HL Deb 18 July 1834 vol 25 cc90-9
Lord Suffield

rose to move the second reading of the Capital Punishment Bill, which, he said, as brought up from the other House, embraced two offences—letter-stealing, and returning from transportation. It would become necessary for him to pro- pose in the Committee to restrict this Bill to the latter offenee. His reasons for this were, the deference he felt for the opinions of the noble Earl late at the head of his Majesty's Government, who had expressed a desire for a more comprehensive measure after the recess, which might embrace other offences besides that of letter-stealing; and also his deference to an opinion expressed by the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, accompanied by an assurance that early in the next Session of Parliament, a Bill of a comprehensive kind should be introduced, when the Commissioners should have made their Report on the Criminal Law. He, however, felt that the responsibility would be too much for him to postpone this part of the Bill which abolished the capital punishment for stealing letters, were it not that he also felt convinced, that in future no case would happen in which the sentence of death would be carried into effect; for it was quite impossible, after the House of Commons, with the concurrence of the Law-officers of the Crown, had passed a Bill repealing the extreme penalty of death—it was quite impossible, in his opinion, that any Secretary of State should allow a person to be executed for the offence. The public, moreover, upon the faith that this punishment would cease to be inflicted for the crime in question, would now institute prosecutions, so that victims would be within the reach of the law, who would have escaped with impunity had it been supposed they would suffer death on conviction. To the other part of this Bill regarding the offence of returning from transportation, which was at present a capital felony, although never of late years punished capitally, he anticipated no objections. As, however, he was addressing the House upon a question which related to capital punishments generally, he would take the opportunity to advert to certain facts, which proved beyond all possibility of doubt and dispute, that capital punishment was less efficient in the repression of crimes than were other punishments—and further, that its indirect but certain tendency was to increase crime. The experience of various countries confirmed this observation. In Bombay, under the Recordership of Sir James Mackintosh, capital punishments had been altogether suspended for seven years, and the number of murders diminished during that period to six, whereas, in the preceding seven years, when twelve executions took place, there had been eighteen convictions for murder; so that the number of murders was diminished to one-third by discontinuing the use of the scaffold. The decrease was probably owing to public executions no longer continuing to brutalize the feelings of spectators, or to render criminals reckless and desperate in the Commission of crime. In France, too, in proportion as capital punishments became fewer, murders also became fewer. Thus, in the three years ending with 1827, there were 190 executions, and then 824 murders took place; but in the next three years, ending with 1830, when there were only 112 executions, the number of murders fell to 708. These effects were surely worthy of their Lordships' consideration. Now, if this result had occurred with regard to the highest offence—murder, à fortiori it would apply to all crimes of an inferior grade. It might certainly be expected that they would diminish in number, by diminishing the severity of punishment, in order to increase its certainty. But there were other countries where the same successful results had followed. In New York, only three crimes were capital—treason, murder, and burning a dwelling-house in the night. In Louisiana, capital punishments were altogether abolished by the code of Mr. Livingstone. In Hanover, its entire abrogation was under consideration at the present time. In Belgium, not a single execution had taken place since the revolution in 1830. Russia, too, it was well known, had got rid of capital punishment. Thus it appearéd, that England was behind the rest of the world in retaining her present code of Criminal-law. Very fortunately, however, there was evidence of its great inefficacy, as proved by statistical returns in the papers laid before Parliament, which were of the most conclusive description. Never was there a greater mistake than in supposing, that capital punishment had the effect of repressing crime. If their Lordships looked to the official returns, they would find, that crime had increased greatly where the punishment of death was retained; but that it had virtually decreased where another punishment had been substituted. The difference on comparison was so great that he might venture to pronounce it unsafe to retain capital punishment. He might be told, that this was proving too much, but they should recollect how this effect was brought about—the public would refuse often to prosecute when the offender's life was involved—witnesses refused to give evidence—and Juries to convict; and in this manner it was, that criminality was encouraged by the offenders escaping with impunity. He must remind their Lordships, that although they were placed above the temptation of theft, they could yet remember that when some of them were in their boyhood at public schools, they were accustomed to estimate the consequences of juvenile delinquency, not by the degree of punishment denounced, but by the certainty of its infliction—and this was the reasoning employed by adults in crime. The best criterion of the number of crimes was the number of commitments; but even this was an imperfect one in the present instance, because, in instituting a comparison between offences still capital, and those that had lately ceased to be so, it must be recollected, that many now prosecuted would be allowed to escape with impunity, if their lives were still liable to be forfeited on conviction. Yet, in spite of this disadvantage, the comparison was immensely in favour of the removal of capital punishment, for taking all those offences subject to this penalty, it would be found from Parliamentary returns, that they had increased forty-four per cent, in the last three years, over the former three years, while, on the other hand, in the same period, the offences from which the punishment of death was removed had increased only two per cent, which was virtually a decrease, considering the increase of population. And then again look at the convictions—the average proportion of convictions for non—capital offences was seventy-two in every 100 commitments. So it was in those crimes that had lately ceased to be capital; but for crimes still capital the average number of commitments was only forty-seven—twenty-five (the difference between seventy-two and forty-seven) escaping by verdict of acquittal, because the punish went denounced was death. This was a most important fact, for upon reference to the number capitally indicted in the last, three years, it would be found that more than 600 prisoners, and these charged with the heaviest crimes, had been liberated by verdicts of acquittal, and set at large to prey upon society, for no other reason than because the law denounced a punishment to which public opinion was opposed. The fact was, that there was a growing conviction in society of the unfitness of this punishment. Even, as to the crime of incendiarism, the house of Commons, by sanctioning the second reading of a Bill now in progress, hed pronounced its opinion that the present penalty was inadequate to repress the crime. Rewards were resorted to for the conviction of the offenders; but these also failed. The British public had an abhorrence of what was called "blood-money." Rewards were offered in vain. A case was lately tried at Northampton, as appeared in the newspapers, where a Jury, probably sonic of them farmers, showed their aversion to the capital punishment by bringing in a verdict of guilty (of arson), with a recommendation to mercy. During the last three years, so frequent were the acquittals of the charge of arson, that, out of 277 prisoners committed, only seventy-eight were convicted; that was, 200, excepting one, went unpunished. Here, then, instead of seventy-two per cent, being convicted, as in non-capital cases, there would be found to be seventy-two per cent, escaping with impunity, and only twenty-eight per cent, were punished. He was quite convinced, that the time was fast approaching when it would be found absolutely necessary to abolish capital punishment for many offences. There was a strong conviction on the public mind, that such a mode of punishment ought not to be inflicted, except in cases of murder; it was becoming a general feeling, that capital punishment should be abolished in all offences against property. It was shown by returns and accurate calculations, which might safely be relied upon, that crime had increased where capital punishment had remained the same, and had virtually diminished where a less severe punishment was substituted. In case their Lordships should agree to the second reading of the Bill, he would strike out the clauses to which he had previously referred.

The Duke of Wellington

said, that the agitation of the question had produced one bad effect. It had induced Juries to suppose, that they ought not to find persons guilty of capital offences simply because a Bill had been introduced to abolish capital punishment. He considered, that such a circumstance ought not to have any weight, and that Judges and Juries were bound to act upon the law as it existed at present, without reference to any proposed alterations.

Lord Suffield

said, that when the House of Commons had expressed an opinion, that the extreme penalty of the law ought to be removed from offences of a certain description, no Secretary of State, he thought, would be found to execute the law in such cases.

The Lord Chancellor

observed, that although he was not himself a Secretary of State, and it was most unlikely he ever should be one, still, as he was the responsible adviser of the Crown in cases where the life or death of convicted persons was concerned, he was bound to say, that he differed entirely from his noble friend (Lord Suffield), for in any case which might be brought before him, he should feel himself called upon, if the circumstances of that case were such as to exclude any hope of mercy, to advise his Majesty, that the full sentence of the law ought to be carried into execution; and he would give that advice without referring at all to any Bill or measure that might be pending in either House of Parliament at the time having for its object the abolition of the capital punishment as regarded the crime in question.

The Duke of Richmond

said, he did not rise to follow the noble Lord through his statement, nor should he detain their Lordships any length of time; but having presided for three or four years over the Post-office Department, which the Bill in its present shape materially affected (but the noble Lord had signified an intention to withdraw the clause in Committee), he felt it his duty to offer a few remarks upon the present occasion. With regard to the clause affecting offenders returning from transportation, he offered no objection whatever; but as regarded the other clause, he thought their Lordships ought not to abolish capital punishment (he meant the clause relating to stealing letters) until some good mode of secondary punishment had been adopted. Their Lordships would bear in mind, in this great commercial country, how numerous must be the letters passing through the Post-office. Not fewer than 100,000 letters every week passed through the General Post-office; and in the twopenny post there were 40,000 a day. In the course of a year many millions of money were thus transmitted through the Post-office department. By the regulations adopted there, there was a certain sacrifice of security necessarily made in order to obtain despatch. Several hundred persons were daily employed in assorting letters. These things being considered, he was of opinion that their Lordships would not think he was doing more than his duty when he called upon them to pause ere they consented to an alteration of the law, at least until a plan of secondary punishment was established. He knew that the motives of his noble friend were humane and praiseworthy, as well as the motives of the promoters of the Bill in the House of Commons, but it was the duty of their Lordships to see that they did not put in jeopardy the large sums of money which were transmitted through the Post-office department of the country. The only security which the public had was the honesty of the persons employed in that department, and the fear of punishment which awaited them if they transgressed the laws. There were hundreds of letters returned weekly to the Dead Letter-office, the parties to whom they were addressed not being found; and he believed that these letters contained money to the amount of 170,000l. during the period he had presided over the Post-office. In one year he recollected the amount of money sent to the Dead-Letter-office to be returned to the parties sending it was 25,000l. When it was remembered, from the practice of trade, that numerous letters were transmitted with money to meet bills, it must be admitted, that it was highly essential security should exist in the transmission of this money. But, above all, it ought to be borne in mind, that the poorer classes, who had neither agents nor bankers, ought to have their little property protected in thus transmitting it by letter—the only regular channel of communication which was open to them. He knew of many cases of great hardship, in which robberies had been committed on the poor in this way, and he would relate one as a specimen. A poor woman in Ireland, whose husband was dead, set up a shop, and her son having enlisted, she was anxious to purchase his discharge, but had no means of doing so except by the sale of a cow. Well, the cow was disposed of, and the money sent by letter to Dublin; but the letter was stolen by some scoundrel, and she was thus reduced to great distress. On his (the Duke of Richmond) hearing of the case, he applied to his noble friend at the head of the War-office (Lord Hill), who, with that kind attention which he had always evinced-immediately directed a free discharge to be sent to the young soldier. With such an instance before him, and he could state many others of a similar description, he could not suffer any mistaken feeling of mercy or compassion to influence his mind, and suffer it to outweigh the duty which he felt was due to the public. He was no advocate for capital punishment; but he must say, that the Legislature ought to pause and consider well whether a system of secondary punishments should not first be established before they consented to abolish capital punishment altogether. He hoped that during the ensuing recess his noble friends connected with the Government would find some means to effect so desirable an object. As his noble friend (Lord Suffield) had stated, that the sole object of the present Bill was to abolish the capital punishment in one instance only, namely, in the instance of returning from transportation, he would make no objection to support the second reading.

Viscount Melbourne

said, that he did not rise to prolong the discussion, or to offer any observations on the present Bill. He merely wished to observe, in consequence of what had fallen from the noble Duke opposite (the Duke of Wellington), that, if a Bill were introduced in either House of Parliament which purported to take off the capital punishment from particular offences, that circumstance ought to have no effect whatever either on Judges or Juries to prevent them from carrying the existing law into full effect. If that principle were not acted upon, the effect would be, that either House of Parliament, by introducing a measure, might make a material alteration in the laws of the country.

The Lord Chancellor

should not repeat what he had before said as to the Secretary of State not carrying into effect a sentence while the law continued to exist on the Statute-book, but he must remark on the ground upon which that doctrine, was founded. His noble friend in protesting against the doctrine had said, that it would enable either House of Parliament to alter the law. It was far worse it would enable any in- dividual of either House of Parliament to do this. It would give a shorthand mode of Legislation, and put into the power of each man not a liberum veto to prevent a law, but to make one; for it he brought in a Bill to repeal a Law, and in that House it was as a matter of courtesy always read a first time, he might proceed no further with it and could yet, by the mere bringing of it in, obtain such an expression of opinion as to tie up the law for the future. This was what no one ought to be allowed to do. At the same time he was aware that after a Bill of this kind had received the express sanction of either House of Parliament, and was waiting for the sanction of the other, not only was the public officer affected in carrying sentences into execution, but Judges in pronouncing sentence, and Juries in finding verdicts. He had stated this in the other House of Parliament on the forgery question. He should not enter at large into the question of capital punishments; but he wished to remark to the noble Baron, that as two parts of his Bill were to be withdrawn in Committee, they were in fact now only debating the question of returning from transportation. He had stated the other night in accordance with the noble Earl then at the head of the Government, that it was better that measures of this sort should be taken up in a systematic manner, and he therefore recommended that this with other Bills of a similar kind should await the Report of the Criminal Law Commissioners, who had received, or shortly would receive, instructions on the subject. His noble friend the Duke who for so long a period had presided, with honour to himself and advantage to the public, over the department of the Post-office, mistook the ground on which he was in favour of a mitigation of punishment. It was not out of pity for the criminal as contradistiuguished from commiseration for the person injured, but out of a severity—a just and necessary severity—towards the offender. It was because the severity of the law insured the impunity of the offender that he wished to put an end to that impunity by altering the law, and thus render it in reality what it was only in name.

Lord Suffield

begged to say a few words in reply. Time noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack was not arguing very correctly when he assumed that this question was taken up on the ground of humanity. For his own part he would say that it had nothing to do with humanity, nor was it taken up on any such ground. He as a Member of that House, brought it forward as he was one of those who wished to support laws the effect of which would be to suppress crime. Nor had pity any more than humanity anything to do with the matter. It was brought forward for the express purpose of rendering punishments more certain. As to what the noble Duke said, of the necessity of having capital punishment applied to letter stealing, if the offence were likely to increase by the abolition of the capital punishment he would not contend for the abolition. He had the authority of the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack for his opinions on capital punishment. That noble and learned Lord in a speech delivered in the year 1830 said, 'If the law as it still stood had little weight in public estimation before then, in what light was it likely to be looked upon hence forward? If mens feelings rebelled against it before, would not their opinions and prepossessions be for ever rooted and confirmed by such a di- vision of the House of Commons? Would it not operate practically on pro- secutors, on witnesses, on jurors,—ay, and on Judges themselves? Not six months ago had a Judge declared to him, in reference to the probable change of the law as it respected this offence, that, sitting as Judge he could not help revolting at the idea of leaving a man for execution at a time when Parliament was engaged in a delibera- tion, the result of which might be, that his blood would be the last which should ever be shed for the crime of forgery. With so many reasons to induce them to abolish this punishment, and so little to encourage them to retain it, he hoped that they would not hesitate to do a service to humanity and expunge it for 'ever from their Statute-book.'* When the noble and learned Lord had expressed such sentiments it was not too much for him to hope for the support of the noble and learned Lord.

The Bill was read a second time.

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