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Lord Judd: My Lords, I join those noble Lords who have congratulated my noble and learned friend Lord Archer on the steadfast lead he has given on this issue. I wish to put forward one argument in addition to those already convincingly deployed. It seems to me that if we base our position in respect of capital punishment on principle, principle must be absolute and not relative. Therefore, the more testing the circumstances in which we are considering a punishment, the more important it is to stand by the principle. In some ways, the more extreme the provocation, the greater the danger, the more important it is to stand firm. The moment one shows that one's principle can be qualified one throws into a position of jeopardy the application of the principle across the board.
Reference has been made--and it is important--to the fact that the number of executions in the world is increasing and that the tide of public opinion in the international community is not convincingly going in our direction. In such a situation it is not impossible that arguments could begin to be deployed that if the death penalty is retained in certain circumstances it is not illogical in terms of principle to apply it in other directions, too. So far as I am concerned, that is the most clinching argument in support of what is put forward by my noble and learned friend Lord Archer.
Lord Renton: My Lords, I hope that I may be forgiven for intervening in this important debate having missed the first 14 minutes of it. I invite your Lordships to consider what the effect of the amendment could be in time of war. We would have our own men and women fighting against the enemy and sacrificing their lives. At home, one of our own citizens might act as a traitor, going so far as to kill the sovereign, or place a bomb under 10 Downing Street. That would amount to an act favourable to the enemy--an act of treason. If the amendment were carried, while people were
The Earl of Onslow: My Lords, I wish to reply to my noble friend Lord Renton. I use the phrase "noble friend" not only in its political sense but in its most personal sense. Bombs have been directed at 10 Downing Street and there was an attempt in Brighton to blow up Her Majesty's Government. We deemed it extremely stupid to charge those rebels--and that is exactly what they were--with treason because we knew that, if we charged them with treason, they would be open to the death penalty. Therefore, we took a political decision--and in my view, a wise political decision--to charge them only with conspiracy to cause explosions.
I believe that we are too grown up and too civilised a state to use the death penalty any more. I use one further analogy. Until 1948, Members of your Lordships' House who were charged with a felony were charged in front of the whole of your Lordships' House. That was removed by a Conservative amendment to the 1948 Criminal Justice Act, with the exception of treason. One commits treason if one has carnal knowledge of the sovereign, if female, or the wife of the heir to the throne. It seems to me to be terribly stupid to have a system whereby, if Major Hewitt had been a Member of your Lordships' House, he could have been charged with treason, of which he was undoubtedly guilty, dragged in front of your Lordships' House and then hanged. I admit that I am reducing that to the realms of the ridiculous but we should not have on our statute books the right to hang people for a ridiculous offence. I hope that this amendment will be accepted.
Lord Renton: My Lords, surely the point which my noble friend has raised would be dealt with better by redefining treason and confining it to matters which seriously threaten the security of our country.
Lord Annan: My Lords, redefining treason is well known over the centuries. The noble Earl, Lord Russell, said that this House had debated the issue of capital punishment better than any other institution. It is certainly true that over the centuries, since 1351, more Members of your Lordships' House than of any other institution have been executed. That is because the nature of treason was redefined time and again during the Tudor and Stuart periods.
Lord Davies of Coity: My Lords, I too wish to add my voice and extend my congratulations to my noble and learned friend Lord Archer on introducing this amendment. If he pushes it to a vote, I shall certainly support him.
I recall that I first became an abolitionist when I was a teenager. It was not popular to be so then because capital punishment was being practised in this country. But this debate this evening is not about whether or not this country has capital punishment. That debate has taken place; a decision has already been taken; and no longer do we practise capital punishment for murder. It is a question of establishing consistency in terms of capital punishment for piracy and treason.
It is totally inconsistent. I have always believed that, if we condemn people for committing murder, society can take no pride in committing the same offence in the form of what I have always considered to be state murder. I support this amendment and hope that the House will accept it.
Lord Lester of Herne Hill: My Lords, the merits of the amendment have been debated extensively and the overwhelming consensus of those who have spoken so far is that plainly there is an anomaly in our legal system. We are dealing with ancient, outmoded, archaic statute law. The question we need to consider now is whether we should promote a dialogue with another place to see whether both Houses are agreed that the time has come to remove those anomalies from our statute book.
It seems to me that it is peculiarly appropriate for this House to initiate that dialogue. We live in an age of statute law, some would say too much statute law. Some would say that we need a stronger common law for the age of statutes. But the problem for a legislature in an age of statutes is how on earth one gets rid of antiquated, archaic, dead laws which lie on the statute book and continue to disfigure it. It seems to me to be peculiarly within the province of the upper House, this House, with its expertise and Membership, to initiate a dialogue with the democratically elected other place so that if it is felt that the majorities that were formed in 1703, 1795, 1814 and 1837 no longer represent the majorities that would be formed in Parliament today, the other place can agree with this House to remove that disfiguring legislation from the statute book.
I should be surprised if another place were to take the view that contemporary majorities, legislative or otherwise, would be at all of the same spirit as in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. For that reason, I congratulate the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer of Sandwell, on continuing with this initiative. I very much hope that the sometimes gloomy expressions on the Front Bench do not indicate that we shall hear from them anything other than wholehearted support for the amendment. I hope that the Government as a whole will feel able to give a lead on the issue, based as it is on reform and conscience. It seems to me to be an admirable issue for leadership from the Government.
Lord Henley: My Lords, perhaps I may speak relatively briefly from these Benches. As the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, reminded us, this is the second occasion on which we have addressed these matters. We covered the subject at a slightly later hour--I believe it was after dinner--on the third or fourth day in Committee. As I remember that debate, it ran somewhat
As I say, I speak from these Benches but I am giving my personal view. I stress that on these Benches, as I imagine is the case on the Government and Liberal Democrat Benches, this is a matter of conscience and, should we have a vote, we shall be voting without the guidance and assistance of the party Whips.
As in Committee, I start by stressing my personal opposition to the death penalty and to its use. That is based partly on the reasons given by the noble Lord, Lord Randall; that is, a degree of repugnance towards such a penalty as the cold-blooded killing of offenders by a modern civilised state following the judicial process.
Secondly, I am opposed to it for the simple practical reason that there could be many occasions--and I dare say the lawyers would agree with me on this--when achieving a conviction could be considerably more difficult if certain members of the jury thought that that conviction was likely to lead to a death penalty. For that simple reason, I believe that the death penalty is unwelcome.
However, as regards the timing and place of the amendment, I do not share the same views as the noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, and his supporters. Again, as I made clear in Committee, I do not believe it is appropriate that the final vestiges of capital punishment--and I appreciate that they are vestigial remnants; as my noble friend Lord Windlesham put it, mere historic relics--should disappear following a debate, albeit a fairly lengthy debate in this House on what is a relatively quiet Thursday afternoon and without that much notice. The noble and learned Lord, Lord Archer, looks around and seems to imply that it is a relatively full House. He will appreciate that I have seen a much better attended House to discuss important subjects.
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