Death Penalty: The Debate Is On...
Nearly 42-years after execution was officially abolished in the UK, and 47 years since Peter Anthony Allen and Gwynne Owen Evans became the last recipients of the state’s ultimate act of retribution, the death penalty, it seems, is back on the agenda.
The first act of the e-petition, designed to prompt government into providing greater representation for its citizens, may well be to re-open an issue that many thought had been assigned to history… or at least marginalised to the Letters Page of the mid-market tabloids.
Apparently not, with capital punishment topping the list of demands on the government’s new website, which offers a parliamentary debate to suggestion that receive more than 100,000 signatories. Some commentators have suggested that the inclusion of the death penalty it is nothing more than a publicity stunt, a product of the right wing blogosphere looking to rile and rankle their opposition.
Still, the issue deserves investigation, even if some of the other proposals – a bread and water diet for prisoners and the reinstatement of Formula 1 to the BBC – suggest that the e-petition project may not engender the most lettered deliberations. Of course they won't. After all, who could possibly support the return of the death penalty?
Actually… quite a few.
Writing in today’s Daily Mail, Leader of the House of Commons Sir George Young argues that some people have strong opinions and it “does not serve democracy well if we ignore them or pretend that their views do not exist."
Quite right. The counter argument suggests that the e-petition affords those with fringe views the chance to set the agenda. There is, of course, the possibility that people do want a genuine debate on capital punishment.
The move has some political backing. Speaking to The Huffington Post, Simon Darby of the British National Party said: “we certainly are in favour of the death penalty but only in certain cases, for example the murder of children where evidence was substantiated by DNA.”
UKIP has a more measured view. “We would certainly put it to a referendum”, a spokesman said.
UKIP member Paul Nuttall, an MEP from the Wirral, has added his name to the e-petition, saying "I am in favour of restoring the death penalty for child and serial killers. I think capital punishment is needed for such heinous crimes and I know that many other people feel the same."
Moving in from the political fringe, Conservative MP Priti Patel has also come out in favour of the restoration of capital punishment, as have her Tory stable-mates Andrew Turner and Philip Davies.
Writing in today’s Times Newspaper, Paul Stains, the blogger who tabled the petition, argues that “capital punishment is the classic example of the disconnect between politicians and people. Most MPs oppose it while a majority of the public has supported it ever since abolition in the Sixties.”
He may well have a point. The death penalty does appear to have some traction with the public; a YouGov report published last year found that 51 per of UK citizens would support the reinstatement of the death penalty for murder, with only 37 per cent opposing the move.
So is the public clambering for the death penalty? Not according to Neil Durking of Amnesty International. Speaking to The Huffington Post he said: “Snap opinion poles are usually taken after a particularly horrible crime, and even then participants are usually only asked a very simple question. That’s not a real debate – when people learn more about the issues they’re not so keen. You only have to look at the human right’s implications, or the miscarriages of justice to know this is a non-starter.”
The human rights implications are indeed profound. One of the cornerstones of the European Union human right’s policy is the abolition of the death penalty. In fact, it’s a pre-condition of entry for new countries. Plus, however much perceived support there is amongst the masses for the return of the gallows, it is unlikely to garner much interest inside Westminster.
David Cameron is already on record voicing his opposition to the death penalty, telling Dylan Jones: “…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.”
History is also a guide. The death penalty was last debated in parliament in 1998 as part of the Human Rights Act. The house rejected restoration by 403 votes to 159.
Durkin continues: “This debate comes up periodically in parliament, and each time it gets kicked out by an increasing number of votes. We have nothing against the e-petition or having a balanced debate, we already debate this around the world. From doing so we have surmised that the death penalty is a cruel, inhuman and arbitrary punishment.
"You only need to look at the number of miscarriages to see that it’s a flawed system - there have been 139 exonerations in the US alone since 1973. That’s why two thirds of the world has abolished it, leaving only a handful of states - China, North Korea, Iran, the US and so on – who retain capital punishment.”