HC Deb 20 January 1949 vol 460 cc329-31
46. Mr. Wilson Harris

asked the Prime Minister whether he will now name the members of the Royal Commission on the Death Penalty.

The Prime Minister

The King has been pleased to approve the setting up of a Royal Commission on Capital Punishment with the following terms of reference: To consider and report whether liability under the criminal law in Great Britain to suffer capital punishment for murder should be limited or modified, and if so, to what extent and by what means, for how long and under what conditions persons who would otherwise have been liable to suffer capital punishment should be detained, and what changes in the existing law and the prison system would be required; and to inquire into and take account of the position in those countries whose experience and practice may throw light on these questions. I am glad to be able to announce that Sir Ernest Gowers will act as chairman of the Royal Commission and I hope to be able to give the names of members of the Commission before very long.

Mr. Wilson Harris

Having regard to the importance of this question and to the pace at which some Royal Commissions move, will the Prime Minister do what is possible to expedite the proceedings of this Commission?

The Prime Minister

I cannot very well order a Royal Commission to report within so many days. It must be left to them. Perhaps sometimes the importance and difficulty of the question mean that they have to sit for a long time.

Mr. John Paton

May I ask if the use of the words "limited" or "modified" in these terms of reference would preclude the Commission from recommending the total abolition of the penalty.

The Prime Minister

Yes, Sir. It was thought that it would be much more useful if the Royal Commission inquired into modifications or alternatives, because the straight issue of capital punishment is one on which Parliament in due course will have to take its decision. It is not very suitable to put it before a Royal Commission.

Mr. Hale

Does the Prime Minister realise that that begs the whole case for abolition which has already been carried by this House on a free vote, and that if a Commission is appointed to express an opinion whether it should be limited or modified, the report of that Commission will be read as a report against abolition; and may I implore the Prime Minister to reconsider these terms of reference and to make it abundantly apparent that the Commission is to have a free vote?

The Prime Minister

I am quite sure that is not so. I have made it abundantly clear, as I stated, that it is for Parliament to decide on that issue. I am quite sure that if we put up a Royal Commission with terms of reference to consider abolition, we should merely get majority and minority reports, and I think it is much more useful to set up a Commission with these terms of reference.

Mrs. Mann

Can the Prime Minister say how many women will take part?

The Prime Minister

No, I cannot.

Mr. Driberg

Can my right hon. Friend say whether it will be within the terms of reference of the Royal Commission to consider modification or revision of the McNaghten Rules, in the light of modern knowledge?

The Prime Minister

I could not say off-hand whether that subject will come up. Broadly speaking, it deals with modifications, but it will be for the Royal Commission to consider in what way it should take that into account.