§ Mr. RAMSAY MACDONALD
It is a very natural transition from money to men. The House has been discussing the question of the 6 per cent. borrowing, and there has been a universal regret expressed from all quarters about it. There is one consideration which has not been pointed out to the House which I shall put in a sentence, because it is a very good introduction to what I have to say upon another subject. That consideration is this: Whatever hon. Members here may say or feel, or whatever financiers may say on the subject, the man in the street is confronted with a somewhat unfortunate comparison, that when the nation wants money it has to induce people to give it to them. [HON. MEMBERS: "NO!"] It raises its money from 4½ to 6 per cent. 803 interest, and apparently it has not yet come to the end of the increase; but, on the other hand, when it requires men, it compels them to go. The contrast is a very striking one for the man in the street, and hon. Members may be assured that there is no topic that is more frequently and hotly discussed by the ordinary man to-day than this extraordinary difference between the conscription of life and the loaning of money. I want to raise this afternoon the question of men. I wish to appeal to the Government to try to be a little more economical with ability than it has been. I wish to enforce my appeal by giving two sets of facts. The first relates to the treatment of the single-handed business man in particular, and to a whole class of men who are not required at the moment, who have to come before tribunals, and who receive very imperfect certificates of exemption. What happens is this—I will give an actual case—a man in my own Constituency, running a small business which he has created himself and being in debt to the extent of about £200, he very honourably and honestly fulfilling his obligations under that debt, has to go before a tribunal. He puts his business case before it, and the tribunal issues a certificate of exemption, which is going to run for three months. At the end of the three months, if the applicant desires an extension of his certificate, he may appeal to the tribunal, but his appeal will not be heard unless the tribunal is willing that it should be heard.
The purpose of the three months' notice is this: that if the man has to sell his business he may have a chance of selling it in a tolerably open market. If he is suddenly compelled to part with his business in order to join the Colours, obviously he has not the same chance of getting a proper price for it. What is the position of that man? How does he know what is going to happen to him at the end of the three months? First of all, the tribunal may not allow him to appeal again. It may say to him, "The matter is settled and you have to go now to the Colours." On the other hand, the tribunal may say, "We will give you another three months. It may be we will listen to your appeal, but will not extend it." If this man is going to take any advantage at all of the two or three months of grace which he has obtained from the tribunal he must now take steps to dispose of his business. 804 Then, at the end of the three months, he may present himself to the authorities and be told that he is not required at all. As a matter of fact, that has taken place. There are hundreds of cases—it may be they have happened in error, but I am sure the Local Government Board will see that it is a very natural error and an error that ought not to have occurred—there are hundreds of cases of business men who have disposed of their businesses, who have presented themselves to the recruiting officers when their period of exemption expired, and who have been sent back by the recruiting agents to do what? Nothing at all! They have got to turn their hands to something to which they are not accustomed. They have cut themselves off from their businesses and have to start life afresh, with the possibility that in another three months they will be called up and again have to go through the same unfortunate process. I venture to appeal to the President of the Local Government Board on this point. It is surely a very simple thing to give men some sort of guarantee that, if they are not wanted now, they will have sufficient notice given to them before they are called up, in order that they may dispose of what businesses they possess. That is my first point. These single-handed business men have a great grievance indeed against the Government or against the tribunals in regard to their not entering more sympathetically into the very difficult economic position in which they are, and in not helping them out of that position more successfully than has been done.
My second class of case will, I am perfectly well aware, not be quite so acceptable to the whole of the House, or so popular; but even there I think I can appeal to business minds upon it. My second class of case refers to a certain section of conscientious objectors. This House, rightly or wrongly, as a matter of fact has recognised the conscientious objector, and recognised him not merely as a man with religious principles. That point is rather forgotten in our later Debates. The Prime Minister, on the 5th January, 1916, introduced his first Military Service Bill and referred to conscientious objectors being exempted, when something like a jeer went up from some parts of the House. After rebuking that jeer, he said:Those of us who know the real facts of British life know quite well that there are a great many people belonging to various religious denominations, or to 805 various schools of thought, who object on conscientious grounds."—[OFFICIAL REPORT. 5th January, 1916, col. 957,Vol. LXXVII.]The Prime Minister admitted that there may be conscientious objections founded upon certain beliefs held by schools of thought which were not religious. They might be moral. Surely when the House of Commons has taken a decision, and when that decision has been embodied in the law of the land, it is fair that members of tribunals and other people should set aside their personal predilections and administer the law in a judicial frame of mind. We cannot have private opinions introduced on judicial benches. If we have, then we come to legal chaos. We have had some thousands of men who have tried to take advantage of these exemptions. They have failed, so far as the tribunals are concerned, to make good their case. The atmosphere of these tribunals has been a thing that the Local Government Board ought to have watched a little more carefully than it has done. I know the perfectly tremendous difficulties the Local Government Board has had. Theoretically these tribunals are judicial authorities, and it is improper that any executive authority should interfere with the free discretion of a judicial authority if that judicial authority is conducting its business as a judicial authority. This House relegated the whole question of who is to be exempted under the Military Service Act to this body of citizens, which was supposed to act absolutely impartially, if anything with a bias in favour of the man who is appealing, because they insisted that if a man appeals the military representative would have to prove that his appeal was not sound. So long as there is any fair-mindedness left and any desire that the law of the land should be respected, quite apart from its merits or its demerits, we must bring these matters before the House. To-night I only intend to give one illustration of what I mean. This is the sort of thing that happened before the Stockport Appeal Tribunal the other day, in the case of a man called Ellis. This Ellis was going through the usual examination—that futile examination, "What would you do if the Germans came?" and that sort of thing. A man who puts a question like that under the impression that he is discovering, unveiling and revealing a man's conscience, has not an elementary knowledge of how to test for the existence or non-existence of a conscience. The military representative said to this man, 806What would you do if some one were to knock you down?The Appellant: I should first of all get up again.The Military Representative: Suppose I was to get up from this table and knock you down, I suppose you would get up and run for a policeman and then go home and read your Bible?The Appellant: I am not so sure that I approve of the method you suggest.The Military Representative: Well, you had better be careful or it will not take me long to knock you down.The Appellant: I do not think, Captain Rigby, you would do yourself any credit by such an action.I am perfectly certain, whatever the opinion of individual Members of this House is, there are no two opinions as to who came out of that little bout with the best honours. This is not reported by the tribunal, and not reported apparently by the War Office. Surely it must be apparent to every Member of the House that a judicial court carried on in that atmosphere and in that style does not, and cannot, come to proper judicial decisions. If we get good judicial decisions, then I say the Local Government Board has no business to vary them or to interfere, and whether I like them or not, I certainly should be the last man, here or anywhere else, to suggest that a Government Department should interfere with decisions properly given by properly constituted bodies. Then the men go on. They are handed over to the military, and the usual process is gone through.
Then there is a large section—an answer given yesterday to a question put it down at over a thousand—of men who are doing what is called national service. They go through the gaol, they are taken out and brought before what has been christened the Brace Committee and they are sent to the land, to road-making, and so on, to do what is called national service. Again I appeal to hon. Members to take the matter from a business point of view. This is a time when every penny in the country and every ounce of ability it has at its command should be used with a maximum amount of efficiency. I think there is no doubt about that, What happens to these men? There was a camp established at Dyce, and at that camp took place the death of a man of the name of Roberts, of whom I happened to know something. I was in that neighbourhood at the end of the summer, and just looked at the place myself. I saw the men at play, at meals, and at work, and I want to tell the House what impression I brought away from it. If hon. Members can imagine a bit of a slope on a hillside, with a huge quarry dump near the top of it and some tents pitched 807 at the foot of the dump, with green fields all round and a small village about a mile and three-quarters or two miles away, they will have the surroundings of the place. It had been raining, raining, raining for days. The roads from the station to the village were simply huge, swaying masses of mud. It was practically impossible to walk upon some of them on account of the engine traffic which had gone on between the quarry and the station The part of the camp used by the men was simply worked up into stuff which was half mud and half water in many places. It was all trampled upon. The grass in most parts had disappeared, and there they were living, playing football, and so on. That was their habitation. In the tents there was mud, just ordinary common unmistakable mud, and the men, in order to sleep at all, and to get anything like dry beds, had to take their firewood and build up a sort of little erections, and then they were told by the manager of the camp that they would not be allowed to do that because the wood was not provided for that purpose. It was meant for firewood, and was to be used as firewood. I asked what they did, and they said they declined to agree to his orders, and he said, "Very well, when the time comes for the wood to be used for firewood, you will have to take it from your beds and put them down in the mud." I suggested that they ought to take a few barrows full of the loose rubble stuff from the top of the quarry dump and put them on the floor of the tent. They said, "We started doing it, and they stopped us." I saw about three barrowfulls on the floor of one tent, and evidently the statement they made was perfectly true.
Then take the men at work. You go up to the end, and you see twenty or thirty men—the most extraordinary creatures you ever saw. First of all, they looked as if every one of them had been twenty years on the road, and yet behind it all you saw the intellectual class of the men. It is a strange sort of combination of the intellectual life and the tramp. The men felt it very keenly One man I talked to about it almost broke down when I tried to joke about his personal appearance. There they are, with barrows and shovels, trying to do navvies' work. They could not do it. There is confusion. There is no order. They come up on to a narrow place and, instead of taking their turns, block each other and stand in each other's 808 way. Then they go up and have to get their barrows. Again there is irregularity and bad management. Down below, where the crushed stuff comes out, there is again too great a crowd of men getting in each other's way, and the riddles or sifters, through which the smaller stuff falls in order that the more valuable larger stones should be retained and be used for the making of roads were so blocked up that there was no sifting going on at all. Dust was coming down, and the large stones were all being shovelled into the barrows, and the dust was taken and dumped on to the trucks which were taking the stones to the railway station. It was really a most melancholy spectacle. You felt when you saw it. Here is this country at death grips with an enemy, fighting for its existence in a way it has never had to do before, and it ought to make every one of us bend our backs to do the work we can do, and demand that we shall have our opportunities of doing it given us by those who have the power and the authority to assign us that work. There were these men, about a hundred, doing work they were not trained to do, doing work they could not do, doing work they could not be trained to do, going on under the impression that this is national service. There is a complaint that they are not doing enough work. Of course they were not doing enough work. If the making of the roads had been my job I should have discharged every one of them. There were very few men there who were earning even the small pay they were getting. They were just getting in each other's way, and they were, to put it very mildly, very round pegs in very square holes. They are not doing what they ought to do; they cannot do what they ought to do. The work is just ordinary task work, given to men who are in gaol. There is no use our deceiving ourselves about that. The men had just come out of gaol, where they had been serving on account of their defiance of the Military Service Act. They were quite unskilled in that work. They were soft of muscle, their hands were blistered, their backs were sore, and some of them had had to go away on account of heart trouble because of the strain from the heavy work. They have gone past those years when a man can very readily be changed from one mode of life to another. You can train a young, robust fellow, with a certain amount of care and skill, so that he can be turned from a clerk to a navvy; but you cannot do that 809 with men who have got a little bit beyond that very adaptable and that very green age, when they can be bent to new modes of life, and if you try to make that change in these men too suddenly you endanger their health. The list of sickness at this camp was absurdly long. I have no information which I can personally vouch for later than the date of my visit.
My point is that this was not national work. It was not useful work, because it could have been done far better by other men, working half the time, at double the wages, and they would have taken half the time to finish the whole job. There was no enthusiasm on the part of these men in their work. There was no incentive in the work. The men simply felt that they were being punished, and that they were asked to do this because the State wished to punish them. These men have got their conscientious convictions. Many of them said to me, "It would be the greatest pleasure in life to us if we could do what others are doing. But we cannot do it. We want to do something. We are teachers, we are clerks, we have been accustomed to run shops, and so on, and we want to help the nation in work which we are capable of doing, but instead we are shoved on to this impossible task, and asked to do work out of which we never can get any satisfaction. We do not feel, as we fill our barrels and empty them, that we are doing one stroke of work to help the country in the present crisis." What can you expect under such a state of things? It is sheer folly. It is waste. If you are going to punish the men, punish them honestly. If you say to these men, "You are criminals; you ought to be locked up; you ought to be confined," do it, but do it as reasonable men, and not in this sort of way by cutting off your nose in order to spite your face, because there are a certain number of men with whom you do not see eye to eye, and whose hearts do not beat with precisely the same rhythmic music that your own hearts are beating at the present time. On the day that I was at the camp the Home Office Committee was there, and my hon. Friend (Mr. Brace) was present. I met the Committee, and I am told that they accepted some reforms. The whole thing is utterly absurd and nonsensical. These men do not want comfortable beds; they do not want better food; they do not want shorter hours; they do not want easier work. They want to be put to something in which they feel that they can put their heart, and in 810 regard to which they can feel that it is work really useful to the State. You can take them from the camps which have been condemned; you can make their dwellings weatherproof; you can put them into billets in the village; but that is not solving the problem as a business man would solve it. My appeal is not for a soft heart, but for hardness of head. My appeal is not for sympathy for these men, but for common-sense treatment. My appeal is not that we should spend more money upon them, but that we should spend less money upon them and get more service from them. You will never do it in the nonsensical way which you are pursuing at the present time.
National service must have two characteristics. It must have some relation to the training and capacity of the men who are doing the service, and it must have some relation to national needs. I have one or two cases here to which I hope the House will allow me to refer, because they show how very little relation there is between the capacity of the men and the service which they are supposed to do. Here is the case of a man who was working at the Record Office, compiling a book on mediaeval law. The Hampstead Local Tribunal sent him to work on a dairy farm.
I quite agree. I wonder if my hon. Friend knows anything about dairies. Let me assume that he does not; perhaps I am wrong. However, I am not quite sure that if he was sent by a tribunal from an occupation where he could do very distinguished service to a dairy farm, where he might be in the way of the dairy farmer, that he would consider that the best service he could render. It is not enough merely to say that dairying is a good occupation. There are two things you require. You require a good man and a good occupation. If you put a bad man into a bad occupation, you spoil the man and the occupation as well. Of course, I quite agree that the more dairy work we can do the better for the State at the present time. I will take next the case of a market gardener near Blackpool, named Fletcher. He came before the Kirkham Local Tribunal, and was awarded non-combatant service on 3rd April. He appealed, and went before the Lancashire Appeal Tribunal, and on 28th April the non-combatant service was 811 withdrawn and he was sent for ordinary service. He came before the tribunal again. When he came before the tribunal it was stated that his work was not of national importance—that market gardening was not of national importance—and yet, before that same tribunal, another conscientious objector, who knew nothing of agricultural work, was given one month to consider whether he would accept market-gardening work as national service. Let me take another case. This is a case of a senior wrangler, who was granted exemption on 22nd September by the Cambridge Tribunal, and at the end of that time he was required to bring up some statement that he had found employment on the land. The point which was made by the hon. Member opposite in reference to the first case was present to my mind, and I said, "Perhaps that is the best thing for him." My informant laughed, and said, "He knows no more about the land than he knows about the sea. He has gone on the land, but instead of helping, although he is doing his very best to help, the fact is that he is only destroying what he is doing." Such is the report I have had.
There is another case of a second wrangler, who considered it of national importance that he should get into print certain mathematical researches on which he had been engaged before they were anticipated. I am told this is a very definite case. He was making certain mathematical researches upon lines on which he knew others were at work, and he was just finishing them. He was only given time to find hospital employment. I think that is, perhaps, not a particularly bad case. But why was he not allowed to finish his own work? My point here is that where you have got brains, where you have got efficiency and training, the tribunals ought to take that into account, not from the point of view of the man—I do not care two straws about the man—but from the point of view of the nation, so that everything we can contribute to the nation individually at the present time shall be contributed first of all, before we turn to things we cannot do with any great distinction or any great acceptance. There is another case of a man who is an editor and lecturer on economics. The Hampstead Local Tribunal granted him exemption from military service conditional on his undertaking work on the land within twenty-one days. He appealed 812 against this decision on the ground that it was expedient in the national interest that he should be employed in work for which he was fitted by his training and qualifications. On 17th August the London Appeal Tribunal dismissed this appeal. Later, the tribunal approved of unskilled labour on a dairy farm as a proper occupation for this editor and lecturer on economics. I have various other cases, but it is not necessary to quote them. There are hundreds of similar cases, well authenticated cases, of men who are known personally to Members of this House, and about whom we have not only reports, but we have personal knowledge.
I maintain that the first condition of national service, that it shall have some relation to the training and capacity of the person employed on national service, is being flagrantly broken not merely to the injury of the men, but to the very serious injury of the nation at the present time. The next condition is that national service shall have some relation to national needs. I will only trouble the House with one case. There are not quite so many cases of this sort as of the former, but there are scores of them. Take the case of the man Ellis, of Stockport, who had the bout with the military representative, to which I referred in an earlier part of my speech. This man claimed exemption on three grounds: first, that he was a conscientious objector; secondly, that his business was of national importance; and, thirdly, that serious financial and other difficulties would arise if he were not allowed to continue in his present occupation. His business was that of a manufacturer of some of those vegetarian and fruit foods that are beginning to be consumed more and more extensively, and which hon. Members are urged to consume during the War more extensively than they did before. This man had a very successful business which he had built up himself, and in which he was employing twenty women. As hon. Members may know, this is a sort of business in which you get what are called secrets, attached, secrets of mixture and so on, and nobody could carry on this particular business except this man. He was the only one in connection with the business who could keep it going, and if he went the business would close down and twenty women would be thrown on the market, with the result that the volume of his production would be taken from the volume of food for national consumption. He was told 813 that his business was not of national importance. First of all, he got one month's grace. He appealed, and the month's grace was cancelled. He went back to the local tribunal, who were told that if he had to go his business which employed twenty females would have to be closed. He was told that he would have to close it, and work as a labourer or something else in connection with some oil crushing business, the addresses of which they gave. That surely is a most unjust decision. I think it is very unfair from the point of view of the man, but I will let that pass, because there may be a difference of opinion about it. Surely that decision was most unjust from the point of view of the nation. The tribunal in that case has done something which definitely and specifically lowers the producing capacity of the nation of a material which people want very badly at the present time.
There are two other things I would like to say. I may be told that those men must be punished. There was no punishment for them in the Act of Parliament. That is all a new idea. But suppose they were to be punished, how are you going to do it? Take this Ellis case again. This business has got to be closed, and this is what happens: He is liable for a weekly rent of 16s. If he cannot pay that, who is punished? Not Ellis himself, but the man to whom he has to pay the 16s. a week. It is paid to a local building society, which is a working-class organisation, and the first effect of the decision is that you punish not so much Ellis as the people who have loaned him the money—the building society, the working people who have been saving for a great many years to start such societies. Moreover, he is under agreement to pay certain loans which were made to enable him to extend his business some two or three years ago, and which he is paying back at the rate of £4 a month. That has got to stop. His women have got to be discharged. It may be that they can easily find other employment, but we have found that even then there are certain kinds of women who cannot find other employment. So that the punishment of this man himself, if that is the theory on which you are going, involves not merely loss to himself, but very serious and unjustifiable hardships upon people who do not share in his views and who have no relations with him except the ordinary business 814 relations that subsist between employer and employed and between debtor and creditor. That is most unfair. The tribunal on every ground ought to have allowed that man exemption.
When one talks in that way one is very apt to be met with a very just observation that the men at the front sleep in mud, live in mud, and fight in mud, and why should not men, like those to whom I am referring, do the same? Well, it all depends upon what you mean. If I were going to improve matters in any way by putting these men into mud or by going into a mud hut myself, I should do it with great pleasure. But if you wish to compel men to do national service by sleeping on mud, you cannot do it. If, however, in order to impress those men with the gravity of the situation, you think that mud is economical, why is not everybody who asks for national service compelled to work in those conditions? The editors of great newspapers, those who write those articles who are exempted by tribunals from national service, how would they like it? I think that it is very just that they should have the experience. If they say that the men to whom I am referring ought to be kept in mud, that we ought to have no sympathy with them because they are in mud, how would these gentlemen like to be condemned to sit in their offices up to their knees in liquid mud, reduced to the temperature of zero every night, and be compelled to do national service in conditions such as those? What is artificial ought to be cured, because it has got no economy and no justification whatever. We have got no business to have those men in such conditions if we can reasonably remove them. The main point I have raised this evening is this, not in the interests of those men, but in the interests of the nation—cannot we use those men differently? Schools are being closed. Complaint is made that clerks are being asked to teach who cannot teach. I will not enter into that proposition. I would far rather allow those men to teach, even if everything said against them were true, than let the children run about like Red Indians in the middle of the streets of our large towns. In the one case you may have to correct errors afterwards, but it is far worse to leave the children to the abandonment of the abominable cinematograph shows, which are likely to destroy them and which are being multiplied, 815 while the schools, the only civilising influence you have got for great masses of the people, are being closed on account of want of teachers.
§ Mr. MACDONALD
I would agree with you with the greatest pleasure if I could, but there are many cases. I have got a case just now in which the school committee applied for a teacher who was essential and the tribunal refused to accede to the appeal. I know myself of teachers leaving school and their places being taken by uncertified old women. I have got a case of a woman of about sixty taking the place of a most competent and capable teacher of thirty. This teacher has been sent down to do afforestation. During the first week he has destroyed a considerable number of trees and very nearly chopped off his own legs. That is the sort of thing you are doing. If you are going to punish them, punish them like honourable persons, like common-sense men. If we are going to ask national service for them, let us give them national service to do, and not something which involves waste of material, inefficiency, ineffectiveness, and incompetence of supervision. I am disgusted that those things should be tolerated by the nation in the midst of the struggle in which it is at present engaged. I would appeal for business management. I would appeal for that state of mind which would put the industry of the whole country at the disposal of the country, so that by the co-operation of all the maximum amount of good shall be done to the nation at large.
§ The UNDER-SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. Brace)
I listened to the speech of my hon. Friend with care and with interest, and I listened for the practical programme which would have permitted us to deal with this problem upon more effective lines than we are doing at present, bearing in mind all the conditions surrounding the difficulties which we have to face. I listened with care because I thought that my hon. Friend would have told the House that there were other camps than the camp at Dyce. That camp which my hon. Friend criticised is only one of several camps, and by no means the largest of all those camps 816 which we have established for dealing with conscientious objectors. If the House will permit, I would like shortly to indicate where the men are working, and broadly what they are doing. At Clare there is a camp of fifty-eight conscientious objectors working, and the House will notice that my hon. Friend made no criticism of that camp. There is a camp at Newhaven which gives employment to 164 conscientious objectors. In the camp at Dyce there are 252 employed. There is another camp established at Kinlochleven, where there are fifty-three men working, and at Llanelly, in Carmarthenshire, there are two camps working upon waterworks, giving employment under Scheme 1 to eighty-seven and under Scheme 2 to thirty-one men, and at Weston-super-Mare we have thirty-two conscientious objectors working. At Wigton we have twenty, and at Newport twenty, and we have deprisonised two prisons, Wakefield and Warwick, so that we may have an opportunity of giving employment to conscentious objectors who would be held by the medical officers to be physically incapable of the outdoor work which we have to offer. My hon. Friend made complaint, in his usual graphic style, of the mud that was to be found at the Dyce Camp. Did he expect to find anything else than mud at a camp in wet weather? Is there anything unusual about finding mud at a camp where there are 164 men? If he had gone a little lower down the lines and seen the camp for soldiers he would have found mud there just as well.
When he talks about the punishment of conscientious objectors he is really placing it much higher than the case would entitle him to place it. I am not sure that the whole of the conscientious objectors would thank my hon. Friend for introducing the matter to the House of Commons. What is the position of the real conscientious objector, the man who is moved by profound religious convictions to take a particular course? His position is this: "Relieve me of anything that may be a condemnation of what I believe to be my conscience and I have no complaint to make. I will do any kind of work." Those men are not making any complaint, and it would be rather interesting to find in the personnel of these camps who was behind this complaint. I am far from saying that the Dyce Camp is such as I would like it to be. In fact, when I went down there 817 and saw that there was a reasonable opportunity of correcting the legitimate grievances of the conscientious objectors, I at once exhausted all the resources at my command to correct those grievances. But the House will please remember that the Dyce Camp is not of a permanent character. It was simply a camp which was started for two months. It is being closed, and within a week from now the camp will be entirely disbanded. If I had requested the Treasury to find the money to hut those men for a two months' job, many hon. Members would make serious complaint against the Committee of which I am chairman and say that such expenditure was entirely unjustifiable. We thought that the conscientious objectors would be satisfied and ought to be satisfied so long as they were treated equally with the soldiers, and when we put the conscientious objectors in a camp at Dyce we simply followed what would have been done if we were supplying a camp for our soldiers. They were supplied exactly as a camp for soldiers would have been supplied. For their provisions we went to the military stores and got exactly the same kind of article as the soldiers got.
§ 7.0 P.M.
§ Mr. BRACE
No, but my hon. Friend says that objection was made because some of the man were using the granite out of the quarry to make their tents dry. This is the first I have heard of that. I have met the men and met the Committee. I spent some hours with them. I met every individual man who desired to make a complaint, and this is the first time I have heard of that. All I can say is that the Committee of which I am chairman can only deal with complaints of which we know. The camp there consists of twenty-seven bell tents, two mess tents, one store tent, and the necessary material for screens. The men are supplied with palliasses and bolsters, in addition to blankets and waterproof sheets ordinarily provided for soldiers in camp. They are provided with exactly the same full rations as are supplied to soldiers, and therefore we thought that in taking these steps we were indeed doing no injustice to the conscientious objectors. The Committee was profoundly moved, as I was myself, by the death of one of the members of the camp, and I am sure the House of Commons will join in an 818 expression of sympathy that there should have been such an occurence, which was much to be regretted. To be quite sure that it was one of those unfortunate accidents that might arise anywhere, under the circumstances of the camp life of any body of people, we requested the Scottish Medical Officer of the Local Government Board at Edinburgh, to carefully inspect the camp and to give a report. It is a. remarkable thing how rumours develop. I understand that the members of that camp very boldly sent all over the country the declaration that the Scottish Medical Officer to the Local Government Board had made a report to the effect that the camp was not healthy, and that the conditions: were such as ought not to exist. This was the medical officer's report of which I simply read the conclusion:The general sanitary conditions of the camp at Dyce may be regarded as satisfactory. The health of the men is not likely to suffer from living in camp, as long as the weather keeps dry. Winter, however, is coining on, and arrangements might be made to now house them otherwise than in camp.
§ Mr. BRACE
The hon. Member is a very much better judge of the weather in Scotland than I am. I can only say that on this report of the British Medical Officer of Health there can be no serious complaint levelled against this place where the conscientious objectors are encamped, under conditions similar to those under which soldiers are encamped in Scotland at the same time. As to the work which the men do, of course it may not be as congenial as many of the conscientious objectors might desire, but it is not hard work. It is work such as men who have been passed as fit for the Army can do. All that they have had to do was to fill the barrows with stone and wheel them to the crushing machines, and after the stones had been crushed to load them into trucks, and when those trucks had been taken to a place some miles away, to lay the stones on the road as the ordinary roadmaker would do. These conscientious objectors may have some complaint to make about the Committee and the way it has treated them, but the Committee on its side has some complaint to make about the way in which some of the conscientious objectors have worked. If these men had been called upon to live upon what they earned they would have been in an entirely different position from what they were. These conscientious objectors, by some kind of calculation, have come to the 819 conclusion that five hours a day was their maximum, and they have put in actual practice the system of "Ca' canny," and have worked five hours per day. If it had not been that the camp was to be broken up, drastic action would have been taken. Let me state that this camp is divided into two sections. One at Longside; these objectors worked ten hours a day, and carried out all that is reasonably asked of them, but the section at Dyce have refused to work more than five hours, and what they did with the rest of their time I cannot say. We do not object to conscientious objectors having as much liberty as is possible, and I want to say frankly in the House of Commons that, on the whole, I would prefer that these men were housed in buildings rather than in tents. We did arrange with some local farmers to house them in farm buildings. On the whole, I do think that the conscientious objectors are not serving their own cause either through the mouth of my ton. Friend or through anybody else when they complain about the arrangements, which are the same as those made for our soldiers, who have to go to the front.
§ Mr. MACDONALD
The hon. Gentleman has mistaken my point, which was that the Government seem to be absolutely incapable of using these men for national service in the way they ought to be used.
§ Mr. BRACE
Unfortunately there must be a decision by someone, and the Committee which was set up decided upon the arrangements which have been made. The Committee are limited in their opportunities for finding employment. Does my hon. Friend argue that the making of roads is not a national service? Why should not a teacher take part in helping to make roads as well as anybody else? What is the use of coming to the House of Commons with the argument that a teacher is a man physically unfit to engage in the work of making roads? Our soldiers do not become soldiers without preparation. It takes some time to train them, harden them, and develop their muscles for the service of the Army. If these teachers and other conscientious objectors are as conscientious as they say they are, after their hands have become hardened and their muscles have been worked into condition, what reason is there why they should not make as good road makers as the ordinary man who is a road maker?
§ Sir STEPHEN COLLINS
These roadmakers have been trained, but the conscientious objectors have no special training.
§ Mr. BRACE
My hon. Friend is wrong. We do not expect the conscientious objector, on the first day, to be in physically fit condition or to be fully informed about the work upon which he is to be engaged; but surely when a man has had a month's training, and has become physically fit, there can be no serious inconvenience to putting him to this work of road making. I do not think it is any argument that because a teacher is a man of culture, or of high scholastic attainments, and of great education, he is less capable, on that account, of doing physical labour. That is an argument which I have combated all my life. I submit, and I have always contended, that the greater a man's knowledge and culture, the more complete his education, the more capable workman will he make. Therefore the schoolmaster, with his scholastic attainments, and when he is rendered physically fit, and his hands are hardened, can become as good a road-maker as anyone else. We are employing these men for the making of roads which are necessary for the public service. Why should not these conscientious objectors be engaged in doing that work? What is there in it which is degrading to them? Men are necessary, but men cannot be found. There is a great shortage of man-power, and it seemed to the Committee, when we arranged with the Road Board to employ conscientious objectors upon the roads, that they were asking these men to do real national service—indeed, work that would leave them physically better than when they commenced it. In addition to that, we are providing work for them at timber felling, and we are endeavouring to employ them in the best way possible. We have deprisoned Warwick Prison and Wakefield Prison. We have arranged for those prisons each to be a kind of communal centre for conscientious objectors who wilt be employed in the winter months at indoor work, and also for men who are physically unfit for outdoor work. There is the fullest liberty in those centres. They may have their leisure and their freedom within the Regulations, which are made as much for the convenience of conscientious objectors and their comfort as, indeed, for anything else.
I shall be very much surprised if as a result of the trial of these camps we shall 821 find serious complaints from the conscientious objectors themselves. I can assure the House of Commons this has been to me the most confusing problem that I have had to tackle. I have been up against a psychology I could not understand. If my hon. Friend thinks that these conscientious objectors are angels and easy to deal with he has made a profound blunder. You may make an agreement with them to-day and they come with another to-morrow, and I can assure the House that it has been the most difficult and the most confusing problem. The guiding principle under which we acted was that we did not want to put them to anything which they might consider to be of an undignified character, and to the best of my knowledge and belief we have not done anything to make these men less manly at the end of this business than they were at its beginning. The whole thing has been arranged to give them employment in the national service under civilian control. Making roads may not be the kind of service these men like, but it was the best service we could offer. [An HON. MEMBER: "The only service?"] No; we have other services in which we employ them. Incidentally I might mention that at Weston-super-Mare, one of the most beautiful spots in the country, they are engaged in timber felling, and in time we shall be able to understand the problem very much better than at present. All I can say is that the members of the Committee, who include some old and tried Civil servants, have worked early and late to deal with this problem. If we had failed at all, it may be because we brought them out of prison earlier than we should have done, in our desire to deal with them as we would like, and as we are endeavouring to deal with them to-day. If there is any complaint against us at all, the complaint must be that we were anxious to do more than simple justice to the conscientious objectors. I have nothing to apologise for in regard to our dealings with them. When I have gone down to the camps I have told the men to form their own committees, to formulate their complaints, and then we would deal with them. But having gone to all this trouble, I do not think my hon. Friend will carry with him the whole vote of the conscientious objectors in these camps, individually or collectively, in any of the complaints he has ventured to make as to the treatment they have received. The conscientious objectors, in their own 822 interests, will want to leave an impression on the minds of this nation—if they are going to do justice to their high claims—they will want to leave the impression that so long as their objections have been met and they are not asked to do anything in violation of their consciences they are prepared to incur equal hardships with our soldiers at home and in the field.
§ Lord HUGH CECIL
The speech to which we have listened will reassure many people on this subject. It is quite wrong, Parliament having decided to relieve the conscientious objector, to try and indirectly punish him. We all agree, I think, that if the hon. Member for Leicester (Mr. Ramsay Macdonald) could make out a case that there was behind the back of Parliament an effort to inflict punishment on the conscientious objector who had been recognised as such, that should be put an end to. But as the Under-Secretary for the Home Office truly said, the fact that a camp is muddy does not indicate a desire on the part of the authorities that it should be muddy. We all remember the frightful state of the Canadian camp in the autumn of 1914, but the circumstance that a camp is an uncomfortable place to live in, regrettable though it is, is a condition of things which is shared equally by the conscientious objector and the soldier, and is one of those things which is Inevitable.
As to the rest of the case put forward by the hon. Member for Leicester, I venture to make this observation. It is, of course, quite true that it is very wasteful of national resources to use a man of intellectual capacity for manual labour, and unless you are going to adopt the proposition, which I am sure the hon. Member would not desire to do, that the State ought to take the manhood of the country into its hands and spread them wherever it thinks the most efficient labour will be obtained, you must recognise that the Military Service Act and all that has resulted from it, and is resulting from it, is merely an intrusion of the principle of compulsion into the general social system that it is bound to produce a lot of incongruities and inconveniences. Suppose you adopt what the hon. Gentleman suggests, and assign the conscientious objector with intellectual training to intellectual work, you will at once do two things open to objection. You will irritate a very large body of opinion which has been already irritated, which feels very keenly the sending of soldiers to 823 the front, which is always vainly calling for an ideal equality of sacrifice, and which would therefore resent what it conceived to be an act of favouritism to those whose sincerity it doubts. It is evidently public policy not to irritate any section of the community, if in so doing you would not do what it is necessary to do, i.e., distinguish between the sincere and the insincere objector.
It is quite wrong to punish the conscientious objector who is sincere, but it is not wrong to have such a system of alternative labour as would afford a reasonable test of sincerity. I do not think it would be possible to give intellectual people intellectual work. It would put them in a favourable position, which would excite discontent in other portions of the community, and it would not test their sincerity in any degree.
Assuming that the matter is administered in the admirable tone of the speech of the Under-Secretary, there is no ground whatever for complaint. But I do see great ground for complaint in the administration of the tribunals and the consequences of the system of tribunals. Of course, some tribunals are good and some are bad, but, on the whole, they are not a good court to deal with this sort of issue. They are often actuated by strong prejudices, and are hardly ever constituted of people with clear minds. It may be said that to alter this would require a fresh Act of Parliament; but, at any rate, I should like to see the whole subject of the conscientious objector taken away from the ordinary tribunals and placed under a special tribunal. What now happens is simply grotesque. You get a lot of people sent into the Army; they prove to be recalcitrant; you have the scandal of the struggle in the Army, a thing very mischievous from the point of view of discipline and of the good of the Army; you have these people tried by court-martial; you have them sentenced to detention; you have them coming back to the Army and again being recalcitrant; again they are tried and sentenced, this time to imprisonment. They are thus going through a sort of mill. Then they go before a tribunal which has had more experience in the matter, and you get a more or less systematic dealing with their cases. I am referring, of course, to the Central Tribunal, which deals with these men when they come out of prison, 824 and which does its best to distinguish between case and case and to meet all the difficulties.
It would really be a far better plan to have a rule whereby nobody should be put into the Army at all until it has been definitely decided whether or not he is a conscientious objector. The process of putting the men through a kind of mill and then putting them to such work as making roads, or other work of national service, is grotesquely clumsy and ill-conceived. What I suggest is this, that when this stage is arrived at, whatever the preliminary inquiry of the magistrate handing the man over to a military escort, instead of being put into the Army he should be put into a prison on the same footing as a prisoner awaiting trial. His case should be investigated by a board to be appointed by the Home Office, and he should be given his choice. He might be told, "You are insincere altogether and you must go into the combatant Army or to penal servitude," or he might be told, "You are entitled to a certain degree of relief and you must go into the non-combatant service," or they would say, "Yours is a case for national service." But, whatever it may be, he should be required to give his consent to serve in writing. If he refuses his consent in writing, then he should be sent to penal servitude, and kept there until the conclusion of the War, or until he has signed his consent. In that way the Army would be kept clear of these struggles, for nobody would go into it who had not intimated in writing his willingness to serve, and the whole of the odious procedure that now obtains would thus be avoided. You cannot, after all, in the end deal with these people more severely than by sending them to prison. But here the man would have the choice of either doing the work offered him by the tribunal or going to prison. The sooner you propound that choice, and the sooner you get that man's decision, the better it is for everyone. In this way you would have a system which would work smoothly and easily and without scandal. I venture to press this suggestion again on the Government. I ask them not to leave this matter to be settled in a haphazard fashion by various tribunals, who send people into the Army or sentence them to terms of imprisonment, because I submit that such a system is open to the gravest objections, and fulfils no possible object.