§ 6.0 P.M.
§ Mr. KEIR HARDIE
I desire to call the attention of the House to the sentences which have been announced this afternoon in the Central Criminal Court upon three suffragist prisoners, Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence and Mrs. Pankhurst, who were sentenced to nine months' imprisonment in the second division, and to 2022 pay the costs of the trial. [An HON. MEMBER: "Hear, hear."] It is worse to rejoice in women being sentenced to prison for doing these things than the doing of them, because it does not require the same amount of courage. My ancestors went to the scaffold for this same offence, and I am proud of it. I would remind the House that the accused in this case were on trial not for themselves committing these acts, but for advising others to do so. It is just as well to keep that fact in mind. Further, the jury, in finding them guilty, recommended them to the consideration of the Court because of their high moral character and the purity of the motives which actuated them in the action they had taken. The judge, in pronouncing sentence, gave two reasons why he could not comply with the request of the accused persons that they should be treated as first-class misdemeanants. The first reason was that they gave no promise not to commit the offence in future. They refused to give any such promise, and he said they were therefore not entitled to consideration on that score. The second reason was that if they were put in prison as first-class misdemeanants they would be able to carry on their campaign from within the prison, and that, of course, could not be tolerated. As a matter of fact, I think his Lordship was mistaken and under a misapprehension when he made that statement. If they had been committed as first-class misdemeanants, any communications which they sent outside would have been subject to examination by the prison authorities, and they would have stopped any material for carrying on the propaganda from being passed out. I hope, therefore, the Home Secretary will not allow that consideration to weigh with him. There has been a point raised whether a political offence is known to the law, and it was dealt with by the Attorney-General in the speech he has just made. The hon. Member for East Nottingham (Sir J. D. Bees) said there is no such offence known to the law of England, and I rather think the Attorney-General accepted that point of view.
§ Sir RUFUS ISAACS
Although I am not sure whether it is dealt with as a political offence, there is certainly a provision which says that a person convicted of seditious libel shall be dealt with as a first-class misdemeanant.
§ Mr. KEIR HARDIE
There is a provision which expressly lays it down that a person convicted of sedition is a first-class 2023 misdemeanant. The other evidence is contained in the latest Extradition Act, and it was referred to by the Attorney-General. It is laid down that a fugitive criminal shall not be surrendered in respect of crime of a political character, and the Court has to construe what is meant by an offence of a "political character." Surely if a judge is capable of deciding what constitutes a political offence in the case of an alien he is equally capable with regard to British subjects. The House has drawn a broad distinction between the political offender and the ordinary criminal, a distinction between the altruistic offender and the sordid and selfish motive of the ordinary criminal. The hon. Gentleman opposite (Sir J. D. Bees), when sitting on this side, held the same opinion, because on 20th July in this House he raised a question with regard to the suffragettes, and the present First Lord of the Admiralty, who was then Home Secretary, drew a very clear line of demarcation between the political offender and the ordinary criminal. He said:—My hon. Friend the Member for Montgomeryshire has spoken about political prisoners. He has said there is no such thing as a political prisoner known in law. I have never attempted to trespass on that difficult ground, but I will point out that there are prisoners who are committed to prison for offences which do not involve any moral turpitude. I think that will be the general opinion of the House. I am very glad the House has assented to the new prison rule which I placed on the Table some time ago. That rule enables the Home Secretary, in virtue of the various Acts which he has to administer, to relieve certain prisoners not guilty of any acts involving moral turpitude. I propose to relieve them of the necessity of wearing prison clothing, of being specially searched, and of being compelled to take the regulation pri-on bath. I also propose to enable the offenders in the first division to be permitted, under certain circumstances, to obtain food from outside, to exercise freely both in the morning and in the afternoon, to converse with other prisoners when taking exercise, and to have at their own expense such books, not dealing with current events, and such literature as are in accordance with the public interests.Sir J. D. Rees: May I venture to ask my right hon. Friend if there is no moral turpitude involved in deliberately breaking the law?Mr. Churchill: By my moral turpitude I mean offences involving dishonesty, indecency, gross violations of morality, or cruelty. I am not now talking of those other offences which are undoubtedly reprehensible, but do not go so far as that. I have given instructions that all persons committed to prison for passive resistance and all persons committed to prison as suffragettes are, as a matter of course, in the absence of special circumstances, to be accorded the full benefit of the new rules, and any other cases to which it will be possible to apply those rules.There we have two classes of offenders deliberately mentioned to whom relief is to be accorded because they are political offenders. I ask that the present Home Secretary will at once take into his consideration the question of having the three 2024 accused persons, Mr. and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence and Mrs. Pankhurst, transferred immediately from the second division to the first division. Mrs. Pethick Lawrence and the others made an appeal on that head to-day. The Attorney-General will admit it to be a powerful and logical appeal. She quoted two instances of men highly placed in society, whose names I will not mention because I do not want to give annoyance to their families, who were convicted of serious indecencies against young women and sentenced to imprisonment in the first division. If the first division was good enough in the two cases I have referred to, and in many other cases that might be mentioned, it ought to be accorded to the three persons who were sentenced to-day; persons of high character, persons of good education, persons who, whatever we may say about their acts, everyone, including the Home Secretary himself, will admit are actuated by the highest motives in what they have done and are doing. I ask definitely that the new rule, as it is called, of the right hon. Gentleman's predecessor shall, whilst he is considering his decision on the point of making them first-class misdemeanants, immediately be made to apply in the case of these three persons, and that he will take into serious consideration the remission of the sentences, and especially that part of the sentence making the accused persons, responsible for all the costs.
May I point out the difference between men and women when being tried for practically similar offences. Mr. Tom Mann gets six months' imprisonment for calling upon soldiers to disobey their officers, to disobey the oath they have taken, and to endanger the peace and property of the realm. Mrs. Pankhurst and Mrs. Pethick Lawrence, for advising their colleagues to break windows, get nine months' imprisonment, and, in addition, have to pay the costs of the trial. How can the two sentences be justified? Either Mr. Tom Mann got too little or these others got too much. We are entitled to ask that the sentences should be drastically revised by the Home Secretary. My third point is that he shall at once consider the question of transferring these persons from the. second division, to which they have been sent, to that of first-class misdemeanants, as has been done so often in the past in the cases of the Trish Members opposite, the Chartist leaders, and other political offenders, so 2025 that it may not be said that modern administration under a Liberal Government is more harsh than it has been in the past, while the offence committed is practically identical.
§ Mr. LANSBURY
I want to explain that it is not our fault that we have not raised the question of Ulster. We gave notice of it, but we understand that the right hon. Gentleman (Sir E. Carson) is not well. I should like to make the point clear that I tried to make in interrupting the Attorney-General. I agree entirely with the "Don't shoot" advice. If I or anyone else makes a speech and someone takes it down and prints it and distributes it to soldiers, am I therefore not as guilty as Tom Mann was, who apparently had something to do with printing the "Syndicalist"? I am not a lawyer, but it strikes me that one thing is as bad as the other, and that advice, whether it is given verbally or written, comes to exactly the same thing. I do not understand the difference between saying a thing and writing it. It is equally culpable, and if it is bad in the one case it is bad in the other.
With regard to political prisoners generally, and to women in particular, I should like to tell the hon. Member (Sir J. D. Rees) that it is very doubtful if this Assembly would be here if people had not broken the law in the past. On a memorable occasion a man named Cromwell marched up to this place, or the building that preceded it, and broke the law, and the whole of English liberties have been won by people who have broken the law. I am quite aware that in a country like India we do not allow them to break the law. We send Gentlemen like the hon. Member to keep them in order, and I can quite understand now why there is sedition. If the sort of spirit that he expressed this afternoon in reference to Malatesta is the kind of spirit that sent him on his duties when he was in India, I can quite understand the Hindus and Mahomedans, who are becoming educated, being in revolt against such government. I have no doubt he would very much like to be taking in hand the people in this country in the same fashion. It is perfectly certain that that kind of policy is really played out so far as this country is concerned. I should have thought the Attorney-General and the Home Secretary would long ago have learnt that the policy of coercion in any kind of way only helps the movement that you are attempting to put down. I was 2026 amazed the other afternoon to hear the right hon. Gentleman (Mr. Balfour) eulogise the Nationalist Members in this House in the fashion that he did. It only shows that men have only to sit tight enough and be persistent enough, and in the end they get their way whatever they do. I am speaking what every intelligent man here can, if he pleases, put to the test by reading up the Debates and the sort of discussion that went on as to the position in the political sphere of the Nationalist Members during the last twenty-five years.
With regard to the suffragist prisoners, most of them have done nearly half and some a little more than half the time they were sentenced for. In the main they are drawn from every rank of society. There are working women; there are women who get their living by teaching of various kinds; there are nurses, and there are women who have no occupation except social work, which they undertake from a love of it. There is the sister of one of the richest shipowners in the land in gaol at this moment. No one will want to argue that these women have undertaken this imprisonment, and the torture of forcible feeding merely for the fun of the thing or merely to get notoriety. I hear that many of them are in prison under assumed names simply because they do not want to get notoriety. I wonder whether any hon. Member now present has ever suffered one minute for any cause in the world. Has any one of us, for any principle we happen to believe in, endured a moment's suffering? I speak quite honestly, and say I have not. I am very doubtful if anyone here has. There is not a Nationalist Member present, otherwise it would not be safe to make that statement, for many of them have gone to prison and suffered all sorts of indignities. Why did women go to prison and suffer forcible feeding? It was because they wanted to emphasise their right to be treated not as common prisoners. I know that what will be said is, "Some punishment must be meted out to them; we must put down law-breaking, or the whole fabric of society will break up." If we admit that, you can treat them in prison with some amount of dignity, so as to enable them to maintain their own self-respect. They cannot do that if you treat them as common felons, and they have gone in for forcible feeding as a protest against being put into the second division. I was present at the trial, and heard the 2027 speeches of Mrs. Pankhurst and Mr. Lawrence. I believe that if these speeches had been made at the Bar of this House, there is hardly a man here who would refuse to put these prisoners in the first division. We might say that punishment of some kind is needed; but we would be bound to say, in view of the cases that were cited, that women are not tried by their own sex at all. They are tried from our point of view, and this woman made her appeal from the point of view of a woman. I ask whether, if it was right to put certain men, because of their position, in the first division when they had committed crimes against womanhood, you should treat women in the way they are being treated. Highly placed men have certainly been guilty of more violence than the hundreds of women were guilty of in the latest raid; and if they were put in the first division is it not reasonable that these women should ask to be put on the same status?
I do not ask the Home Secretary or the Attorney-General to settle the matter this afternoon. I ask them to give due weight to the verdict of the jury—a verdict which was only given because they felt that they were obliged to bring in a verdict of guilty on the evidence. I am sure they meant their recommendation for lenient treatment, and they hoped it would be acted upon. I join in the appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to consider this matter. The judge, in passing sentence, stood out for one thing, and that was that the prisoners had expressed no contrition and had not promised not to do it again. They could not promise not to do it again. Irishmen went to prison over and over again, though they could have been released many a time if they had promised not to do it again. If a man commits a theft, and you say to him, "Will you turn over a new leaf and promise to do better," he can answer by promising. You may put these people in gaol, but they are bound when they come out to claim what they believe to be their rights. Despite the sneers of the hon. Member for East Nottingham (Sir J. D. Rees) this country has been the home of political refugees. I am proud to think that my country shelters Kropotkin, and I am proud to think that it sheltered Mazzini. One of the reasons why I am proud to be an Englishman is that England is the asylum of oppressed people. I hope while I live that it will remain that, and that in the treatment of our own prisoners we will 2028 have regard to the principle that if people are fighting for a thing which they believe to be right, and are getting nothing out of it, and if we feel bound to deal with them we will deal with them in the most lenient manner possible.
§ Mr. McKENNA
My right ton. Friend the Attorney-General has dealt fully with the issues, and there remains to me such questions as those relating to the exercise of the prerogative of mercy. The responsibility for advising upon that subject rests with the Home Secretary, and I do not for one moment flinch from taking full responsibility for such advice, either as I have given recently or shall feel it my duty to give in future cases. The hon. Member for Merthyr pressed me to give an immediate answer with regard to the advice which I shall tender in relation to a trial which concluded at two or three o'clock this afternoon.
§ Mr. KEIR HARDIE
I asked the immediate application of the new rule to these persons, and that the consideration of the sentence should be proceeded with at once.
§ Mr. McKENNA
In all cases of this kind I think it my duty to enter on the examination of the circumstances of the case without any delay, and in this case, as in any other, I shall not fail to give the fullest attention to all the circumstances of the trial and the decision of the judge. But to promise to come to a speedy conclusion on the matter would be a promise which I could not venture to make to the House. This subject has been rather dealt with as if it were the duty of the Home Secretary in all cases which are described as political offences invariably to exercise the prerogative of mercy. I confess to having, as all my hon. Friends on this side of the House have, considerable sympathy with the point of view stated so ably by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, that motive must be a strong element in our moral judgment upon the crime, and that motive ought to be taken into account by the judge in passing sentence. I recognise equally that motive ought also to be taken into account by those who have the duty of advising upon the exercise of the prerogative of mercy. On all those points all my predecessors in office on both sides of the House would agree. But when he goes further and wishes to lay down a general rule that the Home Secretary in every case of a political offence should advise the exercise of the 2029 prerogative of mercy, then I join issue. If such a general rule is to be made it should be laid down by Parliament and embodied in a Statute. Parliament in certain cases has prescribed the legal punishment in regard to first-class misdemeanants, and if Parliament wishes to define any further category of offence, then it is Parliament that must do it.
§ Mr. RAMSAY MACDONALD
I would like to explain that, if the right hon. Gentleman is under the impression that I put in a plea to him for mercy and for a total remission of sentence of detention, I did not mean that. All that I meant was that where there is a political motive the accused should be treated as a first-class misdemeanant.
§ Mr. McKENNA
I am dealing with the point whether there should be a general rule in the case of all defendants who are described as being actuated by political motives, and should of necessity be treated as first-class misdemeanants. My reply to that is, if that should be the wish of Parliament, then that rule ought to be embodied in a Statute. So great a change as that ought not to be undertaken by a Minister acting upon his own judgment. Parliament has already passed Statutes defining the particular offence punishable with punishment in the first division. First of all I have to assure the hon. Member for Merthyr Tydvil (Mr. Keir Hardie), that I will give immediate attention to the case of the suffragist prisoners. I can assure him also that I have already felt it my duty to consider the circumstances and to form an opinion as to whether the cases are such as to which could properly be applied to rule 243 (a). My hon. Friend the Member for Leicester (Mr. Ramsay Macdonald) I think was perhaps more sympathetic to me in raising the case of Malatesta, when he asked me not to express an opinion on the subject at once, but to take time to consider all the circumstances in connection with the case, and to make up my mind as to whether the recommendation of the Common Serjeant for expulsion should be agreed to. I have not yet been able to go into the whole of the circumstances of the case. If on examination the circumstances prove to be such as those put forward by my hon. Friend the Member for Leicester, I can assure him that I do not think any Home Secretary would be disposed to exercise his powers under the Aliens Act to expel 2030 the prisoner. I would remind him, however, that if the circumstances are not such as he described, and that if there is a case against the prisoner apart from that in which he has been convicted, it would not be proper for me, I conclude, in the exercise of my duty, to override the opinion of the judge who heard the case. It must be remembered that it is a duty laid upon our magistrates and upon our judges, under the Aliens Act, to recommend expulsion in cases in which the evidence goes to show that the prisoner was an undesirable subject, and an undesirable resident for the British islands.
As a matter of fact as to the powers which exist under the Aliens Act so far from having been over anxious to expel, it is only in one case on the average in five that judges have made any order of expulsion, and after the Home Office calls the attention of magistrates to the existence of the Act it would hardly be consistent with my duty or that of any Home Secretary in face of those facts to override a judge when he is endeavouring to do what he conceives to be his duty on a careful examination of the circumstances of the case. I am unable to give my hon. Friend any other assurance. I should not be desirous to override the action of the judge unless the circumstances proved to be of a kind, I would not say the exact kind, but of a similar kind to those which he related to the House this afternoon. With regard to the expulsion of the Poles I can assure my hon. Friend that when the case came before me to be decided there was no question in my mind as to whether those Poles had or had not been engaged in a labour dispute. The only consideration which occurred to me was whether, on the whole evidence of the case, those men were or were not desirable citizens. I think about ten or twelve of those Poles have altogether been sentenced, and of those I think five have either been expelled or are under orders of expulsion. Some of them have been sentenced previously, at least twice, and in some cases six times. My hon. Friend says that those are mere trivial cases of Saturday-night drunks. The facts as reported to me do not bear out that view. Those men have been reported to me as frequent disturbers of the peace. Under those circumstances, when the Sheriff who heard all the cases and had all the evidence before him, came to the conclusion that he ought to advise expulsion in cases of men who had been previously convicted on several occasions, I did not feel justified in overriding that 2031 decision, and as a matter of fact expulsion was recommended in other cases with which I have not agreed. I think I have now dealt with all the matters.
§ Mr. KEIR HARDIE
I am not quite sure whether the right hon. Gentleman said that the new rule is to be applied to those persons who were sentenced to-day, and if that is to apply immediately, as I think each predecessor said it should do.
§ Mr. McKENNA
I did not make that statement for the very simple reason that I have not yet been able to examine the cases sufficiently to know whether the prison discipline and prison arrangements will permit of all the conditions of the rule being applied to those prisoners. I do not know at this moment, as I have not been able to consult my advisers, even which prison they are going to, and, consequently I cannot make any statement on the point now. I will give my most sympathetic consideration generally, and I shall certainly consider favourably as to the applications under the rule, but I cannot make any definite statement.
§ Mr. McKENNA
In no case have any of those prisoners ever been asked to put on prison dress. In no single case has that been so, and it is quite unnecessary to ask whether they are required. The House will be interested to hear the nature of the Court referred to by my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade last night in dealing with the strike in connection with the transport workers on the Thames. The right hon. Sir Edward Clarke will constitute the Court of Inquiry. Many hon. Members will remember that he was a very distinguished Member of this House, and I am sure that the mention of his name will meet with universal satisfaction. The terms of the reference will be as follows:—To inquire and report into the facts and circumstances of the present dispute affecting the transport workers in the Port of London and on the Medway.Thus, the whole range of the present disturbance is covered, but the Inquiry will relate only to the facts and circumstances of the present disturbance. It will not be a general roving inquiry into the facts and circumstances relating to the industry at large. Sir Edward Clarke, it is expected, will hold a preliminary meeting on Friday 2032 next, at eleven o'clock, at the Court of Fishmongers' Hall, so that hon. Members may be satisfied that there will be no delay in conducting the Inquiry.
§ Mr. RAMSAY MACDONALD
Will Sir Edward Clarke act alone, or is he to be assisted by anyone in the nature of assessor?
§ Mr. McKENNA
As this is purely an Inquiry into facts, and no question of policy will be discussed, it is thought that the Inquiry will probably be best conducted by Sir Edward Clarke alone. There is no occasion really for him to be assisted by assessors.