HC Deb 15 May 1916 vol 82 cc1182-90

Sub-section (3) of Section two of the principal Act, which provides that any certificate of exemption in the case of an application on conscientious grounds may take the form of exemption from combatant service only, shall not apply to a case, where the applicant has established his conscientious objection to the undertaking of all military service.—[Mr. Harvey.]>

Clause brought up, and read the first time.


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

This new Clause which I propose is one I have put down in order to make the Bill in accordance with a decision of the Central Tribunal. A great deal of confusion has arisen, in fact, because a number of the tribunals considered that they could give exemption only from combatant service. They held that view in spite of the instruction from the President of the Local Government Board, and there have been decisions recently which have also confirmed some of the tribunals in that view. It is quite true that Parliament in passing the original Act provided, in regard to those men who could not conscientiously undertake military service, not only absolute exemption, but made provision of exemption conditional on undertaking work of national importance. I believe if that conditional exemption had been granted nine-tenths of the difficulties which have arisen might have been avoided, but the tribunals insisted on giving exemption only from combatant service, and men are going daily to military prisons rather than be unfaithful to their belief—men who are eager to do work for the nation acccording to their conscience.

May I give two instances giving the genuine sort of case I have in view. I could give a great number of cases, but these two are personally known to me; they are the cases of two men who asked to be allowed to do civil work, and were refused by the tribunals. They went before the Appeal Tribunal, and their claim was rejected there. They again tried the local tribunal in order to have the matter reviewed, thus showing their earnestness in their objection to military service; and again their application was rejected. They were arrested as deserters; they were sentenced in the Civil Court first, and then handed over to the military; and, finally, both of them were rejected, after a period of short imprisonment, on medical grounds. One has written to me asking that he should be given work of national importance, notwithstanding that he is absolutely free and need do nothing if he were a selfish man. The other man returned to certain training duties which he had performed before. If these men had not been rejected on medical grounds they would be at this moment suffering a severe penalty in a military prison, when all the while they were not only willing but eager to serve their country in accordance with their conscience. These are two instances out of a large number of cases of men who are really willing and anxious to help, but who are not allowed to help because the tribunals insist on giving a form of exemption which does not really meet their conscientious objection in any way. The Clause I now propose will not in any way alter the scope of the Act, but will make clear the position, and make it easier for the tribunals to give the right kind of exemption in dealing with these cases.


I beg to second the Motion.

The point of this Clause, as I understand it, is that where a man has a sincere conscientious objection, and where the tribunal believes that he has made good his case, the tribunal must not give him what is called, non-combatant service except with his own consent. There is no doubt many conscientious objectors regard what is called non-combatant service as every bit as bad as ordinary military service. They do not recognise the distinction. They say non-combatants form part of an Army; they are asked to obey military orders; they are part of the military machine. On the other hand, a large number of them are perfectly willing to undertake work of a particular character. It seems to me that in the case of these men the Government would be getting rid of one of the greatest difficulties if they allowed them to do work of national importance, and to be freed from military duties to which they conscientiously object. I hope the Government will allow this alteration to be made. There is one other case in addition to those which my hon. Friend mentioned. More than a month ago I called attention to a man called Ernest Chaplin, who was an official in the education department of the London County Council. That man came before two tribunals, and each of them allowed his conscientious objection, and in each of them he said he was quite willing to undertake any work of national importance if it was not in the Army or under military control. They refused, and the result is that to-day this man, instead of doing work for his country, has suffered all sorts of indignity; he has been wrapped in a blanket, and so on, and now he is in a military prison. He might now be doing excellent work for his country in agriculture or in other ways, and he is quite willing to undertake such work, but has been prevented from doing so.


I understand that this Clause is moved with the object of clearing up some misunderstanding which is said to have arisen in consequence of the decisions of some of the tribunals, and also in consequence of a decision given in one of the Courts—


The obiter dicta of a justice.


The Clause which is submitted goes further than has been stated, but if it is made clear that there is a change wanted in order to make the law as it has been declared by the Government, declared by the Bill, and as it appears in the original Act, then, if words are required, I will have them put in, but I do not think they are required.

Colonel YATE

I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is not going to make any change in the law as it now stands. I could not follow his argument.


There has been a certain interpretation placed upon the power of granting a certificate of absolute exemption, and it is suggested that some remarks were made by a judge in a recent case to the same effect; but what we desire is, not that there should be an alteration of the law as it now stands, but that the law should remain as it was when the original Act was passed, and that that law should be carried out.

Colonel YATE

I am glad to hear that, because it is quite clear that all the difficulties that have recently arisen on this question are due very largely, almost entirely, to the non-observance of the statement or announcement which the Prime Minister delivered to us when he introduced the Military Service Bill, on the 5th of January last. The Prime Minister then told us that: In the days of the great French war, when Mr. Pitt and his successors were in power, and when they enforced the Compulsory Militia Bill, they expressly exempted the only people who in those days had conscientious objections to Government service—the people called Quakers. He then went on to say: It is suggested, in the case of such men, that the exemption which they should get, and which I am certain is all that they would claim, should take the form of exemption from military combatant duties only. The House of Commons will remember that the Prime Minister repeated this, and emphasised the words "combatant duties only." The pledge then given by the Prime Minister has not been fulfilled. When it came to be put into the Bill, instead of the words being "shall be exempted from combatant duties only," the word "may" was used, and the Government therefore have only themselves to blame for all the difficulties which they have been called upon to face ever since. I think I am right in saying that one hundred years ago, the Quakers were a perfectly distinct sect, they wore a distinctive dress, and had a distinctive manner of speech. It was well known in those days who was a Quaker and who was not. Nowadays nobody knows who is a Quaker and who is not. There is another point. All these Quakers, these conscientious objectors, must remember that no nation or body of Quakers can exist for a day by themselves. They can only exist under the protection of people more virile than themselves, who will give them the necessary protection. In return for that protection we should demand ungrudging service given in other ways. The hon. Member for Hexham gave some pathetic stories of the feelings and woes of some of the conscientious objectors. I would like the hon. Member to say what would have been the feelings and woes of the conscientious objectors if the British nation had failed to protect them.


The hon. and gallant Gentleman seems to be generally discussing the question of conscientious objectors. That is not the point at the present time. The House is considering a very negative Amendment, if the hon. and gallant Member will look at that Clause particularly.

6.0 P.M.

Colonel YATE

I will not pursue the matter further. I will, however, point out that the hon. Member for Leeds asks for entire exemption from military service, and the point is whether entire exemption can or should be given. As far as I have considered the matter, it seems to me that this point has been decidedly given against them. I have here a cutting from the "Leicester Daily Mercury," a paper which is consistently opposed to me on questions of politics. The hon. Member will agree that the "Leicester Daily Mercury" is entirely opposed to me, but it is a sound paper on national questions. It says: The danger is that young men not Quakers suitable for military service may shirk their duty under the plea of conscience It is only right that such claimants for exemption should have to satisfy the tribunals of the reality and bona fides of their objections. I think the whole country agrees with the "Leicester Mercury" on this question, and all the Liberal newspapers of the country, that entire exemption should not be given to conscientious objectors, but that it should be purely limited to non-combatant duties.


This is a very narrow point and one that does not call for long discussion, but it is most desirable that there should not be a misunderstanding about it. The first part of the speech of the hon. and gallant Gentleman (Colonel Yate) shows that he, at any rate, does misunderstand it. The position, unless my right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board corrects me, is this. Properly understood it is competent for a local tribunal to grant a conscientious objector absolute exemption. It is possible for the tribunal to do so, but it is not compulsory on it to do so, and in most cases I should think, quite rightly, they do not grant absolute exemption but grant exemption from combatant service. But it is very important that local tribunals should not be under the impression that they have no power to grant more because it was most expressly stated by the Government when the Bill was carried that they were to have that power. If I may say so I have no doubt the language of the Sub-section does get that power for them. There has been a great deal of misunderstanding on the point. My right hon. Friend the President of the Local Government Board has been quite fair about this, and I do hope that he will consider whether in another place he cannot put in something which will be merely declaratory. I do not agree that the Amendment of my hon. Friend the Member for Leeds (Mr. E. Harvey) is the right form to do so. The sort of form which is wanted is something of this sort. "It is hereby declared that where a local tribunal is satisfied that the case of a conscientious objector should be met by complete exemption it is competent so to grant it." As long as that is stated on the face of the Bill we shall not be altering an Act of Parliament, but making it plain that that is what the Act intends to do.




Some people took the view that the law did not allow such a thing to be done and that is largely how confusion has been created in the minds of some persons.


There is another point in connection with this Clause which is of some importance. I quite agree that under the original Act any local tribunal if it so desires has the right to grant either a temporary certificate of exemption or a conditional certificate or an absolute certificate. The other point which is important is as to whether it is advisable that non-combatant service should be forced on those who regard combatant and non-combatant military service in practically the same light. I ask whether it would not be far better in those cases instead of forcing non-combatant service upon a man who will go to prison rather than accept it, to see that he gets work—civil work—of a national character. I am quite sure if the President of the Local Government Board would consider that point he will find it is really the crux of this Amendment and its solution would get rid of nine-tenths of the difficulties with regard to the conscientious objector. I am quite sure it would be better from the standpoint of the nation itself instead of putting these people into prison to put them on some work of national importance. Putting aside every other aspect except the purely practical, I think that is a point of view which ought to appeal to the Government. Therefore we ask that those men who are willing to accept work of national importance and national consequence shall be given such work to do, and shall be given the option of such work. From that point of view I hope the Government will find a way of introducing a form of words to make it easier for the tribunals to see their way in regard to this matter.

Major-General Sir IVOR HERBERT

I am very glad to have heard the speech of the hon. Gentleman, as it seems to indicate that we are getting a little closer to agreement on this subject. I hope my right hon. Friend will not accept this Amendment. The mover of the Amendment, with the very best intentions, I have no doubt, would succeed really in doing great injury to the objects aimed at and would not achieve the object he has in view. I think it will be generally admitted that there is no desire to unduly press or persecute the man who has a bonâ fide conscientious objection. Everybody would agree to respect the real feeling of the conscientious objector, such as we have seen in the case of the Quakers and of other religious denominations. But what we wish to get hold of is the man who under the cloak of conscientious objection tries to escape his national duty. I think we must leave it to the wisdom and common sense of the tribunals to decide who has a bonâ fide conscientious objection and who has a false conscience. That in many cases will be very easy to decide. I would suggest to my right hon. Friend that he should form with the military authorities a Committee or Conference of a small number of men to discuss and decide upon the system which he is to apply to the man who has admittedly a conscientious objection.

I think that one of the great difficulties which arises, and which my right hon. Friend feels in dealing with this Bill, arises from an inherent weakness in the Bill itself. The Bill is labelled a Military Service Bill. If it had been, as I wish it had been, a Bill that would really lay down the principles of national service in time of war, we should have had a much wider scope to deal with, and we would not have been brought up against this objection. I suggest that the Conference or Committee should lay down a certain class of work to which men who are recognised as bonâ fide religious objectors might be relegated at once by the tribunal. We must trust to the common sense of the tribunals to discriminate between the man who is a sham and the man who has a real conscientious objection. I have no desire to deal leniently with the man who is shamming, but there are a number of men who, we must recognise, have conscientious objection. Let me mention an experience which I had in Russia some years ago. I received a very interesting description from the Commander-in-Chief of the Caucasus of his manner of dealing with conscientious objectors, in that country at the time of the Russo-Turkish War. With his assistance I visited a number of the villages where those people lived. I had his assurance, and I had the opportunity of seeing for myself, as to the valuable national service they rendered and were prepared to render in time of war while at the same time securing their own feelings against the shedding of blood. I think it is quite possible for us to do something in that way which would relieve the feelings of the hon. Gentlemen behind me. I do not share their feelings in many ways, but at the same time I respect them. I think we ought to try and find a way out of this difficulty, and therefore I throw out that suggestion.


Let me state quite clearly again what I said before. I said that I could not accept this Clause because it would alter the law, and that I am not prepared to do. But I am prepared to put in declaratory words making it clear that the law is now what we know it is. There appears to be some doubt on the matter, and those words would be declaratory of what it is, and that is all.


In view of the right hon. Gentleman's declaration, although I would have been glad if he had gone further, I ask leave to withdraw.

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.