§ LORD PARMOOR had the following Question on the Paper—
§ To ask His Majesty's Government whether they will appoint a Court or Commission to consider the case of conscientious objectors who are subject to successive terms of imprisonment.
§ The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I desire at the outset to Call attention to the limited form of this Question. The form has been carefully considered. I wish for "a Court or Commission to consider the case of conscientious objectors who are subject to successive terms of imprisonment." At the present time, as far as I can gather—and I believe, the number is accurate—there are 1,300 conscientious objectors in prison; and about 1,000 of these, or about two-thirds of the total, are in prison for the second, third, fourth, or fifth term of imprisonment. Therefore what I have to say has reference to all those who are undergoing a second or any subsequent successive term of imprisonment. There are 419 serving a second term of imprisonment, 489 serving a third, 34 serving a fourth, and 4 serving a fifth term of imprisonment. I may say that I have supplied to the noble Earl opposite the statistics to which I desire to refer in addressing your Lordships. The noble Earl, therefore, has had full notice of what they are.
§ I do not seek—and I want also to make this clear—to raise all the difficult and complex questions which do arise when a conflict comes between the mandate of the State and the conscience of the individual. History, I think, shows—I do not wish to say anything more than this—that you might there embark upon an interminable controversy. I should regard any general principle on a point of this kind as one of the unsolved riddles in the problem of human evolution. Therefore I do not propose to embark upon a complex topic of that kind. What I say is this—that the real solution of this question is that it should be approached in a reasonable, rational, and fair-minded spirit. If I might refer to what was said by the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, the other night, and by his Grace the Archbishop of York 966 as regards the spirit with which industrial problems should be approached, I would urge in my favour that the same spirit, so admirably illustrated in their speeches, should be brought to the solution of this difficult problem.
§ I take my stand upon two matters. In the first place I shall appeal to the provisions of the Military Service Act itself, and I shall appeal to that Act not in a technical way as a lawyer, but from the point of view of statements made by responsible Ministers as regards the intentions of that Act during its progress through the Houses of Parliament. The other principle which I invoke is this. Assuming that an offence is committed where a conscientious objector is unable to obey the mandates of the State—assuming that, for the purpose of the present argument—then this principle conies into operation, that any punishment should be proportionate to the nature of the offence, and that, above all things, we ought to guard ourselves against anything in the nature of unnecessary or vindictive punishment in dealing with questions of conscience. I cannot accept the plea, which I think is sometimes put forward, that these considerations of principle do not apply under existing conditions. I take the other view. I think it is more important in times of national excitement that these carefully acknowledged principles of our Criminal Law should be safeguarded in a particular way; in other words, that the temptation to transgress these principles should be a reason why they should be in a rigid manner observed. One of the greatest reproaches of our criminal procedure in old days was that in a large number of instances the punishment was not discriminated to the character of the offence. I need not emphasise what I mean by that. But in modern days there has been a great amelioration and great progress, and especially in this direction—that no punishment ought to be inflicted which may lead to the permanent enfeeblement and debility, either of the mind or the body, of the person punished. I lay that down as the direction in which the better system of modern opinion has gone as regards criminal jurisdiction in this country.
§ Having said so much, I want your Lordships to consider what is really meant by successive terms of imprisonment. You will know that the maximum term of imprisonment which our law recognises is two 967 years—this is the maximum amount, the reason being that it is the maximum term which von can possibly impose without permanently enfeebling either the, mind or the body of the person punished. Of course, I am not talking about penal servitude; that is a different matter, I have no doubt many of your Lordships in different times, especially under the old county system, have been visitors to our gaols, if you have, I am sure the conviction will have been brought home to you that anything beyond this maximum term is nothing less than torture to the person upon whom it is inflicted.
§ There is an additional hardship as regards these successive terms of imprisonment upon conscientious objectors. It is very properly recognised that a man who has obeyed the prison rules and been of good behaviour should, after a certain period of imprisonment, get ameliorated conditions—a very humane and proper provision. But the result of successive terms of imprisonment is that you are constantly putting the man back to what I may call the worst conditions—poorest food, and solitary confinement. And by and by it will be necessary for me to call your attention to one or two actual illustrations of what has happened, in order to show that I am in no way exaggerating what has been, and is likely to be, the effect of these successive terms of imprisonment.
§ You cannot, of course, compare imprisonment as it is now with imprisonment in the old days. Most of us have sympathised with Bunyan for having to spend twelve years in prison, but he passed a large portion of that time with his friends, and constantly came to London as a preacher; while, during his second term of imprisonment he had that amount of liberty which is dear to an intellectual man, and was enabled to write the "Pilgrim's Progress." Then we have such a case—I hardly like to mention it, because it seems to me to be one of the severest criticisms of our judicial system—as that of the condemnation of Sir Walter Raleigh. But during his long term of imprisonment he was enabled to see his friends, and he acted as tutor and guardian, until the time of his death, to the Heir Apparent, Prince Henry. He also wrote what has become a classic in English literature. If I may say one word in regard to him who was one of the greatest patriots and Imperialists whom this country has ever known, in order to make him unpopular—I think it is one of the grossest 968 injustices in history—he was nominated as pro-Spaniard. I hope no one in this House will think that any one urging and hoping for justice in this matter can have any such opprobrious epithets applied to them.
§ Let us come to what was the intention of the Military Service Act. There are noble Lords in this House who know the matter at first hand, and I hope they will contradict me if I am wrong in what I say. I know that the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, will follow me in this debate; and in addition, there are here Lord Crewe, Lord Buckmaster, and others who are in a position to know what the intention was. I am not now speaking as a lawyer. That is a different matter. I am speaking as regards the true and real intention of the Act as it was explained during its passage through Parliament. Before I give one or two quotations to confirm what I say, let me see how the Act is working. It appears to me that the Act was properly based on the assumption that a conscientious objector might be a sane citizen, contrary to some suggestions which we hear made at the present moment. The Act provided that if he were a man of honest and genuine conviction—of course, if he were not that, no terms are too hard to describe a man who, not holding these opinions, tries to shelter himself behind them—if he were a man of honest and genuine conviction he was to be allowed exemption. I will say what that means in a moment. I know perfectly well that the exemption may be absolute, temporary, or conditional, but I want to add this saving clause as regards that. For some time, as we know, Tribunals were under the impression that they could not give absolute exemption. Subsequently—I think it was when Mr. Walter Long was at the Local Government Board—a Paper was issued telling them that they had this power. But what really happened was this. Although the exemption in terms is granted by the Act of Parliament, yet the granting of that exemption has been in almost every case—I will not put it too wide—accompanied by conditions which the persons who impose them (namely, the Tribunals) know to be impossible.
§ LORD PARMOOR
In a large number of cases. I do not wish to exaggerate. That is quite sufficient for the purpose of 969 my argument. These conditions were certainly found to be imposed in the case of all the persons for whom I am pleading at the present time. Let us see what was said when the Act was passing through the House of Commons. I have alluded to this quotation before, but I must refer to it now in order to make my argument complete. The then Prime Minister, Mr. Asquith, saidAll men whose objections to active military service are founded on honest conviction ought to be able, and will be able, to avail themselves of the exemptions which Parliament has provided.I think the contrary of that is notorious. I will not argue on the minor points one way or the other. But it is notorious that a large number of men of genuine conviction have not been able, in the words of the Prime Minister, to avail themselves of the exemptions of the Act, because the exemption has been accompanied by impossible conditions. Another Minister, Mr. Long, who was at that time, I think, at the head of the Local Government Board—at any rate he was conducting the Bill through the House of Commons—used words for which I ask your Lordships' particular attention He said:—I do not want, and nobody in the Government wants, the horror of men who for conscience sake are unwilling to serve, being thrown into gaol for along time.Now, there is one thing quite certain and there can be absolutely no question about this—that horror is going on at the present moment, and the Act which was intended to prevent it is operating to bring it about.
Quite apart from your Lordships' views as to whether conscientious objectors are right or wrong, whether they ought to have exemption or not, I ask your Lordships, Is there not more than ground for inquiry when an Act which was intended to prevent this horror has not had that effect? I cannot myself see what the answer to that position is. What did Lord Kitchener say? I will not quote any of the noble Lords who are present, because they can state their own views. Lord Kitchener, whose loss is such a great one, said—Genuine conscientious objectors will find themselves under the civil power.That is not the case at the present moment, The real cause of the difficulty is this that after a man has undergone a term of imprisonment he immediately finds him-self 970 under the military power and is subject to a fresh Court-Martial. If the Act is to be applied as it is at the present moment, then the only term to what is a terrible form of punishment, or imprisonment, is the duration of the war itself. I would urge this proposition that a man who, on the question of conscience, will not obey the mandate of has country is a civil offender. That is what he really is and he ought to be punished as such. I am not saying that he ought not to be punished. He ought to have an appropriate punishment. On the question of policy, I should have voted another way. But you must take the law as it stands; and, taking the law as it stands, I do not say that an appropriate punishment for the civil offence ought not to be imposed on conscientious objectors. But that is wholly and absolutely different from the successive terms of imprisonment to which I am objecting.
Let me quote from another eminent soldier who sat in this House, Earl Roberts, who, speaking with the authority of a Field-Marshal, told your Lordships that there was—an innate sense of right in every man which no man would forego, whatever the punishment or penalty the State sought to inflict.I have quoted the views of two great soldiers, and I think I may add that there is no man, I believe, in your Lordships' House who would desire a man of honest convictions to forswear his convictions. He may be punished for them—there have been martyrs enough in the world's history—but at this time of day and under our system he should be punished with an appropriate punishment and not with these conditions of successive imprisonment.
I have sent a large number of instances to the noble Earl opposite, but I will quote only one or two to show that the conditions to which I have called attention are not hypothetical but realities which are going on from hour to hour and from day to day. Let me take a case which has been quoted more than once. It is a very remarkable case that of Stephen Hobhouse. I do not quote it because he is a relative of my own, but because, being a relative, I can guarantee that the conditions which I state are absolutely accurate. He was a man of a devout Christian life, practically a minister of religion. He was a Quaker, and had for many years given up everything, even the succession to his father, who was a 971 well-known member of the House of Commons, in order to live a life of service to the poor, and was revered and beloved by all who knew him. He was at Eton and Balliol. In October, 1916, he was arrested, taken to camp, put into khaki, court-martialled, and imprisoned in Wormwood Scrubs. In May, 1917, after a second Court-Martial, he was returned to prison, and since August has been in solitary confinement in Exeter Gaol. I do not know whether your Lordships appreciate what solitary confinement means to an educated man. He has suffered severely from this prison treatment and solitude. He has suffered excessive pain from an internal malady, severe headaches, great fatigue and weakness, become greatly emaciated, his life is being ruined, and he is being enfeebled in mind and body. He was medically examined by the Army doctor in May, and found unfit for hard labour; nevertheless, he was given hard labour. He suffers much from cold, which has brought on severe pleurisy. His heart is affected—I will not read the words which are added by the lady who gives me this account as to her feelings at the cruelty of such treatment. Since I sent in the report to the noble Earl, this man has been visited by his wife, who noticed marked debility and general weakness. I put it to the House whether they think it right or just, or in accordance with the intention of the Act of Parliament, that conditions of this kind should go on.
The next instance I will give is that of Mr. Maurice L. Rowntree. These instances have been most carefully considered in order that they should be accurate. Mr. Rowntree is a Quaker, aged thirty-five, and a son of a Member of Parliament, Mr. Joshua Rowntree, well known to many members of your Lordships' House. He took his degree at Oxford, and accepted the post of lecturer at a Settlement for men and women who desired to continue their education at continuation classes. He went before the Tribunal—but I need not read that part of the case. He was arrested and sentenced by Court-Martial to two years hard labour, afterwards commuted to 112 days, and taken to Wormwood Scrubs. He is now serving his second sentence of two years hard labour in Armley Gaol, Leeds, where, according to the last report, he was in hospital. In other words, it is another instance of the horror of long imprisonment which Mr. 972 Long said the provision in this Act was intended to prevent.
Let me give another illustration, rather a different one—the case of Malcolm Sparkes, a member of the Society of Friends and a master builder. At the time of his arrest he was engaged—and I ask the noble Marquess (Lord Salisbury) to notice this—on a memorandum on industrial proposals which he was preparing at the request of the Government Reconstruction Committee. That work, of course, has had to be put on one side. The local Tribunal referred the case to the Pelham Committee on Work of National Importance, who agreed to accept this man's present occupation as coming under that head. It was, of course, work of the greatest national importance. The Tribunal, however, refused to confirm the decision of the Pelham Committee, and exempted him only from combatant service. This exemption was withdrawn by the Appeal Committee. He was arrested in January, 1917, court-martialled, sentenced to two years hard labour, and taken to Wormwood Scrubs, where he is undergoing his sentence at the present time. That is the case of a man wantonly withdrawn from about the most useful work that could be done, from a national standpoint, at the present time, and condemned to debility of mind and body.
Next let me take the case of Reginald Clifford Allen, a name fairly well-known in the recent literature of the country. He is twenty-eight years of age, of University College and Peterhouse, Cambridge. The local Tribunal dismissed his case. There is no possible doubt about the genuineness of his view. The Appeal Tribunal granted exemption conditionally on his undertaking work of national importance, but the Tribunal must have known perfectly well that it was a condition with which he was unable to comply. What was the result? He was arrested in 1916, court-martialled three times, and sentenced in turn to 112 days, six months, and then to two years imprisonment with hard labour—three years in all. While serving this last sentence he refused to do his work in prison, and in consequence he was for some time confined to his cell, put on bread and water diet, and refused all letters or visits. What has happened? The latest news we hear of Him is that he is now in hospital in Winchester Prison.
Then there is a very sad case. I do not want to bring forward too many cases, but 973 I must establish my proposition. This is the case of Herbert Levinson James. I refer to this case because, owing to what passed in prison, he became subject to galloping consumption and has died. I will read an extract from a letter written by a fellow-prisoner—He was working standing all day at lilting the mattresses of ship fenders, almost one of the hardest jobs in prison. He was in "A" Association Hall at Wormwood Scrubs along with me, and it was evident he was going into consumption during the last two weeks in January. In "A" Hall we all suffered terribly from cold, and the weather became arctic. Furthermore, the heating apparatus got out of order, and it took me all my time to keep well. It finished James. On March 1 he was suffering more acutely, and he was liberated. He travelled to Wakefield and broke down with hemorrhage, and has since died of consumption.His mother writes that there had never before been any sign of consumption in his family.
I will give one other illustration and then I will cease, for it is sad enough to give illustrations of this character. The case that I will now state is that of Saunders, who himself writes of the punishment that he suffered in Egypt. I will read his own words—I have been in chains and have got crucified to a tree full in this broiling sun nearly every morning and evening for live months; bread and water, and solitary confinement. I refused to do any work whatsoever, so I leave you to guess what five months alone in the cell doing nothing is like; I fainted and had to be driven away. This tropical sun and the chaining up nearly drove me mad. I went into hospital, and after I left hospital I had to do seven days chained up in the sun. Then, suddenly, I had the chains taken off, and I was released. I would rather die fifty times than go through the torture to which I was subjected.I ask your Lordships whether, if things of that kind are going on, there is not ground for a public Inquiry.
§ THE SECRETARY OF STATE FOR WAR (THE EARL OF DERBY)
I do not want to interrupt the noble Lord, but I think that, in justice, it ought to be stated that this was a man who had accepted military service, and was, as a matter of fact, a corporal at the time when he pleaded a conscientious objection.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
I only want to make it clear that it is a different case from those of men who clearly have a conscientious objection.
§ LORD PARMOOR
I accept what the noble Earl has said, I say at once that it is no part of my case to bring forward any illustration which can be questioned. I do not want to do that for a moment. I do not wish to do more than substantiate the general view which I put forward. There is, however, one other case of which I did not give the noble Earl notice, but which I desire to bring before you. I did not give notice of it to the noble Earl because. I have since had it brought to my attention. Perhaps he will tell me whether I am right as regards this ease, if he has any information in reference to it. It is the case of a man named Bishop.
§ LORD PARMOOR
I apologise to the noble Earl, but, as I have said, this case has come to my knowledge since I sent him particulars of the other cases. In this case the information I have is what has been written to me by his friends, who state that he was likely to "go off his head" owing to his treatment. In addition, I had a letter shown to me the other day from his father who said that his son had now gone into a lunatic asylum. I do not wish to press this case too much, because the noble Earl has not had an opportunity of looking into it. But the general principle surely is clear enough. I do not believe that any one in modern times, and under conditions of solitary confinement such as are now imposed, could without permanent detriment to mind and body undergo these successive terms of harsh imprisonment. That is sufficient for my purpose, and I think that the illustrations I have brought to your Lordships' notice substantiate what I plead for. I submit that they do constitute a case for inquiry.
On a former occasion I suggested, as a possible remedy which I thought might be applicable, that these people who are suffering, not as ordinary criminals, but who are suffering for honest conviction, might be treated as first-class or as second-class misdemeanants, or even might have what is known as treatment under 243A. I dare say the noble Earl will recognise what I mean. The Regulations to which I am referring were laid down by Mr. Winston Churchill when he was at the Home Office, and were really for dealing with cases of suffragettes who had not in any way been riotous or used violence. 975 At that time—there is no secret in this, I suppose—I had an opportunity of seeing the, Home, Secretary, who told me that the difficulty was that even if you desired to give this broader treatment there were not sufficient facilities for it; that is to say, there were not sufficient facilities in our prisons for such a large number of first-class misdeameanants. Of course, it is only a matter of making the provision. But I may add this—I think it is a point which no one can controvert—that if cases do come before an ordinary Judge at an ordinary Assize the principle is, in the case of political or conscientious offenders, that they are not dealt with as criminals, but that, if they are sentenced, it is either as first or as second-class misdeameanants. I realise that these men whose treatment we are discussing come before. Courts-Martial, and that this makes it a different matter altogether.
What is the remedy which I now suggest? It is contained in the words of my Question, in which I ask His Majesty's Government whether they will appoint a Court or Commission to consider these cases of men who are subject to successive terms of imprisonment. I want to be quite frank, and I will say that I do not mean a Departmental or an Inter-Departmental Commission. That is not what I want; I do not think that it would be satisfactory. What I want is that an outside, impartially-minded man of trustworthy authority should investigate the conditions to which I have called your Lordships' attention. Such a man could be found. I believe, that there have been Departmental Commissions in matters of this kind; but I am aiming at some one quite distinct from the official world, some one who is not influenced by the official atmosphere, who would be thoroughly impartial, and whose opinion would be respected, and. I hope accepted. I say that three or four men, or two or three men, of that kind should consider the conditions as I have pointed them out to your Lordships.
I am quite certain of this, that there is no member of your Lordships' House who could really desire the present conditions to continue. There may be different views as to how far they should be ameliorated: that is a different matter. But no member of your Lordships I louse desires to continue the horrors of prolonged imprisonment, the growing debility of mind and body, ultimately death or lunacy. That is; not 976 punishment; it is torture. The boast of this country is—and I hope we shall not lose the possession in times of national excitement—that it has a wholesome and clean sense of justice, impartially administered without vindictive feeling to all citizens, rich or poor, popular or unpopular. Because that, of course, is the danger of maladministration of criminal justice when you are dealing with an unpopular minority. They are unpopular. But the highest test of justice in the country is to insist that an unpopular minority should not be deprived of the leading principles of justice in our criminal jurisdiction.
§ THE MARQUESS OF LANSDOWNE
My Lords, if the noble Earl the Secretary of State does not desire to reply at once to the Question which has been put to him by the noble and learned Lord opposite, I should like to say two or three words with regard to it. But I hope that the Secretary of State will intervene early in this debate, and will be able to remove some of the misgivings which. I think, must remain in our minds after listening to the eloquent speech just delivered by the noble and learned Lord opposite. I have listened to several discussions on this question in your Lordships' House, and I think I may say that every one of them has left upon my mind a more or less painful impression. They have left on my mind the impression that, with the best possible intentions, we have not managed this business very successfully. In order to guard myself let me say before I go further that I entirely disclaim all sympathy with the conscientious objector as such. Conscientious objectors seem to me to be a very wrong-headed and perverse set of people, and to be a considerable danger to the community of which they are members. But, for all that, I desire earnestly that the resentment which their conduct inspires in many minds should not lead us to commit a bad blunder in dealing with them.
I readily admit the immense difficulty of the problem with which His Majesty's Government have to deal. The difficulty of the problem arises. I think, from this fundamental fact, that there is an infinite variety of type to be found in the race of conscientious objectors. You start at one end with the man who is a deliberate and ignominious shirker, and for whom no one has any compassion whatever. At the other end you have the deeply convinced and sincere person, a man of 977 the type of the gentleman to whom the noble and learned Lord referred just now, and who, whatever one may think of his opinions, is at any rate entitled to whatever respect is due to a thoughtful, educated, and conscientious man. Unfortunately, no scientific test is possible in order to determine to what particular class an individual belongs; there is no means of probing a man's conscience, and taking a kind of Rontgen-ray picture of the innermost recesses of his mind. And it is for that reason, among many others, that we must expect mistakes to be made and occasional miscarriages of justice.
The noble and learned Lord pointed to what seems to most of us one very distinct miscarriage. He told the House, and I shall believe it to be the case until the assertion is contradicted—in fact, the assertion cannot, I think, be contradicted—that in the early days of the Military Service Act of 1916—the Tribunals were under the impression that it was not open to them to grant absolute exemption to conscientious objectors. I do not think there can be any doubt about that, because the responsible Department found it necessary to issue a circular on the subject; and, more than that, Parliament found it necessary to insert in the second Military Service Act—the Act of May, 1016—a declaratory clause in order, so to speak, to keep the Tribunals straight upon that particular point. Now if that is so, it surely is fair to assume that in the interval between the month of January, 1916, when the first Act passed, and the month of May when the second Act passed, a certain number of men may have been dealt with by the Tribunals upon a mistaken assumption as to the condition of the law. Since the law was declared by the Act of May, 1916, it is notorious that a considerable number of men have been granted, on the grounds of conscientious objection, absolute and unconditional exemption from military service. What we, really should like to find out is whether there is any reason for believing that the eases of some of the men who are now undergoing punishment, who were sentenced in the early part of the year 1916 under a mistaken apprehension as to what the law really was, are indistinguishable from the cases of other men who since. May, 1916, have been granted unconditional exemption. That is the point which I think wants. 978 to be, investigated. Of course, if it can be shown that the cases are indistinguishable a prima facie case is at once set up for redress to those individuals who were punished. That is the first point.
The second issue seems to me to be this—and it was so clearly put to the House by the noble and learned Lord that I will refer to it only quite briefly. Is it not the case that at the present time successive sentences, cumulative sentences, are being passed upon the same individual for what is not really a new offence but a continuation of the original offence? The question is whether the renewal by these people of their resistance to military service, or to national service rendered in lieu of military service—whether their prolonged and obstinate resistance constitutes a new offence requiring a new punishment? That is really the question: and if that is answered in the affirmative, and if it is held that the man who comes out of prison and still objects either to wear uniform or to do national service is committing a fresh offence, then arises at once the question whether you are justified in giving him for the second offence the same kind of punishment as you gave for the first, and for the third as for the second, and so an ad infinitum—whether you can go on piling up punishment on punishment until the total of the load becomes greater than that which any human being can bear. Obviously the case is quite different from that of, let us say, a wife-beater or a garrotter. The wife-beater or the garrotter undergoes his two years, comes out of prison, and then proceeds to commit another robbery with violence or to beat his wife again. In that case it is a new and distinct offence, and requires a new and distinct punishment. When I suggest this to your Lordships I earnestly trust that I shall not be understood as desiring to obtain anything that could by any stretch of language be called exceptional treatment for these conscientious objectors. I want them to be dealt with on the merits and on the principles by which we are guided in the whole of our administration of the Criminal Law of this country.
There is another aspect of the case which I think we cannot wholly exclude from consideration. I ventured to say a moment ago that the real difficulty was that which we encountered when it was endeavoured to prove whether or not the 979 man's objection was conscientious. Is it not the case that when a man has submitted to two years of punishment he has, by that very act of submission, gone a great length towards proving that his is a conscientious objection? A man does not undergo the rigours of a two years sentence, under the conditions to which the noble and learned Lord referred, unless he really believes in the doctrine which he professes. I spoke of the rigour of the conditions. That seems to me to be a very serious part of the case. I do not know whether it is good law—I rather imagine that it is—but is it not common sense to hold that, when you inflict punishment for an offence, the punishment inflicted ought to be appropriate to the kind of offence committed? I take, again, the case of the garrotter or of the wife-beater. He has committed a savage, brutal, callous crime, and it is necessary to inflict upon him a punishment which will produce its effect upon his callous, brutal, and savage nature. But can anybody say that it is necessary to inflict the same kind of punishment upon a man who is imprisoned because he has a deep-rooted belief that he ought in no circumstances to submit either to military service or to the equivalent demanded in lieu of military service?
I will not go over the ground which was traversed by the noble and learned Lord when he gave your Lordships some illustrations—they were very graphic illustrations—of the kind of conditions under which some of these men are undergoing punishment in Dartmoor and other great prisons. But most of your Lordships must have seen statements published, apparently upon good authority, which go to show that in these prisons the prisoner is for a great part of his time in solitary confinement, shut off from all intercourse, or nearly all intercourse, with human beings; that he is employed upon unproductive work—the most galling and irksome kind of employment which you can impose upon an educated person. I see it is said that they are denied the use of writing materials, that the food is often of the worst description, that they are refused a sufficient amount of clean clothing. Altogether—unless these stories are inventions, and the noble Earl will tell us if they are—one can come to no other conclusion but that these people are receiving during their imprisonment the kind of treatment which may be appropriate for a man who has committed 980 a barbarous or abominable crime, but which one can scarcely consider equally appropriate to educated people guilty of the kind of offences with which these conscientious objectors are charged.
To sum up, there seem to me to be these three points to which I hope the noble Earl will address himself. First, is it the case that there are men now in prison who would not be in prison at all if the Tribunals had rightly understood the effect of the Act of January, 1916? Secondly, are His Majesty's Government satisfied that the plan of imposing successive and cumulative punishments, for what most people regard as the same offence, is a plan which can be defended in argument and which ought to be any longer pursued? Thirdly, are they satisfied that the treatment to which these conscientious objectors are subjected while in prison is the kind of treatment to which prisoners of this particular class ought properly to be subjected? I support the suggestion that has been made by the noble and learned Lord that some inquiry should be made, at any rate into these three aspects of the case; and I trust that the inquiry will be of a kind which will satisfy public opinion as to its entire sufficiency.
§ VISCOUNT BRYCE
My Lords, perhaps the noble Earl will allow me, in a very few words, to support the appeal which has just been made to him and to His Majesty's Government with so much force, and, I think, alto with so much temperance and caution of statement, by my noble and learned friend beside me, and by the noble Marquess who has just spoken. I do not think there can be any one of us who can look back without regret upon what has happened; and there can be no one of us who does not feel a great anxiety as to that which constitutes evidently a blot upon the administration of our law. That such things as this should have happened must be a matter of very deep regret to us.
Without going back to apportion the blame for what has happened. I think it may safely be said that these things would not have happened if they had been foreseen. If we could have foreseen that there would occur such incidents—incidents which I believe are only typical of many—as those to which the noble and learned Lord referred, surely the Tribunals would have been differently constituted, or there would have been more careful provisions for appeal, or greater efforts would have 981 been made on the part of His Majesty's Government to bring complete knowledge of the law and of the intentions of Parliament to the minds of those who had to adjudicate upon these cases. It is now too late to go back upon what has passed, but is it not the duty, and will it not be the wish, of the Government to take an opportunity like this of endeavouring to get out of the impasse into which we have been betrayed.
I do not think any one of us would express any agreement with, or anything more than surprise and regret at, the attitude which many of these men have taken up. I confess, for myself, that I cannot understand the attitude of what is called the absolutist objector, but that does not prevent it from being a fact, and what we are doing now is punishing a man for his opinions. It is always a dangerous thing to punish a man for his opinions. Against an opinion conscientiously held punishment has very little effect. It may be said that these gentlemen wish to be martyrs. You do not make them any the less martyrs by increasing the severity of your punishment.
Perhaps I may be permitted, incidentally, to say one word about the case which was first referred to by the noble and learned Lord—the case of Mr. Stephen Hobhouse. My acquaintance with Mr. Hobhouse is comparatively slight, but I know enough of him to say that I have never met any one of a more perfectly simple, upright, and gentle character He is a man who has devoted his whole life to the relief of suffering and to doing good as he found the opportunity, and it is perfectly tragic to think that a man of this kind should be singled out, owing to the tenacity with which he holds his views, for such suffering as has been described. There are mitigations in the punishment of imprisonment which the law has properly allowed. There are what are known as first-class misdemeanants, and indulgences are given to many persons who fall into the class of political offenders. Now, this is much less than a political offence, because a political offence may be the means of creating great evil for others. These people are punished only for the opinion they hold, and you do not convince them of their error by punishing them. You do not deter others, because others who hold the same opinions—of course, I am speaking only of those who hold genuine convictions—are encouraged 982 to persist by the suffering which they know that others are undergoing, and they feel a sense of duty to be no less martyrs than those whom they see testifying already to the convictions which they hold. Surely this is a state of things which none of us can justify. It is a state of things which we ought to try, if we possibly can, to escape from, and I think that the suggestion made by the noble and learned Lord may offer a very fair means of getting out of it. He does not ask that the sentences should be cancelled; he does not ask even that the Act should necessarily be amended, but that there should be an Inquiry into these cases—an extra-official Inquiry, I suppose by Statute, but at any rate an Inquiry not conducted by officials and not bound by strict legal rule, and one that would enable every proper step to be taken to discriminate between those who are genuine conscientious objectors and persons who have tried to escape military service upon any other ground.
I can quite understand the difficulty which the War Office and His Majesty's Government feel in allowing persons to go out free, subject to no disability whatever, and that they may think it would be an encouragement to others to endeavour to adopt a similar attitude. But the measure proposed by the noble and learned Lord is not open to those objections. It would give a wide range of view to the persons who are chosen to deal with these cases and enable them to report upon the proper measures that ought to be adopted to deal with such cases. I think they may be trusted, if proper selections are made, to distinguish between the genuine and the falsified cases; and I cannot help believing that a very great burden will be taken off many minds, and also that nothing whatever will be done to dissuade from military service or in any way make it less likely that people will fulfil their obligations to the State, by handling in that liberal spirit and with that proper consideration for honest conviction the cases to which my noble and learned friend has referred. I therefore hope that the noble Earl will find himself able to state that some step will now be taken by the Government to relieve us from the painful position in which we find ourselves.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
My Lords, the noble and learned Lord in again introducing this subject to your Lordships' 983 House asked that those who supported his view should not be looked upon as pro-Germans. The rules of this House are very elastic, and I am going to take this opportunity, if I may, of saying that if, for any other reason, I might have thought the noble and learned Lord was in any way pro-German, the fact that his son was commanding one of the Yeomanry Regiments in Egypt which, the evening papers will show, has done such signal service, would at once remove any such impression from our minds.
It seems to me that there is a great deal of misapprehension on the part of the House with regard to these conscientious objectors and the part that at all events the War Office has to play with regard to them. The noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, asked me whether any of the men who got only conditional exemption when they might have got, had the Tribunals known their work properly, complete exemption, were now suffering imprisonment. I cannot answer that. Those men do not come to us at all. The men who receive and accept conditional exemption go straight either to the Pelham Committee or the Brace Committee for national work, and never come within the purview of the Army at all. We do not know anything about them. There are, however, those who refuse this conditional exemption. They say "absolute exemption or none." Those men come to the Army. Let me deal with a man who comes to the Army under those conditions, and conies to the Army having made up his mind that in no circumstances will he serve under any conditions. The Army only knows him as a soldier. It is not the military authorities who sent him into the Army; it is the Tribunal who sent him. When he comes into the Army he can only be looked upon and treated by the Army as a soldier in the same way as every other soldier is treated. I have not gone into some of the cases which Lord Parmoor sent me, but I know a good deal about most of the cases. Some of them are new to me. He mentioned two which came in what was known as the Cleethorpes case.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
I thought they were in that case. I want to mention it because I wish to show that we treat these men as soldiers. While we give them the punishment which soldiers get for not obeying orders or for doing something contrary to military discipline, we also endeavour to give them the protection which every single soldier has the right to expect at our hands. In that case, where action was taken against those men which would have been punished it taken against any other soldier than a conscientious objector, we treated those responsible with the same severity as we should have treated them if they had done it to a soldier who was not a conscientious objector.
Let us see what is the position of a man who becomes a soldier and disobeys an order. He is tried and sentenced by Court-Martial, but the moment he is sentenced he passes out of the military hands into the hands of the civil authorities for the period of his detention. Therefore, if there are all these cases where men are supposed to be badly treated in prison, they do not form an indictment against the Military Service Act for working badly as far as conscientious objectors are concerned; they form an indictment against the whole of our prison system. The men who go into these prisons are under civil control. Noble Lords have spoken of successive punishments. Let us see exactly why there have been successive punishments. As a general rule every one of these men is sentenced to two years imprisonment, but the clemency which the Army Council or the Secretary of State—I am not sure which—is able to exercise reduces the sentence to the term which would be inflicted in the case of an ordinary soldier for a first or second offence. We have altered that now. That clemency is evidently futile, and the punishment that may be awarded by Court-Martial will stand for the future. Therefore there will not be successive punishments, but the punishment that is given in the first instance by Court-Martial. If I may say so it is outside my purview, because the cases are dealt with in the Home Office and not in the War Office, but the Government have thought it right that there shall be some concession. 985 made by way of the prison rules, and that after a certain time in prison, if these men have conducted themselves properly, they shall, at the discretion of the Home Secretary, be brought under Rule 243A, I think it is which provides special indulgences.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
The three noble Lords who have spoken have talked of all these cases whore men have been punished under military law for offences against that military law as if there was no remedy for those men. There is a remedy at the hand of all of them, but it is a remedy that they will not take. These men have a perfect right, not only at the beginning of their military service but at any time afterwards, even after their actual imprisonment, to appeal to the Central Tribunal to examine their cases to see, whether or not they are conscientious objectors, and if the Central Tribunal is satisfied that they are, these men are liberated on either absolute or conditional exemption, as the Central Tribunal may think fit. In other words, they have in their own hands the key to unlock the prison door, but they will not use it, because, they are prepared to suffer rather than do, not military service, but any national work of any sort or kind. It seems to me that these men, with such a power in their own hands of securing exemption, are not entitled to the consideration which some noble Lords and others would extend to them.
A suggestion has been made that a man proves that he is conscientious by the mere, fact that he goes to prison. Would it be considered that a man who was in France and refused to go into the trenches with his battalion, and suffered imprisonment for his refusal, showed his conscientious objection to going into the trenches, and therefore should be exempted in the future from doing so? You cannot judge by that standard. I admit at once that there may be genuine conscientious objectors, and I would include Mr. Stephen Hobhouse, among them. Believe me, the Army has no wish to keep these men. They are far more trouble than they are worth. But the law has provided a way by which they can secure exemption, conditional or absolute, and it is for them, and them alone, to take the necessary steps to secure such exemption. I hope I have dealt with all the 986 points raised by the noble Marquess and the other noble Lords. I regret that I cannot meet the noble and learned Lord in the suggestion that he makes, I believe that the law as it stands gives ample security for any man to plead the case of the conscientious objector. I believe that any man who goes before the Tribunal—especially before the Central Tribunal, over which the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, up to quite recently presided—has the most careful consideration given to his claims; and if he does not choose to plead before the Tribunal, I, for my part, do not see why we should open the prison doors for him.
§ LORD BUCKMASTER
My Lords, I cannot help thinking that the noble Earl who has just spoken has made what I hope he will excuse my describing as a Departmental answer to the question. He has not touched what I understand to be the real point. The real point is not that the War Office have acted as they ought to act with regard to men who have been brought under military discipline. The real point is that, owing to a misunderstanding or a mistake in the administration of our law, a number of people have been condemned to military service who ought to have been exempted, and that a larger number still have been condemned to some form of equivalent service which their principles—I admit I do not understand them—forbid them to accept. I think a little consideration might be given to the history of this Statute. I believe I am right in saying—the noble Earl will correct me if I am wrong—that in the early part of the last century, when some form of compulsory service was introduced through the Militia Acts, Quakers were exempted.
§ LORD BUCKMASTER
The precise date does not matter very much. I thought it was earlier still. But Quakers were excepted, not by being exempted from the liability to compulsion, but by being expressly exempted from the penalties that were imposed on the people who disobeyed. By this means complete exemption was given to Quakers. When the Military Service Act of 1916 was introduced I believe the common feeling of every one was that it would be wrong to compel Quakers to accept military 987 service. Their long history had shown that they had a deep-rooted objection to military service, founded on principles of conscience and upon an interpretation of Holy Writ by which they believe their conduct ought to be guided. If the number of our religious sects was kept within reasonable limits there would have been no difficulty at all; Quakers would have been exempted, and the matter ended. But it was recognised that a large number of other people who had joined various religious bodies, though their opinions were not so well known and so well defined, held just the same convictions that possessed the Quakers, and it was thought that the exemption which should be provided should be wide enough to cover them also. It was owing to this that the most unfortunate phrase about conscientious objection was introduced.
One thing about which I am quite clear is this, that it was intended, if a man could satisfy the Tribunal before whom he was brought that he had an honest opinion that to obey this service was committing a sin, that that man should be exempted from its operation. In the first place, as the noble Marquess has pointed out, there was a misunderstanding among the Tribunals who proceeded to adminster the Act. It was thought that they had no power to grant the absolute exemption which the Act enabled them to give; and the noble Marquess suggests—and indeed I can see no answer—that it may very well be that there are a number of men who are at this moment being unjustly punished because of the perfectly honest but mistaken view which had been taken of the powers which the Tribunals possessed. To that point the noble Earl who has replied has given no answer at all. He did not suggest that these men should be re-examined. He merely suggested that they had the power, if they thought fit, to apply to the Central Tribunal. I am not satisfied that the noble Earl was right in the view he took of the powers of the Central Appeal Tribunal.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
I beg pardon. I did make a slight mistake. I said they could give absolute exemption. They cannot.
§ LORD BUCKMASTER
The noble Earl will realise that it is a serious slip for his argument, because it means that the key I is no longer in the hands of these men. 988 They can no longer unlock their prison doors except by undertaking what, for some reason or other which I do not understand, they abhor just as sincerely and as conscientiously as they abhor military service or some equivalent service which is to be imposed on them by the Tribunal. It is precisely that difficulty against which I think we are brought. It is no use our attempting to understand the reasoning that has led these men to the course of conduct they have pursued. I have said more than once that it baffles me. If I held a conscientious objection against fighting—and I only wish I was young enough to show that I do not hold such objection—my desire would have been to have gone with the stretcher bearers in the front line, in order that I might show that my conscientious objection to fighting was not on account of any consideration for my own welfare. It is no use saying this is what these conscientious objectors ought to do, because it is what they will not do. They have a conscientious objection, not only to taking life, but to undertaking any form of service that is imposed on them by the State as the equivalent of military service.
Is it quite fair, or even wise, for us to insist that a, man of the character of Mr. Stephen Hobhouse should be subject to one term of imprisonment after another, until his health breaks down and his capacity for doing good to the community is utterly taken away, merely because the course of reasoning by which he has pursuaded himself he will be doing the wrong thing to obey the Military Service Act, or apply for exemption, is one we cannot accept? Surely something more ought to be done to meet a case of that kind. What has been suggested appears to me to be a reasonable proposal, and I trust that the noble Earl, feeling, as I am sure he will, that the view he took of the Central Tribunal is not quite exact, will be prepared to consider whether this proposal is one that cannot be accepted. Speaking for myself, if a Tribunal could be established, as the Central Tribunal was, with the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, as President, at liberty to grant absolute exemption if he thought fit to people who were being imprisoned owing to conscientious objection, provided they could establish it to the Tribunal's satisfaction, I, for one, should be absolutely satisfied. I should know that the men's cases would be fairly and justly and considerately tried, and if, after that, any man went back to 989 prison, I should regard him as having attempted and failed to mislead the Tribunal. I would accept without qualification the judgment which the noble Marquess would pass. That is all really that this suggestion is, and I cannot help regretting greatly that the noble Earl appeared to give it such little consideration.
It is very easy indeed, in a matter of this kind, to be led away by one's natural dislike of men who, at a moment of grave national peril, appear to put themselves away from the national life, who decline to accept the first obligation that is cast upon every able-bodied citizen to do to-day what he can to defend his country, and it becomes the more exasperating when one remembers that these men actually live owing to the dangers that are faced by our merchant seamen, and that the very food by which they are sustained is brought into this country under the guns of our Fleet. But these are the considerations that warp one's mind against them. These are the considerations that prevent it being possible for us to do justice to their case, and what I am anxious to do beyond all other things is to secure that these men have a fair trial, that we do not shelter ourselves behind the idea that they have got into the Army, and, having got into the Army, must be treated as soldiers. We want to see whether they were rightly passed into the Army. That in many cases the Tribunals have failed cannot, I think, be doubted. The evidence that has been given to-day is the best proof of it. But there is more that could be urged to show that the failure might have been expected. I speak with some little experience of determining disputes between people, and I know how fearfully hard it is very often to determine where the truth lies between disputed fact; and when you come to determine whether or not a man honestly holds an opinion, it is something that will baffle the most skilled Tribunal. It requires extreme patience, it requires no little skill, to be able to elicit the circumstances upon which you can base a satisfactory judgment. It would be idle to expect that every one of these Tribunals, doing their very best, and with their limited experience, could possibly have come to a right conclusion in all the cases, and the evidence that has been placed before your Lordships' House this afternoon. I think, must satisfy you that in 990 many cases they must have come to a wrong conclusion. All that this Question asks is that this should be redressed, that there should be a re-healing, and that this re-hearing should now take place with all the further light that has been thrown upon the question by what has transpired during the last two years. If that were done, I myself should be more than satisfied.
May I say, in conclusion, that it is not only out of consideration for these men that I have supported this suggestion. I think that there is something much more important at stake than the life or the comfort of these men. It is the big question of whether or no we shall drive the whole of our administrative machinery across a man's honest view. Over and over again it has been tried, and over and over again it has failed, and some man, who may appear to have been even weak-minded, has always been able to hold up and ultimately to make contemptible the administration of justice. It is because I attach far more importance to that than I do to the individual fate of these men that I would ask of your Lordships before it is too late to consider whether some steps cannot now be taken to remedy and put right what I think has been an unfortunate circumstance.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
My Lords as my name has been used in the course of this discussion, and as I have some knowledge of the subject, perhaps your Lordships would allow me to say a word or two upon it. I will say at the outset that the subject is one of the most difficult that it is possible for any body of men to approach, whether it be a body like your Lordships sitting here, or whether it be a body like the Central Tribunal to which I recently belonged. Conscientious objectors are of very various kinds. They range, as my noble friend Lord Lansdowne said just now, from the coward through the men who are vain and egotistic up to the men who are intensely conscientious and religious. There are all those degrees, and the process of sifting them is an exceedingly difficult one.
I want to speak of the real conscientious objectors in a tone of sympathy. Some of them undoubtedly demand sympathy. We questioned them as to the faith that is in them, and no man could rise from such an examination without being deeply impressed with the high character and profound 991 convictions of many of these men. I am quite sure that no man in your Lordships' House is more likely to approach this subject with sympathy than my noble friend the noble Earl opposite (Lord Derby). Every one who knows him knows him to be a man of great sympathy and kindness of heart, and I am quite sure that we shall all agree that he does approach this subject in that spirit. I am altogether against anything like vindictiveness in the punishment of these men. Some of the histories which my noble and learned friend related to your Lordships just now I confess did inspire me with feelings of profound regret, and I cannot understand how the Home Office authorities can find it within their duty to keep in prison men who are manifestly unfit to remain in prison. Even if they were not conscientious objectors they ought to be treated with a mitigation of their punishment. I am not responsible, of course, for the facts I take them from my noble and learned friend but, if they are true, I say no one can defend keeping a man in prison who is dying of consumption, or one who is manifestly unfit to undergo the rigours of hard labour: and I hope that, my noble friend the Secretary of State for War will bring these particular points before the notice of the Home Secretary.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
I am quite sure that is what we would all expect my noble friend to say. But I desire to impress upon your Lordships that we must not consider that the Tribunals have an easy task in adjudicating upon these conscientious objection cases. It is intensely difficult, as the noble and learned Lord has just said, to find out what a man's opinions really are. You have no direct evidence on the subject. And it would not do for the Tribunals to make mistakes. People seem to think that the mistakes are all on one side, but that, is not the case. And it, does not do, and would never have done, if the Tribunals had allowed the door of conscientious objection to be thrown wide, open. Why, everybody might have gone out that way.
Speaking, if I may say so—although I am no longer the Chairman of the Committee—in a more or less judicial capacity, I want your Lordships to realise that there 992 was an absolute obligation on the Tribunals to see that men who do not desire to light because they are afraid to fight should not get out of their military obligations simply upon the plea of conscientious objection. And, unfortunately, human motives are very complicated. A man may think, as all your Lordships do, that war is a horrible thing, and he may also be afraid, and under the stimulus of his fear his feeling of the horror of war may increase, and he may himself hardly know whether it is the cowardice or the moral disapprobation of war which is really the governing motive in his mind. But that is the problem which the Tribunals have to decide. That is the distinction which they have to draw, and if they were too lenient I am sure we should have found a very much larger number of illegitimate conscientious objectors than there have been.
I desire to deal with the issues which have been submitted to your Lordships this evening. And let me remind your Lordships that in this discussion it is not all conscientious objectors that we have to consider, but only that division of them who are called "absolutists." All the other conscientious objectors one way or the other have been satisfied. All the cases have been met of those who are satisfied with non-combatant service or with exemption conditional upon work of national I importance. There remain only the absolutists—that is, the people who will take nothing except absolute exemption. A good many speakers to-night have said that there ought to be more absolute exemption, and they point to the misapprehension under which certain Tribunals rested as to the meaning of the section of the first Military Service Act. It is quite true that certain Tribunals were under a misapprehension in respect to the first Military Service Act—not all Tribunals, for I think those Tribunals who made the mistake were exceedingly silly; but there were a certain number of Tribunals who did think that they had not power to give absolute exemption in cases of conscientious objection under the first Military Service Act.
But I will show your Lordships that this point can very easily be exaggerated, because even after that mistake had been swept away by the second Military Service Act very few absolute exemptions were given. I want your Lordships to realise that. Two per cent is the outside figure, and I think that if the figures are carefully 993 looked into it will be found that a great number of that two per cent. were very special cases indeed, and cannot be fairly quoted on the general issue. That means that Tribunals taken from all parts of the country, including local Tribunals, the Appeal Tribunals, and the Central Tribunal itself sitting in appeal, have come to the conclusion that absolute exemption ought to be given in the case of conscientious objection very rarely indeed. That is the opinion, not of one Tribunal, but of all Tribunals, and of Tribunals of every kind. That is a very striking fact, and it: makes a great difference in considering the point which the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne—whom I do not now see in his place—made with great force in the admirable speech which he delivered the point that there may be a good many men now in prison because they had not the absolute exemption which they might have obtained had the Tribunals at first known what powers they possessed. That certainly is possible, but it is possible in a very limited number of cases, for the reason I have stated.
Now I will say a word upon the argument that Parliament contemplated absolute exemption as a very ordinary award in the case of conscientious objection when the Military Service Act was passing into law. My noble and learned friend, in his eloquent speech—and may I say that I listened to it with the greatest possible sympathy; it was an admirable speech—made several quotations in order to establish his point. Those quotations did not convince me, because I observed, in the quotation he made from Mr. Walter Long, that my right hon. friend said that every one who was unwilling to serve would be released. Well, that is not doubted; there is no question about that. But that does not apply to work of national importance.
§ LORD PARMOOR
What Mr. Long said was that they would not be subjected to the horror of prolonged imprisonment. The other thing was what the Prime Minister said.
§ THE MARQUESS OF SALISBURY
The point was that they should be relieved from taking part in serving, that they should be relieved from taking part in warfare. Well, every Tribunal which awards exemption to a man conditional upon work of national importance does relieve him from serving, does relieve him from taking part in warfare. They are 994 not asked either to kill a man or to take any part in killing a man. They are given work of national importance, which is an entirely different matter. I would like, in this connection, if I may, to make a quotation from the late Home Secretary, Mr. Samuel, speaking upon this very point on the Committee stage of the first Military Service Act. This is what he said—We do not want a man to come forward and say, ' I am a conscientious objector and wish to be exempt, from military service, but I do not propose to do anything whatever for the service of the nation.' We say this man must be doing something; if not military service, then non-combatant service, and it not non-combatant service, then something else which may be useful to the nation in its economic, commercial, or other activities.So that Mr. Samuel, the then Home Secretary, laid it down that the Government of the day had no intention whatever except in very rare instances of relieving these men from all obligations to do that which they were told to do by authority. On the contrary. They were to be relieved from combatant service, and, perhaps, from non-combatant service, but they were always to be expected to do some work which was of use to the nation. Therefore the whole point, from that point of view, absolutely breaks down. It was never intended by the Government of that day that people should be a law unto themselves, that any man should be able to say, "I have a conscience; I do not propose to fight, or to do anything whatever that you tell me to do." As a matter of fact, the Home Secretary of that day, speaking in debate, laid down the contrary. He said that these men, if they did not fight, and if they could not find it in their consciences to do non-combatant service, at any rate must do something for the nation. That is the principle for which I am contending at this moment, and the principle which has governed the action of a very large number of Tribunals—namely, that they have given exemption conditional upon work of national importance being undertaken. Is that an unreasonable thing to do on the face of it? I confess that to me it seems to be quite reasonable. After all, such a course is not unknown to our law, it is not unknown to-the law of any country—and our law is, indeed, the freest in the world. You will not find anything like such favourable laws, relieving conscientious objectors, in any one of our Dominions, or in the United. States of America.
995 Now, is it, unreasonable that men should be called upon to do work of national importance? You do not allow men to plead their consciences in other respects in ordinary life. If a man says that he has a conscientious objection to serving on a jury, that would not relieve him from service. If a man says that he has a conscientious objection against supporting his father and mother, that would not relieve him from supporting them; and supposing that this man did refuse the necessary support to his parents, when ordered by a Court to contribute it, would he not go to prison? Whatever his conscience said, he would go to prison. And if, when he came out of prison, he continued his conduct, and continued to refuse to maintain his father and mother, he would go to prison again. I hope my noble friend opposite, and others, will reflect upon that when they talk about repeated sentences. I can conceive my noble and learned friend arguing that such a man has a conscientious objection to supporting his parents, and that it is a single offence; that he may be punished once, but, not more than once; and that if he goes to prison for a certain number of months, that franks him for the rest of his life. On the, face of it, that does not appear to me to be a reasonable proposition.
In truth, what one is driven to is this—I want to be quite frank with the House—that, because of its very special character, warfare is treated as an exception. I think such treatment is right. We recognise that to compel a man to kill others, or to help to kill others, is more than the State has a right to do when that man's conscience tells him he ought not to do it. But you cannot go on extending that principle. You must draw the line somewhere; and it seems to me that you rightly draw the line at that point of requiring him to kill others, and say that if we call upon a man to do other work in the interests of the State, he is, and ought to be, compellable to do that work, and he cannot plead his conscience against it. In my opinion, if you come to any other conclusion you ultimately reduce the whole administration of justice to chaos. This kind of thing will increase. Your Lordships should not imagine that, because this right to refuse to do anything you are told is pleaded in the case of conscientious objection in the present war, it will not bear fruit hereafter. It will. It will grow. We have seen other instances of the same kind of thing. We know of 996 the people who went to prison because they would not pay their education rates. We know the much more deplorable case of the women who wanted the vote, and who went to prison. And it is seen in Ireland now. The principle is a very bad one: and it is a principle against which the State must set itself. Therefore I cannot see the objection to compelling persons to do work of national importance.
Let me now say a word as to the actual procedure before the Central Tribunal. I want your Lordships to understand that any one of these men who has a conscientious objection, and who is in prison, is there because he has refused to accept the Home Office scheme. Every one of them has been offered a hearing of his case by the Central Tribunal. I have sat on that body and begged these men to let us hear their cases. I have told them over and over again that we, were there only to help them if they would allow us to do so, and that it was no good going on any further unless they accepted the Home Office scheme. Supposing we found that a man had a conscientious objection, and he then said, "No, I will not accept the Home Office scheme. Whether you find that I have a conscientious objection or not, I will have nothing to do with the scheme "—what could you do with such a man? He refuses to take the opportunity of the leniency which the State has provided. I confess that though I have the greatest sympathy with these wrong-headed men—because one ought to have sympathy with men who are struggling with their consciences I cannot see what more can be done in that respect to help them.
But when my noble friend Lord Lansdowne says, as he did at the end of his speech, that he thinks there is a case for greater leniency of treatment for these men who are kept in prison, I agree with him. I should be glad to see every kind of mitigation granted to these men which is consistent with the maintenance of the law. If they are ill, of course the prison doctors ought to see that they are properly treated; and if they are so ill that they ought to be released, naturally they should be released. Even if they are not ill at all, there is no reason why there should not be mitigation of their punishment. My noble friend said so himself. I do not know whether your Lordships remarked it, but he told the House that the Government had resolved, after a certain limited period 997 of imprisonment, to mitigate the punishment. I hope the Government will do that on a liberal scale. I see no reason why they should not do so. I do not believe that it would interfere in the least with the discipline of the Army or with the administration of the law. But on the broad principle I must say, and I should not be acting honestly with the House if I did not, that I think Parliament and the country have done their utmost to meet the views of these misguided men; and that to do more in principle, though much might be done in detail, would be to reduce the operation of this section of the Act to a nullity.
§ LORD CHARNWOOD rose to speak, when
§ LORD PARMOOR said
On a point of order. The noble Lord (Lord Charnwood) has a different Motion on the Paper from mine, and there are several noble Lords who wish to speak on my Question.
THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
My Lords, I do not wish to stand for many minutes between the House and other speakers, but I should like to say that I listened with great interest and care to the perfectly straightforward and simple speech of the noble Earl who replied on behalf of the War Office. What, it seems to me, is always disappointing in a reply of that kind is that it turns upon saving, "It is not my Department." The question to-night is asked of His Majesty's Government; and it may be an answer to some particular point, but it is no answer to the proposal which is made, to say that it is not a War Office or a Home Office question. What we want to know is whether it is likely that anything is going to be done for the reconsideration of problems which seem to us to be in some respects novel and to require novel consideration, and we do not want to be told that it is not a War Office or a Home Office matter.
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
I said that there were certain parts which were dealt with by the Home Office; but as far as the rejection of the proposal is concerned I did not speak for the War Office but on behalf of the Government.
THE LORD ARCHBISHOP OF CANTERBURY
The recurrent discussions 998 that have taken place upon this subject show, what has been amply admittted to-night, its extraordinary difficulty. We have had four or five debates, in which the discussions have been longer or shorter; and I have always indicated what I still feel to be the fact—that I do not believe, in the position which matters have reached, that a solution is to be found either by strict logic or by a rigorous and painstaking and somewhat wooden application of the law as it at present exists. This is one of the cases with which our jurisprudence in its practice is, I think, quite familiar, in which you want elasticity. You want the power of intervening, as the Home Secretary can intervene about imprisonments, and as the Attorney-General can intervene about prosecutions-all sorts of powers resting in individual hands to give dispensation in this way or that. This seems to me to be precisely one of those matters in which some person acting with common sense and authority should use his power of discrimination with regard to individual cases In that way I think you will meet the difficulties more than they are likely to be met in any other way.
But the really important point, which I do not think has been adequately dealt with to-night or in previous discussions, is that when the Act was passed very probably no one anticipated the conscientious objector taking the course which he has taken in such a large number of cases. It may have been thought that here and there men might be found to say that they would not fight and would not do any work of any kind; but looking back at the debates it is clear that what has occurred was not anticipated at all. That is clear from what was said by Mr. Herbert Samuel. It did not occur to him to think that the strange and, as I think, distorted view of conscience would be carried to such an extent that men would say it was equally impossible to their conscience to do work as actually to fight. It was not contemplated at that time, therefore, that there would exist the conditions in which we are trying to administer the law. We are hampered in the administration of the law to-day by having to administer it under conditions which have turned out to be in that respect different from what they were when the law was drawn up and when the rules were laid down. There have turned out to be these men, some I think mentally twisted, and all of them misapplying conscience 999 in a way which to me is simply inconceivable on the part of thoughtful men. These men exist, however, and we have to consider how we can deal with them.
In dealing with men who take such distorted views we should have extraordinary difficulty even if we had Tribunals which from the highest to the lowest were always consistent in their decisions, if we had officials and warders and officers who were always judicial, if the camp conditions were always in every sense what we should desire, and if the person whom we are trying to help would wish to assist us to get a solution of his ease. But he is doing nothing of the sort; he is trying, not to help you get a solution, but to impede you every time you want to build a bridge for him. That, he says, is his conscientious duty. Obviously, when you have all these conditions against you, dealing with the matter is extraordinarily difficult.
Quite, apart from the cases referred to by the noble and learned Lord to-night, no one who has at all studied this question can be in any doubt that for a long time past there have been hard and bad cases in which men have suffered in a way in which no one would wish them to be called upon to suffer. Hard cases, we are told, make bad law, but of course it depends upon the number of hard cases. When we say that hard cases make bad law, we are speaking of a limited number of cases. You can bring hard cases to such a number that the law should be mitigated to deal with what turns out to be not an exceptional but a very considerable class of case. It seems to me that the matter must be looked into now in a new way from the point of view of new conditions.
I was very grateful to the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, for what he said to-night in reminding the House and the country—I hope it will reach the country; some of our debates have not—that no man can by merely stating that he is acting conscientiously claim the protection of all fair-minded people. Suppose a man decided that he could not conscientiously pay his taxes. I have no wish to encourage that form of conscientious objection, and it seems to me no one can imagine that if that were to occur we should feel that we were to take no steps to meet it. The mere fact that the objection is conscientious does not cover the ground at all.
What we are asking is to have some 1000 inquiry made into the facts as they now are, and not as they were thought likely to be when the Act was passed. The country was told in the House of Commons last night that such an Inquiry has been held. The point was just alluded to to-night. I think the noble Lord would do well to refer in detail to what the Home Secretary said last night as to an Inquiry having been held and as to the intention which he had of exercising, as I imagine, the power of clemency under No. 243A of the Prison Rules, which I understand has given a very great relaxation of prison conditions and prison discipline. Can we not be told in detail what has been done and what will come into operation at an early date? Possibly we shall then find that what is wanted has been reached. But failing such a statement, it seems to me perfectly clear that we want an Inquiry into the matter by some one whose authority every one will admit to be such as to make us trust his judgment and impartiality. I think mention was made of some such arbitrator or judge as Lord Salisbury himself, and it was said how entirely we should trust his decision. We all would be ready to trust him, supposing he, had the necessary power; but if we are told that the power which he is given must be subject to the law as it stands and the law as interpreted in a particular way, then we might trust him, but he would not have the power to satisfy the expectations which we might have formed.
I have no doubt whatever of the wholehearted desire of the Government to meet this difficulty. What I wish to point out is that they have to meet a difficulty which was not anticipated when the Act was passed, and that to fall back on the provisions which were made then does not really satisfy the conditions as they exist to-day. As my last word I should like to reiterate the utter impossibility of reconciling common sense or the duties of citizenship with the attitude taken by men who in their misguided zeal are taking an extraordinary line from which, somehow or other, we have to extricate them in spite of themselves.
THE LORD BISHOP OF OXFORD
My Lords, I should like the House to have in mind the extraordinarily embittering effect which the treatment of conscientious objectors is having on circles which, while I do not think they are very large, are of the greatest importance. I do not know 1001 that I have any better opportunities than others in this House of coming into contact, with those circles to which I am referring, but I mean the people whom you would describe as engaged in social service of various kinds. No doubt a good many of them are either Quakers or people who have a good deal of sympathy with the Friends. Your Lordships know how immensely the influence of the Quakers has diffused itself within the last ten years because of the position they hold in social service. As I am sure your Lordships know, their influence in England to-day is ten times as great as it was a few years ago. You have therefore large numbers of people engaged in social service of the most valuable kind who on this subject feel a kind of bitterness, which is indeed lamentable, towards the administration of justice in their own country. A good many of these people have great capacity as writers, and I am quite sure that there are roots of bitterness being stored up in this country which will have the most regrettable issues in the days that are coming.
It does seem to me, when you try to take an outside view of the matter, that the root of bitterness might be removed. A great many of these people I believe the great mass of those of whom I am thinking—are not in the least degree in agreement with the conscientious objectors. I have here a Petition pleading for a fresh treatment of the conscientious objectors, signed by seventeen of the Bishops. The kind of people I am thinking about are not by any means people who would be accused of being clerical; nor are they people whom you could describe as Quakers, or as anything approximating to Quaiers. Yet there is among these people a growing intensity of bitterness because they feel that this matter has been mismanaged, and that men about whose sincerity there is no possibility of doubt are being subjected to a kind of punishment which is wholly incommensurate with their offence.
I must say I do not think that the questions of the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, which were very direct and very simple, did receive an answer from the noble Earl. I am quite sure there is a great number of people such as I have described who are asking these questions. In particular they are asking whether the law did not intend something which administration of it has practically left unfulfilled. They are asking whether, owing to that mistake, total exemption was not refused 1002 to men whom it now appears could have been given such exemption where the Tribunals were quite convinced of their sincerity. I cannot persuade myself that any human being could take Mr. Hobhouse's case and doubt that if there was any man who had given evidence of the most complete conscientious objection it was he—that if there was any human being who could plead exemption on the ground of conscience it was he: and that no one could accuse him of having attempted to shirk.
Then again, granted that it was requisite to punish these people, it was a real defeat of justice to inflict repeated punishments for what is simply an abiding state of conscience or mind, and for what is the same offence. I do not think these questions were answered by the noble Earl; at any rate, not satisfactorily. It has been admitted again and again in this House that the condition which we have to meet was not contemplated in the beginning. We thought it was an easy thing to exempt the conscientious objector. We find it is not. Of course, your Lordships recognise that the virtue of tolerance only begins where you find the opinion of the person to be tolerated nearly intolerable. I quite acknowledge the unreasonableness of these men. But there it is. There is that state of opinion, and it is held by profoundly good, able, and laborious men who are undoubtedly giving the country the best kind of social service. You must deal with this exceptional situation in such a way as not to violate the sense of moral justice in a great circle of these people.
I would most earnestly plead with His Majesty's Government to take this opportunity to have a fresh Inquiry into this matter. It seems to me that the great root mistake was to allow these people ever to be included in the category of soldiers who would be dealt with by military discipline. Here you have people who, whatever their offence, have shown that they were prepared to suffer martyrdom. Nobody can doubt that. You may treat them as fanatics, and fanatics are very difficult people to deal with, but you cannot call them cowards. That being so, I think it is an occasion where you need a special Inquiry which, without the rigid application of legal or military categories, shall deal with this wholly exceptional situation and do what I venture to think a very large part of the conscience of the country demands for these exceptional people.
§ LORD EMMOTT
My Lords, before this debate concludes I should like to say a word or two from a somewhat different point of view from that taken by other speakers. I do not mean that my fundamental position is different. I mean that I am interested in the subject from a different standpoint. As it happens I was born a member of the Society of Friends, and was brought up in a very strait-laced section of that community. I left the Society of Friends thirty years ago, and I have no kind of sympathy at all either with the intellectual position of the conscientious objector or the position of the absolutist, which is really the core of this debate. Having known the Society of Friends from inside, I have too high a regard for many of the saintly souls I knew in that body to see entirely unmoved the treatment to which a good many Quakers are being subjected at the present time. For 250 years Quakers have, in theory, been against war as an un-Christian method of settling disputes between nations. On intellectual grounds there are a good many millions of people who are also of the same opinion. But, in practice, Quakers have been divided in regard to it in some wars. Quakers fought in the War of Independence in America and in the Civil War in America, and in this just and most righteous war the number of Quakers fighting is, I believe, ten times as large as the number of conscientious objectors of the absolutist type. A nephew of mine, who was a Quaker, fell on the slopes of Achi Babi in June, 1915. Much as I regret his loss, I would rather think of that grave than I would like to think of him as being one of these poor, absolutist people in prison at the present time.
That being the case. I come to the absolutist position. These men refuse work of national importance, and by their refusal they become, in the eve of the law, what they most object to being—soldiers, and they are dealt with by the Military Tribunals. Their position is illogical and regrettable, but the majority I am convinced are sincere, and the question is how we ought to treat them. It is much easier to say how we ought not to treat them. I think their present treatment is cruel beyond words. Repeated imprisonments, time after time, watched by an armed guard from the moment they are released, taken to another Court-Martial, and again sentenced: that has been the treatment in the past. I do not know whether it is 1004 different now. In the realm of nature that sort of treatment is similar only to a cat's behaviour with a mouse; and to a plain man like myself—I hope I shall not use too strong a term—there seems to be an element of legal chicanery in the way this matter is treated.
Let me give one case that has appealed to me very forcibly. It is the case of a member of the Society of Friends named Corder Catchpool. He served, I think, for ninteen months as a voluntary ambulance worker in France. When the Conscription Act was passed he objected to it and came home, because he did not like others who thought as he did being imprisoned when he was out there. He had an additional reason which I think was very honourable to him. At that time there were a large number of Royal Army Medical Corps men who objected to the voluntary workers taking their place. On these two grounds he came home. He has been imprisoned three times since. There is no question that the man is conscientious. It was not doubted by the Tribunal. There was no question that he was ready to risk his life, because he had done it over and over again, and I say that to punish a man like that as he is being punished is a scandal.
§ LORD EMMOTT
He said he was an absolutist, and the Tribunal would not let him off. That is the trouble. He is an absolutist who says, "I will not take work of national importance that you allot to me."
§ THE EARL OF DERBY
He had already done work with the R.A.M.C. in France. Then he came back again to this country. He would then have an opportunity of taking on that work again, particularly work in hospitals, non-combatant work, or other work of national importance; and he refused to take it.
§ LORD EMMOTT
As I understand, he refused to take any work allotted to him because he objected to the whole legislation. I am not defending it I am trying to explain it, because the whole thing is most regrettable and illogical. However much you may regard his lack of judgment in this matter, that is his position; and I say it is rather a shame on our boasted civilisa- 1005 tion that a man who has done what he has done should suffer in this way. I believe that the effect of the treatment of these absolutists, thee repeated terms of imprisonment, is doing more harm than good. I admit the enormous difficulty of the Tribunals, and I fully agree with a great deal that the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, said in regard to this matter. It would be a lamentable thing if, under a plea of conscientious objection, a great many people were relieved from military duties which ought to be performed by them, but I believe that treatment of this kind is doing much more harm to public opinion than good to any cowards and shirkers that may be amongst us. It does harm unfortunately in the minds of many who believe that this war is just and righteous, and who equally believe that it should not be made the excuse for injustice and unrighteousness.
My Lords, at this late hour in the debate may I venture to suggest to the noble Earl the Secretary of State for War that our points of view are not so far apart as he appears to think, and if he did seem to miss the spirit, and sense of the discussion it was rather because he and other noble Lords, including myself, approach the matter from a somewhat different angle, I give the noble Earl entire credit for being perfectly honest, perfectly humane in the matter, and being anxious to do his best for the country; and it is, I think, from the point of view of the, advantage to the country that this question should be approached. The noble Earl made a defence which seemed to me to be within rather narrow limits. It was a fitting defence before a jury of absolutists, but hardly met the case put forward in the discussion, in which I think all the speakers had at heart a desire to help the Government out of the difficult position they have got into in connection with these absolutists.
It is admitted on all hands that these absolutists are unreasonable. The noble Marquess who spoke on the subject—I have not a word of disagreement with anything he said—stated that these men are unreasonable, and that they are offered a perfectly reasonable way out. That is exactly the trouble. They are offered a reasonable way out and they will not take it. I want the noble Earl to ask himself what, in these circumstances, does he actually desire to do. Suppose he could 1006 recast the law to-morrow in his own way what would he do? Does he not really see more or less as we all see that in some way this trouble should be disposed of in the easiest way possible, with the least injury possible to individuals, and, above all, with the least injury possible either to the Army or to the country? That is what he desires, and it is what, we all desire.
What is the position? Take a man who is admittedly honest, who is a real conscientious objector, who is an absolutist. What exactly do you want to do with that man? Every one must recognise that you cannot compel him to be a soldier, and that if he is thrown into prison you cannot, apparently, compel him to do anything else. Yon are, therefore, left in a position in which you have several alternatives, none of them possible in this country. You cannot shoot him and you cannot drown him, and I quite agree that you cannot let him go entirely free. That would be pessimi exempli. I was a little frightened by what the noble Marquess said. One does not know where that policy would stop, or where it would lead us. Does not the noble Earl recognise that what the House has been trying to do is to assist him to find a solution of this problem, one that will cause the least upset in the Commonwealth, and—I have always insisted on this every time that I have raised the question which will cause the least possible sympathy to be, created outside for these people. It does more injury to create sympathy for them by making martyrs of them than to do anything else, and that is what it is desired to avoid.
The noble Earl defended these Courts-Martial from the Departmental point of view, and I do not quarrel with him about that. I do not doubt that everything is in order and perfectly legal. Possibly it is the only thing the Army machine can do when a soldier is fed into it at one end. But that is not the question before the House. What we want to do is to find some possible way of dealing with these men without encouraging their bad example, and without, as the right rev. Prelate said just now, outraging the consciences of other people in the country who do feel in an obscure, but I think none the less in a very real, way that what you are penalising is a difference of opinion. The more absurd you think that opinion, the more difficult and impossible you find it to understand it, the more apt you are, as has been truly said, to be biassed in your 1007 judgment in regard to it, the more difficult it is to deal with it.
Would it not be well at this stage, when the numbers of the people involved are only comparatively small in the country, to accept some sort of Inquiry of this kind made by independent persons—not Departmental persons—persons with no preconceived ideas, who will not be bound or fettered by anything that has been done in the past or by any kind of legislation which may have been passed, but who will view the thing dispassionately with the sole view, with which I am sure your Lordships' House is unanimous, of doing what is best for the State in this matter, and so dispose of this very thorny question with a minimum of damage to the country? I think it is quite possible that, if a fresh mind were brought to bear upon it, he might devise some way of obviating the frequent Courts-Martial, and some way of obviating the record of these imprisonments, and yet not letting these men go free of punishment for an anti-social act. The result therefrom might be useful to the State. Would it not be wise, if this person could be found, for His Majesty's Government to consider this question, and do, what I am sure every one wishes to be done, something to relieve the minds of the public outside and at the same time to avoid this anti-social propaganda spreading?
§ LORD CHARNWOOD had the following Motion on the Paper—
§ To move to resolve, That this House, relying upon the unsolicited exercise by the Crown of the prerogative of mercy in any proper individual case, is of opinion that any exceptional measure of indulgence to conscientious objectors (unless accompanied by measures for the forfeiture on their part of the protection which they derive from the State) would be unjust and injurious to public morality.
§ The noble Lord said: My Lords, at this late hour it would be obviously impossible, without inconvenience to your Lordships, for me to move the Motion which I have on the Paper, I rise, therefore, merely to say that the strong feeling which I entertain against what I may call an indulgent attitude towards these men has been very greatly strengthened by the speeches to which I have listened to-night in their favour. I should be sorry to ask your Lordships to give further time to the discussion of this subject now, and I propose, 1008 therefore, to put down this Motion again on the earliest day that I can obtain.
§ LORD GAINFORD
My Lords, as the first Quaker who has been privileged to take his seat in this House, perhaps I may be allowed to appeal to the Government to put a somewhat different complexion upon their attitude to these mistaken men from that which they have put on record this afternoon. Many of us who are Quakers have done what we could to find work of national importance out at the Front for those who have these conscientious objections to military service, but I can assure the Government and noble Lords that treatment such as that which has been meted out under the Administration has cultivated these very individuals, whose numbers have grown owing to the sympathy which one individual feels for another when that other is called upon to endure torture such as these men have had to undergo. Therefore I think that in the interests of the country something ought to be done in the direction which has been suggested by the noble and learned Lord who initiated the debate, and, as I say, I appeal to the Government to I put rather a different complexion upon their attitude towards these individuals from that conveyed in the speech of the noble Earl the Secretary of State for War.
My Lords, instances have been given to us during this debate of how these men were suffering, and the hushed way in which we received the narration of those instances does show, I think, that we are a little uncomfortable about the treatment that these men are receiving. I should not have ventured to speak if the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury, had not, in his vehement way, said, "What I can we do with them?" I think the solution of the question is not a difficult one. If men live in this country, accept the protection for property and person of the laws of the country, and yet will not obey those laws, I think this country should export them. There would then be no cruelty. They would not be suffering torture, but they would be living in a country the laws of which, perhaps, they would enjoy. If you ask me where they should be sent to, I cannot, of course, answer straight away, because I am not a member of the Colonial Office or of the Foreign Office, but there are places like St. Helena which are complaining of a shortage of population to which they 1009 might be sent: or there may be other places. At any rate, if we did export them from this country and forbade their coming back till they agreed to obey the laws of the country, we should be giving them a punishment which, indeed, it might be a pleasure for them to take. However that might be, we should not be enfeebling their bodies or their minds.
§ THE LORD PRESIDENT OF THE COUNCIL (EARL CURZON OF KEDLESTON)
My Lords, I did not contemplate taking part in this discussion but, appeals having been addressed to me, perhaps I should be thought disrespectful if I did not say one word. Many appeals have been addressed to the Government from different quarters of the House to hold something in the nature of an independent Inquiry; and, indeed, it seems to have been supposed that at no stage of the proceedings, or at any rate of recent proceedings, has such an Inquiry been held. The noble Earl the Secretary of State for War said, quite truly, in reply to the suggestion that he had made rather a Departmental speech, that he was not speaking for the War Office only but was speaking the mind of the Government, and he was speaking the mind of the Government after an amount of attention and close examination of which perhaps your Lordships have no idea.
Since I have been a member of this Government I think the question has been brought before us three or four times, and has been the subject of prolonged discussions. Every one, or nearly every one, of the suggestions that have been made to your Lordships to-night has been before the Government. Many of us have felt the kind of anxiety that has been expressed in this debate. Unreasonable as we think the attitude of these men, incapable as we are of understanding it, we resent as much as anybody else the idea prevailing that there can be anything like vindictive treatment of men, however misguided they may be. And it is the case that only quite recently a special Committee was constituted in order to examine this question. They had the advantage of the assistance of my noble friend Lord Salisbury upon the matter. Nobody will corroborate what I say more readily than he when I remark that they approached the matter in no spirit of lack of Sympathy, but with the fullest desire to find a solution of these difficulties. But on each occasion that we have come to look closer into the matter 1010 we have been fortified in our conclusion that it is exceedingly difficult to take the kind of action that is suggested.
The consideration that has most impressed me when I have been examining the case is not the mere matter of the, wrong-headedness of these men, nor the nature, the anomalous nature, if it be so, of the law, but it has been the fact that these men have the remedy in their own hands. My noble friend said just now that they have only to go to the Tribunal of which he was for a long time the President. They decline to do so. That takes away my sympathy. I can understand a man who says he will not fight. We do not want him to fight. We never meant to compel him to fight. But I do not under-stand the feelings of a man who says that his refusal to fight incapacitates him from going and stating his case against rendering any kind of service to his country. It seems to me that that man ceases to be a conscientious objector to military service, and becomes a passive resister to the law in any shape.
Something has been said to-night about the danger of opening the door. My noble friend Lord Salisbury drew a picture of what might happen in the future. I think he might have drawn a picture of what might happen now. Here we are in the stress and agony of the most critical stage of this war. Now, supposing that you open the door in the interests of these men. Do you imagine there are not others who would push it wide open? Do you suppose that there are not men now fighting in France, exposed very likely to a good deal of pressure, many of them somewhat reluctant fighters, who will suddenly find that they are conscientious objectors too? Do you imagine that there are not people who are doing non-combatant work at this moment who will say to themselves, "I might have escaped even this had I insisted on being a conscientious objector?" Is it not more than likely that large numbers of these men will go back to prison, and in prison find that they are conscientious objectors with the object of escaping work altogether? Those are very serious considerations which I beg you to bear in mind.
The right rev. Prelate the Bishop of Oxford impressed your Lordships very much when he spoke of the feelings that are produced in the country by the sufferings endured by these men; and another noble 1011 Lord, speaking from the Cross Benches, used the word "torture." I think this language is much too strong. At the, same time I would ask these noble Lords who use this language to remember that there are other people who have feelings also. There is the woman who sees one son after another in the family taken away from the home, sent to the Front, very likely to lose his life a widow with one prop after another of her family taken away. What will that woman, who surrenders son after son to the service of his country and is willing to accept the loss of his life, say when she sees the door opened to the conscientious objector who will not move a little finger to assist his country? There are feelings on both sides. Take another case. Take the case of the one-man business recruit—the man who has to sacrifice his all because the call of his country takes him under the Military Service Acts. He goes away out of the country, his family and children are very likely insufficiently provided for, and he is killed. Who has a word of sympathy for him? Everybody admires his sacrifice; nobody talks about the tortures he went through in the trenches in doing his duty to his country. Those classes have feelings that I think ought to be borne in mind.
One other word. I do think it is true that there are features in the present treatment of these people which excite popular sympathy and even provoke resentment. My noble friend said that as the result of this Committee to which I have referred, certain changes—"greater elasticity" was, I think, the phrase which he used—were being introduced into the, present Regulations. I think I should like to ask the leave of the House to pursue that matter a little further. That, it seems to me, is a line, upon which more might be done, and upon which I might be in a position a little later to give information to the House. I should like, therefore, if I may, to put myself in consultation with the. Home Department, because, as my noble friend the, Secretary of State for war remarked, it is a matter that relates to that Department rather than to his. At a later stage, should this matter be revived in the, House, as I understand it will be, I should like to make a statement to your Lordships about any steps which it may be possible to take in that direction.
THE MARQUESS OF CREWE
My Lords, I think I shall be expressing the feeling of 1012 many of your Lordships when I say that the, earlier portions of the speech of the noble Earl opposite were heard in many quarters of the House with some disappointment, which was to a considerable degree mitigated by the sentences with which he closed his speech. What, I think, was not completely understood by the noble Earl was that apparent complaints which were made against the Government defence uttered by my noble friend the Secretary of State for War were in no sense directed to any supposed want of humanity or care on his part, but to the circumstance which, I think, impressed most of us, that he seemed to regard the existing state of affairs as in some respects not to be improved by any kind of Inquiry which could he made.
It has never been quite clear to some of us—the noble Earl spoke of it as though it were a kind of law of nature—why every objector who is brought before a Court-Martial must be sentenced to two years imprisonment with hard labour. My noble friend talked of it as though that were something which was bound to happen in the course of nature, like a thunderstorm, or some kind of natural accident. But what I think most of us have come to believe is this. At the time when the whole business was discussed, when the late Government was in power, it was believed that, although the sentence should be inflicted by the military authority, when the sentence had been pronounced and the culprit had been handed over to the civil power and ceased to be a soldier in the strict sense, then the Army would have nothing more to do with him, and he would in some way or another become, and be treated as, the recalcitrant citizen which in fact he is. That expectation has not been fulfilled, because he becomes a soldier over and over again; he, is then tried by Court-Martial, and receives a military sentence of two years imprisonment with hard labour, which, as we all know, is the most severe sentence in itself that can be inflicted in a Court of Law. I am inclined to think that most people conversant with the practice of the Courts and with prison rules would tell you that almost any criminal would sooner receive five years penal servitude than two years imprisonment with hard labour. That is the kind of subject into which we hoped a broad Inquiry—of the sort which was suggested by my noble and learned friend, and supported by Lord Lansdowne, and by many 1013 others—might have been directed as to whether it was desirable to put these people in fact into the Army at all; whether something could not be done which would inflict the necessary punishment, or disabilities, upon them without going through what it is impossible not to call the farce of turning them into soldiers for a period when everybody knows they are not, and will not be, soldiers.
The noble Earl who leads the House was not, I think quite fair in one respect to those who previously spoke. He used all the artifices of the skilled orator to point out what a monstrous thing it would be if these absolutist conscientious objectors received no punishment, were turned loose, on the world, and were thereby to be placed in a far better position (as they would be) than those other conscientious objectors who had agreed to do national service, sometimes, I imagine, in very hard and uncomfortable conditions; which we all agree would be a most improper result. But I have not heard anybody suggest tonight that these absolutist objectors should have the doors opened to them and be thrown on the world. The noble Earl behind rue, Lord Russell, who takes possibly in some respects what would be called a more advanced view than many of your Lordships on this subject, explicitly stated that he did not want these people to escape the civil penalty which their civil recalcitrancy might bring about.
I have always felt myself that, instead of treating them as ordinary prisoners at all, some device might have been found for placing them in a camp; certainly without any semblance of comfortable material conditions, and without any kind of satisfaction and pleasure which could be got out of life led in an internment camp of 1014 that kind, except the satisfaction they might derive from making speeches to each other. That would. I think, have been an appropriate punishment or means of confinement; and they might have been so retained during the whole progress of the war. I do not think that the conditions of a convict prison are in any sense suited to these particular people, who may range, as has been indicated by previous speakers, over every kind of mind; some of strong mind, and some of weak mind, and some, I should strongly suspect, of completely unbalanced mind—some almost approaching the borderland of insanity; and ranging in the moral sense among every grade from the most complete and almost declared poltroon, on the one hand, to something very much like a saint at the other end. Those people are all treated alike.
I welcome what my noble friend who leads the House has said of the possibility of further relaxation of the prison conditions; but I hope that he will not dismiss from that further consideration the possibility of proceeding on a different system altogether—of not trying to treat these particular people merely as though they were misbehaving soldiers, but to treat them severely, if you please, yet as belonging to a special category and with carefully-thought-out rules applicable to their particular frame of mind and to the special circumstances of the case.