which, in every civilised society, is regarded as different in nature from all other crimes, is due to the belief on the part of the great body of public opinion that this sanction is essential for the preservation of the security of life in society. It would, in the view of the Government, be essential, before any change in the law could be contemplated, that there should be evidence of the existence of a predominating public sentiment in favour of the abolition of the death penalty, and that no change should be made in advance of a general desire for change on the part of public opinion. This view is based upon two main considerations. In the first place, it would be deplorable 994 to run any risk that, as has happened in some other countries, the abolition of capital punishment before public opinion was ripe for the change might be followed by an agitation for its re-imposition. And, secondly—and here I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for West Bristol (Mr. Culverwell)—there is a real danger that if public sentiment were not fully prepared for such a change, the occurrence of some outrageously brutal murder might arouse such passion that this country would be exposed for the first time in its history to the horrors of lynch law. That the possibility of some such outburst of popular indignation is not to be ignored is shown by the outcry which has arisen in some cases in which prisoners guilty of what appeared to be heinous murders have, for one reason or another, escaped execution. Cases of this kind will be within the recollection of hon. Members.
It is, of course, difficult to test the prevailing state of public opinion at any time, but the experience of the Home Office suggests that, so far from there being any indication of any increasing feeling on the part of the general public in favour of the abolition of capital punishment, the tendency appears to be in the other direction. There are, of course, in existence certain societies whose aims include endeavouring to secure support for a change in the law relating to capital punishment. But, in the experience of the Home Office, there has been in recent years no indication of any general trend of public opinion in favour of abolition, and there has been, in fact, a marked lack of any strong interest on the part of the general public in the question of capital punishment. It would be wrong, however, to assume, from the fact that the existence of this penalty and its exaction in individual cases has not aroused any special public concern of recent years, that its abolition would be regarded by the public with equal equanimity. On the contrary, as has been stated, there is at least some evidence in the concern exhibited in some cases in which the view is taken that a murderer has escaped execution, that the public is concerned to see that the existing law is carried out in proper cases.
It is sometimes urged by opponents of capital punishment that the existence of the death penalty makes juries reluctant to convict of murder. It is possible that 995 if there were any general sentiment in favour of abolition it might be reflected in the attitude of juries in murder cases. There is, however, no support, in the experience of the Home Office, for the view that any such reluctance on the part of juries exists. During the period from 1932 to 1937 there were 115 persons convicted of murder and sentenced to death; in 50 of these cases there was a recommendation to mercy by the jury, but no recommendation to mercy was made in the other 65 cases, and it must, therefore, be presumed that the juries were prepared in these cases to see the law take its course in accordance with their verdict.
The only recent occasion upon which the subject of capital punishment has been debated in Parliament was in 1929, upon a Motion by a private Member. As a result of the Debate, it was decided to set up a Select Committee on the subject. Prior to this, except for occasional short discussion on Bills brought before the House from time to time, there had been no Debate on the subject in Parliament since 1886. The report of the Select Committee appointed in 1929 includes a recommendation in the terms of the present Motion. In accordance with the usual practice this report was presented to the House as that of the whole Committee. In fact, however, it appears, from the published Minutes of the Committee, that the six Conservative members of the Committee, upon the defeat of their motion for the adjournment of the Committee in order that they might prepare an alternative draft report, withdrew, and took no further part in the proceedings. The Committee's report cannot, therefore, be accepted as in any sense expressing the views of representative Members of all parties in the House. On the contrary, it appears to represent merely the opinion of eight other members of the Committee. The report has never been debated in the House and it cannot be regarded as having any authority other than that of an expression of the personal views on this question of the eight members concerned. The Government feel that upon a subject of such gravity and one on which so many men's minds have in the past been exercised, the expression by a bare majority of the Committee of an opinion from which a large minority totally dissented, cannot possibly be regarded as a 996 sufficient justification for considering the formulation of legislation along the lines proposed.
In the view of the Government the suggestion of an experimental period as a half-way house to total abolition is entirely mistaken. If there were to be any change in the law it should be by legislation for abolition outright. Such legislation is not in the Government's view justified at present either by anything in our present knowledge of the subject or by the general sentiment of the people of this country.
§ THE CLERK at the TABLE informed the House, of the unavoidable absence of Mr. SPEAKER from the remainder of this day's Sitting.
§ Whereupon Sir DENNIS HERBERT, THE CHAIRMAN OF WAYS AND MEANS, took the Chair as DEPUTY-SPEAKER, pursuant to the Standing Order.
§ 10.8 p.m.
§ Mr. Rhys Davies
This is the second time that I have listened to a Debate in this House on this very important subject. I shall be very brief in what I have to say, but I should like to make one or two comments on the Debate. I think I shall be voicing the opinion of all Members of all parties in the House when I say that the hon. Gentleman the Member for West Leeds (Mr. V. Adams), who moved the Motion, did it exceedingly well, and we congratulate him on his courage and determination in bringing such a Motion before Parliament. I will deal, first of all, with the hon. Gentleman's statement of policy on behalf of His Majesty's Government. He did not tell us whether the Whips are to be put on or otherwise this evening. I am hoping that the Government will allow us to have a free vote in order to test the opinion of the House on this vital issue. Needless to say, the policy of the party on this side of the House is in favour of the Motion, in spite of what the hon. Gentleman has said; and I am wondering whether he will be good enough to tell us now, because it is customary for the Minister in charge, before he sits down, even though he has read his brief which he may not have agreed with entirely himself, to say whether we are to have a 997 free vote of the House or not. Would he like to tell us now?
§ Mr. Davies
We understand, therefore, and for the information of the supporters of the Government, they are free this evening to vote for this Motion if they like, I quite realise the gravity of the statement that the hon. Gentleman has just made, but quite honestly I thought he was exaggerating the importance of some of the points he put forward. For illustration, the alternative penalty. Is there anybody who can convince this House that the Home Office in this country cannot find an alternative penalty? They have got one already. When a man is convicted of murder and sentenced to death and is then reprieved there is the alternative of penal servitude for life waiting for him. I thought the hon. Gentleman was belabouring that point unduly. Then he thought there was a lack of public interest in this problem. Quite frankly I do not know whether that is so or not, except that in 1929 we had a Debate on the same issue in this House. Then we had a Select Committee set up as a result, and we have a Motion now on the issue from a Member of the Conservative party. I do not remember very many subjects debated in this House within such a short period of time as that, and, consequently I do not think that the charge of lack of interest can be sustained.
Let me now say how I feel about this thing myself. The hon. Gentleman knows that I have been just within reach of this problem myself. My mind is affected in this way, that society in this country in spite of all that can be said for the death penalty, is obviously ashamed of what it is doing. Why all this secrecy about executions? Why do we want to hide the whole frightful brutal business if it is not for the fact that we are ashamed of what we are doing? It is only two or three decades ago that capital punishment was carried out in public, if you please, in order that it might act as a deterrent. Society thought later, however, that that was too frightful, and we do it now behind closed doors. We are told now that it is to be done very shortly in such a way that it will almost be just a pleasant exhibition.
§ Mr. Davies
Has all that acted as a deterrent? The human race has executed, crucified, disembowelled, burned, drowned, maimed, and guillotined its murderers, and still people are being murdered. It is no use talking therefore about the deterrent effect of executions on criminals. I think that we have a strong case for its abolition. The hon. Member for West Leeds has a very excellent case in favour of his Motion. The hon. and learned Member for the West Derby Division of Liverpool (Mr. Fyfe) gave us the figures of the number of persons convicted of murder, those who were executed, those who were deemed to be insane and those who were reprieved. These are the figures for the last available period. There were eight executed, and 13 had their sentences commuted to penal servitude. I think the 13 must have been reprieved by the present Home Secretary, and two were certified as insane. The hon. and learned Member made great play with the argument that, first of all, there was the police evidence. Then the criminal was taken to another court, and still another court, then to the Court of Criminal Appeal, and if there was a certain intricate point of law to be decided he was taken lastly before the House of Lords. There are so many courts, so many juries, so many lawyers arguing about it, that you could not possibly make a mistake in arriving at a correct decision.
When all this has been done, however, the fact that of the 21, no lses than 13 of them were reprieved by a right hon. Gentleman who sits on the Front Bench opposite. In spite of all your juries, your lawyers, your judges and your House of Lords, a gentleman sitting at the Home Office had to decide, in the end, that out of 21 cases, 13 should not be hanged. The best condemnation of the death penalty in this country is that Parliament and society throws upon the Secretary of State the responsibility of deciding whether a murderer shall be hanged or not. Let me argue the case a little nearer, because one hon. Member said that those who support this Motion have their heads in the clouds. Thirteen were reprieved last year.
§ Mr. Davies
My case is quite as good, whether it is eight or thirteen. Suppose the hon. and learned Member was the Secretary of State for one period—I do not know his ambition—and suppose the hon. Member who moved the Motion was Secretary of State for another period, and they had that awful list of murderers put before them. I have seen it. I have seen a clerk come into the office in the morning and casually draw his red pencil through the name of the person who has been executed that morning. I am not sure that the attitude of mind of the hon. and learned Member in taking the final decision as to whether a person should be hanged or not would not be different from that of another Home Secretary coming from exactly the same political party. Therefore, capital punishment is condemned because merely by changing your Home Secretary and getting a Minister with a different attitude of mind towards capital punishment, you decide the issue of life and death.
What annoys me about hon Members who oppose the Motion is this. I have been in this House for many years and have taken a little part in trying to amend the law to mitigate penalties on all classes of criminals. One very important Measure that I took some part in is the Children and Young Persons Act. What did we do there? I do not know much about the law. God forbid that I should ever become a lawyer; but if certain learned Gentlemen can earn £10,000 a year at the Bar with the eloquence they possess, I do not know what my income would be. What has Parliament done since I have been here? It has mitigated the severity of sentences on almost every wrongdoer except the murderer. I sat for two years on a committee which inquired into juvenile delinquency. We were told that ever since the Roman law was written a child of seven in this country had never been punished, because he did not know the difference between right and wrong. We raised the age limit from seven to nine, because we considered he did not at that age know the difference between right and wrong. Then we found that the age at which we could enforce capital punishment was just over 16, so we raised it to 18 in that Act. If you want an argument against capital punishment this is the best I know; that if a youngster is 17 years 11 months and 1000 three weeks old he can commit the foulest murder and be immune from capital punishment under the law, but if he be 18 years and one day old he may be excuted, especially if the hon. and learned Member happens to be Secretary of State at the time. What offended me most in his argument was that we profess to be a Christian community and all our practices are based on the Old Testament—and this is one of them.
I am proud of many things that are done in this country, and the more I travel the more I esteem the laws of my own land. I too have been in Chicago, Oregon, St. Louis and Missouri, and I know a little of what is happening there. There are as many murders in Chicago, with or without the death penalty, in-a city of 2,000,000 people, as there are in this country with 42,000,000. It just depends on who lives there—and most of the criminals are Tory blue at that. In my view, the best deterrents against crime are the spread of the right kind of education, and the proper housing and feeding of the population. It is a proud thing to think that while the figures of the population of this country have doubled the number of murders remains approximately the same. That is the best thing which can be said of our civilisation, and I am positive, having had a little contact with this problem on more than one occasion, that this House, in spite of what the hon. and learned Member has said, ought to carry the Motion and show that at any rate we are living in the spirit of the New Testament and not working under the Mosaic laws any longer.
§ 10.24 p.m.
§ Sir Geoffrey Ellis
To those who have sat throughout the Debate certain very definite points have emerged, and the first is this: Let me put it without any offence to hon. Members who take strong views on this matter. They really feel that the cause which they represent is not one for argument, but it is a tenet of faith that no human life should be taken. They hold that view whatever happens, and therefore, on the question of faith and of deterrence it becomes obvious from what has been said that five years is an impossible limit. You have either to get rid of the penalty altogether or keep it on. I do not think that enough attention has been given to the types of murder offences which are com- 1001 mitted We must get out of our calculations all cases of murder in which insanity occurs, because obviously insanity occurs whether you have capital punishment or not. Then, I think it would be just to put aside those cases of murder which result from what might be called an accident, cases where murder was not intended but resulted from some other crime.
This leaves two categories. Mention has been made to-night of cases of burglary and particularly of housebreaking Here there is a class of men who do not now use weapons, and I think those people, again, may be divided into two groups. One would not use weapons in any event, whether they could be had for murder or not, but the others are definitely deterred from going to extremes if they get into a corner by the knowledge that they may lose their lives for so doing. Surely, in that respect, capital punishment has some deterrent effect.
It would have, I think, a very serious effect on public opinion if there were no capital punishment and the public thought that a really callous murderer was escaping what the public, perhaps in its wrongheadedness, called his just deserts, If, for instance, there is a really bad egotistic person, cold and devilish, who commits a murden with callous intention after long and calculated thought as to the way in which to do it, it is no good saying that such a person is insane. He is nothing of the kind. Those people exist in the world, and there is only one deterrent in their case, and that is an attack on their own ego. The only way to make that attack is to put it to them that they will be the sufferers if anything of that kind is done. Nowadays, I think, we no longer regard this as a question of the old lex talionis, the law of an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. If we have capital punishment, it is really for the protection of the public and as an example to other people not to do what has been done. The whole question boils down to a very simple thing. If by reason of your convictions on grounds of life alone you are satisfied that you should remit capital punishment, you will still have the question of alternative punishment to consider. Therefore, abolition is not a matter which ought to be settled without very careful thought of future alternatives.
§ 10.28 p.m.
§ Mr. Barr
I welcome the opportunity, since I was chairman of the committee—one of my colleagues on the committee, the hon. Member for West Bristol (Mr. Culverwell) has already spoken—of dealing with the report in some sense, and of answering some of the objections that have been raised to-day to the arguments and Motion of my hon. Friend. I may recall that one of the objections that was taken to our report when it first appeared was that there were no fewer than four poetic quotations in it. I am reinforced in that now, since to-night I heard the Under-Secretary quote a Latin line, and doubtless if he had had more time, he would have given us more quotations. But if hon. Members had examined those quotations, they would have seen that they were entirely characteristic of the impartiality of the report, since two of them were in support of capital punishment and two of them were against it.
I wish now to mention the reception which was given to our report. A great deal has been said to-night about public opinion. May I read these few extracts? The "Spectator" declared:The plan advocated in the report should be given a fair trial.The "Nation and Athenaeum" said:In our judgment the case for experimental abolition is very strong.The verdict of the "New Statesman" was:The real question here is whether the gallows is necessary in this country now as a deterrent to murder. For our own part we do not believe it.Many provincial morning and evening papers gave us their full support. The "Manchester Guardian" said:The spectacle of one human being condemned to death by another was terrible because barbarous, of the Old Testament rather than the New.And it added:If we find at the end of five years that we dare not abolish the death sentence, we shall have to confess to being less civilised than countries like Holland and Denmark.Before I mention what we received in the way of support from the Churches, may I be excused for a short excursion into the realm of the classics. The main argument used by many classical writers, just as it is sought to be used now, was that there were certain people who by 1003 their conduct proved themselves to be beyond redemption, and that therefore they should be cast forth as a branch that was withered. I give you this from Plato's "Laws":Those whom the legislator perceives to be incurable with respect to these particulars, he should punish in the extreme, as knowing that death is better than life to all such as these; and that when they are liberated from life they will doubly benefit others. For they will serve as a warning to others not to act unjustly; and the city, by their death, will be freed from bad men.Then Seneca in his "De Beneficiis" says:Seeing that for such characters death is the only remedy, it is best to leave him to himself who will never return to himself.But I would be doing an injustice to the classics if I were to convey the impression that that is the only argument to be found in them. Here is a noble passage from the History of the Peloponnesian War, in which Thucydides, dealing with the proposed execution of some rebels, wrote:We must not, then, either take bad counsel through trusting to the punishment of death as being efficacious, or leave to those who have revolted no hope of being allowed to repent and to wipe out their offence in as short a time as possible.That is a thoroughly modern argument in favour of the Motion of my hon. Friend. Many hon. Members too will probably recall the famous passage in Cicero referring to the fact that under the Porcian Law in Ancient Rome the death penalty was abolished for free men, though not for slaves. Cicero proudly boasted:In the Republic, the ill-omened tree had long been buried in the darkness of antiquity, and overwhelmed by the right of liberty.I pass to say a word on the Christian standpoint, to which reference has already been made. I am glad that we have had no quotation to-night of the old lex talionis: "an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth."
§ Mr. Barr
I am afraid I have not time to give way to the hon. Member. I have a big task. To me, the most fundamental teaching of Jesus Christ, enforced by His example, was that He despaired of no man, that to Him no man was beyond redemption. In His practice He did not deal much with self-righteous people such as we are. He dealt with those who were 1004 the despair of all others, and when He Himself—may I say it reverently—became the victim of the death penalty, He still exercised His calling, He still showed his unquenchable faith in man, He still sought to convert and raise the two thieves on either side of Him, and not without success. And the word He spoke then of those who had inflicted the death penalty is true of all who have been inflicting it through the ages:They know not what they do.For three centuries every great Christian writer, every great Christian preacher, was opposed to the death penalty. Let me give an example or two. Origen said:The Lawgiver of the Christians did not deem it becoming to His own divine legislation to allow the destruction of any man whatever.Cyprian said:It is not permitted even the guiltless to put the guilty to death.And Lactantius, who died in 321, dealing with the words, "Thou shalt not kill," as applied to this question, said:With regard to this precept of God, there ought to be no exception at all for it is always unlawful to put to death a man, whom God willed to be a sacred creature.For centuries Christians refused to become magistrates because they were opposed to administering the death penalty. You get it as late as the reign of Julian; you get it in Gibbon and every great historian. Wyclif said:It is wrong to take away the life of man on any account.How do the Churches stand to-day? Here is some reflection of public opinion. When the Select Committee's report was published "The Church of England Newspaper" expressed the hope thatthe public would become so articulate that Parliament would be compelled to take action along the lines proposed."The Christian" declared:The continuance of capital punishment was a practice intolerable in a century even nominally Christian."The Baptist Times" said:The recommendations would be generally welcomed.The "Methodist Times" pronounced the reporta long overdue step in the right direction.My hon. Friend the Member for Hamilton (Mr. D. Graham) and I, being Presbyterians, are supposed to be a little backward in some of these matters; but in 1005 May, 1931, the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of England passed the following resolution:The Assembly, having had before it the 'definite recommendations' of the Select Committee on Capital Punishment appointed by the House of Commons, expresses its approval of the recommendations, and urges the Government to give effect to them with the least possible delay.And lest we should think these resolutions are confined to England, the Annual Assembly of the Congregational Union, held in Glasgow on 30th April, 1931, passed the following resolution:The Assembly of the Congregational Union of Scotland regards the death penalty as an antiquated form of punishment, inconsistent with Christian belief in mercy, redemption, and the value of human personality, and prays His Majesty's Government to put into operation at an early date the recommendations made by the House of Commons Select Committee on Capital Punishment.I turn now to some of the prophecies that have been made as to what might happen if the death penalty were abolished. We have had references to past times when there were a vast number of executions. During the reign of Henry VIII there were 2,000 per annum on the average, and in 1819 there were 220 offences for which this punishment might be inflicted. The hon. and gallant Member for Totnes (Major Rayner) said he was opposed to abolition because he knew judges, and they were all opposed to it. All the judges and practically all the magistrates were opposed to the abolition of the capital penalty for these small offences. When Sir Samuel Romilly's Bill for abolishing the penalty for stealing up to an amount of £5 was before the House in 1810, the Chancellor of the Exchequer said:It was unsupported by the authority of one single judge or magistrate.That reform was accompanied by jeremiads as to what would happen. Lord Ellenborough, speaking on this Bill, said:Repeal this law and see the contrast—no man can trust himself for an hour out of doors without the most alarming apprehensions that, on his return, every vestige of his property will he swept off by the hardened robber.It is well known that forgery had this penalty attached to it, and in 1829 more people were executed for it than for all other offences in England and Wales. When it was proposed to abolish the death penalty for forgery it was declared 1006 in this House that "the inevitable effect would be the destruction of trade and commerce." Yet, in every case where the penalty was swept away crime diminished, property became more secure, and life became safer and more sacred.
What are the prophecies we hear today? The hon. Member for West Bristol spoke about people taking the law into their own hands, a kind of lynch law. My answer to that is that during this century, from 1901 to 1929, 527 murderers were reprieved. Some of them were guilty of the most horrible and atrocious crimes; and yet public opinion, though it might not always have approved the reprieve, never resorted to mob violence, even when it drew a fierce contrast between those executed and those reprieved. Of all the witnesses we had from other countries there was not one who said that this had ever happened in any other country. The hon. and learned Member for West Derby Division of Liverpool (Mr. Fyfe) referred to the carrying of firearms as a possible result, but in experience we find that these forbodings have no evidence to support them. Evidence was put before us from other countries, and there was none to the effect that there had been any increase in the number of burglars arming themselves or carrying lethal weapons. The carrying, or not, of firearms belongs to the social customs of various countries. In Belgium, where you have abolition, it is not the habit to carry firearms; in France, where there is capital punishment, it is the habit. Reference has been made to the large number of murderers in America, but though they have capital punishment in 40 out of 48 States, 90 per cent. of the murders there are by the use of pistols.
§ Mr. Culverwell
Does the hon. Member deny that we were given evidence by prison warders and governors that they had overheard conversations in prison to the effect that the prisoners were frightened of carrying firearms because of the existence of capital punishment?
§ Mr. Barr
I do not remember that particular incident. [Laughter.] Yes, but I am going to combat that view; I am not going to run away from it. Mr. Arthur G. Mortimer, prison officer at Wandsworth, said:I have never experienced anyone who has been reprieved attacking a warder after 1007 he has been reprieved. I had never experienced that, and I have ever heard of such a manIt has been suggested to us that a new career of crime might follow if these people were let loose on society. Mr. Hansson, the Secretary of the Prison Commission in Norway, said:I do not know any case of a murderer who has been released on trial who has committed a new murder crime.As to the future conduct of released murderers, we had the testimony of Lord Darling, who said:The murderer, in my experience, does not belong to the class which is called a habitual criminal.Lord Brentford said likewise; and Sir John Anderson, now the Lord Privy Seal, said, speaking for the Home Office:I think, certainly, that that is the experience, that you find the most respectable and worthy people among the convicted murderers who have their sentences commuted.May I say in reference to a statement by the Under-Secretary that the Home Office, in their evidence while they did object to a particular proposal that we put before them to begin the remitting of sentences even before the Five Years' Remission might be approved by this House, said that in any case they would be able to work it even if there were complete abolition.
Something has been said of uncertainty. Someone may be condemned who is not really guilty. Miscarriages are rare, but I hold that they do happen. Lord Shaw of Dunfermline, afterwards Lord Craigmyle, when Junior Counsel for Doherty of Rutherglen formed the opinion that there was a miscarriage of justice. He said:From that hour to this I have ceased to believe in the punishment of death. Cases in the intervening years have occurred which have deepened my conviction.Even if there should be only one case, that should give us pause. Benjamin Franklin, in his notable letter to Benjamin Vaughan, said:It is better that 100 guilty persons should escape than that one innocent person should suffer.As to States and countries changing their opinions, I would remind my hon. Friend and colleague that Judge Kavanagh, to whom he referred, while he came all the way from America to 1008 protest against the abolition of capital punishment, admitted:Abolition has been justified by results in six of the eight States that have adopted and retained it.No doubt there are other States which have been going back. Kansas has gone back after a long experience, but we must remember that a change of Governor—that is what has happened there—often means a change of policy in the United States. Brazil has gone back under semi-Fascist influences. Rumania has gone back under similar influences. When the committee sat, the death penalty was in abeyance in Germany. Italy had long had abolition, but has since repealed it. The Italian Minister of Justice declared that the change was "in keeping with the Fascist conception of the State and the individual." He said that the doctrine of the individual being the end and society the means was now replaced by the diametrically opposite Fascist conception, according to which the individual was only an infinitesimal and transitory element in the social organisation and that therefore he must subordinate his own interest and his very existence to the organism of the State, which was its judicial organisation. When a nation puts down all parties but its own, its rulers must live in constant dread, and they crowd for shelter under the gallows tree. I make a present to the supporters of capital punishment of all the totalitarian States.
I am not entering into the question of the relative deterrency of the death penalty or of prolonged imprisonment. John Stuart Mill, a consistent supporter of the death penalty, yet drew a picture of the deterrency that might come from any sort of prolonged imprisonment where, he said, "They were immured in a living tomb." I do not dwell on these things, because, after all, the greatest and the only real deterrents are education, sobriety, and general social uplift. One of the objections that I have to the emphasis that you lay on capital punishment is that it is taking you away from the social crusade to eliminate crime by eliminating its social causes. Social advance is worth more than 1,000 executions as a deterrent.
We are socially responsible. Criminals are our own creation. The criminal is often the product of poverty, of wretched social conditions, of drinking habits, of 1009 home environment, and social example. In fact, society, by inflicting capital punishment, may be killing or otherwise punishing a man whom it has wronged from the hour of his birth. It may be laying its heavy penalties upon crimes, the guilt of which is, in greater or less degree, shared by every member of the community. Every community and every generation fixes the amount of its own crime, and every penalty we inflict, however just in some senses it may be, is really a censure on ourselves.
The scaffold has not taught men to venerate life; it has cheapened life. It has not repressed crime; it has perpetuated it. The age that gave us 240 capital offences gave us also what has been rightly called "Britain's golden age of crime." Like begets like. Savagery reproduces savagery. Brutal laws make a brutal populace. Cruel punishments breed cruelty through the nation. The scaffold blunts public delicacy, deadens moral sentiment, and degrades human nature. My hon. Friend pointed to the fact, which was once stated in a supplementary question in this House, that two members of the Society of Friends sat on this Committee. I leave the Home Secretary to answer that taunt about the Society of Friends. We are all aglow with his scheme for prison reform, but if
§ to prison reform the right hon. Gentleman will add this, the greatest of all criminal reforms, he will not only prove himself worthy of his noble ancestry, but he will win the applause of generations yet to be.
I will close with a quotation from the most prominent opponent of the death penalty ever known in this country, the greatest Quaker who ever sat on these benches, and the finest orator who ever addressed this House—John Bright. He said, on 3rd May, 1864:
The security for human life does not depend upon any such miserable and barbarous provisions as that. The security for human life depends upon the reverence for human life; and unless you can inculcate in the minds of your people a veneration for that which God alone has given, you do little by the most severe and barbarous penalties to preserve the safety of your citizens.
On 11th July, 1850, in another Debate, he said—and I put it before my colleagues in all parts of the House:
If you wish to teach the people to reverence human life you must first show "—
and I trust we shall show it to-night—
that you reverence it yourselves.
That this House would welcome legislation by which the death penalty should he abolished in time of peace for an experimental period of five years.
§ The House divided: Ayes, 114; Noes, 89.1011
|Division No. 2.]||AYES.||[11. 0 p.m.|
|Adams, D. (Consett)||Hall, G. H. (Aberdare)||Morrison, G. A. (Scottish Univ's.)|
|Adam, D. M. (Poplar, S.)||Hall, J. H. (Whitechapel)||Morrison, R. C. (Tottenham, N.)|
|Adamson, Jennie L. (Dartford)||Hardle, Agnes||Nathan, Colonel H. L.|
|Adamson, W. M.||Harris, Sir P. A.||Noel-Baker, P. J|
|Alexander, Rt. Hon. A. V. (H'lsbr.)||Harvey, T. E. (Eng. Univ's.)||Oliver, G. H.|
|Anderson, F. (Whitehaven)||Henderson, A. (Kingswinford)||Palling, W.|
|Aske, Sir R. W.||Holdsworth, H.||Parkinson, J. A.|
|Banfield, J. W.||Hutchinson, G. C.||Pearson, A.|
|Batey, J.||Jenkins, A. (Pontypool)||Pethick-Lawrence, Rt. Hon. F. W.|
|Benn, Rt. Hon. W. W.||Jenkins, Sir W. (Neath)||Poole, C. C.|
|Benson, G.||John, W.||Price, M. P.|
|Bevan, A.||Johnston, Rt. Hon. T.||Pritt, D. N.|
|Bread, F. A.||Jones, A. C. (Shipley)||Procter, Major H. A.|
|Brown, C. (Mansfield)||Jones, Sir H. Haydn (Merioneth)||Reed, Sir H. S. (Aylesbury)|
|Buchanan, G.||Kelly, W. T.||Richards, R. (Wrexham)|
|Burke, W. A.||Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T.||Ridley, G.|
|Capo, T.||Lansbury, Rt. Hon. G.||Riley, B.|
|Charleton, H. C||Lathan, G.||Ritson, J.|
|Cluse, W. S.||Lawson, J. J.||Sanderson, Sir F. B.|
|Cocks, F. S.||Leach, W.||Seely, Sir H. M.|
|Daggar, G.||Lee, F.||Sexton, T. M.|
|Davidson, J. J. (Maryhill)||Leslie, J. R.||Shinwell, E.|
|Davies, R. J. (Westhoughton)||Lunn, W.||Silverman, S. S.|
|Davies, S. O. (Merthyr)||Macdonald, G. (Ince)||Simpson, F. B.|
|Day H.||McEntee, V. La T.||Smith, Ben (Rotherhithe)|
|Denman, Hon. R. D.||McGhee, H. G.||Smith, E. (Stoke)|
|Dobbie, W.||McGovern, J.||Sorensen, R. W.|
|Dunn, E. (Rother Valley)||Maclean, N.||Stewart, W. J. (H'ght'n-leSp'ng)|
|Ede, J. C.||MacMillan, M. (Western Isles)||Summerskill, Dr. Edith|
|Edwards, Sir C. (Bedwellty)||MacNeill Weir, L.||Taylor, R. J. (Morpeth)|
|Foot, D. M.||Mander, G. le M.||Thurtle, E.|
|Gallacher, W.||Mathers, G.||Tinker, J. J.|
|Graham, D. M. (Hamilton)||Maxton, J.||Tomlinson, G.|
|Grenfell, D. R.||Messer, F.||Viant, S. P.|
|Griffiths, J. (Llanelly)||Milner, Major J.||Walker-Smith, Sir J.|
|Groves, T. E.||Montague, F.||Walkins, F. C.|
|Watson, W. McL.||White, H. Graham||TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—|
|Welsh, J. C.||Whiteley, W. (Blaydon)||Mr. Vyvyan Adams and Mr. Barr.|
|Westwood, J.||Windsor, W. (Hull, C.)|
|Acland-Troyte, Lt.-Col. G. J.||Gretton, Col. Rt. Hon. J.||Petherick, M.|
|Anderson, Sir A. Garrett (C. of Ldn.)||Guest, Lieut.-Colonel H. (Drake)||Raikes, H. V. A. M.|
|Barclay-Harvey, Sir C. M.||Hambro, A, V.||Ramsay, Captain A. H. M.|
|Beaumont, Hon. R. E. B. (Portsm'h)||Hannon, Sir P. J. H.||Rankin, Sir R.|
|Bird, Sir R. B.||Harbord, A.||Rathbone, J. R. (Bodmin)|
|Boulton, W. W.||Heneage, Lieut.-Colonel A. P.||Reed, A. C. (Exeter)|
|Boyce, H. Leslie||Herbert, Major J. A. (Monmouth)||Rickards, G. W. (Skipton)|
|Briscoe, Capt. R. G.||Higgs, W. F.||Robinson, J. R. (Blackpool)|
|Brocklebank, Sir Edmund||Holmes, J. S.||Ropner, Colonel L.|
|Bull, B. B.||Hudson, Capt. A. U. M. (Hack., N.)||Ross, Major Sir R. D. (Londonderry)|
|Carver, Major W. H.||Hunloke, H. P.||Ross Taylor, W. (Woodbridge)|
|Chapman, A. (Rutherglen)||Jones, L. (Swansea W.)||Rowlands, G.|
|Cobb, Captain E. C. (Preston)||Kerr, J. Graham (Scottish Univs.)||Royds, Admiral Sir P. M. R.|
|Conant, Captain R. J. E.||Knox, Major-General Sir A. W. F.||Ruggles-Brise, Colonel Sir E. A.|
|Crowder, J. F. E.||Leighton, Major B. E. P.||Russell, Sir Alexander|
|Cruddas, Col. B.||Lewis, O.||Samuel, M. R. A.|
|Culverwell, C. T.||Liddall, W. S.||Shaw, Major P. S. (Wavertree)|
|Davidson, Viscountess||Llewellin, Colonel J. J.||Smith, Sir Louis (Hallan)|
|Davies, Major Sir G. F. (Yeovil)||Lloyd, G. W.||Strickland, Captain W. F.|
|Dugdale, Captain T. L.||McKie, J. H.||Thomson, Sir J. D. W.|
|Eastwood, J. F.||Manningham-Buller, Sir M.||Titchfield, Marquess ol|
|Edmondson, Major Sir J.||Margesson, Capt. Rt. Hon, H. D. R.||Tufnell, Lieut.-Commander R. L.|
|Ellis, Sir G.||Marsden, Commander A.||Ward, Lieut.-Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)|
|Emery, J. F.||Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J.||Watt, Major G. S. Harvie|
|Everard, W. L.||Mills, Major J. D. (New Forest)||Williams, H. G. (Croydon, S.)|
|Fremantle, Sir F. E.||Munro, P.||Wiss, A. R.|
|Furness, S. N.||Nall, Sir J.||Young, A. S. L. (Partick)|
|Gluckstein, L. H.||Naylor, T. E.|
|Graham, Captain A. C. (Wirral)||Neven-Spence, Major B. H. H||TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—|
|Grant-Ferris, R.||O'Neill, Rt. Hon. Sir Hugh||Mr. Maxwell Fyfe and Major Rayner.|
|Greene, W. P. C. (Worcester)||Orr-Ewing, I. L.|
Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.
That this House would welcome legislation by which the death penalty should be abolished in time of peace for an experimental period of five years.