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1969: MPs vote to abolish hanging

MPs have voted by a big majority for the permanent abolition of the death penalty for murder.

A great cheer went up in the Commons as the final result was announced shortly before midnight. The voting was 343 in favour, 185 against, a majority of 158, to permanently end hanging in Britain.

The decision came at the end of a seven-and-a-half hour debate which saw the Labour Prime Minister, Harold Wilson, the Conservative leader, Edward Heath, and Liberal leader Jeremy Thorpe go through the same lobby to support abolition.

Under the terms of the Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 hanging was suspended for an experimental period of five years. Today's result means it is now unlikely to be brought back.


"Those figures show that the murder rate is not soaring as a result of the abolition of capital punishment but remains remarkably stable."

Home Secretary James Callaghan

Earlier, Tory MP for Streatham in south London, Duncan Sandys, presented a petition to parliament calling for the return of hanging. He claimed to have as many as a million signatures.

Home Secretary James Callaghan opened today's debate. He told a packed House the number of murders in Britain had varied between a low of 114 and a peak of 154 over the years between 1957 and 1968.

He concluded: "These figures show that the murder rate is not soaring as a result of the abolition of capital punishment but remains remarkably stable."

But there was criticism from Tory benches of the government's decision to press ahead with the debate before five year suspension laid down in the 1965 Act had expired.

The Opposition Spokesman on Home Affairs, Quintin Hogg, said although he could not prove it statistically, "there are people dead today who might have been alive if the law had been different.

"There are also people alive today who would, if the law stayed the same, be dead within the next 10 years."

Mr Callaghan admitted there had been a rise in the growth of violent crime in Britain and he wished to initiate some research into the likely causes.

He believed such research would offer more long-term hope to society than the despair of returning to hanging as a method of deterring violence.

Mr Sandys argued that public opinion strongly supported the return of the death penalty as a better deterrent than a spell in prison.

He said: "We have a duty to give the fullest consideration to the clearly expressed wishes of those we represent.

"We have no right to assume that the firmly held views of the overwhelming majority of the British people are unworthy and misguided."

Conservatives were split between the two lobbies. Although Mr Heath voted in favour, a number of other senior figures like Mr Hogg and the former prime minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home voted against.

Three Labour backbenchers voted against the motion.

In Context
The House of Lords voted two days later in favour of abolishing the death penalty.

By a majority of 46, peers supported an end to hanging. An amendment which would have extended the suspension of capital punishment for a further three years was defeated.

It was clear peers' minds had been made up by the decision of all three party leaders in the Commons to vote for abolition.

However, the death penalty was retained for offences like treason and piracy with violence until 1998. As a result the gallows remained in place at Wandsworth Prison.

In 1999 the home secretary signed the sixth protocol of the European Convention of Human Rights which formally abolished the death penalty in the UK and ensured it could not be brought back.

Figures for 2003 show there are 83 countries in the world which retain the death penalty.


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