British Prime Minister David Cameron.
British Prime Minister David Cameron.

UK MPs to vote on death penalty

By James Chapman Time of article published Aug 4, 2011

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British MPs face being forced into a landmark vote on restoring the death penalty.

Capital punishment is expected to be the first subject debated by Parliament under an e-petitions scheme.

The initiative allows the public to help set the government agenda and means anyone can set up an internet petition on any subject. If it attracts more than 100 000 signatures, MPs must consider debating it in the Commons.

The scheme is officially launched today, but it has already backfired on the Coalition because right-wing internet bloggers have been collecting signatures for the last few days. The restoration of hanging for the murderers of children and policemen is by far the most popular serious issue.

Commons leader Sir George Young writing in today’s Daily Mail says Westminster cannot ignore this popular groundswell.

“The intervention of Sir George, who is overseeing the e-petition scheme, paves the way for the first Commons vote on capital punishment since 1998. The last hangings in Britain were in 1964.

“What else is Parliament for?” he says. “People have strong opinions and it does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend their views do not exist.”

Opponents say the e-petitions will allow the Commons to be hijacked by special interest campaigns and will mean MPs spending precious Parliamentary time debating proposals which have little or no chance of becoming law.

But Sir George insists the petitions, details of which will be published by the government today, will revitalise public engagement.

“There have been some who have been concerned by some of the subjects that could end up being debated for example, the restoration of capital punishment,” Sir George writes.

“The last time this was debated during the passage of the Human Rights Act in 1998, restoration was rejected by 158 votes. But if lots of people want Parliament to do something which it rejects, then it is up to MPs to explain the reasons to their constituents.”

Although there appears little or no chance of a Commons vote in favour of bringing back the death penalty, some Conservatives are signalling that they will vote Yes.

Priti Patel, MP for Witham in Essex, said: “Polls have consistently shown that people want a debate on this, which is quite frankly overdue.

“It will provide a good opportunity to talk about the failings of our existing criminal justice system. So many victims of the most horrendous and heinous crimes have no sense of justice.

“People aren’t happy with the current system. Without a doubt, I would favour restoring capital punishment for the most serious and significant crimes, like child murders. For me that would be unquestionable.”

Philip Davies, MP for Shipley, said: “It’s something where once again the public are a long way ahead of the politicians. I’d go further and restore it for all murderers.”

The Isle of Wight’s Andrew Turner said the death penalty was the “proper punishment” for some serious crimes and that it was “high time that this issue is debated”.

“My instinct is that some crimes are so horrific that the proper punishment is the death penalty,” he said.

“A few people commit acts so evil they are beyond understanding, for example Ian Brady, the Moors murderer; Roy Whiting who abducted and killed eight-year-old Sarah Payne and, more recently, those who tortured and were then responsible for the death of Baby P Like many people I have concerns about the possibility of wrongful convictions, so perhaps we should consider whether before a death sentence could be passed, a higher standard of evidence would be needed than “beyond reasonable doubt” which is used to secure a criminal conviction.

“Some people have suggested that there should be proof ‘beyond the shadow of a doubt’ before a death sentence could be passed.”

Barbara Potter, a member of the Leicestershire Police Authority, said: “I believe in an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth and a life for a life. With all the DNA technology we can be 100 per cent sure that someone is guilty and when we are 100 per cent sure that this man has killed this child and the evidence is there, then capital punishment is appropriate.”

David Cameron has signalled his opposition to any restoration of capital punishment. In an interview for a book by Dylan Jones, the Prime Minister said: “If someone murdered one of my children then emotionally, obviously I would want to kill them. How could you not?

“But there have been too many cases of things going wrong, of the wrong people being executed, of evidence coming to light after the execution, and sometimes there is just too much of an element of doubt. And I just don’t honestly think that in a civilised society like ours that you can have the death penalty any more.”

Amnesty International’s UK head of policy and government affairs, Jeremy Croft, said: “In our experience public support for capital punishment falls dramatically when people are confronted with the grim reality of what it means to put a person on trial for their life and then kill them.”

He pointed out that concerns remained about victims of miscarriages of justice, such as the Birmingham Six, the Guildford Four, or former murder suspects Stephen Downing and Barry George.

Under the e-petitions scheme, it will be up to the Commons back-bench business committee to assess those which qualify and decide whether they should be given time from the 35 days allocated during each Parliamentary session for non-governmental business.

Number Ten’s previous e-petition site, which was not accompanied by the right to trigger issues for consideration by the Commons, was suspended ahead of the general election then shelved by the Coalition. It had been host to a series of highly embarrassing campaigns during the Labour years, including demands for Gordon Brown to quit as prime minister, backed by nearly 100 000 signatures. - Daily Mail

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