Motion for leave to bring in a Bill (Standing Order No. 23)
I beg to move,
That leave be given to bring in a Bill to require HM Commissioners of Revenue and Customs to record income tax revenues where the payee self-certifies as holding a conscientious objection to public spending on defence purposes and report to Parliament thereon; to place a duty on HM Treasury to take account of the amount and proportion of such self-certified income tax income in preparing the supply estimates; and for connected purposes.
The central purpose of the Bill is to give taxpayers who have a conscientious objection to war the right to direct to a non-military security fund the portion of their taxes that would otherwise be spent on military purposes. One hundred years ago, at the height of world war one, Britain became the first country in the world to make the legal right of conscientious objection available to all British subjects.
The Military Service Act 1916 simultaneously claimed the right to force men to die for their country, while also granting the legal right of conscientious objection in Britain for the first time. Thousands of men, including both my grandfathers, registered for exemption from military service on the grounds of conscience. Some COs, like my grandfathers, took up alternative service, such as driving ambulances and running field hospitals. Others felt that they could take no part in any activity connected to the war and they were imprisoned, but what linked them all was their absolute determination to be true to their beliefs, despite marginalisation.
Since 1916, the right to conscientious objection has been recognised in every significant international treaty. The European convention on human rights, the United Nations universal declaration of human rights and the British Human Rights Act all testify that everyone has the right to
“freedom of thought, conscience and religion”.
The past 100 years has seen immense progress in the democratisation of war. Modern wars are no longer fought with conscript armies; armed conflict relies now on professional armies and high-tech weapons. Security is supposedly maintained with the ideology of deterrence. In short, war is waged with money, rather than manpower—funded by UK taxpayers—and yesterday this Parliament voted to support the nuclear deterrent, at a cost of £30 billion.
The law, as it stands, prevents many from acting in accordance with their own conscience, as their tax money is being spent on armed conflict, which they object to on moral, religious or ethical grounds. Some equate paying for killing with doing it themselves. These few thousand people are faced with two options—either keeping their income below the taxable level, as a lady whom I met outside earlier today has done all her working life, or withholding a portion of their tax and facing prosecution and bankruptcy. There is no other alternative, and no right to object.
I thank the campaigning organisation Conscience: Taxes for Peace not War for helping me to prepare this Bill. It has been compiling a list of these modern-day conscientious objectors, who have been writing statements of conscience, as world war one COs did before them. One of these COs, Diana Warner, said:
“We have seen increasingly brutal and far-reaching wars, massive death and displacement of civilians, untold trauma and injury to our soldiers, and environmental destruction. As a GP I work every day for the health and wellbeing of my patients, and as a taxpayer I must do the same for the security of people in the UK and elsewhere. I insist on the right as a Conscientious Objector for my taxes to be used to forge peace and not to be used on the mechanisms of war.”
If conscientious objection can be recognised in wartime, why not in peacetime, too?
Today, the rights of COs to military tax are being campaigned for across Europe, the USA and Canada. In passing this Bill, Britain would lead once again, setting a world precedent and demonstrating that we are a leader in human rights and individual freedoms. Those who object to funding war and preparation for war still want to contribute to the security of our country and the wellbeing of our world, so this Bill calls for a mechanism for COs to fund non-military peace-building and conflict prevention initiatives, which would contribute to national security while allowing individuals to pay their taxes with a clear conscience.
By permitting the right to invest in peace rather than war, we are not only granting an individual freedom, but making a substantial step in the direction of a more effective and humane foreign policy. There are two possible destinations for this hypothecated tax.
The first is the Department for International Development, which is highly regarded internationally for the promotion of social justice. This Government’s commitment to supporting DFID is commendable. The second possible destination is the less well-known conflict, security and stability fund, a cross-departmental fund of just over £1 billion. It was created by this Government to address the causes of international conflict.
If Britain were to pass this Bill, the UK would make the hard-won right of conscientious objection relevant to today’s society by granting people the right not to pay for someone to kill on their behalf. We could also take a lead in helping to redefine the common understanding of security. Genuine, long-term security is achieved not with ever more sophisticated weapons and increased spending on “defence”, but by co-operation, negotiation, and shared understanding of the problems that face humanity—poverty, ill health, and environmental degradation.
I now wish to move on to address some common objections to a Bill of this type. First, the Bill is not seeking exemption from paying taxes but allows COs to pay their fair contribution towards national defence with a clear conscience by investing in non-violent alternatives to war and weaponry. COs would rather invest their fair share in longer-lasting and more sustainable means of conflict resolution and prevention.
Secondly, on the criticism that the Bill introduces hypothecation, is not the Government’s sugar tax, to be spent on sports provision for young people, a form of hypothecation; and what about the additional tax on insurance premiums that is going to be allocated to flood prevention? The UK’s most significant form of personal hypothecation would appear to be Gift Aid, which redirects personal income tax towards a named charity. This sum amounted to £1.19 billion in 2014-15. Gift Aid is already widely used by taxpayers to direct funding to charitable causes.
Some say that the Bill would create a precedent for other pressure groups to petition this House to divert taxes to their favourite causes or away from their personal dislikes—but military tax is specifically an issue of conscience, not a political preference. This principle was recognised 100 years ago by Her Majesty’s Government, and I am laying a case for an extension of that right.
Finally, there is the issue of practicality. The administration of the provision set out in this Bill would merely need a signed declaration to Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs and a transfer of an already-calculated sum of money to one, named, Government-controlled fund. The calculations are already provided by HMRC to UK income tax payers as a matter of course. The destination of the transferred tax receipt would be a single fund from which moneys would be drawn for the purposes indicated in the Bill.
This Bill seeks to acknowledge the existence of conscience when spending money, in order to stop forcing people to pay for wars that they do not morally agree with and for weapons they cannot, in all conscience or reason, endorse. Let us acknowledge the rights of individuals committed to this by extending the recognition of conscience with regard to war. You get the world you pay for—let us allow the right to pay taxes for peace, not war.
Question put and agreed to.
That Ruth Cadbury, Mr Virendra Sharma, Mr Roger Godsiff, Alan Brown, Caroline Lucas, Michelle Thomson, Hywel Williams, Martyn Day and Kate Green present the Bill.
Ruth Cadbury accordingly presented the Bill.
Bill read the First time; to be read a Second time on Friday 2 December and to be printed (Bill 54).