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Judicial CP - February 1953


The Times, London, 14 February 1953

Birching bill rejected

Government's view


According to Mr. Chuter Ede, the speech to-day of Sir David Maxwell Fyfe, the Home Secretary, had already left as "dead as mutton" the private member's Bill which sought to restore birching as a court sentence for crimes involving personal violence. The House made sure of this later by refusing the Bill a second reading, by 159 votes to 63, after a debate which drew freely on emotion and exhausted many well-worn arguments.

The Home Secretary was not content merely to dissect the Bill in a manner which seemed to leave it in tatters, nor to rely solely on criminal statistics, which were bandied about lavishly in arguments on the effect of birching as a deterrent. His case against the Bill rested weightily on the Government's view that it would be premature to reverse the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act, 1948, relating to corporal punishment until there had been more time to assess the effects of the broad scheme which the Act introduced for reform, deterrence, and prevention.

They were determined, he said, that the new systems of corrective training and preventive detention should be given a proper chance to operate. It would be idle, he admitted, to say yet if they had succeeded, but he was convinced they ought to, and he estimated a period of three to five years as necessary for the purpose.

Prevalence of violence

The Home Secretary did not attempt to discount the concern and apprehension earnestly expressed by Wing Commander Bullus, and other supporters of the Bill, at the prevalence of violent crime and its vicious new manifestations. But he was able to quote, as earnest of the Government's intention to take vigorous measures to combat crime, the fact that only yesterday he introduced the Prevention of Crime Bill dealing with offensive weapons.

This was an important element in the "continuous four-point approach to the crime wave," which alone, he said, could do any good. The points were improved prison accommodation -- he was examining forts, camps, old castles, in fact anything which might help -- police recruitment, a proper balance between deterrents and reform in the penal system, and the raising of moral standards.

His speech delighted opponents of the Bill. Mr. Ede said he had heard no more courageous speech in this Parliament, nor did Mr. Ede's own contribution lack courage, and he was sharply critical of the judges' attitude to penal reform. One of the most impressive back-bench speeches -- by Mr. Hylton-Foster -- gave a disturbing glimpse into the mind of the young criminal, with its background of sex, the cinema, and the street corner, and its blank inability to realize the nature of its conduct.


The Times, London, 14 February 1953

House of Commons

Whipping bill rejected

Tests of penal reform


THE SPEAKER took the Chair at 11 o'clock.


Punishment for violence

Pleas in the Courts

WING CMDR. BULLUS (Wembley, North, C.) moved the second reading of the Criminal Justice (Amendment) Bill.

He said that it had aroused much controversy, but there could be no controversy about the universal desire to find all deterrents which would arrest the alarming increase in the number of crimes of violence, and there were millions who, like him, believed that Judges should have the power to order whipping.

This punishment had been retained in the case of attacks on prison warders. Why should the elderly and the law-abiding be refused this obvious safeguard?

The abolition of corporal punishment had proved a costly failure in terms of human suffering. His opponents would quote figures purporting to show that crimes for which whipping was previously imposed had decreased, but it was generally recognized in the legal profession that the figures in recent years did not bear a relationship, because of the new model of compilation, to those before 1948. Since 1948 the Crown had often accepted a plea of guilty to a lesser offence in cases of robbery with violence because the greater offence carried no extra penalty.

Defending lawyers had entered pleas of guilty to larceny, admitting a measure of roughness, and this had been accepted. This was the sole reason for the figures showing a decrease. The Home Office criminal statistics showed that there had been a steady increase in crimes of violence since 1940, with the single exception of 1946, and violence had taken more horrible forms, including the use of the cosh. The fact that before 1948 no prisoner would plead guilty to a floggable offence showed that flogging was a real deterrent.

Feeling of insecurity

The clock had been set back in the sense that men and women were now frightened to go out after dark and there was a general feeling of insecurity. The crime wave would continue until Parliament took appropriate action. There was a moral quality about a punishment which was deserved. Just punishment did not necessarily mean revenge.

The Bill proposed to give Judges the power to exercise their discretion and to order whipping for crimes of violence. Our Judges were unequalled, and could be trusted. Not every person found guilty of a crime of violence was likely to be whipped. Over 80 per cent. of the letters he had received about the Bill were in favour of it, and he believed that the majority of people supported the Bill.

SIR THOMAS MOORE (Ayr, C.), seconding, said the opponents of the Bill were unduly swayed by the views of psychiatrists, but it was a great mistake to allow them to usurp the authority and knowledge of the Judges. His one criticism of the Bill was that it was a mistake to dictate the form of instrument with which the punishment was to be inflicted. That should be at the discretion of the courts, as they knew the gravity of the offence.

Rejection moved

MR. ELLIS SMITH (Stoke-on-Trent, Lab.) moved an amendment for the rejection of the Bill. He said that no one could doubt the public disquiet, but whipping, the stocks, and the birch were all relics of barbarism, and discipline must come by example and not by resorting to mid-Victorian ideas.


The Lord Chief Justice ought not to use his privileged and important position for the purpose of making the observations he had on the subject. Were the constant controversial observations made by him consistent with the dignity of his high office?


Premature action

Assessment of new methods

SIR D. MAXWELL FYFE pointed out that less than 4 years had elapsed since the Criminal Justice Act 1948 had abolished corporal punishment as a judicial penalty. Before that Act the courts had had the power to impose corporal punishment for a limited number of offences, of which the principal one, for adults, had been robbery with violence, under Section 23(1) of the Larceny Act.

The serious increase in recent years of crimes of violence generally had naturally caused concern and apprehension, and it had given force to the suggestion -- and that was what the House should face -- that corporal punishment should be reintroduced as a penalty, not merely for the limited number of offences for which it could be imposed until 1948, but for crimes of violence against the person generally.

The argument was that corporal punishment would be a better preventive than the punishments the courts now had power to order, but the fact was that the number of offences of robbery with violence known to the police, not those for which there had been convictions, unlike other crimes of violence against the person, had actually gone down since they could not be punished by flogging. While the figures for 1952 showed a regrettable increase over the previous year, the total was not so high as that for 1950. It was substantially less than those for 1948 and 1949 and substantially less than the average of the rising figures for the three years before the abolition.


'Courageous speech'

Home Office view endorsed

MR. EDE said that he had not heard a more courageous speech in this Parliament than the one just delivered by the Home Secretary. (Cheers.) The inflation of the figures for violence generally arose from a phenomenal increase in sexual crimes. Flogging was no remedy for them, neither was it a deterrent. In certain circumstances it was an incentive. He was not impressed by the opinions of the Judges. (Opposition cheers.) They had never been in favour of the reforms which had been the glory of the penal system of this country for the last 150 years. He would support the Home Secretary .... His speech had killed the Bill.


CAPTAIN WATERHOUSE (Leicester, South-East, C.) believed that corporal punishment, especially for boys, was of real value and deterrence, and was of no moral detriment. But the punishment should be quickly imposed, and perhaps magistrates might be given the power to impose a sentence of caning, to be carried out, if not by a policeman at least by a good stout policewoman. The worst thing in general was to send children to homes or Borstal. The more children could be kept out of incarceration the better.

"Panic measure"

MR. BENSON (Chesterfield, Lab.) said that once again an attempt was being made to reintroduce corporal punishment as a panic measure. The cause of the public fear to-day was not due to the volume of crime but to the extraordinary stunt by the evening Press which had been plugging crimes of violence for the past two years.

MR. HYLTON-FOSTER (York, C.), opposing the Bill, said he had helped the mover to draft it and he was rather sorry it had landed him with a string of abusive epithets. The best deterrent was the certainty of detection, and why, in the face of the rise in crime, we should have a police force below strength was the puzzle to be looked at. (Cheers.) Twist the statistics as one liked, they could not be construed into an affirmative argument that corporal punishment was ever an increased deterrent. (Cheers.)

There were two definite age groups responsible for the increase in crime -- those born just after the 1914-18 war and the present eight to 14 year olds. There was a fatal misunderstanding of the character of the young criminal to-day. No-one who had studied it could suggest that one so reckless, irresponsible, or so selfishly daring, would ever be deterred by whipping with a birch. (Cheers.)

[...] The young criminal had no hobbies -- it was the street corner, sex, cinemas, and no conception of loyalty. It was a most pathetic experience to speak to these people and ask if they realized how selfish was their conduct, and to have the words obviously regarded as mere twaddle, something unrelated to reality. It was a state of mind that had to be cured. (Cheers.)


Women in fear

Demand for protection

MR. FREDERIC HARRIS (Croydon, North, C.) said that many women in Croydon dare not open their doors after dark for fear of being attacked. They, and the police who had to deal with the cowardly attackers, had the right to expect that corporal punishment should be restored. It was said that it was barbaric, but was not the criminal who attacked and seriously injured an elderly woman barbaric? He should be given the same treatment that he gave to others.

The amendment for the rejection was carried by 159 votes to 63.

The Road Transport (Lighting) Amendment Bill was read a second time.

The House adjourned at 22 minutes before 5 o'clock.


The Times, London, 14 February 1953


Stemming the Crime Wave

The vote in the House of Commons yesterday was decisively against bringing back the birch, but the debate accurately reflected national anxiety for positive and decisive action to be taken to stem the rising tide of crime.

Those who wish to see the birch restored are seizing on one means -- which the evidence shows to be ineffective and retrograde -- of achieving an urgently and universally desired end. The Home Secretary, in what his predecessor, Mr. Chuter Ede, well called a courageous speech, described as premature the proposal to restore corporal punishment, and went on to say that the Government are ready to take vigorous measures to counteract crime. This is welcome news from a Minister who has lately been tested and has proved his strength in diversely difficult circumstances.

Sir David Maxwell Fyfe will have the whole country behind him if, as soon as the flood dangers and distresses ease, he concentrates all his great energies and administrative capacity on the prevention of crime. That is the outstanding duty of a Home Secretary in the months ahead. Nothing would do more to revive public morale and to put a stop to demands for birching and other panic measures than the knowledge that, at last, crime was being tackled with determination.

Until that is done, many distressed citizens will continue to think that reform and correction of offenders are taken more seriously than is protection against violence, while others will continue to point out, rightly, that the conditions under which the provisions of the Criminal Justice Act of 1948 for reform and correction can be made to work do not exist.

A population of more than 24,000 fills the prisons and Borstals, and in many cases sleeps three in a cell. Police forces are more than 8,000 under strength, and this dangerous deficiency is largest in cities which are hotbeds of crime. Behind this is a state of society which encourages young entry to the criminal classes through absence of moral standards and home discipline. That is beyond the powers of government to correct [...] The Home Secretary has raised hopes and he can rely on the support of all parties in fulfilling them.

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