HC Deb 03 April 1947 vol 435 cc2233-6
The Secretary of State for the Colonies (Mr. Creech Jones)

In view of the exceptional course which the Gold Coast murder case has taken and the public concern that has been shown in regard to it, I desire to make a statement regarding procedure in capital cases from the Colonies. In the first place, it must be clearly understood that the responsibility of deciding whether or not sentence of death should be postponed is a matter which rests within the discretion of the Governor concerned who alone is in a position to take a decision in all the circumstances involved.

It is clear that as a matter of law, the fact that an application for leave to appeal to, the Privy Council has been lodged constitutes no legal barrier against the carrying out of the death sentence. This has been repeatedly decided by the Privy Council. On the other hand, the fact that an application for leave to appeal is being made is plainly one of the facts which a Governor would take into consideration in deciding whether or not to postpone the carrying out of the sentence, and the normal practice which Governors have followed in the event of such an application being brought to their notice has been to postpone sentence pending the hearing of the application. This practice will no doubt continue, but the Government's view is that in the future if a Governor comes to the conclusion that any application for leave to appeal is without real substance, he should not allow the mere fact that an application is pending to affect his judgment in the carrying out of the death sentence.

It is, however, of the utmost importance that where a Governor decides to postpone sentence pending the hearing of an application, the proceedings should be so conducted as to enable the application to be disposed of in the quickest possible time. The Judicial Committee of the Privy Council already have a rule requiring a petition to be lodged with the least possible delay, but the Government propose to consider whether more definite provisions should not be made to secure this object. I am in communication with the Lord Chancellor and the Law Officers on the whole matter.

Mr. Oliver Stanley

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman, first of all, when he expects to be in a position to announce what action is to be taken; and, secondly, whether, as this covers only one small part of this question, he proposes at some time to make a fuller statement covering all the matters in dispute; and whether he will make that statement in such a way that it will give an opportunity for debate?

Mr. Creech Jones

This is merely an interim statement to reassure the public that the whole problem is being looked into in the light of the criticism which has been made in regard to these proceedings. Therefore, this statement deals only with one part of the problem. I hope that as quickly as possible a fuller statement can be made on all the aspects of this matter, and I trust that facilities will be made available to the House for discussion on the problem.

Mr. Rankin

I am sorry that I did not get the full implications of the right hon. Gentleman's statement. It was just through not hearing the words. I should be obliged if he would make one point clear. So far as I understand the position, the Governor decided not to proceed with the execution of the full penalty in the case of two—

Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

The hon. Gentleman must put quite clearly in a question what he wants made clear.

Mr. Rankin

I will put it this way. Is the Minister aware that the reason that has been given for not proceeding with the execution of the capital sentence in the case of the two who have been more or less—

Mr. Speaker

That does not arise at the moment. The statement which has been made had to do with the legal procedure which arises out of this case.

Mr. Paget

Will the Minister distinguish between two perfectly separate things? First, there is the petition to the Privy Council upon the conviction itself, which is part of the machinery of an appeal against a conviction. Second, there are various applications which can be made attacking the committal or by way of certiorari which can be prolonged indefinitely. Will the Minister make it quite clear that although the petition by way of appeal is a ground for postponing the sentence, the various other machineries whereby appeals can be made to the Privy Council upon matters which do not directly affect conviction itself should not be grounds for suspending sentence?

Mr. Creech Jones

It would be wiser if my hon. Friend referred to the statement I have made. It has been most carefully stated. Obviously the matter of postponement is within the discretion of the Governor himself. That is the legal position at the present moment. What is intended by this statement is to prevent unnecessary delay and any deliberate effort to prevent the proper running of the course of the processes of justice.

Mr. Paget

The Minister's statement did not distinguish between the two types of appeal. Will the Minister be very careful to see that nothing goes from him which would encourage the carrying out of the sentence when there is an appeal against the sentence, merely because the Governor does not think it is a good one?

Mr. Creech Jones

I think I have made the position perfectly clear in the reply I have given, and I ask my hon. Friend to read it very carefully. If he is still in disagreement with the statement, there will be an opportunity to raise the matter later when the House debates it.

Mr. Hector Hughes

When the Minister makes the fuller statement, will he do his best to make a statement which will cover all the Colonies so that there may be a general rule to see that justice is carried out with quickness and certainty?

Mr. Creech Jones

That is the problem to which we are addressing ourselves at the moment, but the statement I have made will be applicable in respect of all the Colonies.

Mr. E. Fletcher

Will the Minister in his further statement clear up the point whether the final responsibility for exercising the Prerogative of mercy rests with the Colonial Governor in question, or whether there is in certain circumstances a residual appeal to the Colonial Secretary to advise on the exercise of the Prerogative?

Mr. Creech Jones

That point has already been raised, and it is, I think, obviously one of those points which the House should get absolutely clear in its mind when the matter is debated.

Mr. Henry Usborne

Would not the simplest solution be to abolish the barbarous punishment of the capital sentence?

Mr. Turner-Samuels

Will the Minister see that the new machinery which is to be provided will make it absolutely impossible in future for men to be taken out half a dozen times in order to be executed?