HC Deb 09 November 1945 vol 415 cc1628-50

Order for Second Reading read.

12.6 p.m.

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Isaacs)

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read a Second time."

It is with some trepidation that I find myself for the first time asking the House to assent to the Second Reading of a Bill, but I know that the House is very kindly disposed towards those embarking on new ventures. I am asking the House to agree to the Second Reading of a Bill to release conscientious objectors from the conditions imposed on them. These conditions were imposed under the Act of 1939. There are, roughly, three classes of conscientious objectors. First, there are those who are excused from fighting but who are required to undertake non-combatant service in the Forces. Secondly, there are those who are exempt from military service under certain conditions; and, thirdly, there are those who are registered unconditionally as conscientious objectors. It is to that second class that this Bill is intended to apply. In the Act of 1939 it is laid down, with reference to this class of objector, that he shall be conditionally registered in the register until the end of the present emergency, the condition being that he must until that event undertake work specified by the tribunal of a civil character and under civilian control. If directed by the Minister, he must undergo training provided or approved by the Minister to fit him for such work.

The Bill is provided to deal with that second class of conscientious objector, who are not members of the Forces and who are not free to engage in work other than that prescribed for them by the tribunal. As things stand, they are held by the condition of registration until the date on which the present emergency is declared to be officially at an end, and when this will happen is at present unknown. It does not appear, therefore, to be equitable that men and women whose conscientious objections have been formally accepted and who have been exempt from military service on that account should be prevented for an indefinite period from returning to their normal avocations. While the great majority of these conditionally registered conscientious objectors are employed in work of national importance such as agriculture, hospital work, food distribution, etc., many of them possess special qualifications and might be more usefully employed in their former occupations, and it might, therefore, be of more value to the State and to industry if these persons could go back to their normal work and not be kept any longer on the special work to which they have been directed.

Under the scheme a conditionally registered conscientious objector will reckon as service for his release the period since the date on which he was registered as a conscientious objector and subject to the conditions prescribed by the tribunal. Therefore, taking into account his service and age, it is proposed that he should be released from his condition of registration after the date fixed for the completion of the release of all ranks in the Army group to which he would have belonged if he had been called up into the Service. The Army release group has been chosen in this particular instance, first because it is more simple and more easily operated, but mainly because all conscientious objectors who were ordered to do non-combatant service are posted to the Army, and it is reasonable to treat them all under one scheme andon that one basis. Therefore, for simplicity, and in order to avoid administrative difficulties, it is proposed that the period of service of a conscientious objector shall be the whole of the time during which he has been conditionally registered. That service will be reckoned from the date when a tribunal first made an Order under the 1939 Act, and in the majority of cases this will be the date when a local tribunal made an Order for conditional registration, but there may be some cases in which it may be the date of an Order made by the appellate tribunal.

When the Bill is passed, conscientious objectors will be placed in groups according to their age and the time they have-been conditionally registered. We shall then ascertain the stage which Army demobilisation of all ranks has reached, and then conscientious objectors in the same groups will be released. For example, if the release of, say, 20 Army groups has been completed, the first 20 groups of conscientious objectors will be at once eligible for release. Directions will be given for the release of conscientious objectors concerned from the conditions of their registration at a date four to six weeks ahead. The purpose is not any attempt to impose any kind of penalty or delay, but they will be notified of this date so that they can inform their employers or make any other arrangements which will make it easy for them immediately to resume their normal life without further delay. That arrangement has been imposed for the purpose of being of assistance and not for the purpose of being a detriment. A conscientious objector who is in employment covered by an Essential Work Order, will have to obtain the permission of the National Service Officer before he can leave his work. If he is in employment covered by an Essential Work Order, to which he has been directed, he will not be able to leave until he gets his direction withdrawn. He will be no more and no less liable to direction than if he had not been registered as a conscientious objector.

It is the intention to ensure that the purpose of the Bill is not frustrated by the exercise of existing labour controls in such a way that a conscientious objector who has been released from his conditions is tied to the work from which he has been released under the Bill. We think it is important that that should be noted. There is one qualification to this release scheme which is described in Clause 1 (4) of the Bill. If the Army should find it necessary on account of military necessity—and we all hope there will be no such necessity—or for other reasons to recall men who have been demobilised under Class A, it would be only right to recall conscientious objectors in the same group. In that event, their cases would be referred back to the local tribunals so that they could be re-registered on conditions, subject to the usual right of appeal to the appellate tribunal.

The Bill is intended to apply to conditionally registered women conscientious objectors, and there are about 700 of these women. Their release will be related to the release programme of the A.T.S. As married women in the A.T.S. may, if they choose, have priority of release, and as those who have exercised the option have now been released, it is proposed that women conscientious objectors who are married shall be released as soon as it is possible. In other words, the married woman conscientious objector is to have exactly the same privileges and rights as the married woman in the Forces. The release scheme will of course be a continuing process. When the Bill is passed, a number of persons will be due for immediate release, and thereafter the releases will take place by stages, step by step, with the Army timetable.

Mr. Wilson Harris (Cambridge University)

I should like to ask for an explanation on this point, which seems vital to the Bill. Suppose that the officers are retained in a given Army group for some time after the other ranks, as was dicussed in this House last night; does that mean that no conscientious objector in that group will be released?

Mr. Isaacs

That is the purpose and the intention of the Bill as it is now submitted to the House. There are very great difficulties as to the point at which, in a particular Army group, the conscientious objectors should come out. It was felt that, for simplicity, although that is not the only thing we have to consider, it would be best to say that when Army group X, whatever it is, is cleared, the conscientious objectors should come out. There is the difficulty it may be necessary to retain some of the officers in the group for a time, but I take it that that necessity will not last very long and that the period of retention will not be very long. We feel that it is possible to get a clear-cut and simple scheme only by saying that when a group in the Army is cleared the conscientious objectors must be cleared at the same time.

I have not gone into a long and detailed explanation of the various Clauses. That can be done on the Committee stage. The real purpose of the Bill is that conscientious objectors who have been recognised as such by Parliamentary decision should not be held under any conditions that would not have applied to them if they had been in the Forces, and that they should be free to return to their normal occupations at the same time as those who are in the Services and were called up at the same time. I hope that the Bill will be acceptable to the House.

12.18 p.m.

Mr. R. A. Butler (Saffron Walden)

The right hon. Gentleman can feel on this occasion, when he has brought a Bill before the House for the first time, that he has made the Bill crystal clear to all of us. The most important thing he has made clear is that the Bill has a very limited objective. We shall, to the best of our ability, restrict ourselves to the technical points raised by the Bill and I do not propose to enter into a wide discussion of the subject at this stage. As to the two main propositions, that it is inequitable to retain conscientious objectors indefinitely, and that they may be useful incertain walks of civil life, and in jobs other than those in which they are already conditionally registered, we accept those and consider them to be perfectly sensible. There are however several points in connection with the Bill, which it may be necessary for us to raise in Committee.

Before I come to those points, I wish to refer to the fact that the right hon. Gentleman has decided to accept the Army release scheme as being simple. I should like to know first whether conscientious objectors are to receive the same gratuity, and the same number of days' leave as persons who have been serving in His Majesty's Forces. On the nature of the answer given to that question will depend the impression made upon the House by the Bill. If it is desired that conscientious objectors should accept employment suitable to them, why has a plan under Scheme B not been got out for them? Perhaps I may assist the Government to give an answer to this question. I presume that if you make an exception in the case of conscientious objectors, it might make such an inroad into Scheme B as would make it difficult to carry out the scheme in its entirety. I think the country would desire to know why, if it is necessary that conscientious objectors should fill certain posts, some course, such as I suggest, under Scheme B, has not been followed.

The right hon. Gentleman has implicitly acknowledged that the Army release scheme is very much more simple and straightforward than any of the schemes of the other Services. Those of us who have been criticising the demobilisation schemes, have been vindicated by the majestic simplicity of the right hon. Gentleman's new Bill, which virtually acknowledges that there are differences between the age and length of service principle in the different Services. When we consider the Army release scheme we note that the Government desire by the Bill that the length of the conscientious objector's service shall be measured from the day of his original registration, and that it shall be uninterrupted. That is even simpler than the Array release scheme, where length of service is interrupted when a man has been released for some purpose, or when there may have been some dereliction of duty. To that extent it may be said that the conscientious objector is being better treated than the ordinary man in the Army. It is important that the Bill should be absolutely fair and that no new discrimination should be introduced by it. I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will refer to this matter, and explain that these proposals are absolutely fair to serving men and are simply intended to find a simple scheme of releasing conscientious objectors.

There are two other points I would mention. First, is this scheme absolutely fair to men who were released to serve in industry and whose period of release in industry will not be counted towards their length of service? It might be felt by such men that conscientious objectors are being better treated under the Bill than men who have been released for industrial service, and who have found that their period of release did not count towards their length of service. The second point is, I believe, to be referred to later by some of my hon. Friends and I do not want to poach on their preserves by dwelling upon it at any length. It is a question of the conscientious objectors who volunteered to serve some time before they were registered by the tribunals. It would be unfair to them if their length of service dated from the date of registration. The example which I have in mind is those who served in the Friends' Ambulance Unit and have given service as hard, vigorous and dangerous as any war service. They very often started to serve very early. Some of them, I am informed, joined in September, 1939, and served in Finland, the Middle East, and Greece. Sometimes they have been taken prisoner. They have rendered as valuable a service to their country as any who have served in other capacities. If those persons joined before the date of their registration by the tribunals it would be unfair that their length of service should date from the date of registration rather than from the date on which they started their service. I give notice that it may be necessary for us to raise that point on the Committee Stage and to put down an Amendment so that it will be possible for them to measure their length of service from the date on which that service actually started.

Those are the detailed points which I have to make on the Bill. I conclude by appealing to my hon. Friends and others who are interested in the subject to restrict their remarks to the points of the Bill. Many of us feel deeply on the question of conscientious objectors. Except for the points that I have raised, and any other points which my hon. Friends may raise, I hope that we shall regard this simply as a Bill to release these men, rather than an occasion for a general disquisition on the rights and wrongs of conscientious objectors.

12.24 p.m.

Mr. Sorensen (Leyton, West)

I welcome the Bill and I am glad that the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) has given it such a generous blessing. We are very encouraged by that fact. We do not want to trespass beyond the scope of the Bill; nevertheless, I would observe that the right hon. Gentleman opposite did slightly trespass beyond the scope of the Bill in so far as he dealt with, in passing and I think quite legitimately, the conditions of service of men in the Forces. The Bill affects 25,000-odd good citizens. When I say "odd" I know that some hon. Members may interpret that word in more ways than one but I think it is recognised now that a conscientious objector can be and is a good citizen. What has been said already about the Friends' Ambulance Unit is a recognition of that fact. We are all conscientious objectors to a greater or lesser degree, in so far as we are Nonconformists. I think it was Emerson who said: He who would be a good citizen must be a good Nonconformist. In that case, this is a Nonconformist Assembly in the truest sense of the word, and a challenge to the worship of Stateism-which prevails even now over far too great an area of the world.

The men affected by the Bill have all complied with the law. It is true that there are others who are not affected by the Bill and who have defied the law, but even they can be good citizens according to their own criterion. The Bill however deals with a section of con scientious objectors who have complied with the law. Therefore, they are not lawbreakers although they have maintained their convictions and have had those convictions accepted as genuine. They have carried out the terms which the law has imposed upon them. It seems to me that in every sense of the word those men deserve no penalty beyond the actual restrictions imposed upon them.

I hope that the House will forgive a personal allusion. I would refer to two young men who are particularly dear to my heart and who joined the organisation to which the right hon. Gentleman opposite referred. One of them only by chance escaped going to Finland, otherwise he might have been one of those who were ultimately imprisoned by the Germans, and who have proved, as have others in the organisation, how very earnestly they can serve their fellowmen in all parts of the world. The other one joined the same service and he is now buried—not literally buried, he is working—somewhere in the heart of China. It is generally recognised in all parts of the House that this organisation consists of a number of good citizens who have faced danger in their desire to serve and heal their fellows. Some of them have died in their service. They have gladly volunteered to face great hazards. As in the case of the two young men I know so well they have also submitted, of course, to working practically without pay of any kind except pocket money.

The Friends' Ambulance Unit do not want any preferential treatment. They do not want it to be thought that the men who belong to that organisation are in any respect superior to those who do not belong to it. Many men would have joined it had it not been that membership carries no salary. Men very often have domestic responsibilities which make it impossible for them to join such an organisation. Apart from that, the Friends' Ambulance Unit recognises that it is but one section of a large number of men, some of whom are in other organisations. They do not want preferential treatment or to be held up as in any way superior to the rest.

I agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden that one does not want to give any advantage to the conscientious objector that the men in the Forces do not receive, but I would plead that not even in a small way should we impose additional penalties upon this category of men. Yet quite unintentionally there maybe penalties imposed upon conscientious objectors by this Bill and I would like to draw attention to them. In the first place, I would call attention to what has been implicit in the interjection of the right hon. Gentleman opposite. In Clause I, as it stands now, the following words occur: …all ranks in any group who are released by reference to their group, the Minister of Labour and National Service may direct that any conditionally registered conscientious objector of the same group… That may be interpreted as, "Until and unless every officer shall himself have been released under his demobilisation group, all conscientious objectors shall be retained."

I do not know whether it is intentional that conscientious objectors should be equated with officers; many of them have certainly not been receiving an officer's pay. I know more than one young man, in the non-combatant corps, for instance, who has served through this war, often under conditions of great danger and difficulty, but who has never received more than a private's pay, in spite of frequent bribes to induce him to give up his conscientious objection with the suggestion that if he did he would soon be able to secure promotion and receive substantial remuneration. It seems a little unfair that the conscientious objector, who in many cases has been receiving only the equivalent of a private's pay, should now be likely to be retained for a longer period than, it may be, his brother who has been serving in the Forces. I would like the Minister, therefore, to consider that point, and I am very glad that the hon. Member on the Liberal benches—

Mr. Wilson Harris

I am not a Liberal.

Mr. Sorensen

I said on the Liberal benches, not that the hon. Gentleman was a Liberal; if he takes that as any reflection on his character, I gladly withdraw it. In this matter I am sure we are all at one in trying to see that justice shall be done. The Minister will find on inquiry in more than one quarter of the House that it is not desired that the conscientious objector should inadvertently be penalised in this fashion. Let him be put on the same basis as the man in the Forces. Although we all regret the possible necessity for the retention of some officers beyond their age group, I would suggest that just as that does not hold back the rankers, it should not hold back the conscientious objectors, who, in fact, have been in many cases serving on a ranker basis right through the war.

Secondly, I would refer to the time lag of from four to six weeks which is laid down in the Bill and which has been referred to by the Minister. I cannot understand why this should be so. If there is any necessity to inform the men that they are about to be released, could not that notice be given four or six weeks before the date of release rather than after that date, with consequent retention for a further period? I appreciate the motive behind this proposal, but I suggest that it is unnecessary and can be covered in the way I have suggested. Finally, in regard to what has already been mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman opposite, there is surely a need to consider that in the ranks of the conscientious objectors there may be men who might be rendering far more useful service to the community at the present time than, shall we say, being engaged' in hedging and ditching, useful works as those may be. I am aware, for instance, that there is a lady doctor of some eminence, who was recently elected to the Royal Society; if she had been younger and had been directed to particular employment, she might still have been retained in some useful but humble work and her medical ability and skill thereby lost to the State.

When we realise that men like the late Professor Eddington and others, great and eminent scientists, were conscientious objectors in their day, we must realise that there may be among the ranks of conscientious objectors many potential splendid servants to the community who should not be retained a day longer than need be if the community can utilise their skill, competence and knowledge in some better way. That principle is already recognised with regard to the Forces, and the scheme of releasing a certain number under Class B has been a sound one. I do not suggest that there can be an exact equivalent of the Class B scheme, but I do suggest that provision should be made for out-of-turn release under certain limited circumstances. The Minister must certainly have the last word but it may be that, perhaps not in the rather lofty category to which I have referred but in humbler categories, there are many who ought to be playing a better part in the community now and who desire to do so, but who cannot do so by reason of obeying the direction of the law. I am thinking especially of teachers; there is a great demand for teachers and I hope more will be released from the Forces to meet the needs of the new generation. Why cannot we have the same kind of provisions here to meet that need?

Those are the three main points which I venture to offer, and I hope and believe that the Minister will consider them and introduce some Amendment next week. I am glad that this Bill has been brought forward; I appreciate the spirit in which it has been received on all sides of the House. If these three points and perhaps others can be met in the same spirit, I am sure we shall soon have the release of these 25,000 good citizens, who will be able to join with others in making our country what it always has been in the estimation of many and what it will be in the future, an example to the world of real, democratic citizenship.

12.36 p.m.

Mr. Basil Nield (Chester)

My purpose in intervening in this Debate is to point to an inequity which I think will be done, if this Bill remains in its present form, to a certain class of conscientious objector, that is to say, to those who have served or are serving with the Friends Ambulance Unit, the organisation referred to by my right hon. Friend below me and by the last hon. Member who spoke. The House may wonder, and in any event I should like to tell them, why—

Mr. Sorensen

May I interrupt the hon. and learned Member? Surely he does not mean to confine his remarks to the members of the Society of Friends?

Mr. Nield

I wish to deal solely with the Friends Ambulance Unit. Hon. Members may want to know why I am concerned for the interests of these men, and I should like to tell them. It is because I know many members of the Unit, and have seen a good deal of their work. Indeed, in the early days of 1941 I travelled to the Middle East in a troopship which carried also a section of the Friends Ambulance Unit. I saw them from time to time thereafter in Syria, and in Egypt. I am aware that they were in the advance into Syria, and, in the other campaign, were operating their mobile hospital in the forward areas of many of the battles of the Western Desert. Indeed their leader, a very splendid person who was a close and valued friend, was killed in Libya in February of 1942. Further, I am aware that some of their number proceeded to Western Europe where they were attached to the French Forces and some of them were taken prisoner. From the earliest days of this war, from the time of the Finnish Expedition in 1939, these men have given admirable service. They have served with quiet, self-effacing efficiency and with high courage. I do not think that any fighting soldier would hesitate to pay a tribute to these men who, prevented by their principles from bearing arms, have none the less willingly suffered the full dangers and rigours of war while pursuing their humane calling of tending the wounded and the sick. They have served throughout under the same conditions as the private soldier, with the exception that they have been unpaid and have received basic allowances less than those of the private soldier.

Under this Bill, as has been pointed out, the date of commencement of service for the members of the Friends Ambulance Unit is to be the date when they come before a tribunal, the date of registration. In point of fact many of these men volunteered at once in 1939 for this work and went overseas long before they could ever come before a tribunal. To take an extreme case, some went to Greece and were taken prisoner by the German forces there. They remained in prison camps for four years, and on their release they came before the tribunal. I suggest, and I am sure the right hon. Gentleman-opposite must acknowledge that it would be quite unjust to say that their service should not start from the time they volunteered for service and in fact served. The right hon. Gentleman below me has indicated that he may be prepared to put down an Amendment to this provision in due course, but I hope and feel that the right hon. Gentleman opposite will think that a just case has been made out and will himself produce an Amendment to this end.

There are two other points. Like the hon. Gentleman opposite I have difficulty in understanding the delay of four to six weeks beyond the corresponding date for release groups in the Forces. The other point is that some scheme similar to the Class B release scheme should be available for the members of the Friends Ambulance Unit; many of them are doctors, teachers and students who should have the right to be released on similar terms, although many of them are in fact proposing to continue serving in the relief organisations in Europe and other places.

I have spoken on behalf of a minority. There are not very many members of the Friends Ambulance Unit, but that is no reason for permitting inequitable treatment. I hope and believe that the right hon. Gentleman will appreciate the justice of the case which. I have attempted to make—perhaps inadequately, but believe me with great sincerity.

12.43 p.m.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

I came down to the House today primarily to make almost exactly the appeal to the Government which has been made by the hon. and learned Member for Chester (Mr. Nield) and one tradition of the House which I will respect is not to say again everything that he has said. I will merely say that I support him in every detail, except that of course, I cannot do so from the personal angle from which he spoke. Also, I would like to support his suggestion that if the Government are prepared to accept an Amendment on those lines they might themselves draft it and bring it forward. The only possible difficulty I can see about it is that up till now the Government have not, if I remember rightly, given way to the request of people who gave, often arduous service in Civil Defence before they went into the Forces, that they should be allowed to count that service. While I am glad to agree with the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) that we should confine ourselves in this Debate within certain limits, and I have no wish to discuss any general proposition about conscientious objection, we must realise that there is a good deal of resentment, justified or unjustified, reasonable or unreasonable, among large sections of the community which it would be unwise to brush aside. There would probably be increased indignation in the Civil Defence services if this measure of justice were given to the Friends Ambulance Unit and similar bodies and not to them. I hope the solution will be that the Government will decide, sooner on later, that the people who served in Civil Defence should have the same privilege in calculating their age group.

There are only two other points I want to mention. The first turns on the question of resentment. A large number of the Armed Forces bear a great deal of resentment, not against the Friends' Ambulance Unit, but against some sections of conscientious objectors who remained in this country and took the ordinary chance of the civilian population, such as it was. For simplicity's sake, the right hon. Gentleman has bound this scheme to the Army. The result is that a conscientious objector in, say, group 27 will be released from whatever restrictions he has been under at about the same time or very little later than that group in the Army, and earlier than that group in the Royal Air Force. The Air Force is angry enough with us already and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will give the point consideration. I seldom criticise drafting, perhaps because I understand it and, certainly, because I understand the difficulty of it. I wonder, however, whether "group" ought not to be definitely defined. I do not think there is much difficulty in understanding it, and it goes a little way towards getting a definition in Subsection (2) of Clause 1.

12.46 p.m.

Mr. Wilson Harris (Cambridge University)

When the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour was making his first statement about the dock strikes some weeks ago, he said, in words which gained strength from their very simplicity, "I deplore this strike; it is wrong." If I may adapt his phraseology to present circumstances, I would say, "I welcome this Bill; it is right." It is so obviously right that it needs little advocacy beyond that which the right hon. Gentleman himself gave and which subsequent speakers have added. The House and the Government have reason to congratulate themselves on the way in which this very difficult question has been handled during the war. It has been handled with far greater broad-mindedness in this war than in the last war. Today the House is being asked to take an obvious step. As an hon. Member opposite pointed out, the conscientious objectors in this war simply took advantage of an option which was freely offered them by the Government. There was, as far as I know, no pressure about it; it was spontaneously offered. Obligation to military service was instituted, and it was stipulated that men who had conscientious objection to it could offer alternative service.

That being so, it is rational, when they have discharged their alternative service, as many of them have diligently and conscientiously, that they should be released on the same terms and at the same time as members of the Armed Forces. That is the object of this Bill, and, as the right hon. Gentleman has explained in response to the question of mine, a certain phraseology has been adopted for the sake of simplicity. I am all in favour of simplicity, and I would ask for even more simplicity. As I understand the Bill, its purpose is that conscientious objectors shall be released concurrently with men in the Armed Forces and in particular work. For that reason, I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will reconsider the more or less accidental position by which a large group of conscientious objectors may be kept back for months simply because Field-Marshal Montgomery needs to retain a small group of officers in occupied Germany. That does not seem to be in accordance with the spirit of the Bill. The work which these men have been doing, in the main, is work that is assimilated to that of other ranks and not to the work of officers. It has been suggested that a great many conscientious objectors are of the officer class. I doubt whether that is true, but, in any case, it is undesirable and irrelevant to introduce any social distinctions in this matter. We have to recognise that the best that can be hoped for in a matter of this kind is to do broad, rough and ready justice. If once we attempt to establish any strict mathematical parity, we get into every kind of difficulty.

There are other factors that enter into this question in addition to that of age and length of service. Let me explain what I mean by citing two examples which are well known to me. Two friends of mine took service at the beginning of the war, in September,1939. One of them, as soon as he had had a short period of training, went to drive an ambulance in Finland, not one of the safer occupations on ice-sheeted roads. He got out across Sweden and Norway when Finland collapsed, and reached home on the last destroyer that left Namson. He next fought fires in the East End of London, and then went to drive an ambulance on the Burma Road as long as there was a Burma Road to drive on. He afterwards went to China to organise supplies of drugs for troops in Yunnan, and he is now organising international relief in Chungking, in close touch with the British Embassy, on the meagre pocket money which members of the Friends' Ambulance Unit draw. My other friend enlisted as a private in September, 1939. His high qualities as an administrator were at once appreciated, and after serving almost wholly in this country he obtained release a few weeks ago as a colonel. He had, of course, been drawing colonel's or major's or captain's pay for some years. There is no criticism to be made of the work of either of these men; each did well what he could do best, but I suggest that we ought not to compare the incomparable and that it is going a little beyond the bounds of justice to suggest that because some objectors are of the class of officers all objectors should be held till the last officer in their age-group is released. I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to adopt the simple formula that conscientious objectors should be released on the same basis as men of the Army, and to leave it at that.

Finally, I would like to reinforce the remarks of various speakers about something analogous to Class B. It is obviously not in the national interest that teachers and doctors should be left working on the land or doing other forms of work for which they are not suited, when the need for them elsewhere is so great. It should be a simple matter to arrange for men who are needed so badly in their own vocations to be released from their obligations. The arrangements for dealing with conscientious objectors have, on the whole, gone well. There have no doubt been men who have been unreasonable, and tribunals that have been unfair, but the arrangements have on the whole worked so well that it would be a pity for them not to work well to the end. It would be unfortunate if there were any feeling that the Government were a little grudging and were keeping conscientious objectors a little longer than was reasonable. Six years is a good slice out of a man's life. Men in the Forces, of course, have had to give up six years, equally, but the men in the Friends' Ambulance Unit and other conscientious objectors have undergone arduous work and in many cases have lost their lives. Those who are still living are entitled now to return to normal life. I hope, therefore, that the right hon. Gentleman, with the approval of the House, will feel that, so long as no favour is shown to them over the Forces, he can be even a little more than just, even a little generous in this last act of a satisfactory drama.

12.55 p.m.

Flight-Lieutenant Parkin (Stroud)

I viewed with a little surprise the interpretation which the right hon. Gentleman gave of the phrase in the Bill which reads: Persons of all ranks…who are released by reference to their group. I should have thought that if officers of the Army are retained for some specific duty in Germany they cannot be regarded as being released by reference to their group, but only by reference to the operational or administrative necessities of the Army of Occupation. If the Minister feels that on grounds of fairness he must give this unexpected interpretation to this phrase, I would urge him to devise some means by which the tribunal can vary the terms of the directions which have been given to conscientious objectors on grounds other than health. At the moment, a conscientious objector's employment can only be varied on the grounds that his health has deteriorated and he is unable to carry out the work. The tribunals were instructed to see that the best possible use was made of the services of the conscientious objectors who came before them. They did that job well during the war, but at the moment the nation is not getting the best possible service from many of them. I would urge the Minister to try and devise some means, if he must retain them so long as urgent men are required in certain trades or grades in the Army, by which the nation will be able to get the benefit of their skill in occupations which the nation needs.

12.50 p.m.

Professor Gruffydd (University of Wales)

I join in the welcome which has been given to this Bill, and I congratulate my hon. Friends above the Gangway on the sensible and sympathetic view they have taken of it. There has been a great difference in the sentiments of the country towards conscientious objectors in this war as compared with 1914, and we are very glad of it. The criticisms I have of the Bill are minor ones, but I do not wish to make them because they have already been made by other speakers. I would, however, like to make my position clear in welcoming this Bill. No one has referred to his own views on conscientious objectors, except the hon. Member for West Leyton (Mr. Sorensen). I do not agree with a good many of my co religionists on the question of bearing arms. In the last war I was a volunteer and served willingly, if with no great distinction, throughout the war. Any welcome that I give to the Bill, therefore, has all the more force. There is one point about Class B releases which has not been raised. Class B release was from the beginning intended to serve the country rather than the interests of those released, whereas Class A releases are for the sake of the people who are released. There seems to be no reason for holding back conscientious objectors from a class which is released from the service of the country, members of which are released, not for their own sakes or to their advantage but for the greater advantage of the country.

On the point made about the Friends Ambulance Unit, there are others who do not belong to the Friends and who are in the same position. The Friends Ambulance Unit are not the only class of conscientious objectors who have, perhaps, suffered from the disability from which these people have suffered. The only point I shall make with regard to them is that it is rather shabby—if I may use the word, and I am not using it offensively—to refuse release to these persons because they could not appear before a tribunal on account of being prisoners of war. That is why a good many of them could not appeal to the tribunal, as they would have appealed if they had been in this country. They have been penalised for the highest service which, possibly, they could give to the country. That is all I have to say, and again I welcome the Bill.

1.1 p.m.

Mr. Richards (Wrexham)

I, too, welcome this Bill very heartily, and I think the Minister of Labour is to be congratulated upon introducing it and upon the speech he made this morning giving a very clear outline of the objects of it. It is very good to feel that the Government have not wasted any time in completing this business. It might have proved in the course of this war a very difficult question, though, as most hon. Members have said, it has not. The problem has been much better handled and that is what we should expect from this Government. During the last war a great many members of the present Government shared the faith of the conscientious objectors, and we should expect them to recognise that here was a problem that they ought to deal with without any hesitation. It is true that some of those who objected to the last war have been much more bellicose in this war. I presume that every war has to be judged, so to speak, on its merits, but I would point out: …love is not love Which alters when it alteration finds. I think there is something to be said for that point of view. In this country, fortunately, there are men who do not alter their opinions because of the nature of the danger with which they are faced, and I think we have to respect them. A great deal has been said about freedom, the freedom of nations. Here we are dealing really with the freedom of opinion of individuals, and one is proud to think that this country made arrangements at the beginning of the war for recognising that people might have different opinions on such a vital question as war. Tribunals were set up to deal with these problems, extraordinarily difficult problems, let us recognise, because the bulk of opinion in the nation, both locally and generally, was against these people. Tribunals were set up to decide whether their conscientious objections could be upheld or not, and I think that on the whole they did their work admirably. It was a difficult situation. They knew the clamour that existed outside against these people, and they had to distinguish between the genuine conscientious objectors and other people who by some accident or other just happened to discover at that time that they had a conscience. The tribunals have done their work well, and one is glad to think that here today we are completing a job that has been difficult, and are recognising that the conscientious objector, having served for a time, or having gone wherever he was directed to go and having accepted the conditions, is entitled to take his place once more as a citizen of this nation.

1.5 p.m.

Mr. Stephen (Glasgow, Camlachie)

I desire to join, speaking for my party, in congratulating the Minister upon bringing in this Measure. We played a prominent part in the discussions in the House when the conscription Measures were before us, and I am glad that on this occasion it seems as though there was unanimity in the House. I want to commend to the Minister the fact that there seems to be unanimity, and to suggest that it might be well that that unanimity should be recognised by the Government and that they should embody in the Measure the Amendments which have been suggested to-day. The House seems to feel that this business has been handled much better on this occasion than during the years 1914–18, and I think that has been the case, and I trust that the Minister, by incorporating in the Bill the suggestions which have been made, will allow this business to end very happily for all.

1.6 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Labour (Mr. Ness Edwards)

I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister will feel extremely pleased with the very kind reception which the Bill has had in the House this morning. I have never known the House better than it has been this morning in its judicial conception of this problem. A number of points have been raised, but as far as I can see there is no need for me to reply to them at any great length. The right hon. Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler), speaking on behalf of the party opposite, accepted the general principle provided for in the Bill. He mentioned that he had not heard anything about gratuities and paid leave. There is no provision for gratuities or paid leave, and there is no intention of conferring those advantages upon demobilised con- scientious objectors. He also raised the question about some sort of analogous scheme to Class B in connection with the demobilisation of the Forces. That requires great thought and consideration. It is not a matter that can be conceded easily. The point was very well put by my hon. Friend the Member for the University of Wales (Professor Gruffydd) when he said that Class B covers the type of case in which a man comes out not because he desires to come out but because the nation needs him out, and that consideration must apply. We shall not shut our minds to the possibility of providing something analogous to Class B in connection with conscientious objectors, but in doing that we must not concede to conscientious objectors as a class any greater preference or greater privilege than is provided for the men in the Armed Forces. We shall look at this point, and we hope that by the time we arrive at the Committee stage we shall be able to put forward an Amendment or an addition to the Bill which will meet the point. We are aware that there are substantial reasons for the contention that has been put forward.

The next point concerned the relating of this scheme to the rate of releases in the Army. On this point a number of my hon. Friends on this side and hon. Members opposite have made contributions. The choice of the Army as the test was determined by the fact that a large body of conscientious objectors are already in the Army in non-combatant units. Those are the analogous people, and what we are seeking to do is to determine the demobilisation of the conscientious objectors who are conditionally employed at the same rate, and roughly at the same time, as their colleagues who are in the non-combatant branches of the Army itself. That is the reason—not that it was simpler to take the Army, but because there are in the Army, and outside it too, sections of people actuated by the same motive, and we want as far as possible to give them the same treatment from the point of view to demobilising them at the same time.

We were also asked, in connection with reckoning civilian employment as the basis for demobilisation, whether we were being fair to the men who had been released or transferred to the W.T.A. reserve, men in civilian industry. That indeed, is very dangerous ground. There are the men who were in the mining industry who eventually went into the Army, and the men in the Army who were released to go into the mining industry. There is our difficulty. Where shall we draw the line? In the case of conscientious objectors we think it is clear that so long as they have been registered and have carried out their obligations under the registration that that period should be counted in determining the date when they should be demobilised.

Another point raised had great substance and I was very much impressed by the case made by the hon. and learned Member for Chester (Mr. Nield). He talked about individual experiences in this matter, the case of the men in the Friends Ambulance Unit. The way in which the case has been put this morning was bound to arouse sympathy in the minds of anyone hearing it. But there, again, the matter is difficult. This concession has not been given to the groups of Friends Services who went into the Army, the Navy or the Air Force, and1we cannot give to conscientious objectors that which we have denied to other men in the Armed Forces. But we shall consider it and see what can be done. Certainly, we shall give the case, especially, of the men who were prisoners of war sympathetic consideration, but as regards the generality of the cases we feel that we cannot grant to conscientious objectors who were in the Friends Ambulance Services what we denied to members of the Armed Forces who were also in those Services prior to enlistment, and that does raise a difficulty. However, we are not shutting our minds to the matter and shall look at it very sympathetically.

I think that covers most of the points, except for the three raised by my hon. Friend the Member for West Leyton (Mr. Sorensen). The first, which was raised by other hon. Members as well, was concerned with retaining the groups until all the officers who are now being retained in Germany after their demobilisation date have been demobilised. I should imagine that the officers in groups 22, 23 and 24 in Germany who are being retained, some for a month, some for six weeks and some, it may be, for as long as ten weeks, will feel aggrieved enough as it is. It applies only to those three groups, so the question is not so widespread as some Members thought. What we feel is that we cannot allow conscientious objectors in groups 22, 23 and 24 and only those groups to come out until the officers in those groups come out as well. We do not want to create a worse sense of injustice in the minds of those officers who are being retained by giving this treatment to conscientious objectors who have not had to suffer all the hardships and dangers that the men in the Armed Forces have had to endure.

Mr. Wilson Harris

Does that mean that when conscientious objectors in groups 25 and 26 are released those in groups 22, 23 and 24 will be retained?

Mr. Ness Edwards

I am afraid they will have to be slowed up. Obviously it would create another injustice if we were to discharge group 26 before group 24 had been reached. It may well be that there will have to be a slowing up, but I am informed that on the figures it is not a very great problem and it is confined to very few people. In the long run, it may well be that this proviso that has been put in the Bill will not be effective, as the officers in groups 22, 23, and 24 will already have been demobilised before we have reached the machinery stage of demobilising conscientious objectors. With regard to the time lag of from four to six weeks, we are sympathetic to the points that have been made. The idea in inserting the four to six weeks was that it would give the employer time to find alternative employés. It is perhaps a little too long, and when we come to the Committee stage we shall probably be able to move an Amendment which the Committee will regard as acceptable. I think I have covered most of the points that have been raised, except the drafting point raised by the hon. and learned Member for North Hammersmith (Mr. Pritt). I thank the House for the very kind way in which it has received the Bill and for the very high sense of justice by which obviously it has been actuated, and I trust that when we come to the Committee stage the Bill will receive even greater approval than it has had this morning.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time, and committed to a Standing Committee.

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