The Memo: Lee Anderson, Rishi Sunak and the death penalty

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Lee Anderson, Rishi Sunak and the death penalty

Charity Agasaro – 27 February 2023

Conversations about the death penalty tend to resurface when shocking or heinous crimes take place, often followed by public polls asking for people’s views on crime and punishment. Yet it has been decades since there were any reports or indication from law makers that a change was being considered. In an interview earlier this month however, when asked about crime and the death penalty, the vice chair of the conservative party, Lee Anderson, showed support for the return of capital punishment. He argued that its success rate was ‘100%’ since those executed ‘can no longer commit crimes’. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak was quick to dismiss that he or the government shared Anderson’s views, but what is the history of the death penalty in Britain? And why is it being talked about again?

The passage of the Human Rights Act through Parliament in 1998 marked the last time the issue of the death penalty was debated publicly. However, opinions similar to those of the vice chair of the conservative party make headlines once in a while.  The Murder (Abolition of Death Penalty) Act 1965 suspended the death penalty in England and Wales, and it was permanently banned in 1969. Months after Gwynne Evans and Peter Allen became the last people to be executed for a crime, Sidney Silverman MP piloted a bill that would lead to the change. This bill, coupled with a growing public discomfort towards capital punishment, gave the debate a platform, but it wasn’t the first time Parliament had faced calls to abolish the death penalty. In 1948 and 1956, the Lords rejected proposals to abolish it, with those in opposition voicing fears that if the law was changed, it would offer criminals a licence to kill.

Without wider government and parliamentary support, it is unlikely that Anderson’s views pose any threat to existing law. But it serves as a reminder of its continued relevance as a topic of debate for those interested in criminal law.