HC Deb 27 June 1888 vol 327 cc1507-11

Bill considered in Committee.

(In the Committee.)

Clause 1 (Affirmation may be made instead of oath).

MR. HUNTER (Aberdeen, N.)

said, he had an Amendment to move to the Clause, the object of which was to exempt from the necessity of taking the oath any person who should declare that he entertained conscientious objections to doing so. He had put down this Amendment in consequence of seeing upon the Paper some others to which he objected, and the words of it he had taken from the Act of the 2nd Vic. Cap. 77, which was passed to meet a case similar to that with which the Committee had now to deal. In 1838 Parliament had to deal with the case of persons who had been Quakers, and who, so long as they were Quakers, had been excused from taking the oath, and who made an affirmation instead. But the provisions enacted with regard to them did not apply to those who had ceased to be Quakers, and who had consequently ceased to be able to make affirmation. The words of the Act were— I, A. B., having been one of the people called Quakers, and entertaining conscientious objections to the taking an oath, do solemly and sincerely and truly affirm.… He submitted that those words were less offensive, less objectionable, and more suitable than the words of the other Amendments which he had seen on the Paper. He had no hesitation in saying that he should prefer to see the Bill passed in the form in which it had been introduced by the hon. Member for Northampton (Mr. Bradlaugh). The Bill as introduced gave an entirely free option to every person called upon to take the oath, as to whether he would take it or make affirmation. It had been alleged by some hon. Members in the course of the debates on the Bill, that if that free option were carried there might be a loss to the administration of the law, inasmuch as persons who were likely to be influenced by an oath might take advantage of the option to escape from their obligation. He did not attach much importance to that argument. The practice of requiring witnesses to take the oath or make affirmation was an historical survival; it had really little sense or meaning at the present day. The Committee could easily understand that when there was no punishment by the Criminal Law for those who gave false evidence in judicial proceedings— where the witness was left entirely and distinctly to his own conscience and exacted from him no solemn affirmaation—the oath was of the highest consequence. But as soon as it enacted imprisonment with or without hard labour or seven years' penal servitude for those who gave false evidence, the more powerful sanction made the other far less necessary and important, because the only case in which it could be suggested that the oath was important was in the case where neither of the other sanctions had any effect on the mind of the witness. There were three sanctions which operated on the mind of a witness—first, the sanction of the law; secondly, the sanction of the moral law; and, thirdly, there was the sanction derived from the particular consequences supposed to follow the violation of an oath. It seemed to him that the class of men incapable of being influenced by the religious sanction, but capable of being influenced by the moral sanction, or by the fear of seven years' penal servitude, must be extremely limited, if, indeed, it did not exist purely in the imagination. Now, it was for the sake of that limited class that some alteration was proposed to be made in the Bill of the hon. Member for Northampton. He entirely objected to any alteration which would convert a man's appearance in the witness box into an opportunity for counsel to make inquisition into his religious belief. There were, unfortunately, at the present day many persons who Boycotted others who did not understand their religious notions, and no one who came from Scotland could have lived without experience of that kind. It was not right, and it was not just, therefore, that a man who involuntarily, and, perhaps, against his will, was dragged forward to a Court of Justice to assist the administration of the law, should be required to say either that he had no belief at all, or that his religion was very queer, in order that he might be able to make affirmation instead of taking the oath. Now, the words which he found in the Act he had referred to did not raise any inquiry into the character of a man's religious opinions; he simply had to say that he entertained conscientious objections to taking the oath; and more than that, he thought it was not right in the interest of the public that it should be demanded from him. For these reasons, considering the shortness of the time at their disposal, he would not occupy the time of the Committee further than to move the Amendment in his name.

Amendment proposed, In page 1, line 5, after the word "person,' insert the words "who shall declare that he entertains conscientious objections to the taking of an oath."—(Mr. Hunter.)

Question proposed, "That those words be there inserted."

MR. BRADLAUGH (Northampton)

said, he was bound by the undertaking given to the House on the second reading. He should be glad to see the Amendment carried; but if it were carried, he should take it as the sense of the Committee, and should not be bound by the other Amendments.

SIR GEORGE CAMBPELL (, &c.) Kirkcaldy

said, he thought the Solicitor General should state whether he was ready to consent to the Amendment of the hon. Member for North Aberdeen.


said, he was just about to do that when the hon. Gentleman rose. He certainly could not accept the Amendment of the hon. Member for North Aberdeen, and if it were carried, he should feel it his duty to resist by every possible means the passing of the Bill. He thought they were entitled to have some definite expression of intention from the hon. Member for Northampton with regard to the question; upon a matter of the kind, however, he did not think the Committee could come to any decision that afternoon. His intention in rising was simply to say that he could not accept the Amendment, which seemed to him to depart from an essential matter of principle. His experience had led him to believe in the value of an oath, and he was entirely opposed to the view of the hon. Member for North Aberdeen (Mr. Hunter), that it was an absurd historic survival. He knew that the oath was a very valuable instrument for getting at the truth in Courts of Justice, and he should certainly resist any Amendment to enable an individual who wished to escape from the influence of the religious sanction upon his mind to do so by saying that he had conscientious objections to taking the oath. If the discussion should go on upon an other occasion in Committee, he might have something further to say; but he wished to make it clear that the Amendment of the hon. Gentleman was vital, and that if it were accepted, he should wish it to result in the rejection of the Bill.


said, he should have considered it more respectful to the Committee to have explained his views on this subject; but, as he was prevented from doing so by the shortness of the time at his disposal, he should reserve his remarks to a future occasion.

THE LORD ADVOCATE (Mr. J. H. A. MACDONALD) (Edinburgh and St. Andrew's Universities)

said, he would ask the hon. Member for North Aberdeen to consider whether the Amendment which he proposed did not place before anybody who objected to tell the truth very strong grounds for saying that he had conscientious objections to taking the oath?

It being half after Five of the clock, the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.

Committee report Progress; to sit again upon Wednesday, 4th July.

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