HL Deb 03 April 1941 vol 118 cc1004-13

Brought from the Commons; and read 1a.

Then, Standing Order No. XXXIX having been dispensed with:


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a second time. The Bill may be reduced to two main principles. First, it makes possible compulsory recruitment for the Civil Defence Services on the same basis as for the Armed Forces of the Crown, or, to put it in another way, it enables men who are already liable for compulsory military service to be allocated to Civil Defence Service. Secondly, it effects certain amendments in the National Service (Armed Forces) Act which experience has shown to be both necessary and advisable. The original conception of civil defence was that of a citizen force—local, part-time, unpaid volunteers—who, being trained and collected by the local authority, would stand by and assist their fellow countrymen in time of need. That original conception remains still unimpaired. The nation as a whole, I submit, has a right to be proud of the quantity and the quality of those who have already volunteered for local service. It would appear that the occasion and the need both discovered and released vast resources of capacity and moral energy which were placed at the disposal of the nation, and many of those who have so volunteered have shown unexpected competence and a quite remarkable loyalty to the work in hand. I think specially of the London Auxiliary Fire Service. Your Lordships may believe me when I say, from personal knowledge, that the London Fire Brigade Service has the admiration of all London citizens. It is an immense encouragement to feel that these Auxiliary Fire Service volunteers have won not only the trust but the admiration of the permanent and experienced Fire Brigade staff in that great and highly honoured service.

But the increased call for men for the Armed Forces and for the vital war industrial services results in the need for men becoming greater. In some areas the men available are sufficient and entirely satisfactory, but in some other areas the nucleus of whole-time volunteers has shrunk below the number required. In vulnerable areas, or in areas thought to be specially vulnerable, it became necessary to establish a nucleus of whole-time personnel to be supplemented by part-time volunteers. In other less vulnerable areas we continue to rely upon part-time volunteers, and it is noteworthy that some 90 per cent. of the whole of the volunteer forces are serving in this way. It is not intended to depart in any way from the original fundamental conception of a volunteer part-time Civil Defence Service, but in some areas it is necessary to bring up the strength without delay to the standard required. That can only be done quickly, it is submitted, on a compulsory basis, and this Bill, for the first time, places the Civil Defence Services on the same footing as the other Defence Services.

I need not go into detail in commending this Bill to your Lordships' attention, but you may take my word for it that His Majesty's Government feel that the need does exist and that every effort has been made to meet that need in certain areas on a volunteer basis. Therefore, this Bill brings with it an element of compulsion. First of all, it makes liable to Civil Defence Service all those who are liable for service in the Armed Forces under the National Service Act of 1939; and secondly, the Bill seeks to impose similar liability upon those who have been registered under the Act as conscientious objectors on condition that they take up work under civilian control. It is not required that conscientious objectors should serve in the police, as that might involve the bearing of arms. Moreover, the conscientious objector who is registered unconditionally is not to be liable under this Bill to be called up. The Bill does not affect women.

In regard to the matter of age, it is intended to arrange that men ordinarily selected shall not be under thirty years of age and, where possible, not under thirty-five years of age. As far as possible, men so called up will be placed in their home towns. The same machinery for calling up will be used as for the Armed Forces, and if any man expresses any preference for any particular Service that will be considered sympathetically, so far as that is possible. It will be possible for application for postponement on grounds of hardship to be sympathetically considered. In regard to the terms of service, those who are already working in the Civil Defence Services, and are already enrolled, will remain as they are at present under the local authority, but those called up specially under this Bill will be deemed to have been taken into the service of the Crown, though they will usually be posted to a local authority. In regard to the existing whole-time volunteers, there will be an opportunity, should they desire to exercise it, to be called up under the Bill and so to take service under the Crown itself. Arrangements will be made so that those who join the Civil Defence Services shall not receive less favourable treatment than they would have received had they joined the Armed Forces.

Other provisions in the Bill take the form of amendments to the main Act, and some of them relate to the difficulty of conscientious objectors. This Bill attempts to deal with that difficult and distressing problem both with understanding and, I believe, with consideration. Owing to the wise provisions which Parliament made two years ago, the controversy on this matter has not had the bitterness attached to it which some of us remember a generation ago. There is between the Government and the conscientious objector a kind of mutual understanding, if not agreement. The conscientious objector recognises, as we all recognise, that the Government have a vast and urgent responsibility placed upon them, no less a responsibility than for the freedom, now and in the future, of ourselves and, it may be, of the civilised world. What the Government do or fail to do now may decide whether our children shall be free in body and in conscience, or whether they shall be bodily and spiritually slaves. On the other hand, the Government recognise the difficult position in which the conscientious objector finds himself.

The fundamental problem here is that of the freedom of the individual. Freedom is a very precious thing when it is worthily used and to preserve it may at times mean not only service but also sacrifice. This Bill does not ask the conscientious objector to defile his conscience by undertaking military service; it asks him to share with his fellows the task of carrying on the civil life upon which his own liberty and the liberty of us all depends. It is very difficult to criticise the man who feels that before all other things he must place the decision of his own conscience. There are, I hope and believe, those amongst us who would prefer to die rather than to do certain things; and to that extent we can at least understand the spirit of the conscientious objector. I hope—speaking, if I can, as a private individual—that the time will never come when my nation will lack citizens who place their conception of right and of duty above ail other considerations—above derision, above penalties and above discomfort. I cannot help feeling that it is a good thing and helpful to all of us that there should be in our midst a moral witness against the fundamental evil of war. But, if a man must revere the decisions of his own conscience, he must also beware lest he elevate one conception of duty in a limited sphere to the neglect of other moral obligations to the community and to Right itself.

Conscience, my Lords, is only the pulse of reason; and I think experience teaches us that we ought to distrust it when it beats feverishly. Thomas Hobbes, in the Leviathan, tells us that a man's conscience and his judgment are the same thing and that just as judgment may be erroneous so also may be conscience. We all of us live in and by the community; we cannot cut ourselves apart from it, except to our own hurt and disadvantage. We are all members one of another, and our spiritual strength, such as it is, is not self-created but derived from the very heart of the national temper, tradition and experience. The whole of a man's obligations, therefore, are perhaps greater than any particular part of them. I am not trying to explain away or to underestimate the power of the conviction that the conscientious objector has, or the loyalty that he owes to his conscience. If a man loses his conscience, he has nothing else that is worth keeping. But I feel that this Bill, in asking conscientious objectors to participate not in military work, or even in the police service, which might mean some measure of compulsion, but in civic things, is bringing a new note into this problem of the difficulty of the conscientious objector; and I hope that your Lordships will approve the provisions which the Bill makes.

There are certain amendments to the main Act which are proposed in this Bill. It is proposed in Clause 4 that the conditions relating to the refusal of medical examination shall be reviewed. At the present time a man may refuse to be medically examined, and the penalty for such refusal is a fine of £5. That is rather a cheap way of getting round a very difficult problem; and it is proposed to modify the existing practice by the introduction of a larger fine and a period of imprison- ment. The text of the Bill which is before your Lordships mentions certain figures regarding the fine and the term of imprisonment, but the latest reprint of the Bill from another place reduces the fine and imprisonment by, I think, half.

Clause 5 deals with the conscientious objector who fails to comply with the conditions on which he is registered. Such failure in the first place may be just wilful, or, secondly, may be due to causes beyond the man's own control. The Minister in such cases may refer the matter to a local tribunal. Then, if the local tribunal agrees with him the man may be registered unconditionally, or the existing condition may be confirmed. In the case of wilful failure to comply, no prosecution can take place except by or with the consent of the Minister of Labour and National Service. Then again, men marked out by the tribunals for non-combatant service in the Armed Forces come under the consideration of this Bill. Hitherto such men have been removed from the Conscientious Objectors' Register, and this is resented by many of them. A man likes to feel, "Though I have subordinated my own feelings to the necessities of the State, I still wish it to be registered that I have this conscientious objection to war"; and the Bill makes this registration possible.

I need mention only one or two items in the remaining clauses. Clause 9 clears up a certain uncertainty which existed in regard to persons not ordinarily resident in Great Britain; Clause 10 clears up some obscurities regarding the reinstatement provisions; Clause II makes provision for the simplification of procedure on prosecutions; and Clause 14 makes it possible to amend the present Bill by Defence Regulations, should such amendment prove to be necessary. I have gone quite quickly through the principle and the provisions of this Bill. It deals with a complex and difficult but an urgent matter. It is, I believe, a Bill which merits your Lordships' approval, and I invite you to give it a Second Reading.

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


My Lords, I have listened to the description of the Bill by the noble Lord, expressed as usual in his admirable and clear way and almost eloquent language. I rise not to oppose the Bill, because no one who reads it can feel anything but sympathy with its principle and belief in its terms, but it does seem to me, after the time that the noble Lord devoted to the clauses of the Bill which deal with conscientious objectors, that people in the country will regard the Bill as one to make it easier for conscientious objectors to avoid national service in the future. Only a week or so ago there was a debate in your Lordships' House on this question of conscientious objectors, which the noble Lord, Lord Faringdon, raised on a particular point, and it was a debate of very great interest. I had insufficient knowledge of the details of the case to which he was particularly referring, otherwise I should have felt inclined to take part. But I do feel when we are discussing, as the noble Lord did just now, the freedom of the subject, that "freedom of the subject" as expressed at the present time in a war most vital to our nation, and indeed to the world, is a term of considerable elasticity. And when the noble Lord speaks of the moral effect of making these very easy provisions for the conscientious objector in this Bill, I view with some perturbation what will happen when peace comes, and we have to maintain the peace of the world, if there is going to grow up in this country, as suggested by the noble Lord, a class of individual who will never believe it is worth while fighting for his country.

I have risen to say these few words in order to some extent, I hope, to take the gilt off the gingerbread in so far as conscientious objectors are concerned. I do know that the conscientious objectors in this country to-day are having a very fair deal. I have talked to those who are performing the very difficult and delicate task of acting on the tribunals dealing with conscientious objectors, and I know that in the opinion of the Appeal Tribunal in Scotland the conscientious objectors have never been dealt with so fairly or so easily as they are at the present time. I hope that when this Bill is placed on the Statute Book, as I hope it will be as soon as possible, it will not be understood, because of certain provisions in it regarding conscientious objectors, that it is intended as a Bill to make things easier for conscientious objectors than they already are; and I hope that His Majesty's Government will take perhaps a rather more severe view on this subject than that expressed by the noble Lord this afternoon, because unless they do, I fear not only for the future but also for the present.


My Lords, those of your Lordships who heard me speak when the original Bill introducing conscription was before your Lordships, will perhaps have expected me to say a word of protest against this Bill also. I do not speak in any way for my Party, for just as in the country as a whole conscientious objection is recognised and tolerated—and may I say in passing how deeply I appreciate the sympathetic manner in which the Deputy Leader of the House spoke of conscientious objectors?—so in the Labour Party those of us who hold pacifist views are permitted to remain in the Party though not in agreement with the Party's policy on these points. It is my own view that in introducng conscription into this country at all Parliament has exceeded its moral powers. I do not believe that the Executive or Parliament itself has that right over men which, in my view, turns them into slaves. Having said this, it is not my intention to labour a point which I am sure I am not wrong in supposing will receive very little sympathy in your Lordships' House. I should like to add one or two words about the contents of this Bill itself. I would say at once that, in my view, speaking as a pacifist, there is nothing in the duties to be enforced under this Bill which would be contrary—


May I ask the noble Lord what is a pacifist? Is a pacifist the same as a conscientious objector?


The House does not require me to give an extensive definition. A pacifist is, if you like, a conscientious objector—you may make the two terms interchangeable. In my view, as I was saying, the duties to be enforced under this Bill are not duties to which, at any rate, my own conscience would take any exception whatever. They are duties which, in my view, are more in the nature of acts of good neighbourliness than acts of military service. I gather that that is, in fact, the view of His Majesty's Government. But the Government in my opinion are taking too narrow a view of conscience. Conscientious objection to military service alone is not the true extent of conscientious objection. As I say, I do not myself wholly understand the position of those who would feel that the duties under this Bill would be impossible for them to undertake, but that there are a certain number of such persons is undoubted. I believe that their views are held in perfect sincerity, and I regret that this Bill does not seem to take sufficient account of that attitude.

In my view—and it is a view which is supported by the experience of those who have had considerable dealing with cases of this kind—had this Bill been on the Statute Book earlier, the amount of conscientious objection would have been a minute fraction of what, in fact, it has been. It has been suggested to me that had conscripts been given this choice from the beginning of the war, 80 per cent. of the conscientious objectors would have been willing to accept this service and would have done it. May I therefore suggest to His Majesty's Government that in difficult, troublesome cases, such as I raised in your Lordships' House a couple of weeks ago, where conscientious objectors have not had their views upheld before tribunals, and have been forced into the Armed Forces, it might be possible now to give these men the opportunity of doing willingly, and as I believe more usefully, the duties which this Bill is designed to cover? I suggest to His Majesty's Government that in the case of these people whose consciences have caused them a great deal of trouble, and who are at present in positions which they find spiritually painful and uncomfortable, they should be given the opportunity of rendering, willingly, freely, and wholeheartedly, the service which they would like to give to their country.

There is one other point in this Bill, and it is the question of the sanctions imposed on those who do not submit to medical examinations and other formalities under the Bill. I suggest that these provisions open the way to just that process which, during the last war, came to be called the "cat-and-mouse" proceeding, which everybody who has considered this matter has decided to be most objectionable. I believe that this would be met if a safeguard of the kind provided in the original Conscription Act, under Section 13, could be introduced into this Bill. I have said that, for the vast majority of conscientious objectors, this Bill does provide opportunity for alternative and useful service, but for the small number who do not find it possible to accept this service I would plead that some recognition of their position should be made. I repeat that in opposing this Bill—and I oppose it because it contains in my view the immoral principle of conscription—I am speaking for myself and not for my Party; but I believe that if it were possible for His Majesty's Government to accept the suggestions I have made, both as to the "cat-and-mouse" business and as to the possibility of transferring to the Civil Defence Services men who find their position spiritually uncomfortable and disagreeable in the Armed Forces, they would, so far from hindering, actually help the country in its present situation.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.