HC Deb 15 May 1916 vol 82 cc1172-82

A man whose appeal from a decision of a local tribunal has been heard and determined by an Appeal Tribunal may apply to the tribunal for a rehearing of his appeal on the ground that the decision of the Appeal Tribunal conflicts with the decision of the Central Tribunal in a like case, and the Appeal Tribunal, if they consider the ground of the application established, shall rehear the appeal.—[Mr. Edmund Harvey.]

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


On a point of Order. May I call your attention, Sir, to the fact that the hon. Member has taken part of a new Clause of mine on page 113? May I appeal to him and to you that this first Clause of his might be deferred until we come to my new Clause, in which I have this new Clause of his and two paragraphs in addition? If this is discussed and decided upon it will preclude the Debate upon the whole of my Clause.


I cannot set aside the hon. Member for Leeds. His name appears here and it is my duty to call him.


I am perfectly prepared to give way to the hon. Member.


The hon. Member can move which of these Clauses he likes.


Would it entirely shut out the hon. Member if I move this?


No doubt it would. If the hon. Member does not move it he can move any of the other Clauses.


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

I may take it that if the House agrees to the Second Reading of this Clause the hon. Member might insert the additional Sub-sections by way of Amendments. I hope that can be done. I put this down with a view to obviating a part of the difficulty which I think the whole House recognises has arisen with regard to the inequality of decisions, sometimes even on the same tribunal, but more especially among the different tribunals in different parts of the country, and the fact that the present law allows of no way by which there should be an absolute right of appeal to the Central Tribunal and no way by which the very worst inequalities can be removed. My right hon. Friend (Mr. Barnes) has indicated that he is in favour of this Amendment, and would like it to go a bit further. I have put down purposely the very minimum which I think might be suggested in the way of removing this difficulty. It will not remove the whole difficulty, but it will allow an Appeal Tribunal, when it sees that its decision conflicts with the decision of the Central Tribunal, to rehear the case. It still leaves the decision in the hands of the Appeal Tribunal itself, therefore, if the Appeal Tribunal is determined to adhere to its decision it can do so. Cases have already occurred where a tribunal has wished to revise its decisions but has doubted whether it should do so in order to bring its decision into line with that of the Central Tribunal. A case like that would be met by this very modest proposal. I hope my right hon. Friend may see his way to accept it, and that in so doing one of the difficulties may be at least partially removed. I am not going to repeat the instances of the difficulties that have occurred. I will, however, mention one. Two intimate friends who live on each side of a river in the north of England, who are exactly in. the same position, whose whole life and views and attitude are exactly the same, have received quite different treatment. One has. received exemption, conditional on his undertaking work of national Importance, and he is quite satisfied with that, and is going to do good useful service for the State. The other, coming before a different tribunal, has failed to get the only exemption which would meet his conscientious views, and he is now suffering in a military prison in. consequence of that inequality of decision. This is a sort of thing which might be removed by a new Clause of this kind. I hope the Government may see their way to accept it.


I beg to second the Motion. It is a very flattering occasion for me, because the hon. Member has taken bodily the exact words of this Clause from an Amendment which I had on the Paper for the Committee stage. Although that Amendment did not commend itself to the Government, there was one Member in the House who, at any rate, saw its virtues and was so impressed with it that he has appropriated it. It is perfectly obvious, as the right hon. Member for Blackfriars (Mr. Barnes) has pointed out, we have in this proposal an opportunity of doing away with what is a standing difficulty, even a standing scandal, in connection with the tribunals, namely, the inequalities and gross differences that arise in the-decisions of these tribunals. I have opposed this Bill, but I do desire that if it is to be worked for months to come, bringing about a great deal of personal hardship and sacrifice in the lives and' families of thousands of our fellow citizens, it should be worked with as great a sense of justice and equality as possible. Unless we have some such provision as this Clause, which will enable the different and very varying decisions of tribunals and Appeal Tribunals in different parts of the country to be, as it were, co-ordinated and brought into line, I cannot see anything else but a growing scandal and a great feeling of inequality of treatment in the administration of this Act. I could easily give instances that have come before me to bear out this point of view. I hope the President of the Local Government Board and the Government will consider that this is a practical suggestion, that it has got the support of Members like the right hon. Member for Black-friars, and that they will give it the most earnest attention that is possible.


I think my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds (Mr. E. Harvey) must have put this Clause down without quite realising what the effect of it would be. He described it as a very moderate proposal. It certainly is. So far as I am advised it would really have no effect, because it is almost impossible to decide if the cases are alike. What I said a few minutes ago is, I do assure the House, true, and that is, that upon the special presentment of his case by each applicant the whole thing turns. The contentions most frequently and most earnestly urged on behalf of conscientious objectors by the hon. Member (Mr. Harvey) and those who are acting with him, is that the conscientious objector ought not to be governed by any general regulations such as that foreshadowed in the Clause of my right hon. Friend the Member for the City (Sir F. Banbury), but that he must be governed by his own individual conscience, by his own personal conviction, and the tribunal must be satisfied, if it can, not only that his convictions are sincere, but that there is evidence of the reality of them as shown in his previous life. Therefore, it is almost impossible to lay down that any two cases are really alike. Take the case, the most plausible case, which was given a short time ago of three brothers who received different treatment. I do not admit for a moment that there is any prima facie evidence that because they are brothers they necessarily take the same views as conscientious objectors. They are brought up in a particular environment, but it is to be proved that they think the same.


This is a particular case. It is a family which I happen to have known for thirty years, and I have watched these boys grow up. I know they were trained up in exactly the same way, and they hold practically the same opinions now, and they were taught those opinions by their parents.


That may be. But one swallow does not make a summer. The fact that my hon. Friend knows these three men, who were brought up in the same environment and hold the same views now, does not dispose of the other main fact, that you may bring up a family of sons in the same environment, with the same opportunities of education and the same method of training, but when they come to the age of maturity and form their own opinions and take their own lines in life, one may be totally different from the other. It does not follow at all that the case against the present action of the tribunal is proved because there were three brothers, each of whom received different treatment. The only way to deal with cases of this kind, if it is possible to do it at all, is somewhat on the lines suggested by my Noble Friend (Lord Hugh Cecil). It is not by a hard and fast rule of this sort that you can deal with it. My hon. Friend (Mr. E. Harvey) has advocated the case of the conscientious objector, not only with the greatest courtesy, but with very great ability, and he has throughout done his utmost to solve this difficult problem of separating the genuine from the sham. He has only had the genuine objector in his mind. He will agree with me that where you have, say, the Quakers, which, as a great historical body, hold a particular view, and that view embraces the whole body, the question is not so difficult; but that does not exhaust—I wish it did—the list of conscientious objectors. I am proud to say that there are many Quakers who, although they hold this objection to taking life with absolute sincerity, and hold it as an historical fact in connection with their religious views, have taken a most honourable and brave part in this War. Many of them are engaged in one of the most dangerous occupations of all, that of mine sweeping. Many of them have been in France. If the Quakers as a body were all that we had to deal with, there would be no difficulty at all; but you have to deal with other cases, and in dealing with these cases I am sure hon. Members will see that the tribunals must have regard to the individual, to the evidence of veracity that he is able to adduce, and other proofs he is able to give before his case can be accepted. To tie them down in the way suggested would really defeat my hon. Friend's object and would introduce complications in the machinery which we have established which we should regret. Under these circumstances I hope the House will support the Government in objecting to this Clause.


I hope the House will take the advice of the right hon. Gentleman and reject this Clause. There is one reason which has not been given by the right hon. Gentleman. This Clause has been dealt with up to now as if it referred only to the conscientious objector, but it refers to any case in which the Appeal Tribunal differs from the Central Tribunal. When I tell the House that the Central Tribunal deals with 16,000 or 17,000 cases, over and above conscientious objector cases, it will obviously be seen that if any Clause of this kind is to be accepted it must be limited to the one class which it is intended to deal with and not extended to cases as a whole, otherwise it will involve an appalling waste of time and energy. I would like to confirm what the right hon. Gentleman has said in regard to cases of brothers not necessarily being the same. Only this morning there was a case of two brothers before the Central Appeal Tribunal. They were brought up together and they asked for a totally different thing. One was ready to do one thing and the other was ready to do nothing whatever except what he chose to do and what his conscience allowed him to do. One was not quite ready to undertake combatant service, but he was perfectly willing to go to the Royal Army Medical Corps or to do ambulance duty. The other would under no circumstances do anything of the kind. These are two cases which entirely back up my right hon. Friend's suggestion in regard to the three brothers. I do not think it was the conscience of these brothers the hon. Member spoke of. How can he tell whether they think alike?


Better than any tribunal, because I have known these young men for thirty years.


It is not a question of any tribunal, but it is a question of the men themselves. They are the people who tell the tribunal what their conscientious objection is. The tribunal has to find out whether they are honest in that objection, and, if so, they give the necessary exemption to suit the ease. You cannot bring up this case of the three brothers as one of any force at all. Cases are individual, personal. Conscience is something or other. An objector the other day said it had only begun to operate a short time ago. I do not know how a conscience operates, but that is the expression he used. These men, like the two men whose cases I have just referred to, have each a conscience, which is operating, with the result that if the tribunal is to do its duty properly it ought to consider each case and estimate its value.


I am sure that my hon. Friend (Mr. E. Harvey) is not wedded to any form of words or to any special proposal so long as his object is achieved. What he wants, and I believe what the House wants, is that there should be some opportunity whereby, in cases which seem; to have been decided wrongly, there might be a chance of rehearing. I would ask the President of the Local Government Board to see whether these cases cannot be met. I have in my mind three cases of men in the North of England who, at the present time, are undergoing sentences of, I think, several months' duration. These three men are all willing to do work of national importance. They were all willing to go to the Friends' Ambulance unit, and one of the military representatives, who knew these three men, supported their claim, and was extremely anxious that we should find them service in that unit. But their case could not be reheard, and at the present time these men are in prison instead of doing national service to the country. I am perfectly certain that everyone in this House desires that cases like that should be met. I think we also want to remember that the Pelham Committee was set up several weeks after this Act came into operation. There are a considerable number of men in prison to-day who are only too anxious to do work of national importance under that Committee. It does seem to me perfectly clear that in the interests of the country, as well as in the interests of justice, there should be some way found by which these men may have their cases reheard, and that they may be able to give service to their country instead of being in gaol. How it is to be done is a small matter, so long as it is done, and I do appeal to the right hon. Gentleman and the Government to see that these cases are met and to allow these men to serve their country in the way that they desire, and in the way that they feel they can serve the country.


No one wishes genuine conscientious objectors to be imprisoned when they are willing to do work of real national value, but I think that this particular Clause is not adapted to what is required. I may point out that the information which has been sent round by the Central Tribunal as to a number of cases which are more or less difficult has been very useful. I hope that the Central Tribunal will continue to send specimen cases to all tribunals in the country, and to send them periodically. The cases to which my hon. Friend refers nearly all arose before there were Appeal Tribunals. They certainly arose before the proper habit by conscientious objectors of offering work of national value became developed. I take this opportunity of expressing the hope that my right hon. Friend will consider whether there is not some power in connection with the Crown's prerogative of mercy of setting these men free to do the same kind of national service which other men of identical opinions are being allowed to do by the Appeal Tribunals. It is because we can only deal with past cases in that way, and because I support my right hon. Friend as to the present procedure, which is becoming well settled, that I venture to make this suggestion.


I see the difficulties which the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board has explained in the way of adopting the Amendment proposed, but it does seem to me that a way out of the difficulty ought to be found. Personally, there is a way out, though I suppose that it would be very troublesome, and cause a great many more appeals than the right hon. Gentleman desires. In law cases, the party who loses may ask for leave to appeal, and if it is refused he may go to a further Court of Appeal and ask for leave to appeal and give grounds for his application, and that superior Court may give him leave to appeal, which has been refused by the Court below. It seems to me not unreasonable that when the Appeal Tribunal have heard a case and given a decision it should be open either to the military representative of the conscientious objector or the person who has been refused what he wants to go to the Central Tribunal and explain the grounds on which he thinks that the Appeal Tribunal was wrong in refusing leave to appeal to the Central Tribunal, and that then the Central Tribunal, having the facts before it, should be able either to refuse or to grant the application. No doubt this would lead to a good many extra appeals, and, therefore, to delay; but it seems to me possible for the right hon. Gentleman to devise ways and methods whereby some legal, some judicial, assistance should be given to the Appeal Tribunal or the Central Tribunal which would give a chance of appealing on the lines suggested.

Captain CASSEL

I think that in this Amendment and some of the later Amendments it is desirable to have some limit of time when it is decided whether a man is a soldier or not. This leaves it open to a man after he has joined the Colours to come forward and make an Appeal. It is most desirable in the interests of military discipline that the question whether a man is to be a soldier or not should be finally decided before he joins the Colours. When once he joins the Colours he should be a soldier, and not in any different position from any other soldier. What this Amendment would do is that for a perfectly indefinite period—say six months or a year hence—under some decision given, a man already serving for some time can come forward and say under that decision, "I claim a rehearing of my case." There has actually been a case before a court-martial where a man took the objection—of course it was not a proper objection at all—that he had a conscientious objection, and it is most undesirable that a large number of men should be in such a position that you cannot tell for certain whether they are soldiers or not. This opens a very wide vista. Every man against whom a decision has been given, who is now actually called up to the Colours, could come forward with this claim, even on the very eve of being sent out with a draft. I have said nothing about the conscientious objector before he comes to the Colours, but by the time he comes to the Colours he is a soldier, and he ought to know it, and his status ought not again to be altered.


Nobody who is taking part in this Debate has ventured to deny that a very great injustice has been inflicted in not a small number of cases by the varying decisions of local and Appeal Tribunals. Therefore, the question which we have to face is: what steps can best be taken to remove these injustices, and establish machinery which will reduce to a minimum the likelihood of similar conflicting decisions in the future? I agree with the President of the Local Government Board that the proposal made in this new Clause is not likely to be very satisfactory in its working. I think that its operation would be extremely limited, and that it leaves too much to the decision of the Appeal Tribunal. Under this Clause certificates could only be reviewed with the approval or assent of the Appeal Tribunal. May I refer to something which has not yet been mentioned in the Debate? That is the importance of dealing with the object aimed at in this Clause is all the greater because of an Amendment of the principal Act made in the present Bill. Under the existing Act it is always open to a person holding a certificate of exemption to claim a review of that certificate, but that protection is being taken away by this Bill, and the review can only be undertaken by the tribunal which granted the certificate. Under Clause 4 a certificate of exemption may be granted under the principal Act subject to the conditions that the certificate should not be open to review. That is going to add enormously to the number of grievances created by this Act. I do not blame the Government for not accepting this Amendment in its present form, but it is most important that they should deal with the matter, and by some machinery achieve the object which my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds had in moving this new Clause.


It is quite obvious that this Amendment has been put forward with the view of undoing mistakes that have been made, particularly in the case of conscientious objectors. I quite agree with what has been said as to the difficulty, if not the impossibility, of doing it in this way. But the right hon. Gentleman the President of the Local Government Board has said repeatedly that it is not in the interests of the country that any genuine conscientious objector should be compelled against his will to this form of protest, namely, going to prison. The difficulty has been to sift the real conscientious objector from the sham. I suggest that the very best test you can have is the fact that a man has gone to gaol, and remained there rather than serve. At any rate that is an excellent test, and if there are many cases such as we have heard of this afternoon, in which a man says, "I am prepared to take any form of service for my country's good in this time of War, except that under military control," the tribunals should be able to satisfy themselves that that man is conscientious in his view, and then order some form of work of national value. If the tribunal has made a mistake in saying that this man is not conscientious, and the mistake is shown by the fact that the man is in prison, and is willing all the time to do the work which he has offered to do, but still has the conscientious objection to work under military control, we cannot say, because the tribunal has made a mistake, that that mistake must go on for ever. It seems to me that if there are men still in prison who are willing to do work of national importance, but who are so strong in their conscientious objection to do it under military service, that it would be in the interest of the country that the military should, perhaps, put these men under certain conditions, or even discharge them from the Army under certain conditions. I should have thought it quite possible for all these cases now in prison to be reviewed by the Army. Never mind what the tribunals say. The Army is now in a better position to judge whether a man's conscientious objection is genuine or not by what has happened. In some way or other the Government should adopt machinery of this kind. It would remove a great amount of hardship, and would release men to do what we want them to do—valuable work for the country at this time.


I do not wish to press the form of this new Clause, but I hope very much that the appeal to the Government will meet with a response in some other way. To save time, I beg to withdraw the Clause.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.