HC Deb 16 July 1943 vol 391 cc653-62

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major Sir James Edmondson.]

Mr. Rhys Davies (Westhoughton)

I am glad of this opportunity of raising a point that may be regarded as of little significance to the Members of the House of Commons, but one which is, I can assure them, of considerable importance to a large number of people in this country. On 1st July this year I asked the Minister of Health the following Question: Whether he is aware that Mr. Arthur William Pettet, 26, Marlborough Road, South Chingford, London, E.4, has been expelled from the National Deposit Friendly Approved Society because he served six months' imprisonment as a conscientious objector to military service; that an appeal against the decision of the society was upheld by the referee, Mr. Kennett Macmorran; whether in view of the fact that Pettet has already suffered for his offence, he will take steps to wipe out this additional penalty by restoring the man to membership of his approved society, and how many approved societies, giving their titles, have adopted this punitive policy. I guessed what sort of reply I should receive from the right hon. Gentleman, and I do not complain of that reply. He said: I am aware of this case, but I would point out that under Section 163 (4) of the National Health Insurance Act, 1936, the Referee's decision is final and conclusive. With the exception of a similar one in the same society, no other case of the kind has come to my notice."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 1st July, 1943; col. 1768, Vol. 390.] I very much regret that I am compelled to raise this case, because have no feeling at all against the National Deposit Friendly Society.

It being the hour appointed for the interruption of Business, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Beechman.]

Mr. Rhys Davies

As I was saying, I am compelled to expose this instance, although I have not the slightest feeling against the National Deposit Friendly Society. Indeed, I regard it as a very worthy organisation. It is held in the very highest esteem by the public, and to my personal knowledge its administration is most efficient. Why it should commit this error is beyond my comprehension. Be it noted that, out of 6,000-odd approved societies in this country, this is the only one, as far as I know, to adopt this policy. I have been the secretary of an approved society myself. It may interest the hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health to know that I also hold views very similar to those of Mr. Pettit on the issues of the war and peace; nevertheless, I held my position there without any complaint from anybody. I imagine there must be many conscientious objectors in administrative posts in other approved societies, too. Consequently, I am sorry that this has happened in connection with this organisation.

The National Deposit Friendly Society has expelled this man and one or two others from the private side as well as from the National Health Insurance section, but Parliament has no control of the private affairs of a friendly society. In respect of the National Health Insurance membership of this society, the Ministry of Health is however held responsible, and the matter can be raised in Parliament. In the few words I have to say, I wish to achieve two objects. The first and foremost is to prevent such expulsions spreading in this society and to other societies and, if possible, to induce the Ministry of Health to exercise friendly pressure upon the National Deposit Friendly Society to restore these men to membership once again. I want to be quite fair with the House. Mr. Pettit is an absolutist conscientious objector. The local tribunal granted him conditional exemption if he did A.R.P. or land work, but the appellate tribunal, the higher authority which later considered his claim for unconditional exemption, relegated him to non-combatant service in the Forces. It will be noticed that the appellate tribunal was not as favourably disposed to this man as was the local tribunal. Because he declined medical examination in connection with military service, he was sentenced to six months' imprisonment.

As hon. Members know, I speak as one who has himself been an administrator of an approved society, otherwise I would not be as familiar with this problem as I happen to be. When Mr. Pettit knew that he was to be imprisoned for six months and that no health contributions would be payable by an employer in respect of him for that period, he gave due notice under the rules that he desired to become a voluntary contributor and to pay both the employer's contributions and his own. The trouble is that, in doing so, he may have been a little too honest, because he acquainted his approved society with the reason for the change. If he had never given the reason at all, possibly he would never have been expelled from the Society; but, in the circumstances, the Society administers the rules in relation to expulsion. And what they found was this, that under the model rules, a person may be expelled from membership of an approved society if he has been imprisoned for any crime; they assumed that to serve a sentence in prison as a conscientious objector was a crime according to rule. Let me say as one who has been secretary of a society which I suppose has as large a proportion of conscientious objectors in it as any other approved society that we have never regarded, and I very much doubt whether any other society in the land except this one has regarded, imprisonment for conscience as a crime for the purposes of expulsion.

I was very glad that when I raised this issue the feeling of the House was rather favourably inclined to my point of view. I cannot argue that this man was not subject to punishment under the Military Service Act, but the House of Commons, I hope, will always lay it down that when a man has once suffered imprisonment for any offence, it does not then fall to an outside organisation to add to that penalty another penalty for the very same offence. Let us remember that this man has now suffered three penalties for his conscience. He has lost his job and has been in gaol for six months, and now, if you please, he is expelled from his approved society as well. When his case came before the district committee in the area where he resides they did not think that he ought to be expelled at all, but when the case came to be dealt with by the national executive, not one of whom knew the man personally, they decided to expel him. That is surely carrying punishment too far. He then appealed to the society's arbitration tribunal as he was entitled to, within the rules of the society, and it decided to uphold the expulsion. Then, of course, he had the right to another appeal to the referee appointed, and paid, by the way, by the Ministry. This referee, I understand, is a very eminent lawyer. He too decided to uphold the society's decision and, of course, from that decision there is no appeal at all unless—I do not know my law well enough to say—the case can be taken to the High Court. It is, I am sure, against public policy that a society like this should be allowed to determine to expel a man in the way I have indicated.

Let me come to the referee. How on earth he could decide in favour of the society's decision is entirely beyond by comprehension. He ought to have known two or three things. The National Health Insurance Act and the model rules referred to were passed in 1911, before conscription was ever introduced into this country and before a conscientious objector for military service was ever heard of. Here we are now in 1943, and the referee has not the remotest idea what was meant by this rule when it was passed in 1911. If I know anything about the right hon. Member for Carnarvon Boroughs (Mr. Lloyd George) who introduced the National Health Insurance Scheme he was, if I might say so, somewhat of a conscientious objector himself once upon a time. I am not so sure whether, according to this referee and the society, that they would not have expelled the right hon. Gentleman if he had been a member of that society in his younger days. I am really astonished at the referee because the whole point turns on whether this man committed a crime. Every Member of the House knows that I believe that what this man did, by refusing to enter the Fighting Forces, was to decline to commit a crime, not to commit one. That is the way I look at life.

I am appealing to the Ministry. They say the case cannot be carried further. The hon. Lady the Parliamentary Secretary will forgive me for saying this to her, that I am sure that if the Ministry of Health were good enough to appeal to the society, as I hope they are entitled to do, they might reinstate this man and every other member who has been expelled for similar reasons. I do not want to detain the House longer except to say that I am under the impression that this man is apparently a constituent of the Prime Minister. If the Prime Minister were an ordinary Member of Parliament, I am almost sure that as Member for his Division he would be saying more eloquently the things that I am now saying. I hope, therefore, that I have made out the case. I realise to the full the difficulty of the hon. Lady in connection with the referee's decision but I appeal to her again to see whether the Ministry cannot ask the National Deposit Friendly Society to reinstate this man. They may have no legal power to intervene but I am sure they could find a way to induce the Society to remove this anomaly.

This war will end some day and when it ends we shall probably find in the Parliaments of the future what we saw after the end of the last war. There are Members in this House who were in gaol for conscience during the last war. Some of us, I suppose, would be in gaol too if the authorities had the chance of putting us there. And so, if a man can become a Member of this Parliament, the greatest sounding board in the world, can it be honestly said that another man is not entitled to continue membership of his approved society? The Society would not lose any money because he would retain his membership as a voluntary contributor. I hope I have said enough to induce the Ministry to take some further interest in this vital issue.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Horsbrugh)

I have listened very carefully to what the hon. Member has said, and, as he knows, we have looked into this matter. He has referred to the effect of the model rules. The words in the rule are: The committee of management may expel any member who has been imprisoned for any crime. I want to make it perfectly clear at the start that the fact of being a conscientious objector is not considered to be a crime. I want to say that, because I think those who may read the report of what the hon. Member has said, might read into it that he thought that being a conscientious objector was regarded as a crime. That is not the case. We also know that there is no question that an approved society which is, in essence, a group of insured people banded together for the purpose of receiving their insurance benefits out of the common fund provided by their contributions have the right to expel persons such as those who have made false declarations or misleading statements for the purpose of securing payments. They have the right under their own rules to act as they think wisely. That right remains with the approved society. The approved society also has the right—it is merely permissive—to expel anyone who has been in prison for a crime. The decision rests with them. The one thing to be proved is whether this person has committed a crime. As I have already said, it is perfectly clear that being a conscientious objector is not a crime, but this particular person, in common with other members, was liable to be called up for military service or civil defence, and to submit himself for medical examination by a medical board. He has failed to submit himself to such an examination and that constituted an offence under the National Service (Armed Forces) Act, 1939, Section 3 (4). What we are dealing with is the man's failure to submit himself for examination after having been told to do so; not the fact that he was a conscientious objector.

Mr. Rhys Davies

Am I not right in saying that, according to the wording of the Military Service Act, he commits an offence when he refuses to submit himself for medical examination, while the word used in this model rule is "crime"?

Miss Horsbrugh

If the hon. Gentleman will let me continue, I will deal with all the points. The first thing is that the failure to submit himself for examination, constituted an offence under Section 3 (4) of the Act. Secondly, the model rule says that he may be expelled, if he has been in prison for a crime. Approved societies are societies of people banded together who have the right to impose rules on their members, and in this society this rule is permissive. This person failed to submit himself for such an examination, and was imprisoned. After that, an appeal was made, as usual, to three arbitrators. There was then an appeal to the Minister, and then there was the decision of the referee. I have the report of the referee here. I think that if I read the last few words that will be sufficient: In my judgment the offence of which the appellant was convicted is a crime within this definition and also within Rule 40 (3) (a), to which I have already referred. In these circumstances, I am of opinion that the committee were within their powers under the Rule in expelling the appellant as a person who has been imprisoned for a crime. The appeal fails on these grounds, and is dismissed. There is the legal situation. The referee gives the answer on the legal situation. It is nit for him to judge whether it is wise or unwise. All that he has to say is whether the society is within the law in what it has done. The referee has gone into the matter, and that is the answer. [Interruption.] I quite agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is permissive for the approved society. But they are within the law, because, in the judgment of the referee, the failure to. submit to examination is a crime within this definition and also within the rule.

Mr. Rhys Davies

As the referee is appointed by the hon. Lady's Department, cannot she see where this might land us? There are black-out offences, for which people are sent to prison. According to this decision, those people might be regarded as having committed a crime. That would be a serious position.

Miss Horsbrugh

Aly legal knowledge is not sufficient to tell me whether that could happen. But we have had the three arbitrators, the case has come right up to the referee, and he has given his decision. I could not say anything about the black-out offences or anything of that kind, but this case has been looked into, and I have read the decision. It is not for the referee to say whether the society is acting wisely or unwisely. He has only to say whether the society has acted within its legal rights. The decision is that it has acted within its legal rights, and we can do no more after receiving that decision of the referee.

Mr. James Griffiths (Llanelly)

There seems to me to be a serious point in this. The referee had to decide whether this man's offence was a crime within the meaning of the rules. Is the referee's decision on that final, or is there an appeal to a court? The referee is not a judicial tribunal, and one would think that on a matter of this kind the decision of a certain individual, from which there is no appeal to a higher court, is not quite in accord with our British traditions of law. Is there an appeal?

Miss Horsbrugh

No, there is not. It is carefully laid down that the approved society has certain rights, and the question here is, Has it gone beyond what it is legally permitted to do? What it decides to do is determined by the people who form the particular society. I am not saying whether this was a wise decision or not, but it is clear that the society has not gone beyond what it had the right to do.

Mr. Griffiths

It has the right to dismiss people who have committed a crime, but the point arises whether there is a precedent. Has a case ever before gone before the referee in which he has had to decide what was or was not a crime? Here he has to decide a judicial point involving very expert consideration, and I ask whether there is an appeal against that to a higher court.

Miss Horsbrugh

I have read some of the final sentences from the referee's decision, but perhaps it would help if I read the beginning: The appellant submits that the decision is wrong on the ground that he was not imprisoned for a crime but a civil offence"— That is the point: The offence of which he was convicted is an offence under the provisions of the National Service (Armed Forces) Act. So far as I am aware, the expression 'civil offence' is unknown to our law except in the Army Act, 1881, in which it is used to distinguish offences under the ordinary criminal law and those under military law. This distinction does not apply in the present case where the proceedings taken against the appellant were so taken under an Act of Parliament relating to civilians as distinct from Service personnel. A crime has been defined as an unlawful act or default which is an offence against the public and renders the person guilty of the act or default liable to legal punishment—see Halsbury, Laws of England, Second Edition, IX 9"— Perhaps that will make the point clear; the appellant claimed that he had not committed a crime but a civil offence, but the words "civil offence" are unknown except in the Army Act, T881. Perhaps I have now made that clear.

Mr. Rhys Davies

As this raises a very important point of principle, have the Law Officers of the Crown ever been asked, in a case of this kind, to give their opinion, or is it left entirely to the referee to decide?

Miss Horsbrugh

I cannot answer that question; but in this case the position is clear. I would impress on the hon. Gentleman that it is not suggested that it is a crime to be a conscientious objector; the point is that under the actual rules the wording is "imprisonment for crime." The crime is that the man refused to be medically examined and went to prison. It is the refusal to be medically examined which is the offence and not that he is a conscientious objector, and I would like to make that fact clear to the hon. Gentleman and to the House.

Mr. J. Griffiths

That is clear.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.