Clause 4. — (Enforcement of requirements as to medical examination.)

Orders of the Day — Supply. – in the House of Commons on 2nd April 1941.

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Photo of Mr Lewis Silkin Mr Lewis Silkin , Camberwell Peckham

I beg to move, in page 6, line 13, to leave out "fourteen," and to insert, "seven."

Under the Clause as it stands, if a person fails to submit himself for medical examination, it is open to the courts to detain him in custody until the medical examination takes place. There is a proviso that no person shall be detained by virtue of any such order for more than 14 days. Therefore, the Clause conceives the possibility that a person may be detained in custody for14 days. I think that is too long a period. It ought to be possible for the Ministry to provide for the medical examination within seven days.

Photo of Mr Ralph Assheton Mr Ralph Assheton , Rushcliffe

The Government are quite ready to accept this Amendment, which they think is a reasonable one.

Amendment agreed to.

Photo of Mr Lewis Silkin Mr Lewis Silkin , Camberwell Peckham

I beg to move, in page 6, line 17, to leave out paragraph (a).

This Amendment also seeks to remedy the harshness of the penalty provided in the Bill for a person who fails to submit himself for medical examination. According to the Bill, such a person may, on conviction on indictment, be sentenced to imprisonment for a term not exceeding two years. If the Amendment were accepted, such a person would be still liable on summary conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding 12 months. I think that would be a sufficiently heavy penalty, particularly as the Minister already has power to detain the man in custody and compel him to submit himself for medical examination. To have, on top of that, the possibility of imprisonment for two years is far too harsh, and in my opinion unnecessary. I hope the Minister will accept this Amendment.

Photo of Sir Frederick Messer Sir Frederick Messer , Tottenham South

I wish to support the Amendment. I will not repeat the arguments which I used on a previous Amendment of this nature. In my view, it is too harsh, and not in consonance with English justice, to make this an indictable offence.

Photo of Mr Edmund Radford Mr Edmund Radford , Manchester Rusholme

I hope the Government will not accept this Amendment. Only a fortnight ago, there was a case of a Fascist who refused to register under the Act, and when prosecuted, stated, "I am not going to be dictated to; I will stay in my home and look after my business. I will please myself." For such an individual no penalty is too harsh. I think that two years' imprisonment for such a man is leniency enough. I trust the Government will not accept the Amendment.

Photo of Sir Frederick Messer Sir Frederick Messer , Tottenham South

Why not make it a capital offence?

Photo of Mr Edmund Radford Mr Edmund Radford , Manchester Rusholme

If the hon. Member moved such an Amendment, I should be prepared to consider it.

Photo of Mr Ralph Assheton Mr Ralph Assheton , Rushcliffe

I am afraid that this is an Amendment which the Government cannot accept. The persons to whom this Clause relates are those men who refuse medical examination, and the object of committing the offence is to evade military service. The greater number of the men concerned are conscientious objectors, and are men who have failed to convince the tribunals. They are men who have been summoned for medical examination and have refused to attend. These men are prosecuted for the offence, and probably are punished by the imposition of a small fine. The next process is that they refuse to obey the order of the courts to be medically examined. Under these circumstances, after they have had three opportunities, it seems to me that it would be clearly inconsistent with the seriousness of the offence to reduce the penalty. This is not a question of conscientious objection, but it is a question of refusing to obey a reasonable order of the court. The Government cannot give way in the matter.

Photo of Mr John McGovern Mr John McGovern , Glasgow Shettleston

The Minister has stated his objections to any form of reduction merely because the decision has gone against a man who has appeared before a tribunal. If the man concerned accepted the work which was being allotted to him, and he is a conscientious objector, then he is not genuine. If he is a genuine conscientious objector, he is bound to refuse if he is to be consistent with his objection. All that the Minister is saying is that the man has failed to convince the members of the tribunal, and not that he is not a genuine objector. In Glasgow we have No. I tribunal, and 50 per cent, less people get through, compared with any other tribunals in the country. Many of the men who have passed through that tribunal and have been sent for a term of imprisonment have since been recognised as genuine conscientious objectors. The Minister need not suspect, as I was suspected in 1915 when I appeared before a tribunal and was turned down, that I was not a genuine conscientious objector. I knew that I had conscientious objections to taking part in a war, and I have held those objections from 1910 to the present day. Therefore the tribunal was wrong in its decision. The decisions of many of the tribunals which decided the cases of other Members of the House of Commons, who are now Ministers, have been wrong because the very position of these Members today has proved that they were "fake" in the extreme when they pleaded their objection. There are bound to be a number of genuine people turned down by the tribunals.

I recognise that it is not very often that conscience is allowed scope in this House. Yesterday conscience was allowed its full scope. It seems to me that the only time when conscience scruples can be found among the Socialists here is in connection with Sunday cinemas and theatres. Then organised religion can drive them into the Lobby. The Minister is not only laying down procedure and penalty but is carrying out persecution against these men. I could, for example, go to the tribunal and, if they said to me, "You have to take part in Civil Defence work," I might find that perfectly consistent with my own humane outlook though I was against war, but there are many religious objectors who take the extreme view that it is completely inconsistent to be part of this machine in any way, and they believe that Civil Defence is part of the machine. An hon. Member thinks that this proposal did not go far enough and said that if an Amendment was moved that they should be hanged, he would support it.

In my estimation, that is exactly the type of mind that we are declaiming against when we talk about Nazis and Fascists and concentration camps. I find, in spite of all the statements that have been made to the contrary, that a large number of people in this House and the country are going along that self-same road. I have seen since the war began a vast transformation in the minds of Members of the House. I see many of them to-day who could qualify, not for the British free institution of the House of Commons but for the German Reichstag. I am against this Measure and its penalties and for the Minister of Labour, who has been raised to that status because of his past services and his protests against war, to take this attitude towards conscientious objectors is the most vile thing that I have seen in the whole of my life in the Labour movement. Principle seems to be of no consequence and democracy is being destroyed by those very democrats who use the phrase but in their hearts do not believe in democracy but in dictatorship.

Amendment negatived

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 5, 6 and 7 ordered to stand part of the Bill.