HL Deb 04 December 1888 vol 331 cc976-80

Order of the Day for the Third Reading, read.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 3a."—(The Earl Spencer.)


said, he wished to address a few words to their Lordships before the Bill was read a third time. It was said that the measure was the result of a compromise effected in the other House and that it was to settle a question which had been long and unhappily discussed. He held, however, that it would not settle the matter, because the subject was one which was not capable of being compromised. They could not compromise a question of religious principle, and it so happened that religious principle was the life and soul of this matter. He thought it would be a dangerous thing to admit the principle into legislation that a person who had a personal religious aversion to a law should not be required to obey it. If personal religious aversion to pay taxes ensured exemption, the consequences would be serious to the Exchequer. He could not, and it was evident that their Lordships did not agree with the Most Rev. Primate on this point. He would have preferred to make the Bill one for Members of Parliament only, and that all should be required to affirm, but his suggestion was rejected on a former occasion. In his opinion the Bill, as it now stood, will fail to give satisfaction on either side. On the side of the Christian man the arrangement was not satisfactory, and those who had moved first in the matter were of opinion that it was not a good settlement of the law, recognizing as it did the odious principle of inquiry into the religious opinion of the individual. The Bill would leave nothing settled; it was nothing more than an armed truce. Regarding the Bill as a serious calamity and a retrograde step in civilization, he should object to its being read a third time.

Motion agreed to; Bill read 3a accordingly.

On Question? That the Bill do pass,


said, he rose to move an Amendment, but in doing so did not seek to narrow the effect of the Bill. When the measure was introduced in "another place" by Mr. Bradlaugh, the form of the first clause was this— Every person objecting to be sworn shall be at liberty to make a solemn affirmation instead of an oath. That was clear language which he would be prepared to accept, in order, once and for all, to terminate this controversy. But it was said there was undue generality in those words, and that danger was likely to arise if they were sanctioned by the Legislature. After some difficulty, what was called a compromise in regard to the language of the Bill was suggested. The Solicitor General and Mr. Bradlaugh were the negotiators, and the very objectionable language of the Bill as it now stood was said to be the invention of the Solicitor General. It had been urged that the compromise ought not now to be interfered with in the slightest degree. Compromise with whom? The Government neither resisted, nor supported, nor took up the Bill; and if a compromise on a question of that kind could be admitted, he denied the right of the House of Commons to bind their Lordships' House by it. The words, however, that were substituted for Mr. Bradlaugh's original words were— Every person, upon objecting to be sworn, and stating as the ground of such objection either that he has no religious belief, or that the taking of an oath is contrary to his religious belief, shall be permitted to make his solemn affirmation. The words to which he now took exception were those in which it was said that the person coming in to take the benefit of the Bill was to state "that he had no religious belief." Those words could only mean that the person to be excused from taking the oath was on every occasion when he took the benefit of the Act to blazon out to the public that he was an Atheist—a total disbeliever in the existence of Almighty God or of any Supreme Being having power to punish here or hereafter. There could be no doubt of the meaning of the words objected to. They must be taken to mean absolute infidelity, for our wise Common Law received the oath of every man, no matter what his country or his creed, or in what form he desired to be sworn, provided that he believed in the existence of some Supreme Being having power to punish here or hereafter. The Bill was not necessary save for absolute Atheists, and he did not object to relieve them, but he did strongly condemn the manner in which it was proposed to do so. The Amendment, therefore, which he desired to move was in Clause 1, lines 6 and 7, to leave out "that he has no religious belief or," and in line 7, after "belief," to insert "or to his moral convictions." The clause would then run— Every person, upon objecting to be sworn, and stating as the ground of his objection either that the taking of an oath is contrary to his religious belief or to his moral convictions, shall be permitted to make his solemn affirmation. He apprehended that that alteration would not reduce the relief given by the Bill, while it would have a very great effect in taking from the face of the measure those most objectionable words, "he has no religious belief," which might force persons who were unbelievers to become also hypocrites, and go through the form of taking an oath attesting a Supreme God in whose existence they did not believe in order to avoid the obloquy of publicly declaring themselves to be Atheists. He might be asked what was the meaning of "moral convictions." The words contemplated the case of everyone who was convinced by moral reasoning that the taking of an oath was an objectionable or bad act. He begged to move his Amendment.

Amendment moved, in Clause 1, lines 6 and 7, leave out ("that he has no religious belief or"), and in line 7, after ("belief"), insert ("or to his moral convictions.")—(The Lord Fitzgerald.)


said, he felt almost ashamed to trouble their Lordships again on this Bill. No doubt the Bill did not originally contain the words to which his noble and learned friend objected. They were accepted in another place from the other side, and inserted because it was believed by the promoters of the measure that it would otherwise have been impossible to carry it through the House. The noble and learned Lord said their Lordships were not bound by the compromise arrived at in the other House. He quite agreed in that, but he submitted that they ought to take into consideration the views strongly expressed by men on both sides in favour of the Bill as it now stood; and if such an alteration as the noble and learned Lord now proposed would cause the Bill to be lost in another place, he thought that although they were not legally bound by the compromise that had been made, they were morally required to have some regard to it. He shared the opinion of his noble and learned friend, that the views of a person without religious belief should not be blazoned forth, but there were many persons who wished that those views should be known before a man took part in an act in a Court of Justice. He thought a nice point might arise as to the meaning of the words "moral conviction." He did not know what might be said as to the legal interpretation of the word "moral." Had the word an independent signification of its own, and could anything be moral which was not religious? He was afraid an argument of that kind might be raised, and then the whole object of the Bill would be lost, and those persons who had no religious belief would be excluded as they had hitherto been under the present state of the law. In those circumstances, he must appeal to their Lordships, without labouring the argument any farther, to resist the Amendment of his noble and learned Friend, and allow the Bill now to pass in the form in which it came from the Lower House.

Amendment negatived; Bill passed.