HC Deb 10 April 1952 vol 498 cc2956-8
3. Mr. Victor Yates

asked the Minister of Labour how many applications from conscientious objectors were considered by the Midlands Tribunal from 20th December to 12th March inclusive; how many were accepted; how many were declined; and of the number declined how many applicants based their objection upon grounds other than religious.

Sir W. Monckton

Seventy-one applications were considered, of which 38 were accepted and 33 rejected. I am not in a position to classify cases according to whether the objection was based on religious grounds or not.

Mr. Yates

Has the Minister's attention been drawn to a letter, which has received great prominence, which appeared in the Birmingham Press from the Warwickshire Society of Friends, in which it was stated that if it were known how unfairly the conscientious objection clause was being interpreted, there would be a great number of protests in view of the large number of applications which have been declined; and will he look into that matter?

Sir W. Monckton

If the hon. Gentleman will be good enough to let me see the document to which he referred, I will look into it.

Mr. A. Fenner Brockway

While recognising the very great difficulty of tribunal members in judging conscience, will the right hon. and learned Gentleman look at the proceedings of this Midland Tribunal and review the question of whether the present personnel is appropriate for the purpose?

Sir W. Monckton

I have no reason to suppose that there is any difficulty about the tribunal there. I have investigated the results and I find that they are about the same as in other districts; but if there is some specific point, perhaps the hon. Gentleman will put it down on the Order Paper.

Mr. T. Driberg

When the right hon. and learned Gentleman says that he cannot answer the last part of the Question on the Order Paper, ought he not to look into the discrepancies between the practices of the various tribunals, some of which do recognise objections on other than religious grounds, for instance, political grounds in the broadest sense of that word?

Sir W. Monckton

The matter depends on the word "conscience" in the Act, and I have no power to determine whether that should be based on religious, political or moral grounds. It is a duty given to the tribunal by the Act, and I do not think that it would be wise for me to try to interfere.

4. Mr. Yates

asked the Minister of Labour if he is aware of the increasing number of cases when local tribunals for conscientious objectors have declined applications for registration upon moral, humanitarian or political grounds; and if he will take powers to issue regulations governing the course to be adopted in both local and appellate tribunals when considering such cases.

Sir W. Monckton

No, Sir. The National Service Acts deliberately placed on the independent tribunals the sole responsibility for deciding these cases. In my view it would be a retrograde step to ask Parliament to empower me to fetter their judgment by regulations.

Mr. Yates

Is the Minister aware that I attended this tribunal on 12th March and I heard statements made very clearly—at least four statements—that the only conscientious objections that Parliament recognises are those based on religious grounds; and three other separate statements clearly showing that neither on moral, humanitarian nor political grounds does Parliament recognise conscientious objections. That statement was made by the chairman of the tribunal in my presence, and I ask the Minister seriously to consider this matter?

Sir W. Monckton

That is a different matter, of which I have no knowledge. If the hon. Gentleman will bring it to my notice, I will take it into account with the other matter which he asked me to look into.

Mr. Charles Doughty

In view of the duties properly carried out by the vast majority of the young people of this country, will my right hon. and learned Friend not encourage in any way those people who try to "dodge the column"?

Mr. George Thomas

While we appreciate the arduous task of those on these tribunals who have to judge, and that many grievous injustices made will take place where earnest people do not base their objections on religion at all, may I ask the Minister if he will give the utmost sympathy to the requests that have come from this side of the House?

Sir W. Monckton

I would venture to point out that Parliament appreciated the difficulties of these tribunals to the extent of making an appellate tribunal available, and did not make the Minister an appellate tribunal from that tribunal.

Mr. E. Shinwell

In view of the question put by the hon. Member for Surrey, East (Mr. Doughty), would not the right hon. and learned Gentleman agree that the law does contain the conscience provision depending of course, upon the interpretation placed upon the law by the tribunals concerned; but that it is not an offence for a person who has conscientious scruples to appear before a tribunal? Will he make that quite clear to his hon. Friend?

Sir W. Monckton

The right hon. Gentleman is quite right. The law says that where a conscientious objection is upheld in the view of the tribunal which the law has laid down, that is a valid answer. I am only trying to point out to hon. Members how difficult is the task of tribunals in deciding what is a conscientious objection, and how reluctant I am to interfere when I have not been told by Parliament so to do.