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New Clause—(Unconditional Registration Of Conscientious Objectors In Certain Circumstances)

Volume 437: debated on Wednesday 21 May 1947

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The local tribunal, if satisfied by the application duly made under section five of the principal Act, or the appellate tribunal, if satisfied on appeal that the ground upon which application was made is established, shall by order direct that the applicant shall without condition be registered in the register of conscientious objectors.—[ Mr. Hopkin Morris.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

The present position in regard to this matter is established by Section 5 of the Act of 1939. Under that Section, conscientious objectors can be registered under three conditions, but I propose to deal only with Subsection (6). The object of this New Clause is to delete Subsection (6), which provides for the registration of conscientious objectors in two classes—the unconditionally exempt and the conditionally exempt. The object during wartime is perfectly clear. During wartime, all industry, as well as the Armed Forces, is necessarily directed to the winning of the war, but war conditions are not applicable in any sense to peacetime. If a person objects to military service and appears before the local tribunal, and that tribunal finds that he is a conscientious objector and should be registered, the question remains whether he shall be registered as unconditionally exempt or exempt upon conditional circumstances. The man may very well object to doing all forms of military service, both combatant and noncombatant, and he may, in wartime, object to doing any service which assists in the prosecution of the war. In a case which was accepted as a bona fide case, the objector was registered unconditionally where he objected to all forms of service, but, in some cases, where there was an objection to doing military service, both combatant and non-combatant, but no objection to engaging in some form of civilian national service under control, the objector was registered as conditionally exempt.

That is easily understandable in wartime, but it is perpetuated in this Bill, and what I am seeking to do is to retain the unconditional registration only. Where a man establishes that he has an objection to military service, both combatant and non-combatant, he should be registered unconditionally in the register, and the other classes, who would otherwise be registered in wartime as conditionally exempt, should adopt some other means. A young man of 18 makes an application to a tribunal, and, in wartime, it is found that he has no objection to doing agricultural work or becoming a miner, and he is setting out upon a university career. In wartime, agriculture is essential for the prosecution of the war and so is mining, and one can understand the State saying to a man "You object to military service in any form, but this is national service, and we will conditionally register you, subject to your carrying out this work." That case no longer holds in these times. Why should a man, once he has established his case as a conscientious objector, be directed to do agricultural work, mining or any other form of civilian occupation under Government control?

4.15 p.m.

Yes, and it is a great mistake, which arises because the Minister has the right to direct labour in wartime, and what is being done here is to direct conscientious objectors in peacetime to do certain work merely as a penal measure and as a form of punishment. Why should this one class be so treated? If we admit this policy in peacetime, we are then admitting the policy of the direction of labour for one specific object. If we are to have direction of labour, let it be universal. Why should this class, once the only case which they are permitted to make—the case of the conscientious objector—has been established, have a form of punishment brought to bear upon them? That seems be quite unfair to one class of the community, and is an assumption by the State, of rights which, quite clearly, it has no claim to adopt in peacetime. The consideration that justifies this action in wartime is that the State is concerned with its own preservation, but, in peacetime, it has no such right.

I beg to second the Motion.

I am not at present concerned to ensure that the "provisional" conscientious objector has justice done to him; I want to make a plea for the "out-and-outer" whom I must declare to have my complete sympathy. I am concerned with the man who objects to being placed under military law in any circumstances, and I do not understand the attitude of a man who will palter with his conscience and allow himself to be placed under military orders to do certain things and not other things. I wish to call attention to some of the hopeless confusion that took place under the old Acts. There were for instance cases where men were given exemption on condition that they did agricultural work. If the man was poor, he had to be an agricultural labourer, but if he was rich—and I have known cases of this kind happening—he would buy a farm, put in a bailiff to work the farm, and himself go on with his own work in his office or on the Stock Exchange or wherever he happened to be. That happened more than once, and I could give instances and names. It happened sometimes that a conscientious objector was allowed to evade military service if he carried on with the work which he was already doing. Some of them were teachers who were given exemption on condition that they remained in their profession. But a neighbouring education authority dismissed such men from their position as teachers because they were conscientious objectors. In future, I hope we shall not have one authority dismissing people for being conscientious objectors and another retaining them for the same reason. My last reason for seconding this Amendment is that the present Clause seems to me to go 75 per cent. towards perpetuating the very hated system of direction of labour in peacetime.

I think that the hon. Gentlemen opposite who have moved and seconded this new Clause, and who have so much sympathy with conscientious objectors, are doing conscientious objectors an injustice. They are attempting to narrow the limits under which they can be registered. I suppose that conscientious objectors are as difficult to define as any other category of persons. Take the Liberals, for instance. It is very difficult to define National Liberals, Liberal Nationals, Independent Liberals, and other Liberals.

Has not the Minister taken the trouble to read the announcement made during the last to days that the Liberal Nationals and the Conservatives are now to all intents and purposes combined?

I am afraid that is only adding to the confusion. 1n the case of conscientious objectors, the difficulty is equally great. One man may be a conscientious objector on religious grounds. According to the sect to which he belongs he might be intensely and vehemently opposed to any form of military service. Then, of course, there is the conscientious objector—

The Statute sets out clearly that a conscientious objector must object to being registered in the military register for the performance of military service and combatant duties. It says nothing about religion.

But that does not relieve a tribunal of the duty of deciding whether or not a man's conscientious objection is genuine. The tribunal decides that, in relation to the professions the man makes when he comes before it. Some men will argue on religious grounds; others will argue on political or humanitarian grounds as the basis of their objection. The tribunal has to decide, from the evidence before it, how deeply a man holds that view. With the best tribunal in the world, and with the best applicant in the world, there is always an element of doubt in these matters. It is a question of degrees. They are not all white, or all black; there are some grey in between, and what we are providing for in the Bill—

Does the Minister really claim that degrees of conscientious objection are provided for in the Bill?

I am surprised at the hon. Member for the University of Wales (Professor Gruffydd). It was he who raised this point when he said that he had no time for the man who was prepared to do some sort of service, and that all his sympathise were with the "out and outer." He admits that there are at least two kinds—the "out and outer" and the man prepared to be registered conditionally. In supporting this new Clause, the hon. Gentleman is putting the conditional man out completely.

I must correct the Minister there. What I said was that I did not regard the other person as a conscientious objector in the same sense at all.

That makes the position even worse. The man who seriously objects to going into the Armed Forces, but who is prepared to render some national service, should not, according to the hon. Gentleman, be registered as a conscientious objector. That is not the position which this House has taken up. It has taken the view that when a man claims that he has conscientious objection to combatant service, it should then be put to him whether he is prepared to render some other national service. The man might well say that though he is not prepared to go into the Army, he does not wish to dodge his contribution to the State, and is willing to render some national service. In the past, the House has held that such a man is no less a conscientious objector, and no less entitled to be registered as such. I think that the mover and seconder of this new Clause are really doing a disservice to a very respectable section of the conscientious objector category.

I feel that the Minister has answered the case put forward. I entirely agree with him that the law ought not to provide for a wider degree of exemption than the individual conscientious objector himself requires. I think that argument is quite sound. But I fancy that the hon. Gentlemen opposite had something else in mind and that the danger to be avoided here is that involved in some tribunals making a kind of bargain with the applicant. I think it is that kind of bargain which it is sought to avoid. A tribunal might say, "We are not sure that this man who applies for absolute exemption is as genuine as he makes out. On the other hand, we are not satisfied that there is not something genuine in his application. Let us strike a middle course, and give him something which he does not want anyhow. He claims absolute exemption. We cannot admit that, but we will not deprive him of everything. We will give him a conditional exemption." It is out of that sort of thing that one ultimately gets the majority of "cat-and-mouse" cases, with which I am hoping to deal in a later Clause, where some measure of exemption has been granted not satisfactory to the applicant.

It is not a case of a man who seeks to be registered as a conscientious objector and fails to establish his claim. The tribunal ought to make up its mind whether he is genuine or not, but many do not. The real issue is that in peacetime the State says that there are priorities in industry.

I do not think that that point is involved, but, of course, if the hon. and learned Gentleman wishes to make it, he should be allowed to do so. My point is that if the tribunal comes to a decision which is not satisfactory to the man concerned, it may result in his being imprisoned, released, further trials, further courts-martial, and further sentences. I do not think that this new Clause would meet that type of case.

4.30 p.m.

This House has a very great tradition of being extremely careful in its consideration of all cases of conscience. I think it right that that position should be upheld. Therefore, I should like to be clear about the issue raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman. At present, I am not at all clear. Whether we agree with the point of view or not, this House has always very wisely admitted the sincerity of conscientious objection in wartime. Therefore, very rightly and wisely, it has never compelled a conscientious objector to fight. There are some people who carry their objections so far that they cannot in time of war, do any form of national service because they consider that that would be contributing to the conduct of the war. Most of us would find it a little difficult to defend that position, but we all recognise the sincerity of that view as held by some people, and, therefore, the law has allowed for it. But I cannot quite follow the point of the hon. and learned Member for Carmarthen (Mr. Hopkin Morris) that it is worse to make people do this alternative service in time of peace than in time of war. The case seems to be exactly the opposite. One can understand a person who has such an extreme abhorrence of war that he objects to doing agricultural labour in time of war because, somehow or other, it contributes to the prosecution of the war, but I cannot see how anybody can object to doing any other form of national service on conscientious grounds in peacetime, when it merely contributes to the general welfare of the community and not to this wicked thing, the prosecution of war.

In the 1914–18 war there was a class of men who while perfectly willing and anxious, as an act of voluntary service, to do all kinds of things, whether or not these were useful to the war effort, were, nevertheless, not willing to bargain with the tribunal for exemption from military service. Therefore, they refused every kind of condition on that ground

I appreciate there were such people, but I was not passing judgment on anybody's point of view I was contrasting the situation in time of war and the situation in peacetime. It is not the same thing at all During the war one would be contributing to the prosecution of the war, and some people felt that sincerely. During peacetime, one would be contributing to the general welfare of the community, and I cannot understand how anybody can think that is very wicked. I appreciate the further point made by the hon. and learned Gentleman about direction of labour being undesirable. Of course, direction of labour is undesirable Conscription, in itself, is undesirable; we all agree on that. Unfortunately, we are dealing with a situation where we have reached the conclusion that we cannot avoid it, and the hon. and learned Gentleman cannot argue that these people are being put in an exceptionally unfavourable position. They are put in an exceptionally favourable position, if they are allowed to continue with their university studies, or whatever it is convenient for them to do, at a time when all their contemporaries are in the Army. It is to that point of conscience that I would like hon. Members to direct their minds, because I do not think the hon. and learned Member for Carmarthen has established his point

I believe this new Clause, in support of which the Liberal Party have turned up in their massed battalions today—as opposed to their attitude on the Finance Bill when they indulged in absenteeism in a very high degree—provides another example of how this unfortunate remnant of a party is steadily dividing itself and Liberal opinion in the country. I think it is a very sorry thing that they should turn up in such force today to plead for a Clause such as this. As my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Hollis) has just said, there is the greatest distinction between wartime and peacetime, and that was recognised by the mover and seconder of the new Clause

Like many hon. Members, I have a son who will be affected by the Bill by the time it becomes law. Incidentally, it might be of interest to hon. Members on the Government benches to know that my son practically insisted on the period of 18 months, and will be really disappointed if he has to do only 12 months' service, because he thinks that is not enough time in which to become a good soldier. It seems that we, as a House, have decided to take over the lives and activities of boys of 18 years of age, in preparation for the self-preservation of the country. If a young man is a conscientious objector and is absolutely honourable in that belief, surely he should insist that because his conscience will not allow him to train for the Army, he should make his sacrifice equal to that of the boys in uniform. If he did not, he would not be worth this mass movement of the Liberal Party. He should say, "Since I cannot even in peacetime, without taking blood"—be cause there is no bloodshed involved—"put on a uniform, I offer to go into any service which is of use to the country." The conscientious objector who would not do that would not be worth fighting for.

I do not know that it will be necessary for me to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mr. Baxter) on the subject of the mass movement, because that hardly seems to be a matter which requires any deep consideration by this House. However, I do express some surprise at the fact that hon. Members below the Gangway have moved this Clause. I understood that there was fairly common agreement in this House that if we are to support the United Nations organisation, it is necessary that we should be reasonably strong.

Yes, Mr. Speaker. I was endeavouring to make the point that even if one objects to war on the ground that it is wrong, surely it is not wrong to try to stop war by offering one's services to the country in time of peace, or by having one's services taken by the country in time of peace. That would seem to me to have something to do with the new Clause, and I am sorry if I did not put the point sufficiently clearly. It seems to me to be rather vital when dealing with this matter of conscientious objectors.

I am afraid the hon. Member has not read the new Clause. The main point is whether conscientious objectors should be registered for other duties, and not for service in the Armed Forces.

I have certainly read the new Clause. I wish to confine myself to the point concerning the performance of other duties which is vital to the Clause. I take this point of view, which seems to be very strong. For a very long time, there have been certain societies, such as the Quakers, who, although they are not strictly able to take up military service, do everything they can to help in the medical service and in that sort of way. That would seem to me to be a very strong argument in support of the Government if there were a Division upon this new Clause. There is also a point on which I agree with the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. S. Silverman). I should like it laid down clearly in this House—because I think there is almost universal consent upon it—that in a matter of this kind, we do not want anything in the nature of bargaining between the tribunal and the individual as to whether he should perform this or that service. That is something against which we all ought to stand. If only because that point has been raised, and has enabled some of us to express an opinion upon it, I think it has been worth while moving the Second Reading of this new Clause. Beyond that I am afraid I cannot find any particular reason why even hon. Members below the Gangway, should press it to a Division.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.

The following new Clause stood upon the Order Paper:

( Hourly, etc., drills)

(1) The Service Authority may cause to be served on any person during his term of part-time service a notice which shall state that he is required to present himself for hourly periods of instruction or a continuous period of less than six days at such place and time on such days (of which the earliest shall not be earlier than the fifteenth day after the service of the notice), as may be specified in the notice.

(2) The Service Authority shall have power at any time to cancel such a notice and to vary it by issuing a supplementary notice provided that the earliest day for attendance under the supplementary notice shall be not earlier than the fifteenth day after the service of the notice.

(3) No hourly period of instruction nor day's training shall be reckoned towards the completion of any person's part-time service under Section two of this Act unless it has been detailed in a notice under this Section or in a training notice or carried out as part of part-time service with the consent of the Service Authority.

(4) The Service Authority may, if any person without leave lawfully granted or sickness or

other reasonable cause fails to present himself as required by a notice or supplementary notice under this Section declare some or all of the hourly periods of instruction which such person has previously undergone under that notice or supplementary notice void and such hourly periods of instruction shall not be reckoned towards the completion of that previous part-time service under Section two of this Act.—[ Brigadier Low.]

The proposed Clause (Hourly, etc., drills) in the name of the hon. and gallant Member for North Blackpool (Brigadier Low) can be discussed together with the new Clause (Drills) which I am now about to call.