HC Deb 15 November 1955 vol 546 cc207-10

3.31 p.m.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to abolish or for a period suspend the passing and execution of the death sentence on conviction of murder and to substitute an alternative penalty therefor. I should explain to the House that this Bill, should the House give leave, will be a Bill for the abolition of the death penalty and not, as on previous occasions, for its suspension. But if there are those who still think that a period of suspension would be preferable, then hon. Members will see that the Long Title of the Bill has been so drawn that in Committee, should the Bill reach a Committee stage, an Amendment with that object will not, as I am advised, be out of order.

In asking the House for leave, I have had one hesitation. It has been represented to me that at a time when a great effort is being made to persuade the Home Secretary that he is mistaken about the state of public opinion, it was perhaps inadvisable to take a step which, under the 14-day rule, might prevent discussion in some of the organs of public expression of opinion outside,. It seemed to me, on reflection, that while it may be, and, in the opinion of many people, is, a very bad thing indeed that discussion should be gagged outside because of anything that takes place in the House, it would be a far worse thing if Parliament should be gagged in order to enable discussion to take place elsewhere.

Therefore, I beg this leave. It seemed to me that if a forum for the expression of considered and informed public opinion is sought, there is no better forum for that purpose than this House of Commons, left to its own free and conscientious judgment. For the past twenty-five years this House has had no doubt—no substantial doubt—as to the side which it supported in this matter. There has never been a time in all the twenty years that I have been a Member of the House, and for some years before that, when the House of Commons, left to its own recourse, has not by a substantial majority gone on record as wishing to see this evil thing removed from our Statute Book.

If effect has not been given to that desire, it has been due only to the obstinate and relentless opposition of the Home Office. I should like to remind the House of the post-war history of this matter. In 1948, my right hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede), who was then Home Secretary, introduced a Bill dealing with the whole range of criminal justice. By agreement with him and through the usual channels the matter was left to the Report stage of that Bill, with an undertaking by the Government that the Government would abide by the result of a free vote of the House. After a long and full debate, the House decided to add a Clause to the Criminal Justice Bill, 1948, suspending for five years the operation of the death penalty in cases of murder.

When the matter went to another place, it was there decided that there was a series, a number of hard cases, categories of murder, in which it was thought that public opinion would not countenance the abolition, or even suspension, of the death penalty. In deference to that view, this House passed an amended Clause which sought to make the very exceptions in that amendment of the law desired by another place. The House adopted that with some misgiving, but did so in order to reach agreement with another place, if agreement were possible.

When the matter went again to another place, the other place decided that the exceptions it wanted and which it now had were unworkable and it rejected the compromise proposal as well. This House then, in order not to imperil the rest of a Bill which everyone wanted to see enacted, decided to let the matter go for the time being and my right hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, West (Mr. Attlee), who was then Prime Minister, referred the matter to a Royal Commission.

The Royal Commission on Capital Punishment was given no power to decide or recommend anything about the death penalty itself, because it was held that that was a matter for Parliament; but it was asked to deal with matters affecting the operation of the death penalty, short of dealing with the question of abolishing it, or not abolishing it. It took the Royal Commission four years to reach a conclusion and when it had reported, at the end of four years, it took the Government two further years to make up their minds about it.

One thing is clear from the Report of the Royal Commission. The Report makes it perfectly clear, unanimously, that it is wrong to leave the law as it now is and, being precluded from recommending abolition of the death penalty, the Commission made a series of proposals, the main ones unanimously, designed at any rate to reduce the absurd and tragic anomalies which are inherent in having one penalty and that the supreme penalty for what is, as we all know, a wide variety of crime where the degree of moral turpitude varies infinitely.

On the last occasion that the House was invited to give leave to introduce this Measure, a very reasonable and moderate speech against the proposal was made by the hon. and learned Member for York (Sir H. Hylton-Foster), who is now the Solicitor-General, and his reason was that we should wait for the Royal Commission's Report. I think that many hon. Members voted against the proposal on that occasion in deference to the view that we ought to wait for the Royal Commission's Report and wait for the Government's attitude to it. That condition has been met. We now know what was the Government's attitude, or, at any rate, the attitude of the Home Office.

I do not know what dark, secret, noise-some influence it is in the Home Office that seduces every Home Secretary in turn. But we do know from the announcements that were made last Thursday that every single one of the major recommendations—unanimous recommendations—of the Royal Commission, for whose Report we were asked to wait, has now been rejected by the Government. I do not believe that the House of Commons really wishes the matter to stand where the Home Secretary left it last Thursday, without further discussion and without further examination.

I know that there is hardly an hon. Member of the House who does not in his heart believe that this reform must come and must come quickly. I do not believe that there is any hon. Member who, when the day comes when we have, in fact, abolished this obscene futility, will not rejoice in his heart that we have done so. I ask hon. Members not to wait longer and not to proceed further with the exaction of a penalty which, in our hearts and consciences, in many cases none of us can justify. How much longer must we wait before the House of Commons can examine the matter again?

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. S. Silverman, Mr. Ede, Mr. C. Davies, Mr. Bevan, Mr. Hyde, Mr. Paton, Mr. Daines, Dr. Stross, Mr. Benn, Mr. Paget, Sir B. Baxter, and Mr. Wade.