13 July 1983, House of Commons, Westminster, United Kingdom
I wish initially to address myself to the general question of capital punishment. I think that my position is well known to all hon. Members. For more than 20 years I have been opposed to capital punishment for all crimes of homicide, and I have always voted against it. I intend to do so tonight. My position is not only as strong as it ever was; it has been confirmed in recent years.
For nearly 20 years capital punishment has been abolished in this country. My hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fylde (Sir E. Gardner), who moved the resolution with great restraint and wisdom, wishes to change the status quo. He and those who support him must prove that it is necessary, in fact vital, to change the status quo. The onus of proof rests with him and his friends. When the House judges the issue and votes tonight, it should ask itself whether the proposer of the resolution and his supporters have proved beyond any shadow of doubt that it is vital to change the status quo.
In my judgment—and I say this with great respect for my hon. and learned Friend whom I have known for many years—he has not proved 'his case. He said quite frankly that he did not intend to rely on statistics. The Home Secretary rightly said the same. If they did, they would have to explain why the increase in homicides began long before the abolition of the death penalty and why the increase in ordinary crimes of violence has been many times greater than the increase in homicides. It is that factor which has produced attention in the public mind. The growth of lesser crimes of violence has been so great that the public has deduced that the only answer is 899 to deal with homicide by capital punishment. That is a confusion in the public mind. A great deal rests upon us to remove that confusion.
My hon. and learned Friend did not introduce the question of retribution and revenge, although it was mentioned by the right hon. Member for Birmingham, Sparkbrook (Mr. Hattersley). I was saddened to hear murmurs in some parts of the House that appeared to support retribution and revenge. Quite frankly, from any moral viewpoint, I find revenge completely unacceptable. I do not believe that it is for the House to decide whether there should be revenge—[Interruption.] If some of my hon. Friends want revenge, I hope that they will say so and also state their position on other issues that they consider require revenge. It is not for the House or for Parliament to decide retribution either. That lies elsewhere at other times. That is why I cannot accept either of the arguments of revenge or retribution.
My hon. and learned Friend said that our purpose must be to secure the safety of the people of this realm to the greatest possible extent. That is the task of Government both externally and internally, and I agree with him entirely. The question at issue is whether the restoration of capital punishment will improve the security of the people of this realm. That issue remains unproven.
My hon. and learned Friend said that that is a matter of judgment. It is. Others would say that it is a matter of instinct—indeed that has already been said—but in my view the judgment, if it is in favour of restoration, is wrong. This is far too great a matter to rest on instinct. We need more substantial reasons than just instinct for changing the status quo.
I come next to the point which in recent years I have found more and more worrying and more and more impressive. I refer to condemnation by mistake. I find it impossible to accept a penalty that is irreversible when it is so apparent that a number of mistakes have been made. One of my hon. Friends said on the radio that if no one else is prepared to hang people he is quite prepared to do the job himself—[HON. MEMBERS: "Which one?"] I ask him a rather different question. Because of his views, is he prepared to be hanged by mistake? I am not asking my hon. Friend to reply on the spur of the moment. I shall let him give due consideration to the problem before he finally makes up his mind.
I wish now to deal with the specific amendments on the Order Paper about the restoration of capital punishment in particular cases. In this respect, I emphasise what was said by the right hon. Member for Sparkbrook and in great detail by my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary about the Homicide Act 1957. I agree with everything that my right hon. and learned Friend said about that. The Homicide Act 1957 was largely shaped by Viscount Kilmuir as Lord Chancellor. I was involved as the Chief Whip of the Government of the day in trying to bring together those who felt strongly about capital punishment and the abolitionists. The Government wanted to lift the problem out of the constant battle in the House of Commons and try to get public support for a final position. That Act lasted for only eight years. It failed, as the Home Secretary said. It failed because the general public was not prepared to support an Act—nor was the judiciary for that matter—which said that one kind of murderer was worthy of the death penalty and that another 900 kind was not; that if a public figure was shot crossing Trafalgar Square that was a matter for the death penalty, but that if a man poisoned his wife that was a matter between the two of them and did not deserve the death penalty.
There is a basic lesson here about trying to pick out particular aspects of homicide for the death penalty. I believe that the public would quickly say "Yes, if there is to be a death penalty, is not such and such a case also worthy of it?" That is the fundamental argument of principle against trying to select particular aspects of homicide as justifying the death penalty.
If there is to be a selection, I regard the case for the selection of terrorism as the weakest. If murder of the police or prison warders were to be selected, I think that the public would say that those people have a rather better chance of looking after themselves than they, the innocent public. Terrorists present great problems. I think that the Home Secretary is underestimating the determination of terrorists in Northern Ireland and elsewhere, quite regardless of death, to carry through their purposes. Even if one is dealing with Arab terrorists, one finds that very few of them are paid marksmen. If they are paid marksmen, they will weigh up the risks against the penalties. If money is what they want they will take the risk. Therefore, I cannot see that the argument for capital punishment for terrorists is a powerful one.
I come now to the definition of terrorism, the importance of which I hope my right hon. and learned Friend will not underestimate, as he glossed over it this afternoon. If there is to be the final capital penalty for terrorism, there is the problem of judges and juries deciding whether a person is a political terrorist. There has been criticism in the Province of attempts to deal with the IRA on the basis that its members should, when arrested, be treated as political prisoners, and it has been said that that is an immense mistake. Exactly this definition, as has so rightly been pointed out, would have to be made permanently for capital punishment if the amendment were agreed. I do not believe that one can gloss over the issue of defining terrorism or of how a jury and the judge would handle it.
Even more important — as the Home Secretary emphasised—is that there is no hope of returning to jury verdicts in Northern Ireland. One will not persuade a jury to convict if there is the death penalty. My right hon. and learned Friend then referred to a judge and perhaps two assessors. But is the Northern Ireland judiciary in favour of dealing with IRA terrorism by a judge and two assessors? I cannot believe for one moment that the judiciary would accept that. I lived through all the problems of 1970 to 1974 and have been back to Northern Ireland many times since. I know the views of the people there and, leaving aside the impact on the IRA, I cannot believe that our judiciary or the Northern Ireland judiciary would be prepared to deal with these cases with an assessor sitting on each side.
Therefore, as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has already said, it is out of the question for practical reasons to apply capital punishment there. But we cannot punish terrorist murderers on the mainland by imposing the death penalty if we do not do so in Northern Ireland. The number of cases here is comparatively few—a few Arab and other terrorists—but from the public's point of view, let alone all the other considerations, it is impossible to deal with an Arab 901 terrorist who shoots the Israeli ambassador in one way but to deal with the same crime differently in Northern Ireland, which most people consider to be the home of terrorism. Amendment (e) therefore is entirely impractical.
I am astonished—I must not say that—I was taken unawares by the fact that my right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary argued as he did. His argument did not seem to deal with any of the basic problems of making terrorism a separate capital crime. Other European countries have had great problems with terrorism—for example, the Federal Republic of Gennany and the Italian Republic. They have dealt with those problems not by bringing back capital punishment, but in other ways, largely by effective police action and by reducing the status of the terrorists so that they could not gain public support. The same is true of the Netherlands. I do not support the argument that we of all European countries should have to reintroduce capital punishment to deal with terrorism.
I conclude with these points. First, we must consider what changes there have been over the past 20 years. One change has been the immense growth of the media—television, radio and the press — and the almost complete removal of privacy. The media's impact in rousing public feeling on the occasion of an execution would be many times what it was in the days before the abolition of capital punishment. One cannot encourage a deeper feeling for the spirituality of man when he is being influenced all the time by the media dealing with executions in that way. That in itself is a powerful argument against capital punishment.
When one considers what has happened in the few states of the United States that have restored capital punishment, one realises the growth in the influence of the media over the past 20 years. It is seen in the horrifying stories that appear before, during and after an execution, especially when men plead for death, which shows that death is not for them a deterrent. I believe that the impact on people is terrible.
Secondly, I am sure, having listened to these debates for 30 years, that the constant emphasis on capital punishment is preventing us from giving real attention and real resources to the problems of crime in a modern democracy. The Government have done a great deal. At one stage criminals had much greater resources than the police. They had better radio facilities, modern communications, such as the use of motorways and other technical devices as well as more up-to-date firearms. The police have now caught up a great deal. We must recognise that if we really are to tackle the per al problems of the country we must turn our attention to that, instead of automatically saying that the answer is hanging and flogging.
I hope, therefore, that this debate can settle it for this Parliament and for many years to come. If my hon. and learned Friend the Member for Fylde is right about that — he said that it might be the last time Parliament would vote on the issue—then I warmly support the fact of him having put the motion forward—though I want to see it defeated—I hope for the last time.
I can claim to speak with a certain amount of experience. When one first comes into the House, one faces many pressures in relation to the way in which one should vote. This has therefore become an early test for many of the victors in the recent general election. My 902 career in the House, covering 33 years, has not been entirely without controversy. I think back to debates on Suez, the abolition of resale price maintenance, the European negotiations, the war in the Middle East, the whole reform of the trade union movement and, for more than 20 years, the abolition of capital punishment.
I can say with honesty to every person who has had the privilege of entering the House that, having said clearly where I stood, and having explained to my constituents why I took up the position that I did, they have accepted that as being the right of their Member of Parliament. I hope that that will always be the case. It is the basis of the British constitution; we are not mandated, we cannot be mandated, by a selection committee, by a constituency committee or by the public as whole.
This is the occasion, above all, when we must use our own judgment. I hope that tonight every hon. Member, and particularly new hon. Members, will feel free to use their judgment. I do not believe that the case for the reintroduction of the death penalty has been proved and I therefore urge the House to reject the motion and all the amendments.