HC Deb 29 May 1956 vol 553 cc169-76
Mr. Montgomery Hyde (Belfast, North)

I beg to move, in page 2, line I3, at the end to add:

(4) This Act shall not apply to Northern Ireland.

At first sight, it may appear anomalous that anyone closely associated, as I have been, with the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) in the promotion of the Bill should seek to exclude any part of the United Kingdom from its scope and particularly that as an Ulster Unionist Member I should wish to exclude Northern Ireland.

I move the Amendment not because I feel that the death penalty possesses a uniquely deterrent effect in Northern Ireland which it does not possess in Great Britain, but simply and solely for constitutional reasons. Under the Govern- ment of Ireland Act, 1920, the administration and execution of justice were among those services transferred from the United Parliament and the British Government to the Parliament and Government of Northern Ireland. It was also laid down in that Act that the Prerogative of mercy should be exercised by the Governor of Northern Ireland on the advice of the Ulster Cabinet, which forms for this purpose an executive committee of the Privy Council of Northern Ireland.

It would be wrong from the constitutional point of view for this Committee to attempt to legislate in a matter which falls within the local self-governing arrangements as provided for by Statute for Northern Ireland. Of course, if the Bill becomes law in Great Britain I would hope—and here I must say that I am speaking for myself and not for my Northern Ireland colleagues, with the possible exception of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Down, South (Captain Orr)—that the Parliament at Stormont would in due course follow suit and, in accordance with its traditional step by step policy in legislative matters, abolish the death penalty in Northern Ireland as well.

It would be a standing reproach to Northern Ireland and to the Ulster people if this important and integral part of the United Kingdom were to remain for long the only part of the United Kingdom where the apparatus of the gallows is kept in use. At the same time, I think it only fair to point out that in spite of the disturbed political conditions prevailing from time to time in Northern Ireland, where, incidentally, the police are armed. our murder rate in proportion to our population has for many years been much lower than the corresponding figures in Great Britain. It is also remarkable that, in practice, the death penalty is gradually becoming obsolete in Northern Ireland.

In England and Wales, the average murder rate for many years has been 3.89 per million of the population; in Scotland it has been 2.52 and in Northern Ireland.69. Similarly with the carrying out of the death sentence. There are on an average 12 executions a year in England and Wales. Since the Northern Ireland Government was set up in 1921 there have not been a dozen executions there. In fact, there have been 11, and eight of them took place in the first ten years of the history of that Government. Not since 1944—twelve years ago—has there been an execution in Northern Ireland.

I mention these figures to show not that we in Northern Ireland are more law-abiding, although I think that we are, but because the crime of murder and the death penalty do not form such a serious and difficult problem with us as they do in this country. As I have tried to indicate, the question whether the death penalty should be retained or abolished in Northern Ireland is primarily a question for the Parliament of that country, and for that reason I hope that the Committee will accept the Amendment, which also has the support of the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne.

10.30 p.m.

Mr. Simon

I do not dissent in any way from the purpose of the Amendment. I desire to say only one sentence in connection with it. That arises out of the hope expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast, North (Mr. Hyde) that Northern Ireland would not be the only part of the British Isles where the apparatus of the gallows would be kept in use—because that. I think, expresses a very widespread delusion as to the effect of the Bill.

In the first place, in respect of the rest of the United Kingdom, the Committee has already written into the Bill an exception, whereby the death penalty is preserved for murders committed by those already serving a sentence of life imprisonment. Therefore, the apparatus of the gallows will be kept in use in those parts of the United Kingdom by the very wish of this Committee. In any case, since the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) expressly limited the Bill to the crime of murder and omitted to deal in any way with the crime of treason, the apparatus of the gallows must be kept in use in England and Scotland for that crime.

Of course, the crime of treason comprises many sorts of murder, not only of various members of the Royal Family, but such heterogeneous figures as the judges in their seats dispensing justice. I cannot help remarking that every argument which has been put forward in regard to the effectiveness of the death penalty as a deterrent to murder applies equally to the crime of treason and, therefore, although I do not dissent from the purpose of the Amendment, I think it would be a mistake if it went out from this Committee that we thought that the Bill was abolishing the apparatus of the gallows in this country.

Mr. R. T. Paget (Northampton)

Could the hon. and learned Member tell us whether capital punishment has been operated for treason in peace-time within the last 200 years?

Mr. Ronald Bell (Buckinghamshire, South)

Is any of this in order upon my hon. and learned Friend's argument, Sir Rhys?

The Deputy-Chairman (Sir Rhys Hopkin Morris)

The argument about treason is not in order. We are dealing with murder.

Mr. Simon

I was dealing with my hon. Friend's assertion relating to the apparatus of the gallows being kept in use. In one sentence—[Laughter.] I admit that my last sentence was rather a long one, but the next will be short. My argument was not confined to peacetime considerations. The truth is that we must not think that by the operation of this Bill we are abolishing the apparatus of the gallows—

The Deputy-Chairman

The hon. and learned Member is getting back to treason.

Mr. Simon

I was not confining myself to treason, because it also applies to the other Amendment to the Bill. I will give way to my hon. Friend if he wishes, but I desire to draw attention to the fact that we must not think that the Bill will do away in his country, even apart from Northern Ireland—

The Deputy-Chairman

Order. This Amendment deals with Northern Ireland.

Mr. Simon

Even if we do not pass this Amendment, even were Northern Ireland kept within this Bill, the apparatus of the gallows would still operate in Northern Ireland. The reason for that is that the hon. Gentleman has expressly excluded many classes of capital crime from the Bill and the Committee have excluded others. Therefore, do not let us delude ourselves into thinking that by the Bill we have abolished the hangman and his office.

Mr. Hyde

I wish to make clear that when I said that I hoped that Northern Ireland would not be the part of the United Kingdom in which the apparatus of the gallows was kept in use, I meant kept in use for the crime of murder.

Mr. S. Silverman

I do not propose to follow the hon. and learned Member for Middlesbrough, West (Mr Simon). I think that the Committee fully understand the situation—even after the hon. and learned Gentleman has made his speech. I do not conceal that were the Committee to decide to reject this Amendment, I should not break my heart, nor should I withdraw the Bill. Nevertheless, as a reasonably good constitutionalist, I am impressed by the argument that, having set up a Parliament in Northern Ireland and having, by agreement, reserved certain functions to them, the House of Commons in this country ought to honour that agreement. As part of that agreement was to reserve questions of this kind to the Parliament of Northern Ireland, I would regretfully and reluctantly advise the Committee to accept the Amendment.

The result will not be any more executions in Northern Ireland, because I understand that there are no hangmen in Ireland, either North or South, and that if they want to have an execution, they have to import a hangman from England. One result of the Measure will be that there will be no one to import, and, therefore, in my opinion the Committee can safely accept the Amendment.

Mr. Simon

The hon. Gentleman is quite wrong in saying that if this Bill becomes law there will be no hangman in England. The Committee have expressly retained capital punishment—

The Deputy-Chairman

Order. The hon. and learned Gentleman is going beyond the scope of the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.