HL Deb 20 April 1848 vol 98 cc534-7

The LORD CHANCELLOR moved the Third Reading of this Bill.

LORD BROUGHAM begged to take that opportunity of remarking that the ordinance of the French Provisional Government abolishing capital punishment for all political offences had been very much eulogised, and had been recommended as fit to be adopted in this country. Now, that might be a very proper ordinance for the French Provisional Government to pass, in order to preclude the possibility of those dreadful scenes recurring which had disfigured the former revolution; but he was not so sure of the expediency of adopting a similar law in this country. He had no objection to the abolition of capital punishments for political offences, provided he was told that capital punishment was to be abolished for all other offences; but he would maintain, upon the soundest principles of criminal jurisprudence and penal legislation, that as long as capital punishments were continued for any class of offences, there was no man who so well merited the penalty of death, as he who was guilty of what was called political offences of the graver sort, such as high treason, compassing or imagining the destruction of the Sovereign, or the subversion of the Government; for, in his opinion, these were the greatest crimes of which mortal man could be guilty, involving as they did civil war, and the destruction of the peace of the community. For that reason, therefore, he thought that such offences ought to be visited with the severest punishment appointed by the criminal code. There was another reason why high treason should be the most severely punishable of all offences, and that was because while murder, and other offences, naturally excited either the horror or the indignation or the scorn of mankind; he was sorry to say that political offences, even that of high treason, were with the unreflecting multitude not exposed to that horror, indignation, and scorn, but, on the contrary, were too apt to find favour with them, and to meet a respect from them which from other crimes was withheld. That, therefore, was an additional reason why such offences should, by law, be more rather than less severely punishable than others. He did not intend to say that he did not approve of the remission of capital punishments in the cases pointed out under this Bill; but he was strongly of opinion that it ought to be retained in the graver cases of high treason. He was not sure but it might be an improvement of the law that the distinctions between the modes of trial in cases of high treason and in cases of capital felony should be done away with; but he would not enter into that question at present.

LORD CAMPBELL begged leave to say, that he concurred in almost everything that had fallen from his noble and learned Friend; because it seemed to him, however well the French had legislated for their own country in this matter, the adoption of such a law generally would be attended with the most pernicious consequences. High treason was not only the highest offence known to the law, but it was an offence most destructive to the interests of society. He thought, therefore, that in such cases the penalty of death was essentially necessary. The temptation was so strong to seek notoriety in this way, as well as the irregular possession of power, that there was the greatest danger that the peace of society would be disturbed by such offences, unless they were made severely punishable. At the same time, he must say that he adhered to the Statute of William, which was passed after the Revo lution, upon grave consideration, and which provided that where the State prosecuted for high treason, all the usual precautions and safeguards should be strictly observed.

LORD CREMORNE said,that as no Peer connected with Ireland had yet addressed the House upon the Bill then under consideration, he begged in that capacity to be allowed to say a few words. He would be the last person to advocate or support any measure which tended unnecessarily to curtail the privileges of the people; but he considered that some change in the law was absolutely necessary, because the liberty of speaking and writing had of late years been very much abused, particularly in Ireland. He thought that the loyal people of Ireland had very much reason to call upon the Legislature to adopt some measure to prevent the dissemination of sedition and treason throughout that country; and he considered that the passing of this Bill would prove an important benefit to society generally, inasmuch as he hoped it would put a stop to the progress of sedition, and, above all, to that longing after martyrdom which was so common in the present day.

The BISHOP of OXFORD was desirous of procuring an explanation from the noble and learned Lord opposite (Lord Brougham) with respect to a few words which had dropped from him a little while ago. It had struck him, as well as other Peers near him, that the noble and learned Lord, when he put the hypothetical case, that unless capital punishment was done away with for everything, he should be sorry to see it done away with for treason, seemed to imply that his regret would not extend to that case if capital punishments were done away with for everything else. Now, he knew the noble and learned Lord did not mean that—[Lord BROUGHAM: Hear, hear!]—but as there was a party out of doors who were clamouring, as he thought very absurdly, for the abolition of all capital punishments, and for giving up the highest right of the State as the administrators of justice from God to man, he was anxious to prevent its going forth to the public that the noble and learned Lord had given his sanction to an opinion of so mischievous a tendency.

LORD BROUGHAM was much obliged to the right rev. Prelate for asking this explanation, for nothing could be further from his intention than to give expression to any such opinion as that to which his right rev. Friend had referred. He probably had expressed himself with the less precision, because it was so well known that he had I repeatedly stated that he did not belong to that sect of law reformers who were against all capital punishments. He had worked hard, as their Lordships were aware, for the reduction of the number of capital punishments; but he had never held that in the present state of society we ought to give up that great engine in deterring from commission of crime, capital punishment. On the contrary, he was quite astonished to hear able and ingenious men say that we had no right to inflict capital punishment, because we were commanded by the highest authority not to kill—forgetting that the very same authority had said, that "whoso sheddeth man's blood, by man shall his blood be shed." They even misapplied this latter text, when they said that it excluded all cases except murder. One objection very much urged against capital punishments was, that they were irrevocable. Why, so was every punishment. if he had been banished for fourteen years to Botany Bay, he should like to know who could give him back his fourteen years? He referred to these things to show that he had not the slightest doubt in his mind about the propriety of retaining capital punishments in certain grave cases.

Bill read 3a and passed.

House adjourned.