HC Deb 15 May 1916 vol 82 cc1191-4

To the grounds on which, under Section two, Sub-section (1), of the principal Act, a certificate of exemption from the provisions of the Act may be granted, shall be added the ground of a conscientious objection to the undertaking of all military service.—[Mr. Harvey.]

Clause brought up, an read the first time.


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

This Clause makes it quite clear that one of the grounds upon which a man may claim exemption is that of conscientious objection to the undertaking of all military service. That Las been met in the Act by the form of exemption provided, but already, both in the tribunals and outside, it has been stated that the only ground on which exemption is given in the Act is that of objection to combatant service, and that has been given as the reason for granting exemption from combatant service only. That was not the intention of the Government. It was clearly the intention of Par- liament, when the Act was passed, that those whose sincere objections extended beyond combatant service to all forms of military service should be met in the way specifically provided. It would greatly assist the smooth working of the Act by the tribunals if that were made clear in the way proposed. The only way in which, cases of miscarriage of justice can be avoided is by having some explanatory words inserted, making it perfectly clear that these cases are intended to be met.


I beg to second the Motion.

If we are to get over the difficulty, as I believe this House desires to do, it is absolutely essential that far more exemptions should be granted conditionally on, the applicant doing national service, rather than exempting them merely from combatant service. Here again it is obvious that in the national interest something wants doing in order to bring this about. If one talks to the military representative it is clear that the last thing that they desire is to have all this difficulty in the different military garrisons. When we look at the matter from the labour standpoint, we know that at the present time we are having to import men from Denmark, Portugal, and other places, and it seems to me that it is very unwise that we should be giving in the tribunals exemptions which these men cannot accept, whilst all the time many of them are willing to do necessary work under hard conditions involving an element of sacrifice. I hope that, either by accepting this Clause or in some other way, the right hon. Gentleman will be able to meet this difficulty. If he does, I believe that he will remove a large part of the problem with which we are faced and of which we desire to find a solution.


As I have already said more than once, the Act does contemplate certificates of absolute exemption from all military service, but I confess that while I understand the objection which springs from a sincere determination not to take human life, it is very difficult to believe that there are many cases in which total exemption should be granted relieving men even from doing work which results not in taking life, but in actually saving life or lessening human suffering. My hon. Friend says that these views are sincerely held. I am bound to assume that they are. But many Quakers have willingly undertaken work of a dangerous kind which has the result of saving life, because it prevents mines from destroying ships and their crews. It is intended that this exemption should be only in certain exceptional cases. That is the law to-day. I have already said that I will insert words of a declaratory character making it quite clear that that is the law. I cannot go further and add words of this kind, which would really give undue prominence to cases of total exemption.


I think the right hon. Gentleman has very fairly met the position of my hon. Friends. Therefore, while I quite admit that I should like to have seen this proposal in the original Act, I think to put it in now would give special prominence to a point of view which might not be helpful. I hope that the declaratory statement will be so framed as to call attention to the exemptions conditional on doing work of a national character. In that method alone lies the real way out. I know one Appeal Tribunal which, in every case as far as I am aware where they were satisfied that the conscientious objection was genuine, have given the objector time to find some kind of national service. In one or two cases the kind of national service found revealed the fact that the man was not a conscientious objector. When he went to work on munitions at a higher salary it rather showed that his views on war had more regard to his personal safety than anything else. On the whole, the giving of that opportunity week by week, and day by day, has proved very helpful.


If the Government are going to insert a declaratory statement they might as well make it complete and cover all the points at issue. If they do that I feel sure that the difficulty in which we find ourselves will be largely met. I hope my hon. Friend will not press this Clause or carry it to a Division. In trying to get out of one difficulty he has certainly put himself into another. Many of my hon. Friends have time after time raised strong objections to industrial conscription, and yet now they are willing to impose industrial conscription of a very hard character upon the conscientious objector. I cannot understand that attitude of mind. Therefore I hope that we shall have a perfectly clear declaratory statement applying to the whole matter and not one part of it. We shall then, I think, get rid of this difficulty.


I am sure we are very much obliged to the right hon. Gentleman for his promise to insert a declaratory statement of what the law really is, particularly as many legal persons presiding over Appeal Tribunals have taken the opposite view. But the promise of a declaratory statement does not meet the cases which have been decided by the tribunals. I have a young friend who, from the time when he first came before the local tribunal, has again and again offered to do work on the land or any national work not under military authority. He is now suffering twelve months' imprisonment. From the very first he has been most consistent in expressing his willingness to do work of the kind which the right hon. Gentleman now says he has the right to claim. Unless we have something more than a declaratory statement so that a way out may be provided for cases of that kind it will be no good at all.


In view of the right hon. Gentleman's promise to insert a declaratory statement, I beg leave to withdraw the Clause,

Motion and Clause, by leave, withdrawn.