HC Deb 04 March 1968 vol 760 cc35-9
Mr. Maudling (by Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs what advice he has tendered to Her Majesty on Her exercise of the prerogative in respect of the three Africans convicted of murder in Rhodesia.

The Secretary of State for Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. George Thomson)

On 2nd March petitions to Her Majesty The Queen for the exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy were lodged on behalf of the three men.

These petitions drew attention to the very long periods for which the men had been lying under sentence of death, as well as to the threat that had been made that they would be hanged despite their intention of appealing further to the Privy Council. An application on behalf of two of the men was in fact lodged with the Privy Council on the same day as the petitions to the Queen. Having considered the petitions I advised Her Majesty to accede to them, and it was announced late on 2nd March that the Queen had done so, thus commuting the penalty for the offences for which they had been convicted from death to life imprisonment. I understand that, in the light of this exercise of the Royal Prerogative of Mercy, application is being made in Salisbury for a fresh interdict to restrain the carrying out of the death sentences. I think that the House will agree that in these circumstances it would be improper for me to go at all deeply into the many questions that are involved.

Mr. Maudling

This is a very serious matter, and I am sure that the House would not want anything to be said which might make a settlement of the Rhodesia problem more difficult. But will the Secretary of State make clear one matter of great importance? Will he confirm that the initiative in this case was taken by the representatives of the convicted men, who appealed to Her Majesty that, in the circumstances, Her Majesty was constitutionally bound to reply and to seek advice from her Ministers and that her Minister—in this case the Secretary of State—was constitutionally bound to give advice?

Mr. Thomson

Yes, Sir. I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. The initiative came from the solicitors acting for these men. They presented petitions. These were petitions to the Queen. It was, therefore, my duty to tender advice to Her Majesty on what action she should take on them, and the men's petitions, in my view, showed sufficient ground for advising Her Majesty as I did, on what I would broadly describe as grounds of normal humane procedure.

Mr. Paget

My right hon. Friend will be aware that, since the accession of Queen Victoria, the Sovereign herself is not consulted before the advice which she is given and which she is constitutionally bound to take. Was that convention and precedent followed here?

Mr. Thomson

I would prefer to stick to the rather careful words which I have already used. I assure my hon. and learned Friend that I do not believe that I could in good conscience have given the Queen different advice in the circumstances from that which I gave.

Mr. Thorpe

Will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Queen exercised the Prerogative of Mercy on the advice of those who are legally the Government of Rhodesia?

Mr. Thomson

This, as the right hon. Gentleman knows, raises a difficult question of law; but I am advised that, though the Constitution of Rhodesia delegates the Royal Prerogative of Mercy to the Governor to be exercised on her Majesty's behalf, this does not empty Her Majesty of her Prerogative, which she may exercise on the advice of the Secretary of State, though the cases in which it would be appropriate to do this are very rare.

Mr. Shinwell

Will my right hon. Friend understand that, in the view of Members on this side, and, I suspect, in all parts of the House, his action was quite appropriate to the occasion, and we express the hope that this will not in any way interfere with the possibility—I shall not say the probability—of negotiations between Her Majesty's Government and Mr. Smith meeting with success?

Mr. Thomson

I assure the House that politics did not in any way come into the advice which I tendered to Her Majesty. I think it better to keep the political questions to which my right hon. Friend referred entirely separate from the issues raised by this Question.

Mr. Biggs-Davison

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the sentiment expressed by the right hon. Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell) regarding an honourable settlement with Rhodesia will find an echo over here? Further, is it not a fact that, when United Kingdom reprieves were dealt with by the Home Secretary, there was no question of the Sovereign being personally involved, but, throughout this weekend, in the case dealt with by the right hon. Gentleman, the suggestion of personal involvement of the Sovereign has constantly been made?

Mr. Speaker

Order. If suggestions were made elsewhere that the Queen is involved in this matter they cannot be made in this House.

Mr. Winnick

Bearing in mind all the circumstances, will my right hon. Friend take it that not only right hon. and hon. Members but most people in the country will approve of the reprieves granted V, the detained men, and will he confirm that, if the executions do take place—we hope that they will not—all those responsible for the actual hangings will ultimately have to face a court of law for murder?

Mr. Thomson

I very much hope that the exercise of the Royal Prerogative will be respected and that the men will not be hanged. We have already announced that the gravest responsibility would rest on anyone who was involved in the matter.

Mr. St. John-Stevas

Now that the legal position has been elucidated, at the prompting of my right hon. Friend the Member for Barnet (Mr. Maudling), would not the best contribution which hon. and right hon. Members could make, both within the House and without it, be to say no more on this subject?

Hon. Members

Hear, hear.

Sir Dingle Foot

If these reprieves had not been granted, would not these men have been executed before they could exercise their final right of appeal to Her Majesty in Council, and, in these circumstances, was not my right hon. Friend bound to tender such advice as he did?

Mr. Ronald Bell

Does the Secretary of State's answer just now mean that the Governor was not consulted and did not tender advice in this matter? Would not that be the normal practice and procedure, even after the Southern Rhodesia Act, 1965, and will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that this, whatever its merits, is something which is bound to have political repercussions and make it much more urgent than it was before that the British Government and Mr. Smith's Government should get together as quickly as possible?

Mr. Thomson

I have already dealt with the hon. and learned Gentleman's last point. If he was referring, as I understood him to be, to the reply I gave to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Devon, North (Mr. Thorpe), I would simply tell the House that, while my communications with the Governor are confidential, I have been in almost continuous touch with the Governor over the weekend.

Mr. Bottomley

Can my right hon. Friend say whether there will be adequate safeguards for the two judges who declined to go along with the judgment and, further, what is the position of the Chief Justice, who took the oath of allegiance as a Privy Councillor, if he declines to make the recommendation?

Mr. Thomson

I prefer not to comment on the judges in Southern Rhodesia. In answer to my right hon. Friend's first question, the judge who has announced his resignation will, of course, qualify for the benefits which were announced originally two years ago in the House by my right hon. Friend.