Capital Punishment (Royal Commission's Report)
Mr Reginald Manningham-Buller (Northamptonshire South)
The hon. and learned Member for Northampton (Mr. Paget) thought it proper to conclude his oration by saying that the burden is on the Government if they want to kill. I do not accept that as a correct description of this debate, and I may say to him, too, that he has given me less time in which to answer the debate than he said he would.
I have a task to fulfil for which I do desire to have a little time—because not only have I to reply to what has been said on the main debate on the Commission's Report, but also to what has been said in the course of the debate of the Amendment. It would, indeed, be discourteous of me if I did not spend a little time in making some reference to the main recommendations of the Report, which, after all, is what we started out to discuss today.
My right hon. and gallant Friend the Home Secretary referred to the three main recommendations of the Commission and to the Government's position with regard to them. I was interested to see that, assuming that the death penalty remains, there was no real criticism of the Government's provisional decision in regard to the recommendation about youths between 18 and 21. I was also interested to see that the Government's view upon the Commission's recommendation with regard to jury discretion has really been accepted in all quarters of the House.
The discussion that did take place upon the recommendations of the Report was upon the M'Naghten Rules. I must say that I wish that we had had a longer time to discuss these rules, because they are of great importance, and I should have liked to have said a good deal about them myself. All I can say now is that what has been said will, of course, be most carefully considered. I think the House agrees that if there is a formula—and I think that the balance of opinion is that a formula is useful to a jury—it would be extremely difficult to find one which improves upon the M'Naghten Rules and so could be used to replace those rules.
With those preliminary observations, I now turn to the main issue of today's debate, the question of the Amendment. Opinion in the House, so far as I can judge, having heard most of the debate, really falls into four distinct groups. There are those who are in favour of the abolition of capital punishment and who support the proposal for suspension, perhaps because they think that that is more likely to be accepted by the House. On the other hand, there are those who holding equally sincere convictions, who are opposed to the abolition of the death sentence because of what they believe would be the serious results which would follow that step. Then there are those who are not convinced one way or the other, but who think that this so-called experiment should be tried; and there are those who are also not convinced one way or the other but who are satisfied that this is no time for such an experiment.
The Home Secretary expressed the Government's view, and there is no need for me to repeat it. I wish to say, however, that I hate murder trials quite as much as does the hon. and learned Member for Northampton. I have never attended one unless it was my duty to do so, and I have never understood the desire of some members of the public to witness the spectacle of a person being tried for his life.
I doubt whether there is anyone with experience of such trials who is not affected by them, and who does not thoroughly dislike them. But, in approaching this question, we really should try to put our personal feelings on one side and not let them affect our judgment on what, I believe, is a most important issue, and one which may affect not only the lives of a number of people in our land, but also the maintenance of law and order.
The right hon. and learned Member for Neepsend (Sir F. Soskice) said, and said correctly, that we all have a hatred of brutality. We all wish that there were no murders committed in this land of ours, and one hopes that the day may come when that will be the position. But before I deal with the detailed arguments, I wish to say that I do not think that the real issue before the House is raised by the terms of the Amendment quite as clearly as it could be. I think that the real question before the House tonight is the question of whether or not this House is in favour of abolition.
The Amendment asks the Government to introduce legislation, the effect of which could only be to take away the death sentence. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman), who moved the Amendment, said that in five years the situation should be reviewed. Of course, Parliament can always review the situation in less or more than five years, but that is something which, I believe, is put in to make the pill a little more attractive to those who are a bit uncertain about it.
The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne said, "We suggest suspension so that the Government of the day will not have to bring in a Bill to bring back the death penalty." But I feel sure that those who are now supporting the Amendment would certainly take action just before the period of that suspension lapsed, and that then we should probably find some of those who have made such eloquent speeches tonight saying, "You cannot put back the death penalty. The experiment has been for far too short a period." This is what we say in answer to the proposal so eloquently put forward by the hon. Gentleman: The issue really is—are we to suspend the death sentence now? Is the House in favour of that, whatever may happen in the future, because we cannot bind another Government. The Amendment is, I think, put in this form to make it attractive to those who are not convinced, but who say to themselves, "Why not try it?" I hope to satisfy them that there are, indeed, weighty reasons for not doing so.
I am sorry that the Royal Commission was not invited to give its conclusions on this question. As has been said in the debate, the members of the Commission were deliberately precluded from doing so. The Leader of the Opposition made the reason quite clear. The reason he gave was that the Commission would be bound to produce a majority report and a minority report, a somewhat odd and unconvincing reason to me. But if we had had a majority and a minority report, we should, at least, have known with certainty which way the majority went and what their reasons were.
The Commissioners were, however, led by their terms of reference to have regard to some evidence on this issue. Their Report as to that evidence and what they say about it, is, I think, most valuable. If they had had to express a conclusion on this issue, they probably would have had to go into it much more fully and deeply instead of treating the evidence as incidental to their main inquiry.
I hope that no one will think that I do not regard those who have voiced objections to capital punishment as not being entirely sincere and as not having voiced them on conscientious grounds. Before I say anything about the objections, may I summarise quite briefly what I believe to be the only possible ground, and the true ground, for the retention of the capital sentence. It was put quite briefly by Lord Waverley in this House in 1948. He said that the
justification for the capital sentence … must be sought in the protection of society, and in that alone."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16th April, 1948; Vol. 449, c. 998.]
That is the gauge, that is the test. That of course, raises the question: Is it a deterrent, and if it is to what extent is it a deterrent?
The right hon. and learned Member for Neepsend said in his speech that the onus is on those who seek to retain it to justify its retention. His view was that it has not been proved to be a deterrent and, therefore, that it should go. I would urge, on the other hand, that the correct approach is surely this: we have had this law for many a long year, and those who wish to change it have to prove their case for the change.
When we read the conclusions of the Commission and the evidence, we see how difficult it is to prove the case either way conclusively. We get a different answer according to whether we ask the question one way or the other. I would say myself that if it is a deterrent it is only if it is an effective deterrent, that it can be regarded as a weapon for the protection of society. When we read the Report and the passages cited in it we see that the view is held by a large number of responsible people that if it has a deterrent effect at all it has a unique deterrent effect.
I will not take up time by reading the whole of the passage written nearly 100 years ago by Sir James Stephen, which is set out in the Report, in paragraph 57.
It is said there—and I will not quote the whole of it—
No other punishment deters men so effectually from committing crimes as the punishment of death. This is one of those propositions which it is difficult to prove, simply because they are in themselves more obvious than any proof can make them.
He was talking of the death penalty as a deterrent. [Interruption.] Some hon. Members may not agree with him.