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Lord Goodhart: My name is to the amendment and I rise to support the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, on his eloquent speech, on a cause about which I must say I, too, feel very strongly. This
Equally, this amendment is not about the complete removal of the death penalty from British law because, as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, pointed out, death would remain the penalty under Sections 24 to 26 of the Army Act and corresponding provisions in the Acts governing the other services for grave military offences in time of war.
This amendment is mainly a clearing up operation, because the abolition of the death penalty for murder left a few miscellaneous offences for which the death penalty was still applicable. I believe one of them was arson in the Royal Dockyard but, so far as I have been able to discover from my own researches, that disappeared from the list in 1971 without, so far as I am aware, either comment or concern. I cannot think that any greater degree of either comment or concern would be raised by the removal of the death penalty for offences under Section 2 of the Piracy Act 1837.
Treason would no doubt be more controversial, as the noble Lord, Lord Henley, suggested. Treason is rightly regarded as one of the greatest of all offences and, indeed, if the Government were prepared to accept this amendment on this basis I would myself accept a version of the amendment, which would retain the death penalty for acts of treason committed in time of war. However, the death penalty for treason in peacetime should be abolished. There have been no charges of treason for any act committed at any time since the Second World War, and, indeed, I suspect that the last time that charges of treason were brought in peacetime was against the participants in some revolutionary movement such as the Cato Street conspiracy in the early 19th century.
That does not mean that treason cannot happen in peacetime, and, indeed, many of the IRA terrorist incidents may well be treason as defined in the Treason Act 1351, but for very clear reasons these offences are not prosecuted as treason but as murder. It is clear that treason, as a peacetime offence at least, is obsolete. I believe that the total exclusion of the death penalty, at least in times of peace, is one of the hallmarks of a civilised society and in practice that is indeed the case in the United Kingdom. Since 1965 the death penalty has ceased to exist in peacetime for any offence.
I believe that it is now time to bring law into line with practice and ratify the 6th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights and the 2nd Optional Protocol to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. I regret that we have not done so already. I hope that the Government will be prepared to accept an amendment on the lines of this one so that we can do what we should have done some years past.
Lord Slynn of Hadley: I too support the amendment. I read today for the first time the section of the Treason Act 1790 which abolished the punishment of the burning of women for the offence of treason. To read that that was a possible punishment on the statute book even at that time is chilling. By 1790 people believed civilisation demanded that the burning of women for treason should be abolished and that what was thought to be the more humane punishment of hanging by the neck with or without a silken thread until dead should be substituted.
I do not believe that the time is far off when people will find the words "You shall be hanged by the neck until you are dead" just as unacceptable as the punishment of the burning of women in 1790. I hope that we shall continue to move on in a civilised way. The time has now come to perform this tidying up operation and get rid of the death penalty both for piracy and for treason in times of peace. I do not believe for one moment that the existence of this punishment on the statute book acts as a deterrent. Like the noble Lord, Lord Goodhart, I thought that the offence of arson in a Royal dockyard was still an offence punishable with the death penalty until I looked into the matter today. As the noble Lord has said, that went without apparently too many arsonists in Royal dockyards appearing on the scene. I am sure that the same will apply with respect to both piracy and treason in times of peace.
It is quite plain that throughout the world countries are moving against the death penalty for the reasons referred to by the noble Lord, Lord Henley. I hope and believe that the Government will accept that the time has come to adopt this amendment. I do not believe that they should be deterred by the fact that it would then be possible to adopt the 6th Protocol to the European Convention on Human Rights or the International Convenant, if that is not what they want to do. If necessary, let us do it a step at a time. Let us tidy up the position and get rid of a punishment that should no longer be on the statute book. In time we can consider signing up to the 6th Protocol. I would support that.
Lord Williams of Mostyn: My noble and learned friend Lord Archer of Sandwell has moved this amendment with his usual clarity, grace and humour, and I am grateful to him for doing it in that way. I believe that as long ago as 1991 he moved an amendment to the Criminal Justice Act which by and large would have brought about the conclusions that he now seeks. The stance of the Government is that ultimately the death penalty is a matter of conscience for Parliament to decide on a free vote. For that reason we have not ratified the 6th Protocol to which a number of noble Lords have referred. If we did so Parliament would not have an opportunity to reconsider the matter without rescinding this country's obligations under the European Convention on Human Rights.
As noble Lords have pointed out, we are de facto abolitionist. The death penalty is not used for these offences, and there are no conceivable circumstances in which that penalty can be used in peacetime on the basis that for the past 30 years whenever Parliament has been invited to reintroduce the death penalty it has refused to do so. That is why we have felt able and happy to support the final declaration of the second Council of Europe's Summit on the 11th October 1997 which called for the abolition of the death penalty.
One always shudders at the prospect of earlier quotations being resurrected, but I am happy to say that every one that the noble Lord, Lord Thomas of Gresford, and the noble and learned Lord, Lord Slynn, mentioned still have their pristine attraction and stand unchanged in my mind. I am most obliged to the noble Lord, Lord Thomas, for his researches. They sound even better now than when they were first uttered.
I have made my own position perfectly plain, as has the noble Lord, Lord Henley, on a personal basis. I have a conscientious objection to capital punishment, and I would never, in any circumstances, vote for its retention. I believe that that is a view widely shared in this Chamber.
I join forces, temporarily, with the noble Lord, Lord Henley. We need to look at all the issues involved before we come to a conclusion. I am bound to say that it is probably better done in the other place than here, especially with so few of us present.
There are the usual technical objections which are provided on these occasions. I do not think that it will assist the Committee if I go into them. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked whether I was sufficiently briefed on the Sentence of Death (Expectant Mothers) Act 1931. I chide him for not believing in the absolute infallibility of Home Office Ministers on these occasions. As I believe every schoolboy knows, the Act of 1931 prohibits the passing of the death sentence on expectant mothers in cases of murder. The only alternative is penal servitude for life which, again, is somewhat archaic. I have a note here which I think I am entitled to enjoy reading out:
There are other things upon which one can pause for a moment. The noble Lord, Lord Henley, asked me about the privilege of being hanged with a silken rope. That was discriminatory, because it applied to hereditary Peers only.
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