HC Deb 28 January 1957 vol 563 cc721-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the Clause stand part of the Bill.

Mr. Ede

This Clause affects some very important matters of administration and permits an alteration in practice without making that alteration, so far as I read the Clause, mandatory. It arises out of the matter dealt with in paragraphs 774 to 776 of the Report of the Royal Commission, and deals with a subject which has been a source of great administrative difficulty for a good many years.

At the moment, the practice is that where two persons are to be executed on the same day in the same prison the executions take place simultaneously. I was once confronted with the possibility that there might be a treble execution; so far as I could ascertain, there was no precedent to give guidance as to what should happen in any modern times which could be regarded as relevant. The present practice is that two executions fixed for the same day in the same prison take place simultaneously.

Perhaps it would be better if I read the paragraphs from the Report. They deal as succinctly as possible with the subject, and any attempt at paraphrase generally means that safeguarding phrases have to be introduced which, in the end, make the paraphrase longer than the paragraphs which one attempts to shorten. I will begin at paragraph 774: When two prisoners are sentenced to death for the same murder, they are executed together on the same scaffold. For a double execution, the executioner is normally assisted by three assistant executioners; the pinioning of both prisoners is done by the executioner and the work of the assistants is confined to binding the legs of the prisoners when on the trap and leading the second prisoner to the scaffold. Double executions were strongly criticized by Mr. H. N. Gedge, acting Under-Sheriff for the County of London, who told us: 'There is one matter which I should like the Commission to consider, that is that, in my opinion, not more than one prisoner should be executed at the same time. I have attended at four double executions. The nervous tension of the prison officials and all concerned at a double execution is out of all proportion to that of a single execution. Should there be any difficulty with either or both of the prisoners, it would be far harder to restrain them than in the case of a single prisoner. Further, from the point of view of the condemned men, a double execution is more likely to bring about the collapse, on the scaffold, of one or both of the prisoners. However well the arrangements are made, such an execution must, of necessity, take slightly longer than a single execution.' Mr. Gedge recommended that the two executions should take place on the same day with an hour's interval between them, and said that this had been done in one case where trouble might have occurred between the two prisoners. Another under-sheriff, however, after recently attending a double execution, told the Home Office that delay was practically negligible and he had no hesitation in favouring this practice (unless there were reason to suppose that one of the men might cause trouble), bearing in mind particularly the effect on the prison of prolonging the execution and the feeling of the prisoner who had to wait. Mr. Pierrepoint said that he regarded a double execution as not essentially different from the single one and that it took only a few seconds longer, so that there would scarcely be time for the first prisoner to collapse. 6.0 p.m.

The Commission then consulted the Home Office. I will not read all the paragraph dealing with that, but I will quote from the Home Office evidence to the Commission given in paragraph 775 as follows: 'One possible means of reducing both the risk of untoward incident and the extra time needed for a double execution might be to employ two executioners with one assistant so that each man could be pinioned at the same time. We are disposed to think that this may be the best available solution of the problem …' The Home Office also suggested that another way of solving the problem would be to move one of the prisoners to another prison for execution. But this could not usually be done under the existing law outside the Central Criminal Court District, it would mean legislation. The promoters of the Bill have apparently adopted the view that legislation is desirable. They do not make any course mandatory in future, as I read the Clause. I do not think that the word "may" in the second line of the Clause could be construed in this Clause as being one of the occasions when the word "may" means "shall". As I read it, a discretion is now left with the Secretary of State whereby there may either be a double execution or one of the prisoners may be removed to another prison, where the execution will take place.

The Clause refers to "the sheriff charged with the execution." That, I think, means the sheriff of the county in which the crime was committed. I should like to be certain of that, because it is a very important matter in these days when there is not a prison in the territory of each of the administrative counties of the country. I think that it means the sheriff of the county in whose area the crime of murder, entailing the death penalty, was committed. The Clause reads: … the sheriff charged with the execution shall for that purpose have the same jurisdiction in that prison and over the officers of it, and be subject to the same responsibilities and duties in it, as though the prison were that in which the sentence would have been executed but for the direction. That involves us in what is meant exactly in Clause 10 of the Bill, where there appears the form of sentence. I am informed that the present form of sentence includes a statement by the judge that the prisoner shall be taken back to the prison from which he has been brought to court. Now is that to be included in the form of sentence? Because the words do not say that these are the only words to be used. The Clause reads: … the form of the sentence shall be to the effect only.…. I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to tell me whether it is proposed to use that form of words, particularly in cases where two prisoners are being sentenced together, as, for example, in the Brown and Kennedy case, or whether that phrase will be dropped either in the case of a double finding of guilty or in every case?

Who is to act for the sheriff of the county responsible for the execution where two executions are taking place in different prisons on the same day? As my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West (Mr. Hale) has said, usually the duty is discharged by the under-sheriff. In these days most sheriffs avoid attending the execution, although they are legally responsible for it. Of course, if they like to discharge the duty in person, as I knew one high sheriff who most ghoulishly did, they have the right to do so. However, in small counties it is unlikely that there will be more than one under-sheriff. For instance, Mr. Gedge, who gave evidence before the Royal Commission, was described as the "acting Under-Sheriff for the County of London."

Will it be possible for the high sheriff, who does not wish to attend the execution himself, to have a special representative appointed to attend the second execution? If so, how will he be appointed? I want the hon. and learned Gentleman to understand that I am not opposing this Clause. I approve of it; I only wish it had been made mandatory instead of being merely permissive, but I should like to know from him what will be the policy of the Home Secretary.

I regret that on many occasions when one hears this matter being discussed the two words "Home Office" are used. A few evenings ago I interrupted my hon. Friend the Member for Oldham, West for using the words "Home Office" when the proper words were "Home Secretary". I am sure that the present holder of that office will not object to my insistence that some of these things, when they are matters of policy—as the future use of this Clause will be—come within the ambit of the Home Secretary. Whilst the right hon. Gentleman may get advice from the very learned and, if I may say so, very merciful officers in the Home Office, the responsibility is his, and policy in its ultimate formulation is a matter for the right hon. Gentleman; and I am certain that the higher officers of the Home Office would be the first always to insist that this is so.

This Clause raises some important matters. On the ground of humanity generally it is better that the double execution shall not take place in one prison, but in separate prisons, and that although the prisoners are executed at the same time they should not be executed at the same place. Of course it raises the question as to who is to be the executioner in the case in which the usual executioner does not carry out the operation.

Inasmuch as there is no Amendment involved here I think that the hon. and learned Gentleman, even with the simplicity of anyone enjoying his patronymic, may be able to deal with this case without feeling that this is an effort to take a rise out of the Government. It is a matter which I am sure, once it becomes generally known, will excite interest among humanitarians who have been perturbed in the past on occasion by the problems presented by double executions.

In supporting the Clause I can only express the hope that in another place they may see fit to alter the word "may" in the second line to the word "shall". I can assure the hon. and learned Gentleman that if the Bill comes back here with that Amendment made in another place, even those of us who are most opposed to another place interfering with Bills introduced in this House will find no ground for opposing it, and that there will be no ground to fear a prolonged debate.

Mr. Simon

I certainly would not regard the intervention by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) on a matter of this sort as being designed to take a rise out of the Government. On the contrary, his interventions so far have brought out the great value of his experience in the high office which he held and I, who am a newcomer to the Department over which he presided, am very grateful for the way he has set out the problems which we have to face in consideration of this Clause.

The right hon. Gentleman really asked me three questions. First, in what respect the new form of sentence applies to double capital murders. Secondly, the position of the sheriff—first. which sheriff is in question and, secondly, as to the appointment of deputies. Thirdly, he raised the question as to the discretionary element in the Clause as drawn and how my right hon. Friend, who as the right hon. Gentleman justly says, is personally responsible, intends to implement the powers which this Clause gives him if the Bill passes into law.

With regard to the new form of sentence, the right hon. Gentleman's question arises because, under the old form of sentence, as he pointed out.

The sentence of the court upon you is, that you be taken from this place to a lawful prison and thence to a place of execution, and that you be hanged by the neck until you be dead; and that your body be afterwards buried within the precincts of the prison in which you shall have been confined before your execution. And may the Lord have mercy on your soul. The new form of sentence, which as the right hon. Gentleman says is only indicated, is to the effect only that he is to suffer death in the manner authorised by law. So it is quite clearly the intention of Clause 10 that there shall be no reference to the prison in which the accused man is confined at any time.

With regard to the sheriff, who is referred to in Clause 12, the matter arises in this way. Under the present law, as I understand it, the matter is governed by Section 13 of the Sheriffs Act, 1887, which lays down and gives the sheriff the duty of supervising the execution of judgment of death. It states that he: ?… may carry such judgment into execution in any prison which is the common gaol of his county or in which the convict was confined for the purpose of safe custody prior to his removal to the place where such court was held, … Normally that would be the same prison. Normally, the accused man would be in the common gaol of the county, except where his trial had been removed to the Old Bailey.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Ede

Can the hon. and learned Gentleman help me on this? There is no gaol in the County of Surrey. As I understand it, if a murder is committed in the County of Surrey, the High Sheriff of Surrey is responsible for seeing that the execution is carried out, no matter where the trial took place. Is that a correct interpretation of the law or not?

Mr. Simon

I believe that is correct, although the place where the sentence must be carried out is the prison which is the common gaol of the county or in which the convict was confined for the purpose of his safe custody. I think that the answer is contained in the opening words with which I did not trouble the Committee. They are: Where judgment of death has been passed upon a convict at any court of assize or any sessions of oyer and terminer or gaol delivery held for any county or riding or division or other part of a county, the sheriff of such county shall be charged with the execution … I think that is the reason for the practice to which the right hon. Gentleman referred.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked me whether the sheriff must under the existing law or under the new law personally supervise an execution. As the right hon. Gentleman indicated, he need not do so. He has a statutory right to appoint a deputy to carry out the execution under the Capital Punishment Amendment Act, 1868.

The right hon. Gentleman also asked why the word is "may". As he pointed out—and I am grateful to him for doing so, because it saves me from going into the background which animated the Royal Commission in making this recommendation—there has been grave disquiet in certain quarters about double executions and, particularly, the effect on those who are responsible for them in various ways. It is to obviate those disadvantages and to carry out the recommendations of the Royal Commission that this Clause is in the Bill. The word "may"—in this case, I think that the right hon. Gentleman is quite right—does confer a discretion; it would not be here construed as being equivalent to "shall". But that is merely to preserve a certain amount of flexibility and it is in the normal practice of draftsmanship.

My right hon. Friend does intend in cases of double executions—except in extraordinary circumstances, which I confess I cannot envisage, but I think that he is right to make that exception—to exercise the discretion which is given to him in this Clause in order to ensure that double executions are carried out in the way that the right hon. Gentleman desires to see and which the Royal Commission recommended and which I commend to the Committee.

Mr. Willey

If there should be exceptional circumstances in which the double execution was carried out, would the hon. and learned Gentleman assure the Committee that the recommendations of the Royal Commission would then be followed? Cannot he anticipate some of the difficulties in the execution of two convicts being carried out separately, because it is quite clear that when this Bill becomes law there will be very few executions—a handful of executions a year—and there may be some difficulty in having two executioners and two assistants? His right hon. Friend may find that he can only rely upon a single executioner. Has the right hon. Gentleman envisaged the difficulties that may arise if he has a double execution when the executions are not carried out simultaneously?

Mr. Simon

I am much obliged to the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey). I can say that the administrative implications have been very carefully considered and my right hon. Friend has been advised that the provisions are practicable as well as desirable. With regard to the other question which the hon. Gentleman asked me, as to whether, in circumstances which. I have said, I cannot envisage at the moment, it would be desirable to have the execution at the same prison on the same day and whether the recommendations of the Royal Commission would be carried out. what the Royal Commission said was this: We accept the view of the Department that, where two prisoners are to be executed on the same day in the same prison, it is on balance preferable for them to be executed together … I have not had an opportunity to find out what the view of my right hon. Friend and his advisers would be if that occasion should arise, but I have no reason to think that the view of the Home Office, which gave evidence on that occasion, has in any way changed. I imagine that the existing practice would continue. What my right hon. Friend intends to do in all ordinary circumstances, in the painful event of a double execution, is to use the powers conferred on him by the Clause if it becomes law.

Mr. Ede

I thank the hon. and learned Gentleman for the clarity with which he has answered my question. There is, however, one point, which he has not cleared up. Is the high sheriff, in the event of a double execution taking place and his not wishing to attend in person, entitled to have the under-sheriff at one place and to appoint a deputy for the occasion to attend at the second place?

Mr. Simon

I apologise to the right hon. Gentleman. I have a note of his question, but I had omitted to answer it. In the event of the two prisons being under the jurisdiction of the same sheriff, the sheriff has, under the 1868 Act, the right to appoint a deputy, and since according to the Interpretation Act the singular includes the plural, it seems to me that that would apply in the case cited and that there would be a right to appoint deputies.

Question put and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.