Skip to main content

Clause 15—(Enforcement Of Requirement To Submit To Medical Examination)

Volume 437: debated on Thursday 8 May 1947

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

I would like the Minister to say whether it is the intention that any young man will be bound, when asked to do so, to report for medical examination and so on, and that he can be arrested without a warrant if he fails to do so. Is that the purpose of the Clause? It may be necessary during wartime that such steps should be taken, and that the police should have such powers to act without warrants, but in peacetime I think a different kind of approach is required, and I should like to see some relaxation so that the normal civil procedure may apply. I should be grateful to have the Minister's opinion on that point.

4.30 p.m.

During the Second Reading Debate, I drew the attention of my right hon. Friend to a circumstance obtaining under the Military Service Act at present in force, which everybody regards as undesirable. It was that a man who claimed to be a conscientious objector and whose claim had not been admitted by the tribunal, nevertheless persisted in his objection. The man then refused to comply with the notice calling him to attend a medical examination. By the nature of that offence, it could be made, if not a continuing offence, one capable of infinite repetition. It could result in the man being prosecuted for each failure to comply with a series of notices to submit himself for medical examination.

There is an Amendment to deal with this specific point on the next Clause.

I think my hon. Friend is mistaken when he says that the Amendment to the next Clause has much to do with the point I am now submitting. It is true that I have on the Paper a proposed new Clause to deal with the point, and if the contention which I propose to advance when we reach that Clause is acceptable, Clause 15 ought not now to be ordered to stand part of the Bill. Everybody agrees that, in form, and technically, a series of sentences should follow a series of offences, but in this case it will be a series of penalties for what is, in essence, only one offence. The Minister of Labour did me the honour of suggesting that I might try to find some way of getting round the difficulty. The suggestion I am making is that in the case of a man who claims to be a conscientious objector, we should dispense altogether with the medical examination, if the man refuses to comply with it. The State will lose nothing thereby. I suggest that a man in that position should be called up as though the medical examination had taken place. Then, upon his failure to comply with the call-up notice, the authorities will get him anyhow, just as they would if he failed to comply with any other provision of the Act or with any military order after he has been called up. I invite my right hon. Friend to say what his attitude is to the principle which I have outlined. If he were disposed to look favourably on it, the case for Clause 15 would disappear, and we might dispense with it altogether now.

The provisions in the Clause may be necessary in present circumstances, but I think the Committee are entitled to be told why, at this time of day, the Government require these additional powers. I understand that the Clause permits arrest without warrant in cases where no previous provision of the law has given that power. Indeed, if that is not so, there is no point at all in the Clause. I was under the impression that wartime Government had armed themselves pretty adequately with emergency powers of all sorts, and it seems to me a little curious that nowadays, when we are more or less at peace, the Government should require further power of arrest without warrant. There may be a satisfactory explanation, but we are entitled to be told why these additional powers are required.

I appreciate the brevity with which these points have been put, as well as their importance. The general principle with which my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) is concerned, is what is usually called the "cat and mouse" procedure.

I am proposing to give an explanation, but perhaps when I have given it, the hon. Member will not understand.

I have known my hon. Friend for such a long time that I will overlook what he says, and take his remark, having in mind from whence it came.

On a point of Order. The Minister of Labour made the suggestion that after he had explained a point, perhaps hon. Members would not have understood it. Is that not a rather insulting remark?

Has it not been a frequent occurrence in the last few years that Ministers have explained things and that the whole House did not understand them?

It is not the first time that hon. Members opposite have shown that they are ill-conversant with the Rules of the House of Commons. In terms of great indignation the Minister said, "If I did explain, the hon. Member would not understand." I suggest that hon. Members opposite might learn the Rules of the House.

We have heard of storms in teacups. Unfortunately, my hon. Friend the Member for Southall (Mr. Ayles) did not understand what I said, but I am sure that we shall now understand each other.

I want to deal with the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne. We are very anxious not to get conscientious objectors into the position of being brought up, dealt with, put in prison, taken out of prison, dealt with, brought up again, and so on. We want to get away from all that. That is the point which will be raised when we reach the proposed new Clause in the name of the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne. The proposal in Clause 15 applies to the man who is called up and claims to be a conscientious objector, and who is ordered to submit himself for medical examination. The man can be taken by a constable to the place of medical examination. Having got there, the man refuses to submit to the medical examination and just walks out under the policeman's nose. Then he has to go through the same process again, at the end of which he walks Away, and the policeman cannot apprehend him. Then he has to go to court, we have to get another warrant, bring the man up again and take him to the medical board. He walks away again.

In those circumstances we ask that if the man disobeys the order of the court to submit himself to medical examination he can be apprehended at once by the constable and brought to the court again. We can then proceed under the other Clause. We are anxious to give the conscientious objector a square deal and we do not intend that there shall be constant persecution. Our records show that very little of that kind of thing has happened. I think my hon. Friend the Member for Southall will recognise that fact—and there is no sarcasm about that. The association representing conscientious objectors have expressed their appreciation of the way in which these matters have been dealt with.

I would like to thank the Minister very much for what he has just said. Like other hon. Members I have a natural dislike of the idea of arrest without warrant. We put an Amendment on the Paper on the point, but it did not get very far, and we have not had any help from the Communist Party or from other hon. Members opposite, whether crypto-Communist or otherwise. For a long while there has been an abuse in connection with this matter. We have been arresting these people, and then they have been able to walk away. I gather that that is being stopped now. It was a real abuse. The country has tried to be generous to conscientious objectors, whether agreeing or disagreeing with their point of view. With all our dislike of arrest without warrant it seems to me that the Government's proposal is a definite improvement on the existing position. I would like the Leader of the House to take note of our attitude on this matter, and to remember that we try to help the Government in every way we can.

I want to be perfectly clear about what the Minister has told us. Do I understand that all the various procedures mentioned in the Clause are separate, or are they all part of one procedure? We find in the Clause that the man has to submit himself for medical examination. Later it refers to "further medical examination." Again it says "or examination by a consultant examiner." Further it says "and to be detained in custody." According to what the Minister just said, it is only where all those procedures have been gone through, that the constable then has the right to arrest without warrant?

Yes, that is quite definite. It is only where a man has been ordered to go for medical examination or for consultation. Upon refusal to obey the court's order, the constable would have the right to arrest him.

I recognise that there is no real conflict between us. We want to know what is the best machinery to carry out what we all want. The procedure under Clause 15 is very cumbrous. If the Government insist upon medical examination, they will need Clause 15, cumbrous or not. If the Minister will accept the principle which I have endeavoured to put to him, and have embodied in the proposed new Clause, it is difficult to see why the machinery of the Measure should include this cumbrous procedure at all. A man who is willing to be medically examined will attend for examination upon receipt of an ordinary notice. I suggest that in the case of a man who is not willing to be medically examined, the Government proceed as though examination had taken place. I cannot see why the Government should bother themselves in those cases with this cumbrous machinery.

Having listened to the Minister's explanation and to the suggestion made by the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman) I find myself very much impressed by what the hon. Member has said. I do not understand why, when a man has said that he will not serve and will not submit himself to medical examination, that examination should be forced upon, him. There will be a point where he will be taken to the court if he persists in his refusal to serve. The Minister does not make clear to my comprehension his reason why the suggestion that he should omit the medical examination in such cases should not be followed.

I cannot understand why a conscientious objector in such circumstances is taken by a constable for his medical examination if he is not already detained in custody, and is not already under arrest. If a constable is standing in a room, is the man not escaping from custody when he walks out?

When the other Act was passed, the authorities thought they had the power which we now propose, but it was proved that they had not.

Would the Minister pay some attention to the point which has just been made by my hon. Friend the junior Burgess for Cambridge University (Mr. Wilson Harris)? It seems that the question of medical examination of the conscientious objector is being discussed at a wrong stage of these proceedings. If a man says he has a conscientious objection to military service, is not the first thing to do to find out whether that objection is valid or not? If it is, medical examination is irrelevant. If it is not a valid objection, the tribunal will find out, and the man must then submit to medical examination and be called up. There seems to be a first-class opportunity for the Minister to improve the whole system and attitude towards the conscientious objector.

We seem to be involving the conscientious objector in two disputes with the law instead of one. The first dispute is on the question of medical examination. He has to go through the whole rigmarole of examination. Then he has to go through the whole thing again in regard to registration of his conscientious objection. To make it practical, the first thing would be to establish that a man is a conscientious objector.

4.45 P.m.

I think the Committee are overlooking the fact that the man might not be a conscientious objector at all. He might simply say, "I will not go to be medically examined." A man has to be medically examined in order to ascertain his fitness for service. If he is found unfit for service, he is not wanted. If he is found fit, it is then for him to say, "I am a conscientious objector." Without this provision there would be a loophole of which the genuine conscientious objector does not take advantage.

What the man says is, "I will not serve." He does not say, "I will not be examined."

Question put, and agreed to.

Clause ordered to stand part of the Bill.