HC Deb 09 August 1888 vol 330 cc128-37

Order for Third Reading read.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Bill be now read the third time."—(Mr. Bradlaugh.)

MR. HUNTER (Aberdeen, N.)

said, he wished to explain the course he intended to take on this occasion. He voted for the second reading of the Bill, and now he found he could not support the third reading. He recognized that the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh) had acted with perfect bona fides throughout the discussion of the Bill, and he had not a word to say against the course which the hon. Member took, beyond this—that the Amendment which he succeeded in carrying by a very small majority deprived the Bill of its principal value in his (Mr. Hunter's) opinion. There could be no objection to that Amendment as respects those persons in England and Scotland in whom the hon. Gentleman was particularly interested—those who had no religious belief at all; but with respect to the other and, he believed, larger class, who strongly disliked the taking of an oath, but who were not in a position to say they had no religious belief, this Bill was most unsatisfactory, because, before a person was entitled to make an affirmation under this Bill as it now stood, he must say that the taking of an oath was inconsistent with his religious belief. When the Report stage was reached his hon. and learned Friend the Member for Dundee (Mr. E. Robertson) put down an Amendment, which was the last desperate effort to save the Bill, but the Bill was taken at a time when neither he nor his supporters understood it would be taken, and the Amendment consequently was not considered. It had been suggested, he believed, that in "another place" the purpose of the Amendment of his hon. and learned Friend, which was that those who had some religious belief should be allowed to say, not that the taking of an oath was inconsistent with their religious belief, but that they had conscientious objections to taking an oath, would be carried out; but when the Bill left this House it passed beyond their control. He would not, therefore, vote on the Motion.


said, he also wished to clear his conscience in reference to this Bill, and explain the course he intended to take in reference to the third reading. The course he had determined to adopt was not the course indicated by the hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Hunter), who had left the House. To the Bill as it at present stood he entertained objections so strong that, unless he received an assurance which he was not likely to receive, he should be compelled to vote against the third reading. The only thing which would be likely to deter him from taking such a course was the fact that he should have to go into the same Lobby with hon. Gentlemen opposite who were opposing the Bill on the grounds which he utterly detested. The Bill in its present shape was to his mind a very different Bill to that which was originally introduced by the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh). This was entirely due to the obscure and certainly ill-understood covenant entered into between the hon. Member for Northampton and the hon. and learned Solicitor General (Sir Edward Clarke). The hon. and learned Solicitor General was understood to threaten that the opposition to the Bill in "another place" would kill the measure if the hon. Gentleman did not agree to certain modifications, and the result was the introduction of the most objectionable Amendment which had been referred to by the hon. Member for North Aberdeen. He so little realized the nature of the compromise that he had voted for the second reading of the Bill. What the hon. and learned Solicitor General insisted upon as a condition to the withdrawal of opposition in "another place" was a provision that a person making an affirmation should say either that he had no religious belief, or that the taking of an oath was contrary to his religious belief. Those words and the grounds on which their insertion was defended involved a stigma on opinion to which he for one could not consent. He could never consent to vote for any Bill leaving that House which imposed on opinion in matters of religion any such stigma. The Bill when it was introduced was called a relieving Bill. It was now a stigmatising Bill and a branding Bill. He acknowledged the great service the hon. Member for Northampton had rendered to the cause of religious liberty, but he hoped the hon. Gentleman would not contend that he was entitled to dictate to the Liberal Party what course they should adopt on this important Bill. The hon. Member would do well to bear in mind that the vast majority of the Liberal Party went into the Lobby against him in opposition to this critical clause. The assurance to which he (Mr. E. Robertson) had referred as the only condition upon which he could vote for the third reading of the Bill could only be given by some one higher in authority than the hon. and learned Solicitor General, and that assurance was that when the Bill went to the House of Lords it would be amended in accordance with the terms of the Amendment which it had been his intention to propose on the Report stage of the Bill. If this could not be given—and he did not believe it could—he would be compelled to vote against the third reading as a protest against the most objectionable and insulting principle which the Bill embodied.

MR. SYDNEY GEDGE (Stockport)

said, that if the Bill touched only the question of giving evidence in Courts of Justice, he might have been content to let it proceed without objection or with a more protest; but it went far beyond that, and dealt with juries and with promissory oaths, taking away the religious sanction from them without substituting any other sanction for it, and this he objected to. He recognized the fact that in a Court of Justice you must get the best evidence you can, and wrong may be done if any be excluded; there was, therefore, reason for admitting testimony not given on oath, provided only that the jury knew why no oath was taken; and further, as regarded witnesses in Courts of Justice, a person who affirmed instead of swearing, could be prosecuted for perjury if he gave false testimony; but an indictment for perjury would not lie with regard to the violation of oaths by juries, or to promissory oaths, as it lay against persons who swore falsely in Courts of Law. The result, therefore, of this Bill was that you took away the religious sanction, and gave no other. Was England to set the example of permitting men to undertake important offices or duties without requiring them to give a solemn promise, either under a religious sanction or subject to legal penalties? No other nation had ever yet done that, and he hoped that England would not do it.

MR. PICTON (Leicester)

said, if anything would induce him to vote for the third reading of this Bill it would be such speeches as they had just heard from the hon. Member who had just sat down (Mr. Sydney Gedge); but, notwithstanding the strong ground afforded by the speech of the hon. Member for supporting the Bill, he (Mr. Picton) was afraid that he could not see his way to vote for the measure in its present shape. Therefore, as he had not in that House offered any explanation of the course he had taken in regard to the Bill, he thought he ought to do so now, especially as he had been called upon to express his opinion. Therefore, on that, the final stage of the Bill, he might be permitted to say a few words by way of explanation. His strong conviction was that the State had nothing whatever to do with the theological opinions of any man, and he declined to be a party to justifying any legislation in that direction. The Bill did little to alter the law in that respect; it would continue very much the same wrongs as already existed. He regarded all oaths as ancient superstitions, which were only suitable to inferior and ill-informed minds. He was not going to support any such ancient abuses, and if he could not do anything to remove them, he would not vote for the Bill before the House. The Bill enabled a Judge or Magistrate to inquire into the religious belief of a person about to affirm under the Bill. That was what was done now in the Magistrates' Courts, and in other Courts of superior authority. But "religious belief" was a vague phrase, and might mean anything or nothing. The ordinary idea seemed to be that it meant the belief in a personal Deity and in the existence of hell. This was exemplified in the case of children when before the Courts as witnesses. They were asked, "Do you know what the Almighty will do to those who tell lies?" and if the answer was that the child would in that case go to hell, that was regarded as perfectly satisfactory. He declined to give any sanction whatever to so barbarous a superstition. Such a practice was nothing else than a gross, barbarous, and heathenish superstition, and it ought to have been abolished in this country years ago. Did not the founder of Christianity himself say, "Swear not at all?" It might be argued that this had reference to the ordinary use of oaths in conversation, but anyone who looked at the occasion when the words were uttered would come to a different conclusion. If he believed in the infallibility of the New Testament he should consider himself debarred from taking an oath, because its highest injunctions were against the practice. He might be allowed to point to the absurdity of Clause 1 of this Bill now under consideration. He could not, if called upon to take an oath, say that it was contrary to his religious belief, nor could he say that he had no religious belief. He did not care to take the oath, yet if called upon, and he declined, he would be expected to accept one of these alternatives before he could be allowed to affirm. He did not regard the Bill as affording any relief from the present system; therefore, he could not support the Bill. But out of his profund sympathy with the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh), and for all he had endured, he could not vote against the Bill, and, lost his action might be misunderstood, he would take no part in the Division.

MR. DE LISLE (Leicestershire, Mid)

Sir, I rise to move that this Bill be read a third time this day six months. I do not propose to repeat any of the arguments which I have urged against this Bill on previous occasions, both in speech and in writing, in treating of the fundamental questions involved in this unhappy piece of legislation. But I should feel that I had failed in my duty to the electors of Mid Leicestershire who have sent me here to represent their political convictions, to the great Tory tradition which is about to be shattered, and to this ancient and illustrious House of Commons which still inscribes upon the Bar of the House Numini et patriœ asto, "Stand true to the godhead and your country," if I hesitated to protest emphatically and irrevocably against the great injury which I conceive is about to be done to the sound natural reason and to the religious faith of the people of the United Kingdom. I regard this Affirmation Bill as deplorable in its origin and its history; deplorable in the circumstance if it shall pass into law under the auspices of a Conservative and a Unionist Government; deplorable also in the results which I fear are likely to follow. I have no wish to pose as a prophet of evil; nevertheless, when I consider the alleged necessity of conferring a legal sanction upon that absolute unbelief and ungodliness which I have been taught to consider inexcusable as a symptom or a cause, I can only read in the majority of 100 votes by which the second reading of this measure was passed in a House of 400 Members a symptom of decay and a cause of decomposition. The Amendments of the Committee do not appear to be substantial. I hope therefore that even now the vote of the 14th of March last, when the Bill was read a second time, may be reversed. Sir William Blackstone, in his immortal Commentary upon the Laws of England, has left us these words of warning. They are said to have been constantly upon the lips of the great Lord Treasurer Burleigh, "England can only be destroyed by her Parliament." Sir, in moving the Resolution which stands in my name, I feel confident that we who are determined to oppose this Bill to the end are supported by the sympathy and approval of many millions of the people.

Amendment proposed, to leave out the word "now," and at the end of the Question to add the words "upon this day six months."—(Mr. De Lisle.)

Question proposed, "That the word 'now' stand part of the Question."

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

said, he must appeal to hon. Members on both sides of the House to allow the Bill to pass. After the debate on the second reading, the speech of the hon. and learned Member for Dundee (Mr. E. Robertson) had a little startled him. The words to which the hon. and learned Member had objected were the form of words in the Act giving relief from the obligation to take an oath to Moravians, Quakers, and Separatists. In all the legislation on this subject the foundation of conscientious objection to an oath had been the declaration that it was contrary to religious belief, and it was a little too late now to take objection to the form of words. He could not understand how anyone claiming to be a Liberal could vote against it, considering the large number of persons it would enfranchise. He had tried to put himself in the position of those whose standpoint was not his own; and he had fully and strictly carried out the understanding arrived at on the second reading, and he appealed especially to the hon. Members whose objections he had endeavoured to meet to vote for the third reading. He hoped that many of those who would not otherwise have voted for the third reading would support that stage now that it was about to be opposed by a combination of men with specially refined notions about the meaning of words, and men who made a point of obstructing any reform whatever, and whose grievance it would take away.


said, he regretted to have to differ very strongly from the judgment of the Bill formed by the hon. Member who moved its rejection (Mr. De Lisle). He hoped the general body of the House would show itself wiser than the extremists on either side, and that the measure would be accepted as a substantial and a reasonable amendment of the law. It had been said by one hon. Member that a great Tory tradition was about to be shattered. That statement he repudiated with his whole heart, for there was no Tory tradition in antagonism to this Bill, and the allegation that the measure would confer a legal sanction on ungodliness was quite unfounded. The Bill introduced no now test at all; it adjusted the test to the requirements of the different positions in which persons were who were called upon to take an oath. He wished to remind the House that the Bill merely aimed at removing objections which were strongly and justly felt in the present state of the law. At the present moment a man might take an oath, and, if it was afterwards proved that he had no religious belief, his oath would be held in law to be a nullity, and the evidence given upon it might be held worthless. That was a blot in our system of jurisprudence, and the Bill proposed to remove it. He trusted that the House would vote in favour of the third reading, for there was no Party triumph involved, and the passing of the measure would settle the vexed question of oaths for at least many years to come, if not altogether. ["No, no!"] He maintained that it would. It had been alleged that threats had been made that should not the Amendments suggested from the Ministerial side of the House be accepted, the Bill would be thrown out in the House of Lords. He denied that; he had spoken for himself alone, and had made no reference to the House of Lords; but he believed that if hon. Members opposite who were now opposing the Bill had had their way, the Bill would have no chance of passing during the present Parliament. He had long been anxious that the law with regard to oaths should be made uniform and intelligible, and that object was met by the Bill now before the House. He hoped, therefore, that it would be allowed to pass. If the framing of the Bill had been entrusted to him, he should not have put into it anything in addition to what it now contained. It would, he felt convinced, be a very useful addition to our Statute Book.


said, that he should vote for the Bill because it was a step in the right direction. He must dissent altogether from the last statement of the hon. and learned Solicitor General, that the present Bill would settle the controversy as to oaths; for that controversy could only be settled by the disappearance of the oath altogether. He must resent, as an insult, the statement which had been made in that debate, that a man's word was unworthy of credit who objected to take an oath. The Quakers strongly objected to taking the oath, and there were none more truthful in the entire community.

COLONEL SANDYS (Lancashire, S.W., Bootle)

said, he felt bound to support the Motion for the rejection of the Bill, for he believed it was his duty to oppose it as unjust to his constituents and unjust to the interests of the Christian English people. The omission of the words of imprecation or calling God to witness, compelled him to vote against this measure; for he believed the country agreed with him that when the Almighty was called to witness there was a third person present at the taking of the oath. The Bill was the first attempt in the history of Parliament to thrust out of our Courts of Justice all recognition of the authority of Almighty God. He called upon the House, which had hitherto been an Assembly largely composed of Christian men, to reject a measure which would allow the people of Great Britain to omit to recognize the authority of Almighty God in the transaction of the affairs of the country.

MR. W. P. SINCLAIR (Falkirk, &c.)

said, he thought that the religious faith of the country would not be undermined by anything in the four corners of the Bill. It was founded on something a great deal more solid. The Bill was simply and truly a relieving Bill. It would remedy a very serious grievance which still existed in the North of Ireland. Many people there were in favour of swearing by the uplifted hand, considering that form of oath more Scriptural than the ordinary form. Fifty years ago an Act was passed to enable them to take the oath in their own way; but it was a defective measure, and many magistrates now thought it necessary to ask—"Do you consider swearing by the uplifted hand to be binding upon your conscience?" That state of things they considered insulting, and it constituted a grievance which one of the clauses of this Bill would remove. It was therefore a relieving Bill, and he hoped that it would be agreed to as such by the House.

MR. DARLING (Deptford)

(who rose amid great interruption) said, the change proposed by the Bill was really very small, and there was no reason for saying that the country was in a state of decomposition and decay. It was an error to suppose that they were now for the first time about to sanction the omission from the oath of all reference to the Deity. The chief innovation which the Bill would introduce was the extension to the House of Commons of the form of affirmation which had been permitted for some considerable time in every Court of Justice. He thought it right to say, before sitting down, that the objections originally raised to parts of the measure on his side of the House had been most fairly met in Committee by those in charge of the Bill, and most especially by the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh).

Question put.

The House divided:—Ayes 147; Noes:—Majority 87.—(Div. List, No.271.)

Main Question put, and agreed to.

Bill read the third time, and passed.