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Executions (Bermuda)

Volume 940: debated on Thursday 1 December 1977

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I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the impending execution tomorrow, Friday 2nd December, in Bermuda, of Erskine Burrows and Larry Tacklyn."
That the matter is urgent there can be no dispute. This is the final opportunity for the House to debate the matter before the men are hanged. No amount of debating after the event can be of practical consequence, and if we do not proceed to discuss it today, it will be too late.

That the matter is specific, I submit, is self-evident. I am concerned that the House should debate the intention by the Government of Bermuda to hang these two men tomorrow, and the serious consequences that may flow from that decision.

That the matter is sufficiently important to take precedence over other important business of the House I would argue for reasons I shall now give. We are the guardians of the human rights of all citizens of the United Kingdom and of our dependencies overseas. No right can be more fundamental than the right to life itself. Bermuda is a Crown colony, a non-self-governing territory, and we have solemn obligations under the Charter of the United Nations for the welfare and well-being of citizens of that territory.

The House has argued many times on the subject of the abolition of capital punishment in the United Kingdom and has come to the conclusion that that punishment should be abolished in this country. I think, therefore, that if there is any question of using this punishment in a dependent territory, the House should debate the matter before any execution proceeds.

Secondly, this particular case has aroused acute public controversy in Bermuda, so much so that Members of the Bermudan Parliament, members of the Progressive Labour Party, have travelled 5,000 miles to London to press that this Parliament should debate the matter.

A petition signed by 6,000 people was presented to the Queen asking for clemency. Six thousand people, I remind the House, in the context of Bermuda is equivalent to 6 million signatures if collected in the population of the United Kingdom.

Thirdly, although the death sentence is mandatory under the law in Bermuda, I understand that no hanging has been carried out for more than 30 years. It seems remarkable that after three decades there should be a decision to reintroduce this barbaric punishment. There is reason to believe that if that is done, it will create very serious racial tension in that territory. Arising from that, I believe that there is some reason to think that the hangings could give rise to a severe threat to public order, and it would be a very grim irony if the results of these executions were to lead to disturbances in which there might even be further loss of life.

The Western world in recent years has launched a great international debate on human rights, and very properly. Some people will regard it as rather cynical if this House could not spend three hours at least to consider a matter concerning the life and death of two people in a dependent territory when we have from time to time, perfectly properly, been severely critical of the behaviour in relation to human rights of many individual Governments throughout the world. I submit, therefore, that this is a matter which the House should very properly and urgently debate.

The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr Hooley) gave me notice before 12 o'clock this morning that he would seek leave to move the Adjournment of the House, under Standing Order No. 9, for the purpose of discussing a specific and important matter that should have urgent consideration, namely,

"the impending execution tomorrow, Friday 2nd December, in Bermuda, of Erskine Burrows and Larry Tacklyn."
The House knows that I am required by the provisions of the Standing Order to decide whether the matter is proper to be discussed, but not to give any reasons for so deciding.

In this instance I have to remind the House that it has never been in order to debate the exercise of the Royal Prerogative in connection with a capital sentence while the sentence is pending. This rule is stated in general terms in "Erskine May", on page 428 of the current edition, and it has been affirmed many times in my own presence in the House by my predecessors in relation to the exercise of the Prerogative of Mercy in dependent territories. In the circumstances I am not able to submit the hon. Member's application to the House.


On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I hope that you will allow me, whilst accepting that I am not in any way challenging your ruling, to revert as a matter of general application to the matters raised by the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). I accept totally your ruling, having myself made a similar application some 12 or 14 years ago with the late Sydney Silverman in the case of Riley, when we were similarly advised by Mr. Speaker Hylton-Foster that the exercise of the Prerogative was not a matter that could be the subject of debate. Therefore, I do not seek in any way to challenge what you have said.

The House seems to be in this difficulty, though. The House clearly has strong feelings on this issue. We are dealing with the Creech-Jones rules, which, I understand, indicate that the Governor exclusively makes the recommendation to Her Majesty and the exercise of the Prerogative is a matter which cannot be debated. At the same time we are also dealing with what is a dependent ter- ritory for which the House is ultimately responsible.

In my view, if the Government were to take the view that there was something wholly wrong and contrary to public policy for different penalties to be exactable in different parts of those territories for which we are responsible, whether it be in Bermuda, the Isle of Man, Rhodesia, or any other place, and the Government indicated that it was their intention to introduce legislation on the matter, that would be a very proper reason for a recommendation to be made to Her Majesty without a debate in the House that the executions at least be suspended while the House had time to consider the introduction of legislation.

It is with the possibility of having equality of treatment throughout all those territories for which we have a continuing responsibility that I ask you whether any indication has been given to you and, if any indication is given to you, whether we might be allowed to have a statement either by the Home Secretary or by the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs on this issue.

I am obliged to the right hon. Gentleman. No representation has been made to me. My personal feelings are never involved in a ruling. I am guided by precedent, and that was not an easy ruling for me to give to the House this afternoon.