Oral Answers to Questions — Death Sentences, Gold Coast

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 5th March 1947.

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Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham 12:00 am, 5th March 1947

asked the Secretary of State for the Colonies (1) if he will make a statement about the delay in disposing of the case of seven men sentenced to death for the murder of Akyea Mensah, the Odikro of Apedwa, Gold Coast, since their appeals were dismissed many weeks ago;

(2) whether he is aware that legal proceedings in the case were continued for over two years after they were sentenced to death; and whether he proposes to expedite criminal procedure in the Gold Coast.

Mr. Creech Jones:

The House will be aware that on Monday afternoon I telegraphed to the Governor of the Gold Coast, and yesterday he informed me that in view of the strong feeling which was expressed in the House, he had decided, after discussion with those Members of the Executive Council who were in Accra, to postpone the executions. In view of the strong feeling in the Gold Coast, the Governor who has contributed so much and with such distinction to African development, is greatly exercised by this affair and I am in communication with him on the matter. But he will now consider all the circumstances and in consultation with his Executive Council, how the powers delegated to him by the Letters Patent will be exercised.

I think the House should be in possession of the facts of this case. The number of men who were convicted for the murder of the Odikro of Apedwa was in fact eight, of whom one died and two had their sentences commuted by the Governor although a majority of the Executive Council had advised against that commutation. The murder was concerned with the ceremonial funeral of a paramount chief. The trial took place during November, 1944, before a jury all of whom except one were Africans. The men were sentenced to death on 1st December, 1944, and appealed to the West African Court of Appeal, which dismissed the appeal in February, 1945. They then gave notice of intention to apply to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council for leave to appeal, but their petition was not filed until 22nd October, 1945. The Judicial Committee dismissed the petition on 5th November, 1945, and the executions would then normally have taken place. The advisers of the convicted men, however, took what I believe is an unprecedented course and tried to attack the validity of the trial by applying for a writ of certiorari. This application was dismissed by the Gold Coast Court, and another petition to the Judicial Committee for leave to appeal was dismissed on 21st January, 1946.

The advisers of the convicted men then tried to attack the proceedings by way of Writ of Error, and applied to the Gold Coast Attorney-General for his fiat giving leave to bring proceedings in Error. This was refused, whereupon the convicted men applied to the Gold Coast court for a mandamus to order the Attorney-General to give his fiat. The Supreme Court dismissed the application and the men lodged a third petition with the Judicial Committee which was dismissed on 15th July, 1946. At this point my predecessor received a petition signed by 85 Members of this House and subsequently a number of letters from individual Members.

I am advised that the position of the Secretary of State in these matters is as follows. The Royal Prerogative of pardon is expressly delegated by His Majesty to the Governor by the Letters Patent, and by the Royal Instructions he is directed to consider every case fully in Executive Council and finally decide the matter according to his own deliberate judgment. No similar delegation is made to the Secretary of State although he would naturally advise His Majesty on any petition which might be addressed to the Crown or would draw the attention of the Governor to any circumstances which he felt ought to be considered., But the Governor is, after all, the person in the best position to weigh up all the facts relating to the dispensation of mercy in the light of all the local circumstances and of the advice of his Council.

The representations of the Members of Parliament were communicated to the Governor, and while he was on leave last September and October, Members stated their views to him personally. Members, however, took the further point that there was a residual prerogative of pardon in His Majesty and I was advised that this view was correct. I was informed that certain Members of the House would be addressing a memorial to His Majesty. Although finally I asked (because of the delay) that it should reach me by 15th January, it was not until 27th January that I informed the Governor that no petition to His Majesty had by that date been presented. Late on 4th February, on the eve of the day fixed for the execution, a petition to His Majesty was delivered, and I notified the Governor of the fact and the executions were stayed.

It has for long been the established constitutional practice that the Secretary of State will not intervene in these cases unless this is necessary to prevent a miscarriage of justice, and I was advised that there had been no miscarriage of justice here. The Governor is, as stated, in the best position to decide the matter. The signatories of the Petition and toe Governor were informed on the 26th February that, no directions in the matter having been given on behalf of His Majesty, the final decision rested with the Governor. With the full consent of his Executive Council, which includes three African members, the Governor arranged the executions for 4th March.

It may be of interest to the House to learn the state of public feeling in the Gold Coast in this matter. There have already been popular demonstrations of public indignation at the delay in carrying out the sentences on these men who have, in the opinion of many people in the Gold Coast, been able to defeat, they allege, the ends of justice. In the Governor's view the administration of British justice in the Colony has already been discredited by the delays that have occurred and there is strong feeling both on the Executive and Legislative Councils.

I desire to add that immediately the history of this case came to my notice in which various legal processes have protracted the fate of the condemned men I asked my legal advisers to examine the matter with a view to seeing if the delays which occurred in the case could be obviated. The postponement after the dates of execution had been fixed arose from a series of very late applications by the legal representations of the men concerned. They were not due to any defect in the criminal procedure of the Gold Coast, but to the fact that the advisers of the convicted men had recourse to every step which their ingenuity could devise to keep the matter before the courts, steps for which I know of no precedent and all of which ultimately failed. The delay which occurred after the final dismissal of the matter by the Judicial Committee I have already explained.

Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham

Does the legal advice which the Secretary of State obtained amount to this: that the Prerogative of mercy rests with the Governor in Council, and that the Secretary of State has no power except where there has been a palpable miscarriage of justice, which this case was not? Secondly, whether successive Governments have firmly declined, ever since 1887, to discuss in this House the exercise of the Prerogative of mercy in a capital case, because it would be injurious to the administration of justice? Lastly, whether it is correct that the convicted men were never taken to the gallows, but to the condemned cells, and on the occasions when they were removed from the condemned cells, it was because their lawyers had at the last moment launched appeals which of course made it inappropriate for them to be kept there?

Mr. Creech Jones:

In answer to the first supplementary question, I think the position as stated by the hon. Gentleman is correct. In regard to the last supplementary question, I think it is probably true that these men were moved from one part of the prison to another. I really forget the middle question.

Photo of Sir Edward Keeling Sir Edward Keeling , Twickenham

The second question was whether successive Governments in this House have firmly refused to discuss the exercise of the Prerogative of mercy in capital cases, because it would be injurious to the administration of justice?

Mr. Creech Jones:

That is the position.

Photo of Hon. Oliver Stanley Hon. Oliver Stanley , Bristol West

I wonder if I might ask for your guidance, Mr. Speaker? This is a matter on which many of us feel very strongly. I would not like it to be thought that everyone in the House thinks exactly the same way, but I think that all of us feel that the situation has now been left in a very unsatisfactory position by the events of Monday and today. I want to ask your guidance as to what way it would be possible for the matter to be raised in order to enable this House to have a discussion, not necessarily on the particular question that has been raised, but on the general question of the use of the Prerogative. At the present moment, in view of what has happened, it must be almost impossible for the Secretary of State for the Colonies, or for the Governor, to know exactly what the position is. We are informed by the Press that that uncertainty—I do not know whether it is true—has led to the offer of resignation by one of the very best men the Colonial Service has ever known. I ask for your guidance as to whether, in view of the Ruling you gave on Monday that this was not a subject on which either a Question could be asked or the Adjournment moved, there is some other form in which it would be possible, at any rate, to discuss the general question of principle.

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

I think that there will be an opportunity before long, because there is a Vote on Account, which is down for Report, and which I think will be before the House next week or very soon. I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for West Bristol (Mr. Stanley) that this is a matter which should be cleared up quickly, and obviously there are two views in the House, differing views on the Front Bench there, and differing views in all parts of the House. If the right hon. Gentleman puts down an Amendment to reduce the salary of the Colonial Secretary by £100 on the Vote of Account, that will limit the discussion to what the Colonial Secretary is responsible for. I think that will give an ample field to discuss this very acute problem.

Photo of Mr Charles Hale Mr Charles Hale , Oldham

If there is put down an Amendment to reduce the salary of the Colonial Secretary by X pounds, will it not mean that it will, in effect, be a vote of censure upon the Colonial Secretary? Many of us, who feel strongly on this matter, make no reflection whatever on my right hon. Friend.

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

It is quite a common practice in this House to move such an Amendment in order to raise a question. It does not reflect upon the Colonial Secretary in any way.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

Before leaving the particular aspect of the matter for the general aspect, may I ask whether the Colonial Secretary is aware that not everybody who has made a close study of the facts of this case would accept his summary as a fair summary of it, and that in the opinion of many people there is the possibility, indeed the probability, of a grave miscarriage of justice—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]—in that innocent men may hang? Will he say, when he refers to the African jury which tried these men, whether this African jury was not a jury belonging to another tribe, speaking another language, and whether the court neither understood the language of the jury, the language of the witnesses or the language of the accused?

Mr. Creech Jones:

Neither my legal advisers nor the procedure which this case has followed in the courts indicate that there has been any miscarriage of justice.

Photo of Mr James Callaghan Mr James Callaghan Parliamentary Secretary (Ministry of Transport)

May I ask for an assurance that despite the passion generated by the Leader of the Opposition on Monday, the Governor will have the full support of the Government in whatever decision he finally reaches?

Mr. Creech Jones:

Yes, Sir.

Photo of Captain Sir Peter Macdonald Captain Sir Peter Macdonald , Isle of Wight

In view of the answer which the Secretary of State has given to my hon. Friend the Member for Twickenham (Mr. Keeling), will he not agree that on Monday last he misled the House when he told us that these men were led up to the place of execution on five or six occasions, when, as a matter of fact, that had not taken place?

Mr. Creech Jones:

There was a misunderstanding in the House that these men had been taken to the scaffold.

Photo of Captain Sir Peter Macdonald Captain Sir Peter Macdonald , Isle of Wight

Due to the right hon. Gentleman's answer.

Mr. Creech Jones:

Nothing I said would lead one to draw that conclusion. What I did say, and it is quite true, was that these men had been notified of the date of execution, and that at the last minute the execution had been postponed.

Photo of Captain Sir Peter Macdonald Captain Sir Peter Macdonald , Isle of Wight

May I assure the right hon. Gentleman that if HANSARD has not been altered, he did say that these men were brought on five or six occasions to the place of execution, and entirely misled this House?

Hon. Members:

No.

Mr. Creech Jones:

I think if the hon. Member would refer to what I said—

Mr. Creech Jones:

—he will see that I used the word "township." I said taken to the township.

Photo of Mr Charles Hale Mr Charles Hale , Oldham

Is my right hon. Friend aware that while none of us who met the distinguished Governor of the Gold Coast wishes for a moment to impugn his sincerity or integrity in this matter, every consideration of common human decency now demands that these men, whether black or white, shall not once again he submitted to the awful agony of imminent ignominious death?

Photo of Mr Quintin Hogg Mr Quintin Hogg , Oxford

I understood from the right hon. Gentleman's original reply that he was advised that notwithstanding the delegation, under Letters Patent, to the Governor, of the Prerogative of mercy, His Majesty still possessed a residual Prerogative as to the exercise of which the right hon. Gentleman advises His Majesty constitutionally. Would the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, and if that is so, would he say how it came about that he informed the Table that he had no responsibility when the Question was put the other day?

Mr. Creech Jones:

I am not aware that I informed the Table of anything. I think that you, Mr. Speaker, made it perfectly clear that I had made no personal statement to you in regard to this matter.

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Woodford

I apologise to the House. I was not aware that this matter was to be raised, and I did not hear the opening discussion. I presume that it is understood on all sides that these men will not be executed until there has been a further Debate in this House.

Photo of Mr Cecil Poole Mr Cecil Poole , Lichfield

Will my right hon. Friend agree that no right hon. or hon. Gentleman can know as much about this case as those people who have been charged with the responsibility of dealing with it, and will he take no action which will undermine British judicial authority in Africa?

Photo of Mr Winston Churchill Mr Winston Churchill , Woodford

I should like to know what is the answer to my question. I have ventured to put this point, that people ought not to be brought up to execution, or believe that they are to be executed, time after time whether innocent or guilty, however it may be, whatever their crime. That is a wrong thing, and I trust we shall have an opportunity of testifying in that matter before an irrevocable act is committed.

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

We have had the statement. I think we had better get on.

Photo of Mr Tom Driberg Mr Tom Driberg , Maldon

With reference to the point raised by the hon. Member for Oxford (Mr. Hogg), is it not the case, Mr. Speaker, that you implied on Monday that one of the reasons which led you to rule a Private Notice Question out of Order was that information had been conveyed to you on behalf of my right hon. Friend that he had no responsibility?

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

No, what the Table told me was that it was common form—it has been the practice for a long time. It was not communicated by the Colonial Secretary. I have indicated how we can discuss this situation. That is surely the occasion to deal with this matter, not on points of Order.