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Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : 1898. It has always seemed to me extraordinary that every person on earth, whoever he was and wherever he lived, could be compelled to give evidence, except the person whose evidence was vital--the accused. I have always regarded the right to silence as both idiotic and wrong.
There is no doubt that the ending of the right to silence will in many cases lead to confessions that may not be accurate. Judith Ward had mental problems. That would mitigate her silence in some circumstances but not in others.
It is ironic that a royal commission set up because of public concern at incorrect verdicts should recommend a procedure to reduce their effects which has been ignored in favour of procedures that diminish the suspect's rights--procedures that some wish today to cap with an irrevocable punishment.
I believe that restoring judicial murder--because that is what capital punishment is--would degrade our national life. If we legalise killing, we are agreeing that the taking of life is necessary in some circumstances. How can we stop people deciding those circumstances for themselves-- deciding that what they have done to another person is appropriate given that the state is making similar
Column 32decisions ? How can we expect young people to grow up with an abhorrence of murder if they see murder carried out by the state ? In the years since the last execution took place, the nature of media reporting has changed so much that, although we do not envisage executions ever being shown live on television, every member of the family, every friend and every colleague of the person who is to be executed--and every person nearest to the case--is likely to be pestered and even paid for interviews. Through the media, and the interest that they now show in such events, the nation as a whole would experience the real horror of it all--and that, I believe, would be degrading to the nation.
Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central) : At the beginning of his remarks, the hon. Gentleman said that the new clause was all about punishment. Some of us believe that it is both about punishment and about deterrence, and that if one deters, one does not need to punish. However offensive capital punishment may be to the hon. Gentleman, will he not admit in his heart that criminals would be less likely to carry guns and knives if it existed ?
Mr. Gunnell : In my heart, I believe that the hon. Member for Suffolk, Central (Mr. Lord) is completely wrong. If the hon. Member considers the statistics from the United States, he will find that those states in which the death penalty has been reintroduced have higher murder rates that those in which it has not been reintroduced. There is no evidence that it is a deterrent. I said that it was irrelevant because I believe, not only in my head but in my heart, that it has no effect as a deterrent and there is no evidence to suggest otherwise. There is no reason to think that those who may consider murdering a policeman would take account of a death penalty being in existence. There is no evidence of that from any country where the death penalty is used. What is more
Several hon. Members rose
Mr. Gunnell : Many hon. Members want to speak, so I shall conclude. If the precedent of other legislation is a guide, given the difficulties that we would have in returning to a system in which capital punishment is used, and given that I understand that there is only one gallows remaining- -in Wandsworth prison--the process would be likely to go out to tender.
After all, we have already provided for private secure units, private prisons, private escorts and private prison ships. No doubt, with no facilities available nationwide, putting it out to tender would be the economic option. Judging by their faces, some hon. Members think that that is unthinkable and that it could not possibly happen. If they believe that, I suggest they consider what the Foreign Secretary said about private prisons in 1987 when he was Home Secretary. They will see how the climate has changed over the past six years.
Capital punishment is an obscenity, it is ineffective and it would be damaging to the well-being of the nation. I hope that many hon. Members will join me in opposing it.
Mrs. Elizabeth Peacock (Batley and Spen) : In speaking to my new clause 4, I have no hesitation in beginning where I left off when we previously debated the matter in the House in 1990. At the end of that speech, I said :
Column 33"It is high time that we as Members of Parliament came down from our ivory towers, did what the people of Britain want us to do and supported the reintroduction of the death penalty"--[ Official Report , 17 December 1990 ; Vol. 183, c. 103.]
My postbag suggests that nothing has changed. In fact, there is more and more support throughout the country for that action. Certainly, my resolve is strengthened. The number of vicious murders has continued to increase. The number of horrific murders, especially of elderly people in their own homes, has continued to increase. The people of Britain want some action to deter murderers and they want to see the House take action. They clearly want the reintroduction of the death penalty.
Every test of public opinion in recent years has clearly demanded the return of the death penalty. According to polls that have been conducted over recent years for national newspapers and for radio stations, a steady 90 per cent. of the large samples interviewed supported the substance of the measure. The strength of feeling in constituencies, not only in Yorkshire, but throughout the country, has not altered and does not alter. There is a strong feeling that the death penalty would act as a deterrent. I firmly believe that it would.
However, I do not believe that Members of Parliament are delegates because we are not. The House and we as Members should reflect public opinion. Certainly, the mass of public opinion at the moment is that people want action, they want change, they want a deterrent to murder and they want the death penalty reintroduced and available to the courts to deal with all murders. The new clause asks for the death penalty not only the murderers of policemen, but for all who commit murder. It has never been clear to me why the House continues to ignore such public opinion. Of course, the measure is a matter of conscience and we shall be debating another one later today.
Mr. Chris Mullin (Sunderland, South) : Would the hon. Lady agree that public opinion tends to vary from case to case and from time to time ? At the grand old of 46, I am old enough, as she will be, to recall when there were regular hangings in this country and the majority of public opinion was against the death penalty. That occurred after it was discovered that we hanged Timothy Evans by mistake, after the Craig and Bentley case and after the hanging of Ruth Ellis. I am old enough to remember that. Public opinion can be swayed quite easily by a sufficiently ruthless and unscrupulous campaign. As the hon. Lady rightly said, we are not delegates : we are here to exercise our judgment.
Mrs. Peacock : I hear what the hon. Gentleman says. No doubt if he catches your eye, Mr. Morris, he will be able to develop his argument further. However, I am not responding to a knee-jerk campaign. I have held my view for many years and it has never changed. My postbag is not part of a campaign. It comprises letters from people of all ages around the country, many of whom remember when we had capital punishment and who wish it to be reintroduced.
I believe that capital punishment should be available to the courts to deal with all categories of murder. Beating an old lady to death in her own home, as happened in my constituency three or four years ago, or killing a policeman on duty, are equally abhorrent and they are both murder.
In a proven case of murder, it would be the duty of the court to pass the death penalty. However, I know and appreciate that many murders are carried out in domestic
Column 34circumstances. Many murderers know their victims and many victims know their murderers. New clause 4, with its referral to the Court of Appeal immediately after the passing of the death sentence, would take such details into account.
For that reason, all proven cases following the death sentence should pass immediately to the Court of Appeal ; not in one year, two years or three years, but immediately. It would then rest with the guilty person and that person's lawyers to convince the Court of Appeal that the sentence should be commuted to life imprisonment. In that regard, I support my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen) and I believe that life imprisonment should mean life imprisonment.
New clause 4 meets the demands of the majority of people in this country-- certainly, the demands of the people who have taken the trouble to write to me over the past 10 years. They want the death penalty available for murder.
My new clause also provides a formal safety net to deal with murders in the domestic environment and it provides a further net for those who carry out horrific and sadistic murders. I am often accused of a knee-jerk reaction. The hon. Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. Mullin) suggested in his intervention that this was some kind of short-lived campaign. I have always held the view and I would not be speaking in support of my new clause as part of a knee-jerk campaign. I have always believed that we should have the death penalty. Some people argue that the absence of capital punishment in this country is a mark of a civilised society. I believe that we are rapidly becoming uncivilised. Some of the things that happen on our streets and in people's homes certainly do not constitute civilised behaviour. Action must be taken to arrest that dangerous trend.
Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate) : My hon. Friend said that the final decision would be taken by the Court of Appeal, but does not the final final decision rest with the Home Secretary ? Would that not be the most horrendous decision for any person to have to take ?
Mrs. Peacock : My hon. Friend is right. Traditionally, the final decision would be taken by the Home Secretary. My right hon. and learned Friend the Home Secretary is on the Front Bench and is listening to the debate. The final decision would be his. That is the Home Secretary's responsibility and part of his duty in the job and office that he holds.
During the debate, we shall no doubt hear many figures about crime and punishment. Figures can be made to say many things. However, the figures reflect the general increase in the level of crime, particularly vicious crime such as attacks on elderly people in their own homes.
The deterrent effect of capital punishment cannot be proven by statistics. Over the weekend, I was asked how I could know that capital punishment would be a deterrent. I replied with a question : "How do you know that it wouldn't ?" If we do not have capital punishment on the statute book, how can we collect statistics to show that it is or is not a deterrent ? As my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) said, if we have a deterrent, we probably do not need the punishment. My hon. Friend is right. Many young thugs would think twice about going
Column 35armed for burglary. They would also think twice about carrying a knife to the pub on a Saturday night and using it in the heat of the moment in a punch-up outside.
Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham) : Does my hon. Friend agree that statistics can show only the number of people who have not been deterred ? There is no way in which statistics can show the number who have been deterred. Therefore, it is impossible to know from statistics how many have been deterred, so it is useless to attempt to rely on statistics. Instead, we must rely on common sense.
Mrs. Peacock : My hon. Friend is right. Statistics cannot prove who would be deterred. As my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale said when he talked about the killing of policemen, it is well known that in the late 1940s, 1950s and early 1960s, criminals would not take a younger new member with them until they had made sure that that individual was not armed, in case he decided to use a weapon in the heat of the moment. They had a policing system of their own because they knew that if somebody was killed there was the death penalty for it.
Mr. Peter Bottomley (Eltham) : My hon. Friend has picked up the central point made by my hon. Friend the Member of Twickenham (Mr. Jessel) about not being able to prove statistics. Will she reflect on why the murder rate in England and Wales is one third of that in Scotland and why it is virtually the lowest in the European Community ? There must be many things that we do right in this country.
Mrs. Peacock : I am sure that there are. I cannot say that I have studied the figures for Scotland and compared them with those for England and Wales, but I am sure that if my hon. Friend catches your eye, Mr. Morris, he will develop that argument very well. In such debates, we always hear a great deal about what should or should not happen to murderers, but very little about the victims, their families and the effect that such a traumatic happening can have on them, often for the rest of their lives, particularly when children are involved. The tragedy of murder and its influence on families is not sufficiently considered. We must consider it more. We have a responsibility and a duty to look carefully at that side of the debate.
The whole country is tired of horrific murders and expects Parliament to take the lead in dealing with the situation. The criminal law as it now stands no longer provides a credible sanction for the most heinous form of wrongdoing. The Committee will surely agree that action must be taken. We cannot resist the majority for ever. The majority in this country want the return of the death penalty, so we should help to provide it by voting for the new clauses.
Mr. Menzies Campbell (Fife, North-East) : Already, it is clear that this is an issue in which belief will be rather more significant than evidence or logic. I understand the case that the hon. Member for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) makes on behalf of police officers, but I find it very difficult to justify that case compared with, for example, the position of sub-postmasters or sub-postmistresses in obscure post offices in rural constituencies such as mine. Experience after 1957 suggests that if we try to create categories to which capital punishment applies there will
Column 36always be cases that fall on the edge of a category and which test the whole notion of capital punishment for a certain group. For example, the words
"in the execution of his duty"
appear in new clause 2. Those words are capable of more than one judicial interpretation. I therefore believe that our experience of capital punishment should lead us to the firm conclusion that we are either in it completely or out of it completely.
Mr. Campbell : I should like to make progress, if I may. The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) said with conviction that life imprisonment should mean life imprisonment. She must bear in mind that it is not the decision of the legal system whether a convicted murderer is released on licence, but the decision of the Home Secretary of the day in England and Wales or the Secretary of State for Scotland. Those are administrative decisions and they are difficult decisions, but let us be clear that they are made by those who have to answer to the House of Commons. It is clear also that the issue we are discussing is most likely to be joined on the question of the principle. I start with the unshakeable conviction that human life is sacred, that to take human life is immoral and that it is as immoral for the state to take human life as it is for any individual to do so. Such a belief, however, cannot arise through chance or inspiration ; it must be the product of influences.
I began my professional practice at the Bar in 1968, after abolition. Unlike the hon. and learned Member for Perth and Kinross (Sir N. Fairbairn), I have no direct experience of capital murder cases. However, I have talked to people with such experience--as either counsel or judges-- and I have found no enthusiasm for a return to capital punishment among those people. I myself have prosecuted successfully some who would undoubtedly have been hanged, and I have defended unsuccessfully others who would have suffered the same fate. Nothing in my experience, during those years of practice at the Bar, has persuaded me that restoration would be justified.
The hon. Member for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) made a number of references to public support. I believe that she is right to the extent that there is substantial public support in the abstract, but I doubt very much whether that support would survive the experience of any part of the administration of justice leading to capital punishment. Once people had understood the horrors of the means by which capital punishment was carried out, and had become aware of the strain on jurors and witnesses, I very much doubt whether public opinion would remain as implacably in favour of restoration as it apparently is now.
I can think of no other civilised society that has restored capital punishment. So far, the debate has been notable for the absence of evidence to suggest that any society that has felt it necessary to restore capital punishment has been able to reduce the number of murders by that means.
Column 37evidence can be produced on one side as on the other. That is the point made by the hon. Member for Ryedale--the deterrence argument is entirely inconclusive.
Mr. David Ashby (Leicestershire, North-West) : No state in the United States has reintroduced capital punishment. What has happened is that, for years and years, people have suffered the degrading experience of not knowing whether they will be executed the next day, the day after that or the day after that ; then the authorities started to execute a few of them. That is the inhuman thing that has happened, and is happening, in the United States.
Mr. Campbell : I remember the example of Mr. Caryl Chessman, who spent 14 years on death row. It could be argued that that was caused by a defect in the American system--or, rather, the state system--to which he was subject, in that he was provided with the opportunity for appeal after appeal. The hon. Gentleman is right, however--what could be more inhumane or degrading ?
A fundamental issue has not yet been mentioned. Whatever the intrinsic merits of capital punishment, the passage of nearly 30 years since it was last carried out must be a compelling factor against restoration. [Hon. Members :-- "Why ?"] As has been pointed out, after 30 years we have no sets of gallows, and no magistrates whose duty is to stand and supervise. We do not have the administrative arrangements. All of that has been swept away. Is it to be restored ?
Mr. Nick Hawkins (Blackpool, South) : What we have had during those 30 years is a vast increase in the incidence of violent crime. Does the hon. and learned Gentleman not accept that the reintroduction of capital punishment would deter violent criminals ?
Mr. Campbell : The hon. Member for Ryedale made it clear that the deterrence argument was inconclusive. The onus rests on those who advance that argument, and who want change, to demonstrate that capital punishment is the only way to deal with the upsurge in violent crime. I believe that the fear of apprehension and conviction is a more significant factor in deterring people from the commission of a crime than the particular penalty which may follow. Running through this debate is always the implication of retribution. I understand the motive for retribution. If any member of my family were to be murdered, I would feel horror, anger and a sense of loss which no doubt would give rise in me to a sense of vengeance. However, our legal system has moved away from self-help and revenge. Prosecution--except in a few instances--is the responsibility of the state. That is because the collective response of the state is more likely to be dispassionate and more likely to be in the interest of us all. The supremacy of the institution is given effect, rather than individual redress.
I return to a point that has not been addressed in the debate, but which I believe to be fundamental. What right does the state have to take revenge on a citizen by taking his life ?
Column 38number of murders in the United Kingdom was approximately 140 a year, and why the current average is 700 ?
Mr. Campbell : There has been a substantial rise in violent crime, but if the hon. Gentleman wants to relate all of that rise to capital punishment, he will find it hard to bring his evidence home conclusively.
An important consideration is the risk of mistake. The hon. Member for Ryedale developed a curious argument that if we improve our procedures, there will be less risk of miscarriages of justice and therefore we should be willing to accept capital punishment. But the hon. Gentleman forgets that genuine mistakes occur. Identification evidence is notoriously fallible, and genuine mistakes may occur as a result of that. He forgets that mistakes often occur through inefficiency, and because of inadequate forensic examination. He forgets that mistakes are sometimes made as a result of the inadequacy of defence counsel. He forgets that mistakes that occur because of a breach of the rules of evidence or because of the concealment of evidence can be extremely difficult to discover, no matter what provisions the Home Secretary may introduce.
When all that is put against the inconclusive possibility of the reintroduction of capital punishment providing deterrence, the argument falls strongly in favour of those who do not support reintroduction.
Mr. Stephen : Many hon. Members agree that capital punishment should not be restored, but is not the alternative of life imprisonment, which means on average about 12 years, a fraud on the public ? Should not a person who otherwise would be executed be sent to prison for life meaning life, subject only to the Court of Appeal being able to let him out if it should transpire that he was wrongly convicted ?
Mr. Campbell : If it is a fraud on the public, it is a fraud--dare I say--committed by Home Secretaries and by Secretaries of State for Scotland who make that decision, and not by the courts. The life sentence imposed by a court is for life-- [Interruption.] As a matter of law, it is for life. A person is released on licence and is liable to be recalled at any time during his life because a life sentence has been imposed on him. He can be recalled for crimes which fall a long way short of further commission of the crime of murder. Mistakes that lead to capital punishment cannot be put right. The names of Evans, Hanratty and Bentley in their own ways stand as monuments to injustice and to the inherent risk that capital punishment necessarily embraces. A posthumous pardon is no substitute for life and liberty.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman (Lancaster) : Does the hon. and learned Gentleman agree that we have not abolished the death penalty ? We have taken it out of the courts of law. We have obliged our police officers and others, when going to arrest dangerous persons, to go armed. When they are shooting, mistakes occur and it is often not the person who has committed the murder but a perfectly innocent bystander who is killed.
Column 39crimes of murder. It still exists for certain crimes within the armed services, but capital punishment for murder has been abolished.
I return to the point that I made earlier : it is almost 30 years since capital punishment was abolished. One must have regard to that fact as much as to any other in determining whether reintroduction is possible.
I mentioned Evans, Hanratty and Bentley. I could have mentioned more contemporary illustrations such as Preece, Meehan, the Birmingham Six or the Guildford Four, some or, indeed, all of whom might well have suffered the same fate as Timothy Evans. If they had, they would simply have underlined the dangerous finality of the cruel and inhuman punishment which capital punishment represents. We have to ask ourselves this : are we so confident of ourselves and our judicial system that we are willing to wager the life of any citizen on capital punishment ? I do not have that confidence and I do not believe that the Committee should have it either.
The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Michael Howard) : I congratulate my hon. Friends the Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and for Batley and Spen (Mrs. Peacock) on the way in which they spoke to the new clauses. This issue gives rise to deep-seated and passionately held convictions, and I am grateful to my hon. Friends for giving the Committee the opportunity to express its view.
By tradition, the role of the Home Secretary in these debates has been to offer some analysis of the background to the factors that the Committee will wish to take into account, to comment on the effect of the new clauses and to say something about his personal views. I shall attempt to follow that tradition.
The first thing to do is to set the debate in the context of history. At the beginning of the 19th century, capital punishment was available for more than 200 offences, including cutting down trees and consorting with gipsies. During the first half of that century, there was a lengthy and eventually successful campaign to reduce the scope of the death penalty, and by 1861 it was available only for murder, high treason, piracy with violence and the destruction of public arsenals and dockyards. Since then, apart from for treason, there have been no executions other than for murder. In 1908, the death penalty was abolished for children under 16. The minimum age was raised again in 1933, to 18.
The abolition debate continued during the first half of this century. In 1930, a parliamentary Select Committee recommended suspension of the death penalty for a trial period of five years, but no action was taken. In 1948, the House carried a motion to the same effect, which was heavily defeated in another place. The same fate befell a later Bill to abolish the death penalty in 1956. In 1957, as a response to growing concern about the appropriateness of the death penalty for every murder, the Homicide Act 1957 was passed. This restricted capital punishment to the most heinous categories of murder. That categorisation failed to command confidence. In 1965, Sydney Silverman's private Member's Bill to abolish the death penalty for a trial period of five years was passed ; abolition was confirmed by Parliament in 1969.
Since 1965, the House of Commons has returned to this matter on at least 13 occasions. That shows both the
Column 40strength of feelings held about capital punishment and the irreconcilable nature of the convictions held on both sides of the argument. It is now more than three years since we last debated the issue, and it is right that we should return to it now-- particularly in the context of legislation to introduce a number of significant measures to combat crime.
The homicide statistics set the context for our debate and bear in particular on the question of the effectiveness of capital punishment as a deterrent--a factor which will, no doubt, weigh heavily with right hon. and hon. Members this afternoon.
The number of offences initially recorded as homicide in England and Wales has risen steadily since the 1950s, although the rate of increase has slowed considerably in the past decade. In the decade from 1956 to 1965 the average number of homicides a year was 294 ; from 1966 to 1975, it was 450 ; from 1976 to 1985, it was 580 ; and from 1986 to 1992, it was 670. In 1992, the number was 687. Those figures need some amplification. First, the figures include the offences of manslaughter and infanticide. Many homicides--well over 50 per cent. in 1992--do not result in a conviction for murder, but the number of convictions for murder has also risen steadily, averaging 187 over the 10 years ending in 1991. The recorded figures for crime in general and violent crime have risen much faster than have the number of homicides. Although the number of recorded homicides between 1966 and 1985 was 60 per cent. higher than in the preceding 20 years, the number of serious violent offences was 205 per cent. higher. The total of recorded crimes of all kinds was 220 per cent. higher. That said, I have made it clear on many occasions that I share the widespread scepticism about the value of total recorded crime figures. The level of reporting of particular offences can be influenced by many factors, including the availability of telephones and insurance, and the extent of public confidence in the ability of the police to take effective action in a particular set of circumstances.
The picture in the United States, which has much more recent experience of the death penalty, is not much clearer. In the 10 years between 1967 and 1977, when there were no executions, the homicide rate rose from 6.2 to 8.8 per 100,000 inhabitants. When executions were started again in 1977, it continued to rise, to over 10 per 100, 000 in 1980. It fell back to 7.9 in 1984, but has now almost regained its peak at 9.8. In the period during which the homicide rate fell--between 1980 and 1985--there is no evidence that it fell at a greater rate in those states that had the death penalty than in those that did not.
The story is similar elsewhere. Other countries that have abolished the death penalty have, like the United Kingdom, seen lower increases in homicide than in other violent offences. In Canada, the homicide rate has fallen slowly since the abolition of capital punishment in 1976.
I have given the figures. They are not conclusive either way. I have no doubt in my own mind that the death penalty may act as a deterrent in certain cases. That is why, until and including 1990, I voted consistently in favour of
Column 41the death penalty for the murder of police or prison officers, or for murder committed with firearms or explosives. I thought that the deterrent effect would be greatest for those categories. Indeed, there is widespread anecdotal evidence, and support among the police, for the view that criminals are today far more willing to go to the scene of crime equipped with a firearm than in decades gone by. I changed my view about bringing back the death penalty in 1991 for reasons other than the argument about deterrence. I shall explain them at the end of my speech.
Dame Elaine Kellett-Bowman : The point that I should like to make is in response to my right hon. and learned Friend's observation that the level of violent crime has risen faster than homicide. Does he think that much of that is attributable to the incredible improvement in medical science ? Many cases which would have been murder in the old days are now saved by the skill of our surgeons.
Mr. Howard : My hon. Friend may well have a point which, in part, explains the difference. I doubt very much whether it accounts for the whole of that difference, but it may have had a part to play. I shall proceed next to deal with incapacitation, which has caused great concern to many of my hon. Friends. It cannot be denied that the availability of the death penalty can ensure that convicted murderers, or particular types of murderers, do not kill again. The mandatory life sentence, of course, ensures that a rigorous assessment of risk must be made in every case before release of a murderer can be contemplated and allows, in appropriate cases, for a murderer to be detained for the rest of his life. The death penalty is, nevertheless, the one certain means of providing that assurance completely.
Again, however, the figures need careful attention. It is true-- appalling true-- that 76 homicides have been committed since the abolition of the death penalty by people previously convicted of homicide. But it does not necessarily follow that those further deaths would have been prevented had the death penalty still been in force. Of those 76 homicides, 51 were committed by people previously convicted of homicide other than murder ; the death penalty would not have been available in those cases. Of the remaining 25 cases, seven involved homicide by murderers convicted before 1965, when the death penalty was still in force, but for whom, by definition, it was not regarded as appropriate. Of the 18 homicides committed by people convicted of murder since 1965, it appears that in 14 cases the original murder was not capital murder under the 1957 Act. So if the death penalty had not been abolished in 1965, the number of cases in which it is likely that a life would have been saved by the execution of a murderer would be, at most, four. Of course that is four deaths too many, and the argument of principle-- that the death penalty would eliminate the possibility of some murderers killing again-- is unanswerable. But the number of cases in which that would apply is far smaller than many suppose.
I should like now to deal with the new clauses. New clause 2, in the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale and others of my hon. Friends, provides that the death penalty would apply to persons over the age of 18 convicted of the murder of a police officer. It is easy to understand the view that that category of murder, above all, deserves the most powerful denunciation that society can deliver. An attack on a police officer represents the most
Column 42direct attack possible on the maintenance of law and order. Whatever our views in this debate, I know that the whole Committee will want to join me and my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale in expressing its deepest and heartfelt sympathy to the family of Sergeant Derek Robertson, the latest police officer victim of murder, and its utter abhorrence at the evil attack that resulted in his death.
Mr. Stephen : Surely the person--whoever it was--who killed Sergeant Robertson should never be released. Surely he should not be able to hope that some future Home Secretary would release him. That is what our constituents expect and deserve. People like the killer of Sergeant Robertson must be dealt with extremely severely.
Mr. Howard : When my hon. Friend raised this point at Question Time recently, I told him that I was considering it. I shall come in a moment to the particular arrangements that we currently make for those who are convicted of the murder of police officers. We ask our police officers to confront, on our behalf, those who have no compunction about using violence to further their ends or to escape capture. Their place in the front line of the fight against crime makes them particularly vulnerable to attack, and it is right that we should employ all measures available to us to protect them while they carry out their duties on our behalf. I have paid particular attention to this matter since I became Home Secretary. I firmly believe that there should be a strong deterrent for the murder of police officers. Those responsible serve as a minimum 20 years in prison. Many will serve much longer than that. Some will remain in prison for the rest of their lives. Even if murderers are released--they can have no expectation that they will be--they are liable to recall for the rest of their lives.
Mr. Shersby : Will my right hon. and learned Friend be kind enough to tell the Committee whether weekend newspaper reports to the effect that Anthony Jeffs, who murdered Police Constable Peter Guthrie in 1972, has been recalled to custody are correct ? If so, why has that person been recalled ?
Mr. Howard : The person to whom my hon. Friend refers has indeed been recalled to custody. I should prefer not to go into the details at this stage, but I shall be in touch with my hon. Friend about the matter.
New clause 4, tabled by my hon. Friend for Batley and Spen, would reintroduce the death penalty for all murderers over the age of 18. In those cases, under the new clause, death would be the mandatory penalty, but as soon as practicable following a sentence of death a special sitting of the Court of Appeal would be convened to consider whether the circumstances of the offence or the offender justified the substitution of a sentence of life imprisonment.
The new clause would enact a proposal first discussed by the House of Commons in 1990. By imposing a mandatory sentence of death on all murderers, it avoids the difficulties that can arise from attempting to define degrees of murder in legislation. It then attempts to meet the concerns that led to the Homicide Act 1957 by providing for the decision to be immediately reviewed by the Court of Appeal. The idea of a procedure that avoids the difficult task of setting out in legislation the criteria for distinguishing between murders that are serious enough to
Column 43merit death and those that are not has obvious advantages to many who favour capital punishment, but it has its drawbacks.
In particular, we need to consider the responsibility that the new clause would place on the Court of Appeal. In 1990, the then Home Secretary drew to the attention of the House of Commons the views of the then Lord Chief Justice on such an arrangement. I thought it appropriate, in reconsidering the idea enshrined in the new clause, to consult the current Lord Chief Justice on the matter, and he has given me permission to make his views known in this debate. He shares the view of his predecessor that the Court of Appeal would usually be in a worse position than the trial judge to make the decision that the clause would require, not having heard the evidence or seen the defendant or the witnesses. He also believes that it would, in any case, be wholly inappropriate for the Court of Appeal to decide which death sentences should be carried out. He is strongly of the view that it must be the responsibility of Parliament--and not of the judiciary--to determine which types of murder should be met with death and which should not.
On that last point, it is surely particularly difficult to disagree with the Lord Chief Justice. I do not think that it would be right for Parliament to hand this responsibility over to others. The decision must be ours to make.
Sir Nicholas Fairbairn : Does not my right hon. and learned Friend agree that if we were to get rid of the term "murder" and use, instead, the term "homicide", we should be able to classify the seriousness of conduct resulting in the death of another person ? Does he agree that a person sentenced to life imprisonment--the penalty that would apply in the case of the most serious types of homicide--should remain in prison for life and not be the subject of a fictional term meaning nothing ?
Mr. Howard : I have already dealt, in reply to a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Shoreham (Mr. Stephen), with the point contained in the second part of my hon. and learned Friend's question. In response to the first part, I have to say that I do not agree that it would be sensible, in effect, to abolish murder and simply have the offence of homicide, within which there could be various characterisations. Murder is a subdivision of homicide. The deliberate taking of a life, which is what the offence of murder involves, is something which society will always want to mark as an offence of special significance, to be treated specially and separately.