§ Colonel WEDGWOOD
I beg to move, "That Item, Class II., Vote 4 (Home Office) be reduced by £100."
I am raising the question of the treatment of conscientious objectors in prison, which is one that merits the immediate attention of the Government. I think hon. Members do not really understand what has been going on recently in the prisons of this country. We have now 1,500 conscientious objectors in prison. They are known as the absolutists—men who refuse alternative work. Most of these people are religious fanatics who reject the idea of taking any part whatever in war. All of them are people who are obviously in prison for conscience sake, and not as shirkers, because they have declined alternative work, which is made easy for those who are shirkers but is difficult for those who wish to avoid participation in any way in the War. These are people whose consciences have been proved over and over again, owing to the fact that they have been imprisoned repeatedly on sentences of six months' imprisonment, which in sum total amount to over two and a half years' imprisonment on the average—that is to say, every one of these men has voluntarily consented to go back to prison five times, thereby proving to any fair-minded man that their objections are certainly conscientious ones.
Therefore we may say that every one of these 1,500 men is unjustly imprisoned. I do not mean unjustly because they have been sentenced over and over again for the same offence, but unjustly because the original Act of Parliament, passed in 1916, 561 included a Clause intended to exempt people exactly such as these from being sent into the Army or sent to prison. Therefore these people are definite conscientious objectors, who ought to be exempted from imprisonment, and they have shown their conscientiousness by being two and a half years in prison. One was content with the Government answer, that they could not possibly let these men out because they pointed out that the Army outside—which is a gross slander on the Army outside—would object to any of these, men being released before the men were released from the Army. That objection was raised by the War Office. I venture to say that it will not find support from any of the rank and file of the Army. To continue the imprisonment of people who have been in prison for two and a half years is not the sort of thing which the British Tommy would ask the Government to do for him. The conditions now have become infinitely worse.
The new Home Secretary has started by making a change in the prison administration which has made things much worse than before for conscientious objectors. I do not understand why he has made the change, but the change certainly has been made. It is exemplified by the change in the governor of Wandsworth gaol. The Committee should understand that the conscientious objectors have a way of going on hunger strike to get out of prison. I do not know that I should like to go on a hunger strike myself, even to get out of prison, but possibly after two and a half years in gaol one does feel that way. All over the country in the gaols, in Newcastle, Maidstone, Winchester, and Wandsworth, you have these men deliberately starving themselves in order to get out of prison, just as in the old days the suffragettes used to get out of prison. But in the case of these men they are forcibly fed. Forcible feeding can be more or less a humane practice—that is to say, it the doctors have not got an animus against the patient the forcible feeding is more or less, I will not say pleasant, but at any rate not particularly bad for the nerves or health of the people operated upon, but in this case you have got a very strong animus on the part of the people who administer the forcible feeding against the conscientious objectors.
562 Over and over again I hear the same tale from these people who have come out under the Cat and Mouse Act. The governor himself is a tolerant and more or less a humane man, but the prison doctor exercise the powers of forcible feeding with the maximum amount of force and violence—almost cruelty. For instance, in Newcastle Prison—I will give this as an instance of callousness on the part of a doctor who was there—these men—I will not be certain of the number, whether it was seven or thirteen; it was one or the other—were forcibly fed, and all were fed with the same tube, which is pushed up the nose. They were not allowed to have clean tubes for each man. One of them was suffering from tuberculosis and another from a disease of the nose—not a pleasant thing. Obviously a doctor who will insist on using the same dirty tube for man after man is a man who ought not to be in charge of conscientious objectors, or ought not to have any power to add to the torture of forcible feeding. The governor was complained to, and, being a humane man, he arranged for more tubes and finally got one tube per man. That is not a solitary case. At Maidstone some complaints were made about the treatment of the prison doctor, and that he was a brutal man. The prisoners went on strike against the prison doctor, not against the imprisonment or the prison rules, but solely against the prison doctor, because of the conduct that went on there. When you have men of a decent class in life who in prison are abused and sworn at as being conscientious objectors, by the doctor, naturally it makes things much more difficult. The ordinary inhabitants of prison, I suppose, are accustomed to being sworn at and having applied to them all the epithets that the lower classes apply to conscientious objectors. But many of these people are religious people, who have come from quiet homes, and they are not accustomed to that sort of thing, and owing to the language of the doctor and the very rough treatment they received, those people in Maidstone Prison have struck and are being forcibly fed.
The worst case, I think, is that at Wandsworth Gaol, and this I particularly charge against the present Home Secretary. There has been a new governor appointed, apparently, in Wandsworth Gaol, and his arrival was heralded by a 563 promise of the very strictest discipline. I wish to read to the House a letter I have received from one of the people who suffered under this new Governor. I want the House really to understand the sort of things which go on and about which we hear nothing at all. I do not vouch for the exact accuracy of everything in this letter, but the man is an educated man whose word I should naturally trust. It deals with friends of mine in this prison. This is the extract from the letter:On the afternoon of Thursday last a new Governor arrived, and on approaching C wing of the prison where about fifty conscientious objectors and twelve other prisoners were lined up waiting to be taken to the 'shops,' he became very excited, and waving his stick, shouted, 'I will not have these stinking C.O.'s mixed up with respectable men.'This is an officer and a gentleman.Some naturally resented this and Comrade Harris—He is the son of a Quaker Minister who visits the prisoners in Wormwood Scrubs Gaol. I know him well—who has acted as an orderly to an instructor for nearly two years, and who has a clean prison record said, inadvisably perhaps, but not without provocation, 'Thank you, sir.' The Governor immediately ordered him to be taken to the strong room and put in irons. The Governor then, for no conceivable reason and without any provocation, said, 'I have full power from the Secretary of State. To hell with the C.O.'s, to hell with them.' Everybody was then threatened with 'bread and water,' but why, I do not know, for nothing had happened to warrant these threats and epithets. The men were then ordered to lead on for the shops, which they did, and some being annoyed at what had passed commenced cheering and singing. On their arrival at the door of the association shed they were ordered by the Governor to turn back, and they had no sooner obeyed the order than the Governor commenced to use very abusive language. For instance, pointing to me, he said, 'Look at that bloody swine.' Since his arrival the new Governor has never spoken of the conscientious objectors in our hearing without being abusive. These association men were then ordered back to their cells, about half a dozen being indiscriminately picked out for punishment, among them some who, like Comrades Reed and Pratt, did not take part in the cheering or singing and who disagreed with breaking the prison rules. On Friday morning, about fourteen men were charged with various 'crimes' such as talking and singing, and all were punished.There is more which I will not read, but comrade Ford had his arm twisted and was caused much pain. Comrade Thompson, charged with banging his door, was told by the Governor that if he did it again the Governor would "bang his bloody brains out." I cannot read the rest 564 of the letter; it is all to the same effect. If that if the sort of man, an officer and a gentleman, who is selected by the Home Secretary to take charge of conscientious objectors, I think we should prefer the Home Secretary who preceded him, and we may also ask that there should be some sort of inquiry into this man's conduct. These men have, of course, gone on hunger strike. There were others on hunger strike a month ago who were released on 6th February and have now been taken back. I suppose they will go on hunger strike again, and if they get under a prison doctor and governor of this kind, what can the result of such a life be? Many of the conscientious objectors have died already, and many more have gone insane, and are we in England in the twentieth century to tolerate a Home Secretary and a governor who torture men in prison and drive them insane? This is not a joking matter. It is a question whether we in this House are to stand up for men who are innocent of any offence whatever and who are put to the torture in this way.
§ Sir D. MACLEAN
I only intervene because I had a great deal of personal experience of dealing with conscientious objectors First of all I want to say this, that I have not the slightest doubt, in my own mind, that eight out of ten of them certainly were men whose objection to military service was not founded on any fear of military service, but was a conscientious objection contemplated by the Act passed by Parliament. I do not think anybody can charge me with showing them anything approaching undue consideration. I think I took a pretty strict line with them, but there is one thing I must add, and it is this, that I am quite, certain that a very large proportion of these men who are now in prison would not have gone to prison if they had been fairly treated by the tribunals. I do not make any special claim for the body over which I had the honour to preside, but I will only say this, that in not one single instance in the panel which sat upstairs here do I recollect a conscientious objector refusing to take national service. And what was the reason? It was simply because we heard all they had to say, we treated them as, I think, Parliament expected them to be treated, and as Parliament directed us to treat them, and there was not a single instance of any case which came before our panel upstairs where national service was refused. My point with regard to that is this: A 565 very large number of the men to whom my hon. and gallant Friend has referred would not have gone to prison if they had been fairly treated and given a legitimate opportunity of exercising the option which Parliament wished to give them. My other point is that these men were directed to be exempted from military service by an Act, placed on the Statute Book after very grave consideration by Parliament. They refused to render the military service which was demanded of them by the Government, and they accepted the penalty. They have paid that penalty several times over. Is it consonant with the dignity of this country to pursue them by what I really cannot help thinking are methods of petty persecution, which are not worthy of the dignity of a Government or of the British Army itself. I do not believe there is a single soldier who, if he really thinks this out, would not say: "Very well, let them go. They have been in prison several times over; they have been punished for it. Let them go back to their ordinary avocations." I do not join with my hon. And gallant Friend at all in what he said about the present Home Secretary, because I am quite sure he is striving to perform a very difficult and painful duty, but I do suggest to him that the time has now come when these men, having paid the full penalty of their breach of the law, might be discharged from prison.
§ The SECRETARY of STATE for the HOME DEPARTMENT (Mr. Shortt)
I can assure my right hon. Friend who has just sat down that no one appreciates more keenly than I do the painful nature of the task involved in keeping men in prison who are thoroughly religious, conscientious men, and sending them back there time after time. But the matter is one of some considerable difficulty, as I am sure my right hon. Friend knows. So far as what he said about the treatment by tribunals is concerned, I agree with him to a certain extent. There is no doubt about it that many men were led by the tribunals to see the advisability of accepting work of national importance, but I can assure him that there is not a man in prison to-day who could not be out tomorrow if he would undertake work. They will not do it, and no single man would do it. I have had conversations with friends of my own, leaders of the Quaker persuasion, and I have asked them about their own co-religionists. I am talking now of the men who think that to 566 make any terms is a compromise with their conscience and a sin against their God. These men would not even undertake the work of working as civilians in Belgium to repair the ravages of war. It is a very painful thing, but these men are very difficult to deal with.
Before I go into the whole question of the conscientious objector and his imprisonment, might I just refer to what was said by the hon. and gallant Member (Colonel Wedgwood) about the prison governor at Wandsworth. He has made very serious charges against this gentleman. He has read a letter, which I think is probably similar to one which has been sent already to the Home Office, dealing with this gentleman, and making these charges against him—charges of a very gross character, charges of gross ill-treatment, of conduct absolutely inconsistent with that which any governor of a prison ought to show, of gross bad language, and go on. I do not know whether the hon. and gallant Gentleman has received from the Department the reply to the question where, if my memory serves me, it was he who put upon a letter dealing with a similar charge. My memory may be wrong but my impression was that it was the hon. and gallant Gentleman himself who had sent in the question which enabled me to make an inquiry into the whole subject. If it was not the hon. and gallant Gentleman, I withdraw. Did he get an answer?
§ Mr. SHORTT
My recollection may be at fault, but I know the charge was made practically identically in the terms which the hon. and gallant Gentleman has used to-night. The same story about the man being put in manacles, taken to a strong room, and so on; about calling him "a bloody swine," and other things of that sort, were indicated in the charge. An hon. Gentleman asked for, and I was able to have, an inquiry into the whole thing. Therefore, in common justice to a gentleman who cannot defend himself here, I must tell the Committee that every one of these charges is wholly denied.
§ Mr. SHORTT
Really the hon. and gallant Gentleman knows perfectly well who conducted it—an official from the Home 567 Office. But as he has read that letter, I am equally entitled, on behalf of a gentleman who is not here to speak for himself, to explain that those things must not be taken to be admitted. They are absolutely denied.
§ Mr. SHORTT
I will hold any inquiry into a charge of that kind that any Member of this House likes to ask, and the hon. and gallant Member may take it from me these charges are made in the most reckless way. They are made without any attempt to see whether they are right. The hon. Members who make them know perfectly well the charge goes out to the world, the man cannot answer for himself, irreparable injury may be done to his reputation, extraordinary pain caused to himself, his wife, family, and relations, and he has no means of meeting it. Therefore, I do say that hon. and gallant Members and other hon. Members ought to make some inquiry before these charges are made publicly in this sort of way. If any hon. Member will write to me at the Home Office making charges of this kind, suggesting that they are charges which require to be investigated by some independent person, I will undertake to see that some independent person—a barrister of standing, if you like—is present at the inquiry which is made. But I think the Committee will agree that before charges of this kind are made against any man in a position which binds him to silence, and which may cause him great injury and must cause him great pain, some sort of attempt should be made to test the truth of those charges. With regard to the question of the conscientious objectors, I quite agree that it is a very painful position that highly religious men should go back to prison time after time. They are not all highly religious men. Do not let the Committee imagine for an instant that the whole of the conscientious objectors, or even more than half of them, are of the highly religious kind of which my right hon. Friend spoke.
§ Mr. SHORTT
I am not sure I quite accept the expression, but I think we mean the same thing. The trouble of the matter is that the conduct of many of 568 these men is such that the men who are really religious repudiate all connection with it. I myself have letters from conscientious objectors, men of the highest possible character, who repudiate any connection whatever with men in the same prison because of their conduct and the kind of men they are. But I would prefer to deal with this question from the point of view of what I may call the good men. Because these are the cases which must be replied to. These men have been before a tribunal. The tribunal has decided that these men should perform service of some description. They refuse to do it. There is only one way in which they can be released from prison. They must be demobilised. That is the only possible way—discharged from the Army. So long as they are in the Army, the moment they are out of prison they must go back to the Army, and the result is that the soldier cannot help himself. He hates the position. He has to give the men military orders, and the men must obey.
§ Mr. SHORTT
The War Office can shut its eyes. One could ask the War Office to shut its eyes. But it is another thing to say that the Government can alter these Regulations. The Government cannot alter them, but the House can.
§ Lord H. CECIL
The House of Commons can be asked to alter the Military Service Acts. Why do not the Government bring in a Bill?
§ Mr. SHORTT
Because they do not think it right or necessary to do so. However that may be, the fact remains that the Regulations are there. There are men who are not willing to accept anything. Nothing but the absolute surrender of the Government to these men is what they will accept.
§ Mr. SHORTT
That may be. The Noble Lord possibly has more knowledge of religious fanatics than I have.
§ Lord H. CECIL
Why not be guided by my advice then, who confessedly has more knowledge than yourself?
§ Mr. SHORTT
Because I do not think that the advice of religious fanatics is always sound, though it may be a good guide for the judges. This then is the position. Those men must either be demobilised or dealt with as I have said. We do not want to keep these men in prison. But the fact remains that the moment one of them comes out on the ground of ill-health and goes home, that letters are written by parents, brothers, and sisters to the men in the forces, and they say, "Why are not you demobilised? Here is 'so-and-so,' a conscientious objector, who has come back." That is happening every day.
§ Mr. SHORTT
I will come to that. But the Government feel that they must have regard to fair play in the Army. If you have to demobilise someone, why not the men who have done the fighting? The conscientious objector may be as honourable as you like, but they have done nothing for their country. You cannot turn them out and say, "Go to another country where your notions and citizenship are more agreeable." We cannot do that; but at least we can say to the Army that we are not giving to the others what we refuse to the men who have been fighting and have been wounded.
§ Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.
§ Original Question again proposed.
§ And, it being Eleven of the clock, the Chairman proceeded, pursuant to Standing Order No. 15, to put forthwith the Question necessary to dispose of the Vote.
§ Whereupon the Chairman left the Chair to make his Report to the House.
§ Resolution to be reported To-morrow; Committee to sit again To-morrow.