§ (1) A person shall not be disqualified from being registered or from voting as a Parliamentary elector by reason that he or some person for whose maintenance he is responsible has received poor relief or other alms.
§ (2) A person shall not be entitled to be registered or to vote as a Parliamentary or local government elector if he is not a British subject, and nothing contained in this Act shall, except as expressly provided therein, confer on any person who is subject to any legal incapacity to be registered or to vote either as a Parliamentary or local government elector, any right to be so registered or to vote.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I beg to move, at the beginning of Sub-section (1), to insert the words "A person shall be disqualified from being registered and from voting as a Parliamentary or local government elector if that person has, for thirty days or more in the aggregate, during the qualifying period been maintained as an inmate of any prison, or of any lunatic asylum or workhouse or poor house supported wholly or partly out of local rates, or other similar institution; but if a person so disqualified would have been entitled to he registered as a local government elector but for that disqualification, the disqualification shall not extend so as to affect the right of the wife of that person to be registered or vote as a Parliamentary elector. Save as aforesaid."
§ Mr. KILEY
I desire to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, to leave out the words "A person shall be disqualified from being registered and from voting as a Parliamentary or local government elector if that person has, for thirty days or more in the aggregate, during the qualifying period been maintained as an inmate of any prison, or of any lunatic asylum or workhouse or poor house supported wholly or partly out of local rates, or other similar institution; but."
I move this Amendment because I am considerably mystified as to the reason which induced the Home Secretary to propose this alteration in the Bill. One realises that if a person is in prison he naturally cannot record a vote or that if 1116 he is in a lunatic asylum he is also prevented from recording a vote. [An HON. MEMBER: "Oh, no!] I cannot imagine—
Mr. DEPUTY - SPEAKER (Sir D. Maclean)
I have been looking at the hon. Member's Amendment, and I cannot make it read.
§ Mr. GILBERT
On the main Question, if the suggested Amendment be out of order, will the Home Secretary kindly explain to the House exactly what he means by his proposal. It says:a person shall be disqualified from. being registered and from voting as a Parliamentary or local government elector if that person has, for thirty days or more in the aggregate, during the qualifying period been maintained as an inmate of any prison, or of any lunatic asylum or workhouse or poor house supported wholly or partly out of local rates, or other similar institutions.The point we wish to raise is, what the Home Secretary means by the words. "inmate of any prison." A man who had a charge made against him and was under remand would be an inmate of a prison, it might be for a week or a fortnight, during the qualifying period. As regards lunatic asylums the Amendment raises a very important point. Everybody knows that one of the unfortunate things of this War has been that men have come back and have been sent from the Army or from hospitals to lunatic asylums or similar institutions. In many cases under special treatment those men have got better. If the Amendment as proposed by the Home Secretary is carried, does it mean that any soldier who has unfortunately been in a lunatic asylum for thirty days or more for special treatment because the Army has sent him there—the county asylums are maintained out of the ordinary rates—is to be disqualified from voting? The same thing applies to a workhouse or a poorhouse supported wholly or partly out of the local rates. That surely includes in firmities. Owing to crowding in the hospitals at present many men whose cases will take a long time to recover have been sent to ordinary infirmaries or institutions of that kind which are kept up wholly or partly out of the rates. I do not think the Home Secretary wishes to exclude this type of man from obtaining the vote. It seems to me from the way this is worded that it will certainly have that effect 1117 if the law is carried out in the words proposed by the Home Secretary, and I hope he will give us some explanation ,as to what they mean.
§ Mr. WHITEHOUSE:
It appears to me that the Home Secretary's Amendment is contrary to the decision which the Committee adopted with regard to the removal of the Poor Law disqualification. A discussion took place in Committee which lasted for two or three hours. Undoubtedly it was the intention of the Committee not to allow the fact of having received either indoor or outdoor relief to be a disqualification to the exercise of the franchise. That was assented to, I believe, by every party in the House and no Division was challenged. This is certainly hostile to the decision of the Committee. It therefore requires the most careful consideration by the House and we are entitled to an explanation from the Home Secretary.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I did not rise earlier because I was under the impression that the House would understand that this Amendment carried out promises which had been made in Committee. Two subjects were discussed. First there came the question of Poor Law disqualification. According to the Report of the Speaker's Conference anyone who had received Poor Law relief, whether indoor or outdoor, for thirty days would have been disqualified, and a proposal to that effect was inserted in the Bill. On the discussion of that Clause in Committee there appeared to be a general view that at all events the receipt of outdoor relief should not be a disqualification for the franchise, but it was expressly stated that an Amendment would be proposed by the Government on Report to the effect that a person who was an actual inmate of a Poor Law institution for thirty days or upwards should be disqualified from voting. That was apparently accepted as satisfactory by the Committee because the Amendment was then withdrawn. That part of the promise is carried out by this Amendment. Now I come to deal with the other part of the Amendment. There were discussions in Committee as to whether a person who was in prison during a substantial part of the qualifying period, or was a lunatic in an asylum or institution for mental deficiency, should have a vote for the district in which he lived or not. That, again, was discussed at some length, and the proposal was finally made that at this 1118 stage of the Bill provision should be made for dealing with that matter. Thereupon we considered the whole question, with due regard to what was said in Committee, and this Amendment was put on the Paper. It proposes that there shall be no general disqualification by reason of the receipt of Poor Law relief, but that anyone who would be otherwise qualified. who has for thirty days or more of the, qualifying period been maintained as an inmate of a prison, a lunatic asylum, a workhouse or a poor-house maintained wholly or partly out of local rates or other similar institutions, shall not be qualified for the vote. I am quite prepared to listen to what the hon. Member (Mr. Whitehouse) has to say with regard to the words, but, leaving the words aside, I think the Amendment exactly carries out the proposal which we made in Committee.
§ Major NEWMAN
I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, to leave out the words "for thirty days or more in the aggregate."
The Clause as it stands excludes or disqualifies from the register a man who has been in prison for an aggregate term not exceeding more than thirty days. My Amendment provides that if a man has been sentenced to any term of imprisonment he shall not be qualified to be registered for that registration period. I know that that will make a big change in the intentions of the Government, but at the same time I do suggest that it is a change which we ought to make. The present law with regard to men who have been convicted or imprisoned is fairly clear, and it is drastic. A person convicted of treason or felony is not allowed to vote. As the house knows, a man must be registered in order to vote, and in the particular case of a man who has been convicted of treason or felony the judgment must be proved, or, on the other hand, if he has been sentenced to any term of imprisonment with hard labour or for a term of imprisonment exceeding six months he is not allowed to exercise the franchise until he has suffered his punishment. We have to remember that under the election law as it stands at the present time there is no objection to a man in custody on conviction for misdemeanour voting. He can vote if the authorities will allow him, out. As a matter of fact that question has been tested, and a man has applied to get habeas corpus to come out and vote, but 1119 he has been refused. Therefore, as I understand it, if a man is in custody [...]n conviction for misdemeanour he is not actually allowed to come out to vote. I should like to simplify that. We are now having a short registration period of six months, and I suggest that a man who is sentenced to any term of imprisonment—I do not care how long or how short—should, ipso facto, be disqualified, and not be put on the register for that particular registration period. Surely that is a small thing when we have two registrations in one year.
We want to get the most desirable men on the register. It is not like it was before, when an Amendment such as this would have meant disfranchising a man for two years or even more. It can only be for six months. I maintain that no man who has been sentenced for anything at all to any term of imprisonment should be allowed to be registered for that period of qualification. I know that my Amendment will not meet with universal support. I know that people will say that a man who is convicted for an offence such as passive resistance, which was in vogue some years ago, and is sentenced to a term of imprisonment of perhaps a couple of days in default of paying a fine, that man on going to gaol will, under this Amendment, be deprived of his chance of getting on the register for that particular registration period. I face that position. If a passive resister or a conscientious objector actually comes up against the law and breaks the law and is sentenced to a term of imprisonment, even for one day, he ought not to be allowed to get on the register for that particular registration period. He could get on six months afterwards. The Bill provides for an aggregate not exceeding thirty days. If hon. Members look at Clause 5 they will see that it is provided that a person shall be entitled to be registered for any constituency in which he has been serving—this is in respect of the military vote—for a period of not less than one month. According to that, a soldier may be in detention for something under thirty days, and during that time be will be qualifying, and would have a vote in the division where he was under detention. That is not meant, surely; but that would be the effect of the Bill as it stands. If a soldier or a sailor is committed to a detention barracks or a detention prison for even a week or a day 1120 he ought to lose his privileges under Clause 5. It is a ludicrous thing to say that a man who may be in detention for a period of twenty-eight days during the qualifying period should be qualifying as a voter under Clause 5. That cannot be meant. Therefore, I move this Amendment to make things clear. If a man is sentenced to any term of imprisonment he will forego his chance of getting on the register for that particular qualifying period, and I am convinced that the country will support this. We do not want conscientious objectors or passive resisters; we want the very best.
§ Mr. WING
After the interpretation of the Amendment by the hon. and gallant Member, I wish to enter my protest, because, as he has already pointed out, it is quite possible that a large number of people would be disfranchised under this Amendment without having committed any crime. When you consider the very small offences which soldiers and sailors commit, and the punishments which are meted out to them, it is a most monstrous proposal that they should be disfranchised by an Amendment of this kind. What I am most concerned about is, and I should like to ask the Home Secretary on the point, whether this Amendment in any sense undermines the right of those who have received Poor Law relief, or relief in any sense, to the franchise. This House decided that no man, and now no woman, should be disfranchised because, under certain circumstances—for instance, if they continued on strike—they required public assistance. Does the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment in any way destroy their right to the vote?
§ Mr. DICKINSON
I cannot help thinking that the Government have possibly inadvertently put us in a position of very considerable difficulty, because they have changed the form of the Report. The Conference originally proposed a very simple proposition, that the old disqualification for being registered, which arose from the receipt of Poor Law relief, should be reduced to this one, namely, that it should only apply if relief had been received for more than thirty days during the six months' qualifying period. When 1121 this question came to be discussed, the House evinced a great desire to do away even with that restriction, and the President of the Local Government Board, with certain reservations, accepted the desire of the House. In doing so, he said—
I think that it is better to dispose of the comparatively minor point raised by the Amendment—that is, the question whether imprisonment disqualifies a man from voting —before dealing with the main question, which I understand the right hon. Gentleman is now raising.
§ 9.0 P.M.
§ Mr. DICKINSON
The question which my hon. Friend opposite raises is precisely mine, only he takes the other view. I am speaking now against his Amendment, before my Amendment comes up, to get rid altogether of this disqualification of imprisonment, and I am just going to show the way in which this new proposal for disqualification, by reason of imprisonment, has come up. The President of the Local Government Board accepted the position in regard to the Poor Law. That is to say, he said he was not going to insist upon the strict proposal made by the Conference, but he said he was prepared to go a great deal further than the Conference, and he said practically that he would accept the Amendment, which was then proposed, to the disqualification from voting as a Parliamentary elector by reason of a person or some person for whose maintenance he is responsible, having received Poor Law relief, subject to the following condition. He said:I told the Home Secretary before he left the House what I was proposing to do, and he agrees with it, but he wishes to make this one suggestion. He thinks that the person who is actually resident in a Poor Law institution should not have the franchise conferred on him. and later on he will propose himself or will accept an Amendment by which residents in prisons, Poor Law institutions and lunatic asylums shall not be qualified to vote. I will not tell the Committee what words we propose to accept. We are really sweeping away the whole of the disqualification from Poor Law relief, unless a person is actually an inmate of a workhouse.That proposal, as regards Poor Law, has been carried out by the Amendment of the Home Secretary, because he is going to limit the disqualification to a disqualification of actual residence in the workhouse. But the words that have been used by the President of the Local Government Board were that those who were actually resident in the Poor Law institutions should not have the franchise conferred on them. Then, later on, that those who 1122 were inmates of prisons, or Poor Law institutions, and lunatic asylums should not be qualified to vote.
That is a very simple proposition, namely, that those persons who were at the time in these various institutions should not be qualified to vote. But the Government have gone a great deal further by their Amendment which is now before us, and they propose that anybody who has been in a workhouse, prison, or lunatic asylum for a certain period during the six months qualifying period, by the mere fact of having been there is disqualified from voting. That raises a very important and perfectly novel doctrine in this country. The law with regard to the right of felons to vote is laid down very clearly by an Act, I think of 33 and 34 Victoria, Chapter 23, Section 2, that persons are disqualified who are convicted of treason or felony, for which the sentence is death or penal servitude, or any term of imprisonment with hard labour, or exceeding twelve months, until they have suffered that punishment, or such as may be substituted by a competent authority, or until they receive a free pardon. And persons who are imprisoned by reason of misdemeanour, I believe, do not even lose their vote; though if they happen to be in prison the Courts will not grant them a writ of habeas corpus in order to. Enable them to go out and vote. But, so far as the voting of felons and misdemeanants is concerned, once their sentence is completed, once they have suffered the full penalty of the law, they are not thereby disfranchised; and at the present moment a person who may have an occupation vote, or anything of the kind, and whose wife continues to reside in the house, and who does not lose his qualification for other reasons, can go to prison and come out of prison and can vote, notwithstanding the fact that he has been in prison. I cannot help thinking that the Government have mixed up two things. It was understood when we were debating this point, that a person should not be able to qualify by residence in prison. That I am prepared to agree to. That is the point that was raised by my hon. Friend in a very amusing speech, in which he said that all the denizens of Holloway Gaol would come on the register for Islington. That I quite agree we ought to prevent, but in doing that we are not entitled to say that because the law inflicts upon them a particular punishment for a particular offence 1123 we are going to add to that punishment the penalty of disqualification for the franchise, which up to the present has never been imposed. I understand that my hon. Friend's Amendment applies to lunatics as well as to prisoners, and that he wants to disfranchise not only a man who has been in prison for one day, but a person who has been in a lunatic asylum for one day.
§ Mr. DICKINSON
The words have that effect. If you strike out "thirty days," then one day's residence in a lunatic asylum during the six months will disfranchise. That is a totally novel doctrine. The law, as regards lunatics, is that a lunatic can vote provided that it can be shown that he votes at a moment when he is compos mentis. There are old cases in which the vote of a lunatic has been objected to, because it was said he could hot understand the proceedings that were going on, and their votes have been allowed. There is one standard case which happened so long ago as 1791, in which the voter was seventy-five years old and a paralytic, and was affected by the noise of the polling. He had no clear idea of the names of the candidates, but he had of the side on which he wished to vote. When questions were put to him he merely repeated them, but his answers to his wife were more clear, and that man's vote was allowed. The whole question is, whether a man when he is recording his vote, not when he is registered, has sufficient power of mentality to record his vote with ordinary common sense and discrimination. That is the position of the law at the present moment. It will he changed by this Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman, because a man who goes into a lunatic asylum, when he comes out, is to be struck off the list. He may have been on the register for years, and had a continuing qualification, but because he had gone for a very short time into a lunatic asylum, being deranged, when he comes out, and is no longer deranged, he is to be deprived of the franchise. I really appeal to the right hon. Gentleman to consider how far it is wise suddenly at this moment to start a new system of disqualification. That is really what it is. I know that the Home Secretary will reply that I am exaggerating the position, and that if a person is claiming to 1124 vote because of his residence in a certain place for six months, and if, during a portion of that residence, he was in a lunatic asylum, he ought not to be on the register. I submit that this Clause goes a great deal further than it ought. There may be many men with a continuing qualification who, nevertheless, would lose it because of this proposal. I cannot help thinking, with great respect to the right hon. Gentleman, that it would have been better had he accepted the simple view that was taken by the House when it was in Committee. It was then urged that this matter should be restricted to dealing with Poor Law relief which in former times was really a crying evil, a man who was in receipt of Poor Law relief being disfranchised. The Government, I submit with great respect, have made a proposal which is full of very serious objections, and I think that at this stage the House ought not to be called upon to make so great a change in the law.
§ Sir G. CAVE
On the point of Order, Sir. May I ask where we are? We have a perfectly short and simple Amendment moved to disqualify anyone who has been in prison even a single day, and I cannot possibly accept that. I submit that we should dispose of this proposed Amendment to my Amendment.
I stated some time ago that what the right hon. Gentleman now suggests would probably be the best course to adopt. It would be much better to dispose of this Amendment now, and then proceed to other Amendments to the proposal of the right hon. Gentleman. I have here a list of Members who have spoken already on the general Question, and we shall be quite mixed up in regard to those Members who have a right to speak on Amendments and on the general Question. The better course, as I said, would be to dispose of the Amendment to the proposed Amendment now before the House.
§ Amendment to the proposed Amendment negatived.
§ Mr. DICKINSON
I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, to leave out the words, "prison or of any lunatic asylum or."
Mr. E. HARVEY
I beg to second the Amendment.
I very much hope that the Home Secretary may see his way to accept this 1125 Amendment of my right hon. Friend. I think that unless that is done this House will, in passing the Amendment of the Home Secretary as it stands, be doing what we have always been most reluctant to do, adding to the penalty imposed by the Court of Law, and, in addition, we shall be bringing to the legal penalty for wrong doing or offence a further political penalty not contemplated Previously. It has always been, I think, the theory of the English law that a crime is purged by imprisonment; so far as civic rights are concerned, when the man or woman have gone through that period of imprisonment, and have come out to [...]ead a new life, their penalty is over. If this proposal of the Government is carried, that ancient principle of British law will be put on one side, and how unjust that is will be evident to the House if we realise that we have sitting as our honoured colleagues men who have undergone imprisonment, but are now recognised as being worthy citizens of this country. The right hon. Member for Battersea, the hon. Member for Cork, and other Members of this House have in the past been in prison, and some of us feel that they were imprisoned wrongly. If this Amendment had been carried years back it would have disfranchised those who are recognised to be honourable men, who, quite apart from political views, try to do their duty as loyal subjects of this Empire. There are members of the present Government who, if the law had been a little differently applied, might conceivably have been imprisoned. I have no wish that anyone should be disfranchised after having undergone a term of imprisonment. I think we must also remember, quite apart from personal cases like those—which appeal to all of us—that this Amendment if it were carried would disfranchise a large number of people simply on the ground of poverty. Some ten thousand persons were imprisoned during last year because they were unable to pay the fine at the moment. Some had to go to prison who would not have gone there if they had been a little richer, if they only had a few shillings or a few pounds more, and they would not have been liable to this penalty now proposed. If the Amendment of the Home Secretary is carried, it will, in effect, disfranchise at the next election some 10,000 men and women imprisoned for debt. [An HON. MEMBER "Or rates!"] Or rates, as the 1126 hon. Member says. I am sure that the Home Secretary does not mean by this Amendment to deal with eases of that kind. My right hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras has raised by his Amendment to the proposed Amendment the question of lunatics, and I think we must all feel how unfair and unjust it would be—
The Amendment now before the House is that of the right hon. Member for St. Pancras.
I am seconding the Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for St. Pancras. This Amendment with regard to lunatics will, in fact, disfranchise a large number of poor lunatics and will leave enfranchised those wealthy persons who go to private asylums or endowed institutions. We know of a number of cases of persons of genius and probity who at some period of their lives have unfortunately gone through a period of mental instability. They should not be disqualified from exercising their rights as citizens in any way when that period is over. As has been pointed out, these persons as the law stands have the right to vote if at the moment of voting they are in a sane condition of mind. We have no right to take away from them their civic privileges because of a defect of the kind and to inflict this disability, as the Government do in some instances, by reason of the poverty of the people who are concerned. I hope I have advanced sufficient reasons to induce the Government to reconsider their attitude.
§ Colonel GRETTON
The arguments in support of this particular Amendment leave out of account one very important fact. Under the election law as it stands the qualifying period is twelve months, and it may well happen that anybody who is disqualified may have to wait two years, or nearly so, before getting the right to exercise the franchise. All that has been altered by this Bill, which reduces the registration period to six months, so that if all the restrictions imposed by the Bill were to take effect the longest period a person would have to wait would be seven months. That is a fundamental differ- 1127 ence. The House has rejected the proposal that any term of imprisonment should disqualify a man or woman from exercising the franchise. The proposal of the Government is that the term of imprisonment should be a serious one and the offence not a light one. The period must be at least thirty days. Justices are not used to inflicting penalties of thirty days unless the offence against the law is really a serious one, and the law prescribes such offences as serious, and those who commit them know that they are serious breaches of the law. It is rather a noval doctrine to suggest that a person who has deliberately broken the law, not by accident but by intention, should be allowed forthwith, after serving a term of imprisonment to exercise the right to vote and to continue to have that right during the period in prison. The whole aspect of the case is altered by the change in the qualifying period.
The question of lunatic asylums perhaps requires some little consideration. A person who is released from a lunatic asylum is released because probably it is assumed that he is a person able to take care of himself, but there must always be a doubt about the matter, and it is surely not unreasonable that there should be some short period, such as six months, before he is put on the register as a voter. The argument has been used that in this provision we are discriminating as between these people and more prosperous lunatics. That is an argument really that some persons are going to be left out who ought to be included. I agree that is a defect, and all lunatics, I think, ought to be prevented while there is doubt as to their mental state from exercising the vote and influencing the affairs of this country. If we want sanity in politics we should not blindly invite persons of doubtful mental stability to exercise the franchise. There is another point in connection with the Amendment which I think ought to be mentioned. There are persons who live in prisons and asylums and poor-houses who are not maintained out of the rates, but are simply employed in the service of those places. I am sure it is not intended that such persons should be disqualified.
§ Colonel GRETTON
I lave no doubt the right hon. and learned Gentleman is quite 1128 correct, but I thought it right to mention the point. The Amendment does not, in my opinion, go far enough, but it is much the best proposal yet made. Reference has been made to the case of soldiers, but I do not think that the hon. Members who made the suggestion realised that twenty-eight days is the longest period which a. commanding officer can give as punishment, and thirty days is a sentence for a court-martial offence, and soldiers are not sent to court-martial unless the commanding officer thinks the offence a very serious one, and the court-martial seldom gives a sentence of thirty days unless the offence is a very serious one. Therefore the suggestion that the thirty days will lead to oppression and land the soldier in particular hardship is not founded upon a proper appreciation of the facts of the case. I suggest that the thirty days and upwards, being only given by courts-martial for very serious offences, is a case where the soldier might be easily deprived of his vote for the six months.
§ Mr. M. HEALY
I think the acceptance of the Amendment of my right hon. Friend opposite is absolutely necessary to make the proposal of the Home Secretary at all possible. There is something to be said that when a man suffers in gaol as a punishment for an offence that some electoral disqualification should follow. But what is to be said in favour of punishing an innocent man? The Home Secretary's Amendment, as it stands, applies to an untried prisoner who may be afterwards acquitted. If the right hon. Gentleman will read his Amendment he will see that it applies to any person who has been detained and consequently has been the inmate of a prison. But an untried prisoner, remanded without bail on a criminal charge, is maintained as an inmate of a prison, though he may afterwards be proved to be an innocent man. Very often he is acquitted. If so, it is established in law that he has not committed the offence with which he has been charged. What is the justification in that case for disqualifying him? The Amendment of the right hon. Gentleman mixes up qualification and disqualification. They are totally different things. It must be remembered that this Amendment is not limited to the residential franchise, but applies to both franchises. It might very well be that an untried prisoner, who was subsequently acquitted might lose his residential qualification by residing in the constituency into which he 1129 happened to be thrown for the period preceding his trial. But what is the justification for saying that he has to lose his business vote a well?
Similarly in the case of the inmate of a lunatic asylum. The hon. Gentleman above the Gangway has dealt with the Amendment as if the gist of it was to make a want of mental faculties a disqualification for the vote. That is not at at all the gist of the Amendment. The disqualification is not lack of mental qualities, but maintenance in the asylum. That is to say the fact that you are under elemosynary relief, owing to maintenance in the asylum. We are not discussing lack of mental faculties as a disqualification for the vote, but whether or not a man shall lose his vote because he has been maintained in a. lunatic asylum. This raises the broad question as between rich and poor. Many people are very wisely sent by their friends to asylums rather than that the friends should try to maintain them at their own expense; but it is may be that a patient is sent there as a paying patient by friends, and because he is rich and able to pay he does not lose his vote; whereas the poor man does. I rise particularly because this in Ireland would impose an entirely new disqualification. In Ireland there, is no disqualification by virtue of medical relief. Relief in lunatic asylums is considered on an equality with medical relief, as, of course, it is. The law is different in Ireland and England. There is a common misapprehension on one aspect of this matter. The majority of people who go into lunatic asylums do not at all remain permanently there. They are mostly cured after a comparatively short period. The Amendment, therefore, raised the question on both grounds —that of the case of the untried prisoner where you apparently, are going to punish the guilty and the innocent alike; and the case of the inmate of the lunatic asylum which penalises the poor and not the rich I sincerely trust that the right hon. Gentleman will accept the Amendment, because it is absolutely necessary.
§ Mr. ROWLANDS
The right hon. Gentleman the Home Secretary must row realise that the Amendment that he has put down to this Clause has a greater and far-reaching effect than he seemed to anticipate when he made his remarks a short while ago. We have had the speech of the right hon. Gentleman the Member for St. Pancras, whose knowledge of these matters is well-known; and we have seen 1130 his observations augmented by the speech to which we have just listened from an hon. and learned Friend whose knowledge, those of us who have heard him over a long period of years, know, is great; he is well worth listening to on these questions of registration. I have just again been looking at the Amendment. It seems to me, as it is at present drafted, to want a good deal of amending, even if it remains as it is without the acceptance of the words proposed by my right hon. Friend the Member for St. Pancras. There are a whole series of issues which rise in one's mind as the Amendment stands at present. There was a question put a while ago to the Home Secretary in regard to persons who might be officials of an institution, of which there are many known to us in and about London. The right hon. and learned Gentleman replied: "Oh! he must be an inmate" I should like to know whether he is prepared to qualify the word "inmate" or if he would give me the advantage of his legal knowledge as to what exactly an inmate means. In these institutions, besides the inmates who are being kept out of local funds, there are paying inmates who are detained there for the same reason under medical restraint, and may be there temporarily. Would they come within the scope of this proposal? Unless the right hon. Gentleman qualifies the word "inmate," I think it would cover those persons as well as those who have to be kept out of public funds.
Take another case. In all these institutions, besides the officials who have meals in them, there are a great number who board and lodge inside the asylums. Would you not have to qualify the word "inmate" in their case? Otherwise would they not come within the scope of this Clause? While any of us would be prepared to give the Home Secretary a Clause which would meet any little difficulty he might have, we could not have a wide and far-sweeping Amendment of the description which he has put on the Paper. There has been a confusion, to my mind, between the words "imbecile" and "lunatic." An imbecile, I believe by law, because he is not supposed to have mental power at all, is not privileged to have the vote, but a lunatic is qualified under certain conditions that have been quoted to the House by my right hon. Friend. It has been said—I would not vouch for the truth of it—that Noble Lords have been brought from institutions not exactly their 1131 actual residence to vote on public questions. This may only be hearsay and not correct, but there are people ho believe that a Noble Lord with a touch of lunacy has been brought down to vote for a measure.
What is the position we take with regard to this Amendment? It has been said that you can accept the Amendment of the Home Secretary because of the change in the period of time between the registration period and the time when the registration comes into force, and over and over again Members have mentioned in this Debate that anybody can get his vote within about seven months—that that is the longest time anyone would be deprived of it. That is totally inaccurate. It is quite true that under this Bill the period of time is reduced by one-half as against the existing registration period, but you just allow electors under this Clause, if it were amended in the way the right hon. Gentleman wants, to meet their registration period in February by a day. They do not get their vote in seven months, if they are not on the register. The next seven months they are not qualified, not having had six months' residence, although they have missed it by a day, and so in the next qualifying period, not having their residence. It is therefore fifteen months before they can come on the register. I do not want us to be led astray with the idea that anyone, in missing one registration period, could get on in seven months, because it would be fifteen months before he could get on the register. I do sincerely trust the right hon. Gentleman will give this Amendment of my right hon. Friend due consideration, and that he may see his way to accept it. Those of us who have had a great deal to do with registration in times gone by, who have had the making up of registers, who have appeared in Registration Courts, and know all the details, know that these qualifications, simple as they may seem to put in a measure like this, will mean, when they are fought out before the registration officer, a great deal of difficulty, and will very often disfranchise a very large number.
Mr. H. SAMUEL
It seems to me that the proposal of the Government as it stands is open to very great objection. If there were only the case of the innocent man who was wrongly charged with some offence and confined in prison awaiting 1132 trial, that would alone, I think, be sufficient to make this proposal impossible, because it would mean that, having been wrongly arrested, and having been kept in prison for some time, and then acquitted, leaving the Court without a stain on his character, he would go home to find himself disfranchised at the next election, thus adding insult to injury. There is, also the case of the political prisoner, who refuses to pay a fine, and may be sent to prison and is disfranchised. In many continental countries there is, as part of the sentence of a civil Court, deprivation of civil rights. I do not think we should like it to be part of our law that any offence should carry with it deprivation. of civil rights. The real difficulty arises from the fact that now, for the first time, we are basing the franchise on residence. A man who is living in a prison, a lunatic asylum or a workhouse, is not, I understand, an occupier according to the technical provision of our existing law, but where you say a person shall get a vote according to his residence, I am disposed to think it may be held that all these people may be thereby ipso facto enfranchised. We have never had any definite statement on that point. We do not want, for instance, the district in which Dartmoor is to have added to it several hundred votes of men who are the resident population of the convict prison. We do not want the district in which Hanwell is to have added to its register hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of residents who are residents of the asylum there; and so forth.
Therefore, it appears to me that the Government might well consider whether the right course is not to confine residence so as to exclude these cases, very much on the lines of the Amendment of my right hon. Friend the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury), that the Bill should specifically exclude residence in these places from being considered residence for the purposes of the Parliamentary qualification or local government qualification. The effect of that would be that a man might retain his qualification for his own home. but if still in prison or a lunatic asylum when the polling day came round, he could not in fact exercise his vote, because he would not be released for the purpose, whereas if discharged he would go back to his own home, and he. might be in a position to exercise the franchise. I would suggest, however, that the right hon. Gentleman should consider 1133 whether it is really necessary to include the words "or other similar institution," which is a very vague term, and whether it would not be possible to define that more closely. If my right hon. Friend's Amendment is accepted as an alternative, it would be perhaps necessary to add the words which appear in the right hon. Gentleman's Amendment, saving the wife from disqualification.
§ Sir G. CAVE
I want to say quite plainly that my Amendment simply carries out the undertaking we gave to the House. An Amendment was moved by the hon. Member for Rutland to disfranchise anyone who in the qualifying period had been an inmate of a prison or an asylum. The President of the Local Government Board objected to the form of that Amendment, but promised to introduce words having that effect. The House accepted that proposal and the Amendment was withdrawn. Therefore, I have only carried out my promise. Let us now deal with the merits. It is true that the main point is that residence is now to be the qualification, and it is mainly for that purpose that we desired to make a provision of this kind. I took the period of thirty days from the Report of the Speaker's Conference as being convenient. I do not care a bit about that period. The question is, what is residence? and on this point I am quite prepared to accept the suggestion offered by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, that we should set aside this Amendment altogether and in the proper place put in words providing that inhabitance or residence in a prison, asylum, or workhouse should not be residence for the purpose of this Bill. We will endeavour to propose words in the Definition Clause to carry this out, and, if that cannot be done, I will undertake to introduce words to meet the point in another place. I hope what I have said will put an end to this Debate.
§ Major NEWMAN
Before this Amendment is withdrawn I would like to support the Amendment which has been moved by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for St. Pancras (Mr. Dickinson), but I do so for perfectly different reasons to those which have been advanced by the right hon. Gentleman. I do so because I happen to represent Colney Hatch.
§ Mr. BILLING
If the Amendment is withdrawn, surely the Amendment to the Amendment automatically goes with it.
§ Major NEWMAN
I want to make it clear that the inmates should not lose their votes. The right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) also has an Amendment down dealing with the same point, and my proposal clears that matter up. I want to make sure that the keepers and inmates in Colney Hatch would have a chance of keeping their votes. Naturally, if lunatics could give me their votes, I would be glad to have them.
§ Amendment to the proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ The following Amendment stood on the Paper in the name of Sir FREDERICK BANBURY: At the end of the Home Secretary's Amendment to add the words "Provided that residence as an inmate of any prison or of any lunatic asylum or workhouse supported wholly or partly out of local rates, or other similar institution, shall not be deemed to be residence within the meaning of this Act."
§ Sir F. BANBURY
I do not propose to move this Amendment because I understand that the Home Secretary will see that words carrying out the intention of my proposal will be put in the Bill in a suitable place. It would like to point out to the hon. Gentleman below the Gangway, who seems to be under the impression that it is necessary in this Bill to give power to lunatics to vote because rich lunatics would have power to vote, that in my Amendment the effect would be to cut out the rich lunatic also. I think it is a fitting climax to this Bill that we are now allowing lunatics to vote.
§ Amendment made: In Sub-section (1), after the word " Parliamentary," insert the words "or local government."—[Sir G. Cave.]
§ Captain BARNETT
I wish to raise a point of Order in regard to the next Amendment (Disqualifying Conscientious Objectors), standing in the name of the hon. Baronet the Member for Ayr Burghs (Sir G. Younger). His Amendment was 1135 on the Paper for a whole week as an Amendment to come in at the end of Subsection (2), but it has now been promoted to the position it now holds as an Amendment to Sub-section (1), and it comes in front of the Sub-section that insists upon British citizenship. My point is that it is out of place.
§ Mr. SPEAKER
I think they may go in at either place, but I will be guided rather on that point by the opinion of the Home Secretary.
§ 10.0 P.M.
§ Sir G. YOUNGER
I beg to move, at the end of Sub-section (1), to insert the words, "Any person who has been exempted from military service on the ground of conscientious objection or who, having joined the forces, has been sentenced by court-martial for refusal to obey orders, and who alleged conscientious objection to military service as a reason for such refusal, shall be disqualified from being registered or voting as a Parliamentary or local government elector."
It is really a very small point which is involved in this Amendment. It is whether or not a man who has absolutely refused to fight for his country in its dire distress shall be entitled to a vote. I unhesitatingly say he should not be, and although the House on the last occasion was in favour of giving him his qualification, I trust that on this occasion a different view will prevail. There can be no doubt about it that public opinion outside is distinctly in favour of this proposal. Notwithstanding the very great leniency with which these men have been treated, they have not shown very much gratitude. We deal in this Amendment with two classes of conscientious objectors: those who have been granted exemption, and those who having applied for exemption, or not having applied, have been taken into the Army and have refused to obey military law, have been court-martialled and have been sentenced to imprisonment. The number of these is very large. But it is not the number so much as the question of principle which is involved, and it is because of the principle that I have again brought forward my Amendment. We are now to a great extent dealing with a manufactured article. The original conscientious objector was largely honest. Now he is largely dishonest.
1136 I can speak with considerable knowledge on the subject. 1 have been a member of the Central Tribunal since the inception of the Act, and it has been my painful duty in consequence to deal with many of these prisoners. I have had to interview hundreds of them, and I have had very good chances therefore of seeing for myself their real character. Originally, we were asked to hold a special inquiry with a view to offering any man whom we had reason to be satisfied that he honestly held his objection an alternative to punishment in the shape of sending him to a Home Office Committee, which would ask him to do only civil work in the interests of the State. At first there was general acceptance of the conditions offered by the Prime Minister. Very few—I think the number could have been counted on the fingers of one hand—among the first 800 or 900 who came before us declined to accept that condition, and those few consequently remained in their cells. But, later on, as time progressed, and as a rather pernicous organisation— the No-Conscription Fellowship—became more active and I have always been surprised that the Government have allowed it to pursue its operations—we had a rapid manufacture of the conscientious objector, and the rapidity of the manufacture was due largely to a concession which the late Prime Minister agreed to in this House The men were to allow themselves to be called up, they were to refuse to do their drill, they were court-martialled and sentenced to imprisonment, and then they were to go before the Chairman of the Central Tribunal, and, if they answered questions put to them accurately —I do not say straightforwardly—we had no excuse to do otherwise than to send them straight to the Home Office Committee, which would put them to work of national importance. Latterly I have not myself been attending at Wormwood Scrubs. I have been excused from that duty, but those who have undertaken it have found themselves up against a very different class of objector. Men have refused absolutely, under any circumstances whatever, to accept the conditions of the inquiry or to accept an alternative form of service, and they say, quite frankly, they will accept no form of service, they will do nothing of any sort or kind for the State, and will only do what they wish to do and nothing else. There 1137 are a large number of these military prisoners—considerably over 4,000. Three thousand five hundred and forty, in Class A, have been passed out to this Committee and are doing work of one kind or another. There are 126 who are not certified as conscientious objectors and are still in prison. There are 37 who have said they will not fight in this War but would fight in any war of their own choosing. There are 142 who were not conscientious objectors, but were political and socialistic in their views; 611 absolutely and entirely refused the conditions. They would have nothing to do with the State in any shape or form except to take all the benefits it provided. Leniency to this kind of man is entirely misplaced, and if they are to get any further concessions, and if there is any likelihood whatever that they may be released because they have suffered one or more terms of imprisonment, then I say we had better strengthen our law because they will become very successful propagandists.
Many of them have been living together under extremely comfortable conditions, and after their release they have in some cases been able to do a great deal of harm. We have now therefore an organised system for the manufacture of the conscientious objector, and I do not see how we can stop it unless some different policy is adopted. I could never understand why this agitation should have been encouraged at all. But if it is to be encouraged I venture to think much mischief will result. In some respects, I frankly admit, my proposal may seem a little harsh. There are a certain number of conscientious objectors who are absolutely honest in their opinions. They are misguided people—wrongheaded but perfectly honest. There is the notorious case of Mr. Stephen Hobhouse. I think it is a great misfortune he was not entirely exempted. His character is perfectly well known. But he would not plead before the tribunal, and in the case of a man who declines to plead the tribunal has no power. In that case, a very worthy case, the tribunal is in no way to blame for not granting him the exemption which they are entitled to grant under the Act. Exemptions have not been lightly given, nor should they be lightly given. In the case of the Central Tribunal, not a single absolute exemption has been granted in the case of any appeals that have come to them from the local appeal Courts. In 1138 every case a man has had to undertake work of national importance, either through the Pelham Committee or through the Home Office, and it is right that it should be so. I am sure of this: that if hon Members had seen as many of these absolutists as I have, and had had to cross-question these men as I have, they would form the opinion that while it may be a little harsh to disfranchise certain people who are quite honest and conscientious, it is our bounden duty to disfranchise the others, and to see that if they will not perform their prime duty to the State they shall not be entitled to have any say in the Government of the State.
§ Sir C. KINLOCH-COOKE
I beg to second the Amendment.
The House will remember that when this same Amendment came before the Committee on a previous occasion it was preceded by another Amendment proposed by my hon. Friend the Member for St. Augustine's (Mr. R. McNeill). On that occasion the hon. Member went into a long, and most interesting and instructive argument based on the question whether conscientious objectors were reasonable or unreasonable. I think that was the text of the speech, and it led the entire Committee astray. Members went off into different lines of oratory, and raised a number of issues which, in my opinion, were entirely foreign to the point. They obscured the main point, which is not whether a conscientious objector is acting in a reasonable or unreasonable manner but whether a man who declines to fight on the grounds of conscientious objection to combatant service shall have the same privileges of citizenship as the soldier and sailor in regard to the Parliamentary and municipal franchises. That is the point before the House now, and that is the point before the country. What the country wants is that this man —the conscientious objector, so-called—shall not have the vote. The Government on the last occasion said that the conscientious objector should have the vote. To-night we are going to try the issue, and I venture to think that on this occasion, as the hon. Member for Ayr Burghs has said, we shall see a very different result. Again, with regard to the result on the last occasion, the position was rendered more difficult by the Amendment coming on quite suddenly—in fact, altogether unexpectedly owing to the 1139 withdrawal by the Government of the pauper disqualification. That also told against the numbers in the division, but the chief reason was one which the hon. Member for Ayr Burghs pointed out in proposing the Amendment, and that was that the Government put on the Whips. I understand from what has passed this afternoon, in fact, I heard the Home Secretary say, that if on one occasion he gave way and declined to put on the Government Whips there were other occasions when the same course would be followed. I really trust and hope that this will be one of the occasions, for a good deal will depend—I thank the right hon. Gentleman, and by that motion of the head I think I may draw the conclusion that the Government Whips will not be put on.
I would like to pass on to the question of right versus privilege. The right hon. Baronet the Member for the City of London (Sir F. Banbury) this afternoon introduced into the Debate upon an Amendment proposed by my hon. and gallant Friend behind me (Colonel L. Wilson) a very interesting point. He said that the franchise was not a right; nor is it a right. The granting of the franchise is a privilege, not a right, because, as the right hon. Baronet said, and I wish to repeat to the House to-night, if it were a right, on what ground could women be excluded from the franchise? Again, if it were a right, on what ground could you limit the franchise to women to the age of thirty as is done in the present Bill? These limitations are only justified on the ground that the vote is a privilege. They could not be sustained if the vote were a right. Again, this Bill, I think the House will admit, is practically a sailors' and soldiers' Bill. The Home Secretary himself has said that he desires to see every soldier and sailor who has fought in the War enfranchised. He says, of at any rate he allows the conclusion to be drawn from what he has said, that this Bill was specially designed to give the men who have fought in the War the privilege of voting. If that be so, it cannot at the same time be justifiable to give votes to men who have refused to fight in the War. That, I think, is the logical conclusion, because, in whatever way you may lock at it, and the Government may look at it, you cannot have it both ways.
Then, with regard to the women, the opposition to the women's franchise broke 1140 down on the ground that women had in our civil life taken the places of men who have gone to the War, that they nave become war workers. I know in certain quarters that is not allowed, but I think that, at any rate in this House, it will be accepted that that was the ground on which opposition to the women's franchise broke down. To meet the case of women's enfranchisement the Government came to a compromise. They fixed the age at thirty, and by doing so they excluded the majority of women who are working in the War. Why should these women be excluded and men of the same age who have refused the first obligation of citizenship, namely, to defend their home and country against the enemy, be included? I submit that such a step is neither just nor logical.
The man in the street regards equality of privilege as being justified only by equality of sacrifice, and I think that is the opinion of most men. No one can say that the sacrifice of the conscientious objector is in any way equal to the sacrifice of the sailor or the soldier. The soldier and the sailor have not only risked their position, and risked their worldly goods, but they have risked their lives. What has the conscientious objector done? The conscientious objector has done nothing; he has done nothing whatsoever. On the other hand, in many cases the conscientious objectors—I do not blame them for this—have got into a number of very soft jobs. I think it will be found that in the Insurance Department there are a great many conscientious objectors who are drawing considerable salaries. If that be the case, if a conscientious objector is to be allowed to draw a large salary and to make no sacrifice whatsoever in the War, he cannot be placed in the same position as the soldier and sailor who had made every kind of sacrifice for their King and country.
When this Amendment came up in Committee, the first point the Home Secretary took was that it was a proposal to disfranchise persons who had taken a certain line. Those were the words that he used. I join issue with him there, and I would call his attention to the fact, which must be fresh in his memory, that in its original form the Bill contained a Clause disfranchising all persons, including sailors and soldiers and the dependants of sailors and soldiers, who had received parish relief for over 1141 thirty days. Surely that was a disfranchising Clause. Surely the Clause which he has proposed to-night is a disfranchising Clause. Yet the House seemed to have no objection to a Clause of that kind. How, then, can it be said that this is an enfranchising Bill and not a disfranchising Bill? On that ground, I submit that his point with regard to disfranchising the conscientious objector falls to the ground. There is nothing in it. The Government do not hesitate to disfranchise the sailor or soldier or his dependants impoverished by reason of his patriotism and his valour, but they indignantly propose to exclude an Amendment disfranchising the conscientious objector, who has never raised a hand to defend either his country or his home. It was a mere hypocritical answer to the Amendment which was proposed in Committee, and if it is repeated to-night I shall have to give the same reply to it. We were told by the Home Secretary on the former occasion that the Military Service Act allowed a man to claim exemption from all military service on the ground of conscientious objection to military service, and that therefore to enforce on him a penalty for exercising what he called a statutory right would be unfair. I submit that no penalty is imposed. All that the Amendment says is that the man who has not fought in the War because he objects to combatant service on the ground of conscience shall not receive the same civil privileges after the War as are given to men who have fought in the War. Canada has found no difficulty in disfranchising conscientious objectors, and why should we? The Canadians did not take two days in coming to a conclusion. The Canadian Legislature came to their conclusion at once, and Canada approved of it. I am certain, if the Government come to the same conclusion as Canada, that this country will approve of their decision. Then the Home Secretary said that it would be unfair to disfranchise men of military age and give the franchise to men who were above military age, presuming that they were both conscientious objectors, and he instanced that there were several Members sitting below the Gangway whom he would like to see disfranchised I agree with him, but I do not see how you can do it in a Bill of this kind. This question of conscientious objectors deals merely with men of military age. I admit that there are some men of military age who ought to be 1142 fighting and who prefer the work in this House, but that has nothing to do with it. You cannot disfranchise men not of military age or discusss the question of disfranchising them on an Amendment which deals with conscientious objectors who are of military age. The last objection put forward by the Home Secretary was that this is an agreed Bill, and that to introduce a contentious provision might imperil its prospects. Not at all! All you have to do is to take off the Government Whips. Now you have done that, therefore you will not imperil the prospects of this Bill by accepting the result of a Division. I should like to say a word in regard to the religious side of the question. The Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University (Lord Hugh Cecil), who made a very eloquent and interesting speech on the last occasion, claimed that all conscientious objectors were religious men, and that they were martyrs clinging to their religious principles. His distinguished relative, the Bishop of Exeter, has put him right on that point in a letter he wrote to the "Times" after a visit to Dartmoor. He paid that visit very shortly after I was there myself, therefore I am in a position to support the Bishop of Exeter in what he said, because the information he discovered was exactly the same as I discovered. After visiting Dartmoor, where there are 1,000 conscientious objectors, or men who call themselves conscientious objectors, he came to the conclusion that only 25 per cent.—I think that is rather too large a percentage—had any religious views at all. Therefore I fail altogether to follow the Noble Lord the Member for Oxford University when he said:I wish the country was attended with like particular devotion to the cause in which they believe. If it were so the whole international life would be invigorated."— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 26th June, 1917, col. 320, Vol. XCV.]Would our international life be invigorated if all men behaved like conscientious objectors? Where would this country have been in this War if all men had behaved like conscientious objectors? Did the Noble Lord really mean that he would like to see the hordes of Huns invading this country and crucifying our women and children? Of course, he did not. Then I say he made a very grave mistake in addressing the speech he did to the House. The greater number of these men, as the hon. Baronet the Member for Ayr Burghs has said, are not religious people. They 1143 have no religious objection to fighting. Their objections are based on altogether different premises, some are political—a great number are political. Some desire to shirk fighting, and a great number are what are called cranks. I am sure hon. Members in this House understand the meaning of the word "cranks" [HON. MEMBERS: "Hear, hear!"] I am glad I have hit that nail on the head. The right hon. Gentleman (Sir J. Simon) made the singular statement that no one had hitherto ever thought that men should be deprived of votes who had not fought owing to conscientious objection. How many people in the time of the Napoleonic wars were on the register? How many people were on the municipal register? The whole argument, if it were based upon these premises, is absurd ab initio.
Another point which has been raised a good deal is the question of freedom. One speaker said it would be an evil day in the history of freedom if these men were not given the vote. But freedom of thought and of action cannot always be given, or what would be the use of our legislation, which is directly concerned with restricting freedom in certain cases? All debates in this House centre on the question whether freedom should be restricted. The whole of the arguments used on every Amendment to-night have been based on these premises. There is no doubt about the feeling in the country, and I should like to know what is the feeling of the Government on the subject. The Prime Minister yesterday told us this was a time for heroic measures and this was a time when things should be looked at not in the ordinary way. This is the first time the conscientious objector has been given anything like this wide latitude. In the Militia Ballot Act only Quakers were excluded. In this War all men who can prove that they have a conscientious objection are allowed to be exempted from military service. But they have grossly abused this privilege. They have dealt with it in a manner which may in some way or other coincide with the views of certain parties in this House, but that manner does not coincide with the views of the people, and the people have a right to have some say in a matter of this kind. I have been inundated to-day with letters and telegrams asking me to record my vote against the conscientious objector, and I have no 1144 doubt hon. Members in all parts of the House have received similar applications. That could not be done unless there was great feeling in the country on the matter, and the country will look to us to see that we no longer allow these so-called conscientious objectors to have the privilege of voting in either Parliamentary or municipal elections. I admit that there are some conscientious objectors who are highly religious men and ought not on that account to suffer the loss of any privileges, but I see no reason for placing them in different categories on this occasion, because, after all, they have refused to fight, and you cannot say that because a man has refused to fight because he is a religious man he should be disfranchised and an irreligious man who has refused to fight should be enfranchised. The thing is impossible. You must have one rule for all.
But do these men want the vote? I had a letter to-day from Dartmoor. This gentleman writes his letter from a cell in Dartmoor convict prison. The convicts in the prison, I understand, do not like the conscientious objectors residing in their quarters. I suppose that this gentleman, by addressing his letter from a cell in Dartmoor convict prison, thought that he would create some interest in my mind. He says:Apropos of the exceedingly friendly interest which you have shown in our life may I say that I heartily support the Motion you are bringing forward to disenfranchise the conscientious objectors? As one who is wholly uninterested in politics and has never exercised any voting powers your Motion appeals to me very much indeed.Here we have evidence from a conscientious objector that he does not want the vote. Therefore, those hon. Members who are anxious to give votes to conscientious objectors are fighting a lost cause. This man does not want it. Hon. Members who are opposing this Amendment will be very much better employed if they voted for it, and by so doing they would be meeting the views expressed by this conscientious objector at Dartmoor. [Hon. MEMBERS: "Divide!"] There is one other point, and that is in regard to Quakers. Many Quakers have fought well in the War, but there are other Quakers who have not fought. There are a great number—I brought one case to the attention of the right hon. Gentleman the other day—who have sheltered under the guise of Quakers. They have passed into the Quakers' Unit, although they are not themselves Quakers. A very well-known case is that of a person at Wellington who was not a Quaker, but who 1145 was passed into the Quakers' Unit. [HON. MEMBERS: "Divide!"] I am going to finish in a minute, but as this subject will be under discussion tomorrow for a considerable time, I think I might be allowed to put a further point. The hon. Member for Ayr Burghs told us that it is often said that the conscientious objector is a negligible quantity. It is not a question of quantity, but a question of principle. The citizen who refuses to do his duty to the State is not entitled to receive privileges which can only be exercised under the provisions of the State.
§ Mr. A. F. WHYTE
I understand that the Government are not going to put on the Whips for this Division; I should like to know why. I freely confess that I am the last man in this House who should object to the Government giving freedom to vote in this House, for ever since I entered it I have believed that the House ought to have greater freedom in the Division Lobby. But in this case the Government accepted a certain principle in the original Bill. They knew that in this country, where compulsory military service had not been in vogue before the War, there would arise many cases which could not be dealt with by the ordinary military machinery, and they recognised in advance the phenomenon of conscientious objection. When the question arose as to the disfranchisement of conscientious objectors in the Committee stage of the Bill they made up their minds that, having recognised that phenomenon in the original Bill, they must stand by that recognition when it was challeneged on the Reform Bill. What has happened to change their attitude in this matter? I am not challenging their right to withdraw their Whips for good reasons. I am challenging that they should withdraw their Whips on a matter on which they considered it politic and advisable to apply them on a previous occasion. If the Government to-night tell us that some second aspect of the case has arisen since the Committee stage of the Bill, or that they have revised the opinion which led them to recognise conscientious objectors under the Military Service Acts, then they will present a good case to the House, but, unless they can supply the House with the reason, they are standing on shaky ground when they say that they will not use whatever influence they may have in inducing Members to go into the Lobby, and I shall listen with particular 1146 interest to the speeches which come from the Front Bench on this subject on this ground.
It is a tactical change of position imposed upon them, as I suspect, by clamour. [An HON. MEMBER: "Public opinion!"] I hear an hon. Member behind me say "public opinion." There are two views commonly held as to the attitude of the Government towards public opinion. If the Government waits to listen to the voice of public opinion it is not uncommonly mocked at for weakness in leading the people. It is called a wait-and-see Government. This Government, apparently, has waited and has seen, and has changed its mind, not in response to the arguments of reason, but in response to the arguments of clamour. But there are much deeper grounds on which one must discuss this Amendment than any that I have yet put forward. The reasons which led the House to recognise the possibility of conscientious objectors were many, but one of the reasons which weigh most with me in dealing with the subject is this: Compulsory military service was only enacted after we had been many months at war. Some will say that it should have been enacted earlier. Some will say that it ought not to have been enacted at all. But surely the Government recognise that it is one thing for them to lead the country into a war in which ninety-nine men out of every hundred in the country believed, and to ask the country's support in that war, if the country is fully forewarned of the policy which lies behind the War and of the means by which the War is to be carried on. If, for instance, Lord Roberts had been successful in his campaign before the War, and had carried compulsory service as part of the recognised and accepted legislation and Constitution of this country the position of the conscientious objector in this country would have been rather different. I do not say that the fundamental case for recognising him would have disappeared, but there would be this difference, that we should have entered upon the War, a war in which every male subject knew that it was his duty to respond to the call of the Crown for military service. But, as that was not the case, the position of the conscientious objector in a country which embarked on war under voluntary military service is very different from that of a similar individual in a 1147 country which was already under compulsory military service. The difficulty arises out of this fact, that throughout our long history we have, on the whole, avoided the extreme statement of the justifiable claim of the State to demand military service from its citizens, owing to our geographical position, which has largely created the peculiar individualist character of the British citizen, and is responsible in large measure for that freedom of conscience which now creates the problem of the conscientious objector. If we were French citizens we should be born and bred in the notion that at any moment we should have to defend our hearths and homes against the invader; and if we had a land frontier, then the case in relation to the conscientious objector would be very different.
I understand it is usually a subject of the supreme penalty in great military States. But surely the Government cannot act now as though Great Britain was a, great military State in which the obligation of military service was known and accepted beforehand. Surely the Government must realise that as being the very foundation of the case. They recognised it by passing the Military Service Act and they recognised it in earlier stages of this Bill; but they go back when, for various reasons, public opinion has been aroused against the conscientious objector, and they abrogate the first function of a Government. I do not think there is need for any elaborate argument to be put forward in a case like this, and I am considerably surprised to find that the Government should have thought it worth while to change back again. I am not going to deal with all the arguments that have been put forward. We are in this position, that we have recognised the conscientious objector in legislation already; we have set up certain tests whereby the conscientious objector may .be discovered. It may be, from the point of view of the Government, that these tests are not adequate, but that is not the issue to-night. If these tests are inadequate, surely it does not pass their wit to devise others! The position to-night is not that the test of the conscientious objector has been discovered to be inadequate; it is: that his moral position should be recognised. I am not one of those who have the least sympathy with the conscientious objector. I repudiate entirely his right on grounds of public policy, but the Gov- 1148 ernment cannot say that the character, the outlook of those who are properly tested conscienious objectors, is that of men who ought to be disfranchised, more especially that there are numbered in the ranks of conscientious objectors, as hon. Members recognise, some of the finest spirits in this country. I think that every man in this House honours the spirit which has actuated many of these conscientious objectors, and if there are black sheep among them you must devise further tests to find them out. But since that question has already passed extremely drastic tests—tests at least as serious in some ways as those imposed upon soldiers—the Government will surely be prepared to listen to the plea that these men, in this country above all countries, should be able to say that though their view comes into direct collision with one of the fundamental rights of the State, nevertheless under the policy that the State recognises, you cannot solve that simply by force, as you propose to do, for, after all, disfranchisement is an act of force, and you cannot solve it by reason, because these are all fundamental rights, brought into fierce collision, owing to the conditions of war, and cannot be settled either by farce or by reason. Does my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House not recognise that in that collision you have one of the fundamental bases of the determination of liberty? If I have been able to put my argument aright, the right hon. Gentleman will not misread me by thinking that I challenge the right of the State to test the conscientious objector. I do no such thing. I do not for a moment challenge that it is one of the fundamental rights of the State, to demand military service from its citizens. But, having reached a point where you find a certain class of citizen, from reasons, usually good reasons, standing up and denying the application of that right in his particular case, and when you have devised a test by which you discover he is bonâ fide, then you must abide and uphold that liberty.
§ The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER (Mr. Bonar Law)
I have listened with a good deal of sympathy to the very temperate speech of my hon. Friend who has just spoken, and, more than that, I am ready, within limits, to subscribe to a great deal of what he said. What I rose to do is not to justify support of this Amendment, but to justify what the Government have decided upon doing, 1149 and that is to leave it to the free decision of the House—[An HON. MEMBER: "You should do that every time!"] My hon. Friend suggests that that is the result of what some call public opinion, and what he calls clamour. If he had been present at the earlier Debates to-day he would have found a simpler reason. He speaks as if my right hon. Friend in refusing to leave it to the free decision of the House in the Committee stage .did that on its merits, and that now there is a volte face on the part of the Government. That is not the case. I discussed it with my right hon. Friend then, as I have discussed it now, and I agreed with him then that it would hardly be fair to avoid putting on the Government Whips, and for this reason, that in the main we were bound—and that is the basis of the Bill—to follow the recommendations of the Speaker's Conference; Something has happened to-day. We had a discussion about the giving of votes to women for the municipal franchise. As I listened to that Debate I felt that it was really most unreasonable to be bound by a technical consideration of that kind, when it was obvious that the overwhelming vote of the Members of the House wished to take another view. I was waited on by a deputation of those in favour of this extension of votes to women. I said to them, "I am quite willing to say to the people of the House that so far as I am concerned I should like to see that extension made," and partly from the reason that I knew that if it was not done there would be an agitation which would bother us endlessly until it was carried out; "but," I said to them, " it is obvious that if the Government departs from the Speaker's Conference in this case it cannot adopt the rigid view in future which it has adopted in the past, and where similar circumstances arise they must show the same attitude." That is our justification for the course which we have taken, and I venture to say to the House, and I put it to those who are fair-minded, that it is quite obvious we cannot depart from the decision of the Conference with regard to one matter which pleases one large section of the House and refuse to depart from it in another matter which is equally vital to another and probably equally large section of the House. That is the justification for that. Let us look at the question on its merits. Having decided to leave it to the decision of the House we must as individuals 1150 either vote or abstain from voting. As it is free I intend to vote in favour of this Amendment. I will tell the House why. I quite recognise everything that has been said by my right hon. Friend about the disadvantages of taking up an attitude of this kind against men who really are conscientious in their views. But after all, nobody denies the right of the State to demand services in defending the life of the State as the necessity arises. Therefore, it is a question of how great that necessity is. My hon. Friend made a statement which I cannot follow for a moment, as to the time at which compulsory service commences. There is surely nothing in that. If the State is going to demand this service, it has the right to do so at any time. That is the way I look at it. It is entirely a question of what is for the interest of the State in carrying out the War. That is my view. The hon. Gentleman who moved this Amendment spoke of one gentleman who has suffered very severely, and about whose sincerity no one has any doubt. That is quite true, but that is not the end of the matter. As my hon. Friend below the Gangway said quite truly, it is a conflict—some one, I think, has said the great tragedy in life is not the conflict between right and wrong, but the conflict between right and right. Take the case of rebellion, which might happen in this country, as it has unfortunately happened in the past. I read the accounts of the rebellion in Ireland, and I really, personally, had nothing but admiration for what was told me about many of those who feel in that fight. I had that admiration; but what was the Government to do with it? The life of the State is the first rule, and if one is not satisfied that we as a State are right we ought not to continue the Government.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
It goes further back than that. There is the Latin tag that the safety of the State is the first rule of the State.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
It is a Pagan saying, but it is an absolutely true saying. Unless you accept the view that the State is wrong in what it is doing and has no right to demand services of its citizens, then I 1151 do say that the safety of the State is the first rule for the men who are responsible for the Government.
Look at it from another point of view: It is said, and I will admit it, that it is rather illogical to allow people to escape from military service and to punish them by taking away their vote. I do not think it is quite so illogical as some of those who take that view here assumed. It does not follow that, because you say a man holding particular views is not to be treated as a deserter and shot, therefore you say he is to have every other privilege. It is not at all the same thing. At the same time, we do not recognise that they are carrying out their full duties to the State.
§ Mr. BONAR LAW
I may be wrong in this view, but when the Military Service Act was carried through this House I pleaded strongly for this right of conscientious objectors. If the numbers were so few and if the sincerity were so obvious that we could grant the right, without any serious risk of weakening our forces, that is one thing; but if you find that there is a real danger to the State in the growth of this, you have a perfect right to put it down. I think this has a real bearing on the present position of the country. There is not the slightest doubt to my mind that if we give any encouragement to this Absolutist movement you would create Absolutists in numbers, with which you could not possibly deal. I think it will be a direct deterrent on the growth of this kind of thing by showing that the House of Commons takes a view which is taken by the whole country, that there is a difference between the men who are ready to obey the service of the State and give their lives in the defence of the State, and the men who think that they are not called upon to do so. I say again that I may be wrong. It may be that I am moved by the experience of this War, and that I would not take the same view at another time. That is quite possible, but at all events, it is my view now, and I think there can be no harm—though I dare say many of my colleagues may differ from me—when you hold a view strongly, in saying clearly what that view is. But there is one thing that, I would like to say. I hardly think it is right to 1152 make that exclusion from the vote perpetual. It is not merely that perhaps we are unduly influenced by the danger with which we are now faced. I do not think that it is right to make any punishment of this kind perpetual. There is this further: For myself I would prefer that, while we show clearly what our view is to-day, we should leave it to a new generation, after reconstruction has come, to look at this question afresh and decide for itself. If my hon. Friend were willing to make this operative for a certain term of years, I would prefer it, or if anyone would move an Amendment to the Amendment making it a term of years, I would vote for that rather than for my hon. Friend's Amendment. I have said all I wish to say on this matter; and, after all, my views are not so important as the action of the Government. The main thing is that we are undoubtedly justified, after what we have done in regard to the women's vote, in leaving this question to the free judgment of the House.
§ It being Eleven of the clock, the Debate stood adjourned.
§ Debate to be resumed To-morrow.
§ The remaining Orders were read, and postponed.