HL Deb 17 February 1902 vol 103 cc136-49

Order of the day for the Second Beading, read.


My Lords, in moving the Second Reading of this Bill I cannot refrain from expressing my pain and surprise at the way in which my efforts have been received by the Government. I was under the impression that I was doing the Government a good turn. I proposed to remedy what is recognised upon all sides to be a serious defect in the Vaccination Act of 1898; but, instead of supporting me, as I imagined would be the case, they have issued a whip against me and brought down their followers to reject the measure. In spite of this fact, I am unable to believe in the opposition of certain members of the Government—namely, the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack, the Under Secretary of State for War, and the Under Secretary of State for India. My measure is one of extreme simplicity. It proposes merely to repeal the conscientious objection clause of the Act of 1898. I do not think there is any necessity to enlarge upon the advantage of vaccination. To my mind, one of the most convincing testimonies in its favour is that in times of epidemic like the present the anti-vaccinator is silent, and, if current reports arc to be believed, instead of propagating his pernicious doctrine, occasionally utilizes the opportunity in order to get vaccinated himself. I do not believe that there is any sympathy in any part of the House with the person, known as the conscientious objector. If sympathy has occasionally been expressed for him on public platforms, I believe it to be sympathy of a purely platonic kind, for many of those who have advocated his cause have insisted on their own households being vaccinated and have been vaccinated themselves. I believe the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack has gone even further, and caused all the officials in the Law Courts under his control to be vaccinated, and I am not aware that his Lordship has made any exception in favour of the conscientious objector or anybody else. I am convinced that those persons who were responsible for the creation of the conscientious objector are thoroughly ashamed of him. Nobody likes him, and many hate him. Why not, therefore, take this opportunity of getting rid of him? If the Government are not willing to take this opportunity of getting rid of him, it can only be for the reason that they are afraid of him. We know that conscience makes cowards of us all, and the conscientious objector seems to have stricken with terror the strongest Government of modern times.

I will recall the circumstances under which the conscientious objector came into existence. In 1898 the Government of the day, which was practically indistinguishable from the present Government, brought in a most admirable Bill, which was introduced in the other House and met with an excellent reception. It is important to notice that at this early period no mention was made of the conscientious objector. So far from considering him, the President of the Local Government Board made use of these remarkable words in introducing the Bill— He was unable to accept the recommendation of the Commission that anyone who conscientiously objected to vaccination might escape the obligation by simply making a statutory declaration to that effect. The effect of that would be to make the law a dead letter whenever people chose to do so. Nothing could be more unfortunate or injurious to the community. This unlucky Minister little knew what fate had in store for him. On the Second Reading he maintained that same position, and the Bill passed that stage by a majority of ten to one. It was referred to a Standing Committee, afterwards returning to the House of Commons. Then, for some reason which has never been explained, owing to the opposition of a few Members on the Liberal side of the House, the Government in the most inexplicable manner, suddenly gave way and capitulated to the anti-vaccination faction. The President of the Local Government Board was thrown over, and, in spite of the opposition of a small knot of what I hope I may call consistent Conservatives the Bill was rushed through the House of Commons by the aid of the official Members of the two Parties.

When the Bill made its appearance in your Lordships' House it was naturally attacked in consequence of this particular clause. The clause was strongly opposed, and it was defended by the Government spokesmen with all the exaggerated vigour of the newly converted. The recommendation, of the Royal Commission—which, by the way, was not a unanimous recommendation—was largely quoted; but, if so much value was attached to this particular recommendation of the Commission, how was it that it was never mentioned in the earlier stages of the Bill? After all, the most important person in the Government is the Prime Minister, and we know well enough what the opinion of the noble Marquess is on the subject of Royal Commissions. I believe that he considers them to be frivolous and irresponsible bodies, and I know, as a fact, that on Wednesday next the Government are going to oppose a Bill in another place founded on the recommendation of the Chairman of a recent Royal Commission—my noble friend the Secretary for Scotland. So much then for the recommendations of Royal Commissions. If noble Lords care to take the trouble to read the debate which took place on the Act of 1898, it will be seen that no single independent or unofficial person supported the conscientious objection clause, with the one notable exception of Lord Lister, who, I think I may say without offence, appeared to feel his position somewhat acutely, and evidently entertained considerable doubt as to whether he ought to support it. He eventually consented to do so on the understanding that a Re-Vaccination Bill was subsequently to be introduced. On that point, Lord Harris, who represented the Local Government Board at that time, gave this assurance— The noble Lord (Lord Lister) indicated that he had already approached members of Government, and had been encouraged to hope that the Government would consider the desirability of introducing a Bill next year with the object of encouraging re-vaccination. If the noble Lord had not indicated that fact I had authority to say so myself. Of course, it is impossible to attempt to introduce a Bill this year, but the Government are prepared to consider during the recess whether it is not possible to bring in a Bill next year to encourage re-vaccination. That comes as near to a pledge to introduce a Re-Vaccination Bill as any- thing could be. But what is the prospect? The other day the Government were asked whether there was any intention of introducing a Re-Vaccination Bill, and the answer was "Decidedly not." Therefore I am afraid I must deliberately state that the support of Lord Lister for this particular clause was obtained on entirely insufficient grounds. Your Lordships will remember what happened. On a division this particular clause was defeated, and the Bill again went down to the House of Commons. On the Commons disagreeing with the Amendment, the Government in your Lordships' House, by the most frantic efforts, brought down their official supporter and rushed the Bill through on August 12th by a majority of ten. That is the history of the creation of the conscientious objector.

It is not very difficult to forecast the line of argument in opposition to the Bill which will be taken up by the noble Lord who will speak on behalf of the Government. I have no doubt that he will again refer me to the recommendation of the Royal Commission, but I think I have already disposed of that argument. He will probably say, with perfect justice, that the Act has only two more years to run; and he will also urge—and this is a better argument—that in consequence of this Act vaccination throughout the country has largely increased. That is a fact which I am not going to deny, but, if the Government say that vaccination has largely increased owing to the conscientious objector section, then I part company with them altogether. What I maintain is, that if a larger proportion of the population are vaccinated now than in former years, it is not in consequence of this section but in spite of it; and I further contend that if this section had never been put into the Act there would be tens of thousands of children vaccinated at the present moment who remain unvaccinated and a source of danger to the community at large. The real defence of this section on behalf of the Government resolves itself into this, that it must be a wise provision because so few people take advantage of it. In my opinion that is one of the most extraordinary arguments ever urged in defence of any measure. You might just as well introduce a Bill to promote polygamy and then say it was a success because the majority of the male population preferred to live with only one wife.

The Local Government Board are very proud of the fact that in the six months following the passing of the Act of 1898 there were something like 203,000 certificates of exemption granted. To my mind these particular figures have no value at all, because it is perfectly obvious what happened. The anti-vaccinators were so delighted at the Government capitulation that they showed their gratitude by bringing up all their children under 14 years of age and getting the official imprimatur that they were the children of conscientious objectors. The figures with regard to 1898 are of no value at all on that account. The presumption is, as I have said, that every anti-vaccinator who had an unvaccinated child under 14 got it exempted. The years to which we must refer are the subsequent years. I find that in 1899 there were 32,341 exemptions granted; in 1900 39,839; and for the first six months of 1901 19,252. The figures for the latter half of last year are not available. It will be apparent to everybody, from those figures, that considerably over 100,000 children born during the last three years have not been vaccinated in consequence of this particular clause.

Now, as to the administration of this Act. I do not know what may be the experience of your Lordships, but I hardly ever came across a single magistrate who has a word to say in favour of the clause. I think anyone who reads the debates which took place on this Act will admit that it was not the intention of the Government to make the path of the anti-vaccinator easy, but that, on the contrary, the clause was rather designed to put difficulties in his way. All I can say is that the effect is the exact opposite; and noble Lords who attend petty sessions will, I am sure, bear me out in what I say. Providing the parent who applies for an exemption certificate in respect of his child has just sufficient sense to gabble the inanity which is put into his mouth by the Act, it is impossible to refuse the exemption; but if, on the other hand, he is foolish enough to adduce any sort of proof—to assert, for instance, that his grandmother died of vaccination, or that some relation of his sister-in-law's lost a child through vaccination—then it is possible for an expert magistrate to refuse the application. On those points I would refer your Lordships to the dialogues which take place between conscientious objectors and London magistrates. But, after all, what is a conscientious objector? A conscientious objection is presumably founded upon religious scruples. If a man had to bring an ecclesiastical authority—a clergyman, a minister, or even a deacon—in order to prove that there was something in his religion, which was an obstacle to his believing in vaccination, there would be some sense in it. So far as I know, the only really conscientious objectors to vaccination are to be found in India, where vaccination is against the native religion; but nobody has ever proposed to make vaccination optional in India. I should like to remind your Lordships that many kinds of objections of a more or less conscientious kind are entertained by numerous classes in this country. The pro-Boers, for instance, might conscientiously object to pay the extra taxation caused by the war. I have no doubt that my right rev. friend the Lord Bishop of Hereford strongly objects to the taxation imposed on him in consequence of the war.


As the right rev. Prelate is not in the House, I hope the noble Lord will not credit him with opinions which he may not hold.


Well, if I were in his position, entertaining the opinions that he does, I certainly should object to the extra taxation. There are also persons who entertain a conscientious objection to employing doctors, and who are recognized as the "Peculiar People," but their objections are not considered. There are also people who object to the muzzling of dogs, but what attention is paid to them? The privilege is granted simply and solely to the obstinate minority who see no harm in putting the community to the risk of incurring a loathsome disease. I do not wish to exaggerate the case. I do not claim for a moment that if the House accepted my Bill the present epidemic would cease, but I do maintain that the presence of a large number of unvaccinated children is a danger to the community. Either you believe in vaccination or you do not. Presumably the Government does believe in it. At all events, the noble and learned Lord on the Woolsack believes in it. I ask the Government to repeal this section because it is both mischievous and retrograde—mischievous because it allows the doctrines of a few fanatics to override the convenience of the majority, and retrograde because I do not believe there is in history a case where the Government of a civilised country, having once made vaccination compulsory, has ever interfered with that provision and made it optional. This is not a political question, although the Government have issued a whip against me. There is no constitutional question involved; it is merely a question of common sense. I therefore appeal to noble Lords who believe in vaccination to exercise their independent judgment and vote for the Second Reading of my Bill.

Moved, "That the Bill be now read 2a." —(Lord Newton.)


My Lords, as one who took part in the debate in 1898, I rise to support this Bill. I am sure that if the Bill of 1898 had come before the House at an earlier period of the session, your Lordships would have insisted on the exclusion of the particular section which has reference to the conscientious objector instead of agreeing with the Commons in their Amendment. The Bill contained two great improvements in the law, one being that the vaccination officer should attend the homes instead of compelling poor people to bring their children probably a long distance to the vaccination station, and the other, that pure lymph should be provided. It is evident to me that the increase in vaccination during recent years has been due to those two improvements, and not to the clause which brought into existence the conscientious objector, and which I hold to be a great danger to the community. I cordially support the Second Reading of the Bill.


I must ask your Lordships to reject this Bill. The noble Lord who brought it forward gave statistics covering several years, but he might have gone a little further back with his dates. The number of those who escaped vaccination in 1885 was 136,000, and in 1896, 350,000; while in 1899 the number had fallen to 32,000, so that you will see that the Act of 1898 had some effect. The noble Lord was perfectly right in saying that nobody would question the advantages of vaccination, and from what I have observed—I have seen many noble Lords with their arms in slings—most of your Lordships are in its favour. The noble Lord made a point as to the time at which the Act of 1898 was brought in. It was originally passed in the House of Commons. This particular clause was negatived by the Standing Committee of that House, but in view of the obvious feeling of the House, it was re-introduced on the Report Stage. The Bill came up to your Lordships in that form, and this House struck out the clause by 40 votes to 38. The Bill went back to the House of Commons, who, by a majority of 90, re-inserted the clause. It then came back to your Lordships' House, and the noble Marquess at the head of the Government suggested that if the House of Lords insisted upon their objection to the clause, the Bill would disappear and be lost altogether. The noble Marquess said— If you pass this Bill you will give an experimental trial to those improved processes by which you hope the popular illusion will be dissipated. This Bill has only two more years to run, for it expires at the end of 1903. The Bill now, before the House would not come into operation until the beginning of the same year, so that its passing would mean only the difference of a year. When the period for the expiration of the Act arrives, a new Bill will, no doubt, have to be considered, and I urge your Lordships not to do anything hastily now, but to wait until the experiment has been thorough, and the popular illusion of the conscientious objector dissipated, before debating the subject again.


My Lords. I confess that I have seldom listened to a weaker defence than that which has just been made by the noble Lord who represents the Local Government Board. Surely, in view of the present terrible condition of the smallpox epidemic it would be more logical to abolish the conscientious objection clause at once than wait till the expiry of the Act of 1898. It is an absurdity to allow a parcel of fanatics who may have objections, conscientious possibly, but in every sense idiotic and certianly most dangerous to the rest of society, to propagate and spread broadcast a terrible disease. This is a matter of common sense. There is no shade of argument. No argument, in fact, has been offered by the Government against the Bill. In the name of common sense I urge your Lordships to pass the measure. There is no other country in the world which allows any one to evade an Act of Parliament for conscientious reasons. You might just as well allow a criminal to have the option of a fine or imprisonment.


My Lords, the point to which I wish to address myself is, what is the exact issue before your Lordships at this moment? The Bill, the Second Reading of which the noble Lord has to-day moved, proposes to repeal a clause of the Act of 1898. That clause will, by the natural efflux of time, unless it is renewed by an Act of the Legislature, expire at the end of 1903. The proposal in the Bill is to repeal that clause on January 1st of the same year. Therefore the issue raised by the noble Lord's Bill is simply whether the conscientious objection clause shall expire at the end of 1903, or whether it shall be brought to an end at the 1st of January next. I should like to make my own position, and, I believe, the position of the Government, quite clear in the matter of vaccination. Personally, I am a firm believer in vaccination, as, I believe, every member of the Government is, and I have testified to that belief by myself submitting to re-vaccination. Perhaps I may be a less partial witness in this matter if I remind your Lord- ships that I am responsible for the enforcing of the law with regard to vaccination in Scotland, a country which does not know the conscientious objector, and manages to get on very well without him. In 1898, as Lord Kenyon has already told the House, the number of children believed to be escaping vaccination was 350,000 out of from 930,000 to 940,000 born. Therefore, in that year a very alarming state of affairs existed. It was absolutely impossible to enforce the law with regard to compulsory vaccination. It was, in fact, rapidly becoming a dead letter.

You may say that people ought to be vaccinated, and you may propose, if you choose, to put them in prison for not having their children vaccinated; but, in a country governed as this country is, it is impossible to enforce the law if a large proportion of the people have made up their minds that the law is wrong. In 1898, the Government found themselves face to face with what was rapidly becoming a dangerous agitation. I did not agree with the basis of that agitation, and would gladly have endeavoured to put it down with a strong hand, if that had been possible, but the fact remains that from various complex causes, there was a strong rebellion against the law as it stood, and it was absolutely necessary to do something in the circumstances in which we were placed. No question of the value of vaccination in itself need be raised tonight The fact upon which I am relying at the moment is this, that that value was not recognised by a considerable section of the people of this country. There was a state of rebellion against the law, arising partly, I think, from the carelessness with which vaccination had been administered in some cases, and partly duo to a well-planned agitation. Two or three things were done by the Act of 1898. The vaccination officers were instructed and empowered to administer vaccination on different lines; the obligation to take children to vaccination stations was, if not abolished, largely modified; the public vaccinators were empowered, and paid, to attend at the residence of the parent; and the practice of arm-to-arm vaccination was got rid of and purer lymph supplied. It was hoped that by the operation of these and other causes, the prejudice against vaccination would die away.

I believe that the prejudice—the false prejudice, as I think it is—has largely tended to die away during the past three years. At the time the Act was passed, a period of grace was believed to be necessary, during which, these prejudices could be combated, and popular opinion changed. I am authorised by the President of the Local Government Board to say that, so far as is known, the administration of vaccination under the law, as it now stands, has been a great deal more successful than it was before. I do not go so far as to say that this is owing entirely to the liberty given to the conscientious objector. It is enough for my present purpose to say that the Act of 1898 has, on the whole, been highly successful, that it is tending to be more successful, and that I should look with great concern on any decision of this House which would upset, so to speak, a compromise come to in 1898, a year before its natural time, as likely to encourage prejudice and agitation rather than to allay them. My noble friend Lord Pirbright, seemed to think that we should take advantage of the feeling which has been aroused by the present epidemic to make vaccination absolutely compulsory, but I did not understand him to suggest that the epidemic was in any way connected with the legislation of 1898.


I think it has been materially increased by the conscientious objection clause.


I do not think it possible to make out that the present epidemic is in any way connected with the conscientious objection clause, because those who took advantage of the clause could not have been more than 14 years of age in 1898, and of those who have been born since only an average of some 32,000 or 33,000 a year have availed themselves of this provision. To make out that the present epidemic is in any way connected with the legislation of 1898, it would be necessary to prove that only those, or mainly those, who had taken advantage of the clause, were victims of the epidemic. I am authorised by the President of the Local Government Board to say that vaccination in London is, on the whole, better enforced than in any other part of England. People who are against vaccination might make an argumentative use of that admission, and ask why, if London is better protected, it has this epidemic. That is due to a variety of causes, which, if that question were raised, it might be necessary to examine; but I venture to say that there is not the slightest evidence to prove that either this epidemic, or any other occurring since the Act of 1898 was passed, was due to the legislation of that year. Before I sit down I would again urge your Lordships to remember that the only issue before the House is whether this particular clause shall expire on the first or the last day of 1903.


As I have been repeatedly referred to I think it would be discourteous if I did not say why I am unable to vote with the noble Lord, although if we were discussing the subject for the first time I am by no means prepared to say I should disagree with him. This is only a demonstration, and one which would be mischievous, having regard to the time at which it could come into operation. With regard to one statement of the noble Lord, I would observe that I have no power to make an order that all persons employed at the Law Courts should be vaccinated, and I have made no such order.


I beg the noble and learned Lord's pardon. Then I must have been misinformed.


I do not say that if I had such power I should not use it. But I did intimate that, in a place over which I had some control, and to which numbers of people were bound to go, those in office were no longer free to choose whether they should be infected or not, and I stated that, although I had no power to order vaccination, persons who were not vaccinated or re-vaccinated should no longer be placed where they could become a source of contamination. That I have done, and I take full responsibility for it. The Act of 1898 was passed as an experiment, and the experiment will come to an end two years hence. I sympathise in a great measure with the noble Lord who introduced the Bill, but I hope your Lordships will not unnecessarily interfere with the compromise which was made in 1898, and depart from that kind of understanding without which I believe it would be very difficult to conduct public business in this country.


My Lords, as the noble Lord who is in charge of this Bill seems inclined to divide the House upon it, I should like to explain my reasons for voting against it. I may say that I am one of those, who, in a time of profound peace, belong to the band who wish success to their arms. Personally, I am very strongly in favour of vaccination, and, like many noble Lords, I have gone through the not very agreeable process of re-vaccination, but I feel most strongly, however much I may desire vaccination, that it is impossible in this country to carry out a law to which an enormous number of the people are opposed. This was most ably expressed by the noble Marquess the Prime Minister in the House in 1900, and I think his speech was most convincing on that point. The noble Lord who moved the Bill spoke of having been on the Bench when parents were applying for certificates of exemption under this clause. I also have had to perform the disagreeable duty of deciding upon these applications, and I may say that the strength of the feeling displayed by objectors has been to me a perfect revelation. As to the statement that the increase of the epidemic in London is, in some measure, due to the amendment of the Act of 1898, I would venture to point out that in London alone there must have been hundreds and thousands of children who were not vaccinated before that Act was passed. It is an immense advantage to secure a period of peace, such as we have obtained by this Act, in order to see whether the feeling I have referred to may not change on this subject. There is just a possibility that if this experiment goes on as satisfactorily as it has begun, a considerable change of opinion may come about, and it may be possible to take an advance in the direction taken by Scotland, where compulsory vaccination is in force.

On Question, their Lordships divided—Contents, 32; Not-contents, 52.

Rutland, D. Dunboyne, L. Pirbright, L.
Wellington, D. Ebury, L. Poltimore, L.
Bradford, E. Gerard, L. Robertson, L.
Bartrey, E. Glenesk, L. Rowton, L.
Leven and Melville, E. Kelvin, L. Sherborne, L.
Malmesbury, E. Kilmarnock, L. (E. Erroll.) Shute, L. (V. Barrington.)
Hardinge, V. Lilford, L. Southampton, L.
Ashcombe, L. Macnaghten, L. Stewart of Garlies, L. (E.
Belhaven and Stenton, L. Monckton, L. (V. Galway.) Galloway.)
Blythswood, L. [Teller.] Teynham, L.
Colville of Culross, L. Muskerry, L.
Crofton, L. Newton, L. [Teller.]
Halsbury, E. (L.Chancellor.) Romney, E. Harris, L.
Devonshire, D.I(L. President.) Shaftesbury, E. James, L.
Norfolk. D. (E. Marshal.) Spencer, E. Kenyon, L.
Lansdowne, M. Stanhope, E. Lawrence, L.
Ripon, M. Vane, E. (M. Londonderry.) Lindley, L.
Buckinghamshire, E. Verulam, E. Manners, L.
Carrington, E. Waldegrave, E. [Teller.] Northbourne, L.
Chesterfield, E. Falmouth, V. Rathmore, L.
Coventry, E. Knutsford, V. Ribblesdale, L.
Denbigh, E. Balfour, L. Sandhurst, L.
Dudley, E. Belper, L. Sinclair, L.
Hardwicke, E. Boyle, L. (E. Cork and Orrery.) Somerton, L. (E. Normanton.)
Howe, E. Chelmsford, L. Tweeddale, L, (M. Tweeddale.)
Lonsdale, E. Churchill, L. [Teller.] Tweedmouth, L.
Lucan, E. Cottesloe, L. Wemyss, L. (E. Wemyss.)
Morley, E. De Mauley, L. Wrottesley, L.
Northbrook, E. Denman, L.
Onslow, E. Douglas, L. (E. Home.)