§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter asked Her Majesty's Government:
§ Whether they will arrange for a referendum at an early date on a proposal to restore capital punishment as a penalty for murder.
The Minister of State, Home Office (Earl Ferrers)
My Lords, only Parliament can change the law and the views of Parliament on this matter have been tested from time to time. The Government do not believe it to be a suitable subject for a referendum.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, I share my noble friend's lack of general enthusiasm for referenda. However, is he aware that on a subject that is specifically left to the individual judgment of Members of another place and this House without any advice from their parties there is a special case for ascertaining, for the guidance of those people, what in fact is the opinion of our fellow countrymen?
My Lords, I think that it is the duty of Members of another place to find out the opinions of their constituents on various matters. In a parliamentary democracy Members of Parliament are elected as representatives and not as delegates to reflect their constituents' views. Apart from anything else, national referenda were foreign to the United Kingdom until the Labour Party got into a muddle over its European Community policy and decided to have one.
§ Lord Mellish
My Lords, is the Minister aware that some Members strongly hold the view that capital punishment is wrong? Is he further aware that that is always known by local people? I was one of those inclined to such a view and although people in my constituency may well have thought that capital punishment was right, nevertheless they returned me to Parliament with majorities of over 20,000?
My Lords, obviously the noble Lord has many qualities that were attractive to his constituents other than his views on capital punishment.
Lord St. John Fawsley
My Lords, is my noble friend aware that Mr. Disraeli said, "England does not love coalitions and it likes referenda even less". With the greatest respect to my noble friend, since it is impracticable to reintroduce capital punishment, would it not be better to abandon that distraction 776 and concentrate on means of apprehending those who commit what is a terrible crime?
My Lords, I think I would go along with my noble friend's version of what Mr. Disraeli said. My noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter is perfectly entitled to put his view. It is one held by many people in this country. I agree with my noble friend Lord. St. John of Fawsley that what is most important is to catch the criminals who commit the offences, to sentence them adequately and if possible to prevent them re-offending.
§ Lord Mishcon
My Lords, the Minister referred to the fact that Parliament had discussed this matter many times. Would he care to remind his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that the House of Commons, after informed debate—which is not available in a referendum—four times over the past six years has produced substantial majorities against the idea of capital punishment? In those circumstances does he agree that it would be a good idea to administer capital punishment to the subject itself?
My Lords, I do not believe that there is much point in telling my noble friend what the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, has already told him. I should simply like to correct the noble Lord's statement, in a rare opportunity not frequently given to me, and confirm that this subject has been discussed in another place five times in the past nine years.
§ Viscount Mountgarret
My Lords, it is all very well for criminals to be apprehended. But what does the Minister think of the fact that they are let out after a certain time and then commit crime all over again? Is there not at least some case for considering capital punishment for certain types of murder? I should have thought that such a case must be taken on board.
My Lords, that is always a possibility. Parliament decided accordingly in about 1957. I remember that in another place Mr. Sydney Silverman introduced the Homicide Bill which permitted capital punishment for certain offences and not for others. I recall my noble friend the late Lord Conesford saying that if you wanted to dispose of your wife, under the Bill you must not shoot her or blow her up but if you stabbed, strangled or poisoned her, or set her on fire, you would be all right. Parliament concluded that that was not the most satisfactory way of implementing the death penalty provision, and that is why we no longer have it.
§ Lord Allen of Abbeydale
My Lords, as I have organised a referendum, perhaps I may ask the Minister this question: leaving aside all the other objections which seem to me conclusive, does he agree that there is no point in holding a referendum unless the question posed is susceptible of being answered by a simple yes or no? Does he further agree that the number of unanswered consequential issues which would arise here means that this 777 proposal falls well short of meeting that criterion? To put it crudely, would the voter know whether he was voting for the execution of 16 year-old mental defectives, as seems to happen across the Atlantic?
My Lords, the noble Lord is quite right. If a referendum is used—and it has been used in this country more on local issues than on national issues—it is on major constitutional matters such as devolution. The result is then incorporated in a Bill. However, a referendum can only give simple answers to simple questions. I agree with the noble Lord that capital punishment is not a simple issue.
§ Lord Kennet
My Lords, the noble Earl has a great sense of constitutional propriety. Will he allow to pass without comment the opinion of his noble friend Lord Boyd-Carpenter that there is a better case for holding a referendum when Members of the House of Commons are free to vote according to their consciences than when they are required to vote as they are told by their party Whips?
My Lords, one of the drawbacks of a referendum is that it can go one way and the view of another place can go another way. If that were to happen, one would be undermining the authority of Parliament, because Parliament is the voice of the people. That is why referenda have not formed a major part of our constitutional process.
§ Baroness Phillips
My Lords, will the Minister confirm that if a Peer is tried by his fellow Peers he will not be executed, even with a silken cord?
My Lords, the noble Baroness is delving into history a little. She may be quite correct in saying that he would not be hanged with a silken cord, in particular if he is not allowed to be hanged at all.
§ Lord Boyd-Carpenter
My Lords, is my noble friend aware, as the noble Lord, Lord Mishcon, does not appear to be, that when it came to the decisions to which he referred another place did not have the advantage of knowing what the view of the public was? Is he also aware that there is some evidence that recent events—notably bombings and the shooting of policemen—have had an appreciable effect on public opinion on this difficult issue?
My Lords, I have a great deal of sympathy with the noble Lord, Lord Boyd-Carpenter, because he reflects a view held by a great many people. However, if one is trying to achieve any alteration in the law, it has to come about via Parliament. On a subject as complex as this, so long as Parliament decides in its wisdom not to change the law, there is not much point in having a referendum which can give misguided views and can undermine the authority of Parliament.
§ Lord Molloy
My Lords, will the noble Earl agree that what irritates a number of people are the different penalties for murder and the sometimes 778 remarkable release of murderers? That seems to irritate more members of the public than the argument a propos capital punishment.
My Lords, all these issues create arguments. I can only tell the noble Lord this. When anyone goes to prison on a life sentence, a great deal of care is taken before he is let out.
Viscount St. Davids
My Lords, will the noble Earl further correct the noble Baroness, Lady Phillips? A Peer can no longer be tried by his fellow Peers, as I well know, because in 1948 I was one of the two Peers who abolished this procedure.
My Lords, I thought that the noble Viscount was going to say that he was one of the two Peers who was tried by his fellow Peers. I am glad that that changed on the way through.