New Clause. — (Provisions as to certain persons sentenced by the courts)

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

Alert me about debates like this

(1) If any person undergoing a sentence of imprisonment for a term of three months or more imposed on him for an offence by a court, in accordance with the terms of Section four or Section five of this Act, claims that the offence was committed by reason of his conscientiously objecting to performing a duty imposed by this Act, he may apply in the. prescribed manner to have his case considered by the appellate tribunal and that tribunal shall, if it finds that the offence for which he was sentenced was committed by reason of such conscientious objection as aforesaid have power to recommend to the Minister that he be discharged from the service of Civil Defence as soon as may be after serving the sentence imposed upon him.

(2)Where the appellate tribunal recommend under this Section that a person be discharged from the service of Civil Defence the tribunal shall have power to make any order with respect to his registration as a conscientious objector which they would have had power to make on an appeal under Section Five of the principal Act, and any such order shall have effect immediately upon his discharge.

(3)Upon receiving from the appellate tribunal a recommendation made under this Section that a person be discharged from the ser vice of Civil Defence it shall be the duty of the Minister to arrange for his discharge accordingly—[Mr. Harvey.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Mr Thomas Harvey Mr Thomas Harvey , Combined English Universities

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

This Clause provides for this Measure something which already exists in the National Service Act. It will be remembered that when the National Service Bill was under discussion very earnest and eloquent appeals were made to the Government to include a provision to prevent the kind of thing which occurred in the last war, when conscientious objectors were repeatedly sentenced to considerable terms of imprisonment, came out from prison, went back to their regiments, and then were sentenced again, technically for different offences, but in reality for the same offence of refusing to undertake military service. That was commonly known as the "cat-and-mouse" procedure. It excited very real indignation among many people who did not agree with the conscientious objectors' point of view. It is only fair that the provision which was made in the National Service Act for those who had a conscientious objection to military service should apply equally to prevent repeated imprisonment for what is virtually the same offence in the case of conscientious objectors under this Bill. I am not suggesting that there should be no penalty for refusing to obey the law. I do not think that the men concerned would expect that. The Bill provides severe penalties, either one or two years imprisonment, as a maximum, in addition to a fine. We surely cannot contemplate, although we may disagree with a man's views, and think him very misguided that when, after a long sentence of that kind, he persists in refusing to undertake the service laid upon him, he should again be sentenced to a long term of imprisonment for the same offence.

I believe that the Minister of Labour has been unable to understand that a man can have a conscientious objection to civilian service. It is easy to understand the conscientious objection to the taking of life and to military service. But conscience is an inexplicable thing. It is, in fact, true that people have a conscientious objection to many acts in no way connected with military service. The State has recognised that. We know that there is a conscientious objection on the part of some people to compulsory vaccination. Most of us consider it in the interests of the community that children should be vaccinated. Parliament passed a law to provide that they should. But it made provision in that law for a conscientious objection, of which Parliament itself did not approve, recognising it as sincere, and, therefore, to be respected. In this case there is no suggestion that conscientious objection should go without a penalty—it will incur a very severe penalty—but there is a strong reason why the State should see that, after the penalty has bees imposed, it is not again inflicted for what is, in effect, the same offence. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary a short time ago spoke of the evasion of the Act by conscientious objectors who did not register. I am aware that no one would wish to justify evasion.

Photo of Mr Edmund Radford Mr Edmund Radford , Manchester Rusholme

My hon. Friend refers to conscientious objectors, but I gave the Committee the case of a Fascist, and therefore I think it would be wrong to convey the impression that it applies solely to conscientious objectors.

Photo of Mr Thomas Harvey Mr Thomas Harvey , Combined English Universities

I agree that it covers others besides conscientious objectors, and I am not for a moment justifying evasion of any of the duties. Some of these men are not trying to evade the Act but have, in some cases, notified the Ministry of Labour that because of their conscientious objection they are unable to register. They will not take advantage of any opportunity that the law has provided, because they feel that the whole thing is something that is wrong. I am not saying that that is the right position to take, but it is a sincere position, and it is one which, surely, we must respect, even if we think that it must be misguided, and I beg that the Committee should provide that in such cases where there is a claim by a conscientious objector after a period of imprisonment has been served there should be the opportunity for that claim to be considered by a tribunal, which should have the same power as under the National Service Act to award the different degrees of exemption that are provided in that Act or to make the suitable recommendation to the Minister.

The terms of this new Clause are almost identical, with certain verbal alterations which are necessary, with the terms of the existing Act. I am prepared to see any modification of those terms that the Minister may consider necessary, if he, on behalf of the Government, can accept the principle that is already embodied in the National Service Act. It is that for which I am asking, and it would meet my hon. Friend's desire in proposing this Clause.

Photo of Sir Frederick Messer Sir Frederick Messer , Tottenham South

I think that, in view of what we have heard from the Minister, we are in the situation which arises from his refusal to give anybody engaged on civil work the right of appearing before a tribunal to support their case of conscientious objection. You are discriminating against the Civil Defence worker. You say to the man called up for military service, "If the tribunal have not, in your view, correctly arrived at a conclusion in face of the evidence submitted, and you are dissatisfied, you can go to the appeal tribunal. Then, if you are unable to prove your case, you must go into the Army, and if you do not, you are subject to the penalties laid down by law." The Civil Defence worker, although it might be absurd and ridiculous that he should have any conscientious objection to Civil Defence—and there are many cranks in the world —may conceive a type of Civil Defence work which outrages his conscience, and you are not providing him with any tribunal, and so, willy-nilly, he will have to go to the court. The court may be seized of the sincerity with which he holds his view, but they have no alternative. They are not concerned with the reasons; their concern is with facts, and if the law has been broken, the consequent penalty must be imposed. After the penalty has been imposed and punishment has been suffered, they may still refuse and again may go to the court. How long is that to continue? If a court says, "This has arisen as a result of conscientious principles and has been referred to us by a tribunal constituted differently from our court," let the tribunal say, "In such circumstances we are wasting man-power as well as doing an injustice by not giving this man an opportunity of some alternative form of service." I suggest that the best interests of the nation would be served by providing some opportunity for men having a conscientious objection to a particular type of Civil Defence work, to state a case in exactly the same way as is done by a man who might be called up for military service.

Photo of Mr Edmund Radford Mr Edmund Radford , Manchester Rusholme

I hope the Government will not accept this new Clause. I can understand a man having a conscientious objection to taking life or engaging in combat, but I cannot understand—and it is a misuse of the word" conscience —anyone having a conscientious objection to taking part in Civil Defence work, for instance, fire watching and the like. That is not a matter of conscience; it is a refusal to take a fair share of public service which is the bounden duty of everyone of us in view of what we are receiving from the public services of our country.

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

The hon. Member is discussing what we discussed a long time ago, which is not the object of this new Clause.

Photo of Mr Edmund Radford Mr Edmund Radford , Manchester Rusholme

I was only putting forward what I felt was a justification for the Government in not accepting it. Refusal of any person to obey the terms of this Bill is something which I could not regard as being a matter of conscience at all. Some of us might prefer to go home and have a comfortable sleep instead of fire watching, but conscientious objection is merely evasion of the reasonable duty we all owe to our fellow countrymen.

Photo of Mr Douglas Clifton Brown Mr Douglas Clifton Brown , Hexham

I must interrupt the hon. Member again. That is not the object of this new Clause.

Photo of Mr Edmund Radford Mr Edmund Radford , Manchester Rusholme

I bow to your Ruling, Colonel Clifton Brown, and I will not pursue the matter further.

Mr. David Adams:

I quite agree that the conscientious objector is a person of somewhat unusual intellectual outlook. I do not sympathise with his view, but, nevertheless, he exists, and as the State recognises that he exists there is little advantage to the community by his repeated punishment. The conscientious objector might argue that Civil Defence is a form of militarism and an aid to the military machine and that without it the military situation in this country would unquestionably be worsened. Whether we agree or disagree, he is prepared to suffer punishment, incidental to disagreement with the community, under these heads. Surely, it is reasonable to ask that if there be such persons we should endeavour not to commit repeated acts of cruelty or harshness against them. For that reason, once a man has suffered the extreme punishment, which may be the severe sentence of two years' imprisonment, there should be available to him a tribune to which he can appeal.

Photo of Mr Edmund Radford Mr Edmund Radford , Manchester Rusholme

I believe that two years is the maximum period for which a man can be imprisoned. Suppose that the war went on for five years, would it be right for a man to escape five years' duty merely by serving two years' imprisonment?

Photo of Sir Frederick Messer Sir Frederick Messer , Tottenham South

Yes, if he has a conscientious objection.

Mr. Adams:

No doubt the community would see that such a man was not an idle member of it, even if he was not serving his time in prison or in the Civil Defence services. One may hope that he would be a useful member of the community. Let us be broadminded and give these persons, with whom we may utterly disagree, what is, after all, in the judgment of broadminded people, elementary justice.

Photo of Mr John McGovern Mr John McGovern , Glasgow Shettleston

I support the appeal which has been made that there should be a tribunal to decide, after a period of imprisonment, when Shylock has had his pound of flesh, whether the man's genuine conscientious objection has led to his failing to respond to the call. Probably, I would go further than some hon. Members in relation to this matter. The hon. Member for Rusholme (Mr. Radford) gave the case of a Fascist who stated that he refused to do anything. Let me remind the hon. Member of the case of a Fascist in London who was granted exemption by the tribunal. He said he was in favour of the German system, and, therefore, he had conscientious objections to being asked to take part in military warfare for the overthrow of the system in which he believed. He thought that system should come to this country. He was exempted by the tribunal because he had a conscientious objection. Suppose there were Fascists as well as Socialists and Pacifists who, under this Bill, were being called to the Colours, and their conscientious objection was such that they refused to serve, I would not be prepared to say that they should be kept in prison for one, two or five years, during the period of the war, if, unfortunately, it lasted that time.

The hon. Member for Rusholme appals me when he suggests that the penalties in this Bill are too moderate. That seems to be his grievance about the Bill. He would not give the individual any right of appeal after he had served three, six, or 12 months', or even two years' imprisonment. He says that the war may last for five years, and therefore, his argument is that the individual should be kept in prison for five years. From time to time I hear appeals made in the House which cause me to wonder whether or not they are genuine. I hear appeals made from the Labour Benches about the imprisonment in India of people who believe in a system of non co-operation, and who refuse to co-operate with the British Imperialist State. I sometimes doubt whether there is any sincerity behind those appeals. Indeed, I honestly confess that I doubt whether a large proportion of the Labour party—I do not say all its Members—are really sincere about anything. I begin to doubt all the principles that were inculcated into me when I was a boy by the average trade union leader. I am beginning to wonder whether they believe in any of them, or whether they have not got far away from realities and principles and contact with the ordinary men and women in the streets by coming into this House. I believe that the greatest condemnation of Parliamentarianism is the fact that as men gravitate towards the centre, and move away from the sources of poverty and distress in their area, and become more and more part of the machine—

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

Will not the hon. Member credit other Members with a little sincerity? He has been speaking to-day as if there were no decent men here except himself. Am I to gather that that is what he is saying?

Photo of Mr John McGovern Mr John McGovern , Glasgow Shettleston

I will judge Members according to their actions. I judge every one according to his actions. If the Minister of Labour says to the youth of this nation that it is glorious to oppose war and if hon. Members of the Labour party like the Secretary of State for Scotland conducted propaganda throughout the years, inculcating that idea into youth, then I am entitled to say that the Secretary of State for Scotland, the Home Secretary and the Ministry of Labour

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

The hon. Member is attacking the Labour party as a whole.

The Chairman:

I think this is a matter which hon. Members had better deal with elsewhere, or on some other occasion. I think that the hon. Member is getting very near transgressing the rules in what he is saying.

Photo of Mr John McGovern Mr John McGovern , Glasgow Shettleston

I know that the only time that their conscience touches them is when they are told these truths. Let me say to the Labour Members, I am sent to express my views and I am entitled to do so because we have not arrived at the stage when this is a British Reichstag House of Commons.

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

One is entitled to challenge that too.

Photo of Mr John McGovern Mr John McGovern , Glasgow Shettleston

I do not disagree—just as Labour Members are entitled to challenge the Conservatives. My claim is that the Labour party and the Minister have accepted Tory philosophy.

The Chairman:

I hope the hon. Member will not pursue this subject any more.

Photo of Mr John McGovern Mr John McGovern , Glasgow Shettleston

I will only say in passing that Labour Members must realise they are now in office, and that they are part of the Government.

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

Does that make us wrong because we support the Government in this war?

The Chairman:

I am afraid I must point out that this discussion is out of order.

Photo of Mr John Tinker Mr John Tinker , Leigh

Unless the hon. Member gets away from this subject he is going to be challenged.

The Chairman:

This is obviously a matter to be settled elsewhere or at another time.

Photo of Mr John McGovern Mr John McGovern , Glasgow Shettleston

I will conclude by saying that by maintaining that a man shall not appeal to a tribunal after a term of imprisonment they are being inconsistent with their past. If I challenge Members on the Floor of the House of Commons and in the country with being inconsistent, I am entitled to do so. I sympathise with any hon. Member who has been caught up in the power machine. I am not in the power machine. I am an independent Member who can express his views. I support the Amendment, and I think the Minister would be wise to accept it, because again, instead of simply penalising people for the refusal to serve by keeping them for a very lengthy time in prison, you are carrying on a system of persecution which I do not think is worthy of the real ideals of British justice.

Photo of Mr Ralph Assheton Mr Ralph Assheton , Rushcliffe

This Clause is clearly on the analogy of Clause 13 of the original National Service (Armed Forces) Act. There are two main objections to it. The Movers speak of the discharge of the man in question from Civil Defence. Of course, it is apparent that he will not find himself in that situation if he is a man who has not yet been medically examined or who has disobeyed the orders of the tribunal; in such a case he would not be in Civil Defence, and therefore could not be discharged from it. On the face of it, it does not make sense. I appreciate what my hon. Friend said, that he would accept any words that we chose to suggest, and, if we wanted to accept the underlying idea, we would put forward certain other words. The Committee has already accepted on several occasions the proposition that it does not recognise conscientious objection to Civil Defence as such, and if we were to accept this Clause, we should be going back on all the work that we have done. Hon. Members may still maintain their own opinions as to whether there should be conscientious objection to Civil Defence, but the view of the Government that such objections should not be upheld has been maintained on all sides of the House. I do not therefore think I can do any good by pursuing the matter further. I ask the Committee to reject the Clause.

Photo of Mr Samuel Silverman Mr Samuel Silverman , Nelson and Colne

I do not think it is quite correct to say that to accept the principle of the Clause would be to accept the principle of conscientious objection to Civil Defence. I have repeatedly said that I entirely accept the view that conscientious objection to Civil Defence would be inadmissible If I thought the acceptance of the Clause involved going back on that principle, I should not be supporting it. I support it because as a matter of public policy it is right that this should be done. It is accepted that a man ought to perform his duties under this Bill, and that, if he does not, that is a matter for which the State is entitled to punish him. All that is accepted by the Clause. As I read it, it does not claim that a man who claims conscientious objection ought to be entitled to exemption. If it did claim that the principle would be given away, as my hon. Friend says. The new Clause says, however, that however conscientious and sincere a man's objection may be he shall not be exempt but shall be punished by the State for refusal to obey its orders. It adds, however, that as a matter of public policy sentences should not be inflicted for what is in fact the same offence. That is the principle. Hon. Members sometimes forget that the words "conscientious objector" did not come into the political life of the country over the question of military service. They came in for the first time with the Education Act of 1902, when people said they could not conscientiously give their money in order that the State could do things which were opposed to their conscience. They were the original conscientious objectors. People were also allowed to disobey the law of compulsory vaccination if they satisfied some authority that they were conscientiously opposed to it. Under the Education Act we saw the farce of a person being dragged time after time before the courts and fined and of having his

Division No. 14.]AYES.
Adams, D. (Consett)Messer, F.TELLERS FOR THE AYES.—
Kirkwood, D. Windsor, W.Mr. Harvey and Mr. Silverman.
McGovern, J
NOES.
Adamson W. M. (Cannock)Butcher, H. W.Hall, W. G. (Coins Valley)
Albery, Sir IrvingCrookshank, Capt. Rt. Hon. H.Hannah, I. C.
Allen, Lt.-Col. Sir W. J. (Armagh)Daggar, G.Hannon, Sir P. J. H.
Assheton, R.Dunn, E.Heneage, Lt.-Col. A. P.
Beamish. Rear-Admiral T. P.Edmondson, Major Sir J.Hill, Dr. A. V. (Cambridge U.)
Blair, Sir R.Edwards, N. (Caerphilly)Hurd, Sir P. A.
Boyce, H. LeslieFox, Sir G. W. G.Jenkins, A. (Pontypool)
Brooklebank, Sir C. E. R.Gibson, R. (Greenock)Kennedy, Rt. Hon. T.
Brooke, H.Granville, E. L.Lamb, Sir J. Q.

goods sold, although the offence was one and the same.

In the present case, if a man is called upon to perform duties under the Bill and he refuses, he is punished and serves his sentence. In a purely formal, technical sense if he refuses another order, he commits another offence and he can be imprisoned again. Is it, however, good policy to do that? Does the State want to do it, because in fact the second, third and fourth offences are all really the same offence, and a man ought not to have repeated punishments for the same crime. That is the principle of the Clause; it is that that conscientious objection to Civil Defence ought to be accepted. That is a different thing. The number of men involved must be very small. What sort of advantage to the State or to the national effort or to the prosecution of the war or to democracy or to anything else that we value is to be gained by repeatedly letting these men out of prison and dragging them in again and again because they go on doing what they said in the beginning they felt bound to do? Is it really wise and does my hon. Friend really think that it is essential to his Bill? Will he not between now and the final stages reconsider it? He shakes his head, but I hope he will think better of it. It is a hopeless spectacle to contemplate; it does nobody any good and it is an offence against what has always been regarded as public policy in the criminal law. Nothing would be gained by persistence in this matter. My hon. Friend has a vast majority in the House and can carry almost anything if he is obstinate enough, but if you have a giant's strength is it always wise to use it?

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

The Committee divided: Ayes, 5; Noes, 67.

Leach, W.Mort, D. L.Strauss, H. G. (Norwich)
Loftus, P. C.Paling W.Stuart, Rt. Hon. J. (Moray and Nairn)
Mabane, W.Price, M. P.Summers, G. S.
MacAndrew, Colonel Sir C. G.Radford, E. A.Tinker, J. J.
Macdonald, G. (Ince)Ramsden, Sir E.Tomlinson, G.
McEntee, V. La T.Rankin, Sir R.Walkden, E. (Doncaster).
McEwen, Capt. J. H. F.Reed, A. C. (Exeter)Ward, Col. Sir A. L. (Hull)
McKinlay, A. S.Reed, Sir H. S. (Aylesbury)Wedgwood, Rt. Hon. J. C.
Magnay, T.Reid, W. Allan (Derby)Whiteley, W. (Blaydon)
Makins, Brig.-Gen. Sir E.Rickards, G. W.Williams, C. (Torquay)
Mander, G. le M.Sanderson, Sir F. B.Winterton, Rt. Hon. Earl
Mayhew, Lt.-Col. J.Scott, R. D. (Wansbeck)Young, A. S. L. (Partick)
Mellor, Sir J. S. P. (Tamworth)Smiles, Lt. -Col. Sir W. D.
Morgan, Dr H. B. W. (Rochdale)Stewart, W. Joseph (H'gton-le-Spring.)TELLERS FOR THE NOES.—
Major Dagdale and Mr. Boulton

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended, considered; read the Third time, and passed.