HC Deb 18 July 1961 vol 644 cc1065-7

3.35 p.m.

Mr. Charles Pannell (Leeds, West)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to amend section six of the Capital Punishment Amendment Act. 1868. I hope that it will not be thought presumptuous of me to seek leave to bring in this Bill at this stage, when we are about to debate the burial of the Government. [Interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. In courtesy to the hon. Member who is asking leave of the House to bring the Bill, I hope that hon. Members will make less noise.

Mr. Pannell

Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Section 6 of the Capital Punishment Within Prisons Act, 1868, says: The Body of every Offender executed shall be buried within the Walls of the Prison within which Judgment of Death is executed on him; provided that if One of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State is satisfied on the Representation of the Visiting Justices of a Prison that there is not convenient Space within the Walls thereof for the Burial of Offenders executed therein, he may, by Writing under his Hand appoint some other fit Place for that Purpose, and the same shall be used accordingly. Putting the matter briefly, I wish to amend that provision to allow the Home Secretary, where he thinks fit, and under such conditions as he considers desirable, to give back the body to the next of kin, where that is desired. Although I am not directing my remarks at the recent discussion of the Evans case, in that debate the Home Secretary left the House with the impression that he could not give back the body of Timothy John Evans to the next of kin, on the basis that there was no Royal pardon. That difficulty would go if my Bill were passed.

There are substantial reasons why we should do this. I am having a good deal of trouble owing to the oratory of hon. Members opposite. There was a time when one of your predecessors, Sir, said that he could not hear me, Mr. Speaker. I am sure hon. Members opposite cannot, at the moment. We have now altered the form of sentence of death. The judge now no longer delivers the old form of sentence of death, which is a rather long one, in which he says: I will content myself now with passing upon you the sentence of the law, which is, that you be taken hence to the gaol …; and that you be taken thence to a place of execution and be there 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 be last confined after your conviction; and may the Lord have mercy upon your soul. That rather ghoulish form of words has gone out, as the Royal Commission recommended it should, and judges now say: You have been convicted of capital murder and by the law of this country the penalty is that you suffer death in the manner authorised by law. In pronouncing sentence the judge now says nothing about a man's being buried within the confines of the prison. The 1868 Act was brought in to do away with public hanging, and when the House decided to do away with public hanging it thought that it would also do away with public burials.

The last public hanging in this country was the hanging of Barrett, the Fenian, in 1868. There was a demonstration by the Fenians at that time, and one can understand that. Reading through the old debates, it is curious to discover that people thought that both private execution and private burial, and certainly the ignominy of burial such as this, would be a great deterrent. Nobody would take that view today. We would look upon the burying of a body in quicklime within the precincts of a prison wall rather as something completely ghoulish and out of keeping with our time.

In many countries now such bodies are restored to the relatives when that is desired. I am not arguing that in this country it should be done in every case. I am asking that it be done only with the discretion of the Home Secretary and where the right hon Gentleman considers it convenient, and even under conditions which he could lay down. Obviously, one would not want a public exhibition of the body of a man who had been buried following his execution for murder.

My attention was called to this matter by Dr. Charles Brook, a medical historian well known to hon. Members on this side of the House. He is sure that there is something in the contention that it is a contradiction when, having changed the form of the sentence of death to a more civilised form, we should not change this matter with it. I referred to the case of Evans. It would not be appropriate for me to dwell on that now, but in so far as the Home Secretary appeared to think that the law was an impediment for him to perform even a half-hearted act of justice, my proposed Bill may serve to underline that.

I cannot say that it is with pleasure that I move this Motion relating to this comparatively small matter, but I think that this is one of those things which is more in tone with the state of civilisation in our time. I have said before that the degree of civilisation in a country is not determined by what is done about big things, but about the smaller things of life which sometimes affect those people who are friendless, alone or cast out. I cannot believe that, having executed a man, we should necessarily render such great harm and hurt to his relatives.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. C. Pannell, Miss Bacon, Sir Beverley Baxter, Mr. Dodds, Mr. Grimond, Mr. Cledwyn Hughes, Mr. Roy Jenkins, Mr. Mayhew, Dr. Barnett Stross, Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Tiley, and Miss Joan Vickers.