HL Deb 29 January 1946 vol 139 cc49-57

5.13 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill is described by its title in a manner which indicates clearly the purpose for which I submit it to your Lordship's House. It will, I think, be commonly agreed that in many matters we have arranged our affairs more satisfactorily during the late war than in the earlier war. In few cases is the contrast more striking than in our treatment of conscientious objectors. Your Lordships will remember how, in the course of the earlier war, much appeared in the Press and much was spoken on the public platform in connexion with controversies as to the position of conscientious objectors and even those who were least sympathetic to the views which they held could not help feeling that in some instances there was a certain harshness in their treatment, while the conscientious objectors themselves suffered great bitterness of spirit by their treatment. Quite different has the position been in the case of the late war. The rights and at the same time the obligations of conscientious objectors were set out in the legislation which itself constituted the arrangements for National Service. It was the obligation of conscientious objectors to register and it was for a tribunal to decide whether or not they were in truth conscientious objectors. The total of conscientious objectors in the late war was rather under 45,000 in all. I think it is interesting to note perhaps that in the earlier stages of the war the proportion was 2 per cent. of the call-up, which was reduced as the war proceeded to 0.1 per cent. of the call-up.

The conscientious objectors fall within three main classes. There are those who, having registered, were directed to the Non-combatant Corps. They numbered some 15,000 men and some 30 women. Those who were registered without conditions numbered about 3,500 men and 100 women. Those who were conditionally registered numbered 25,000 men and 700 women. It is only with the last class—the conditionally registered, the 25,000 men and the 700 women—that your Lordships are concerned in this Bill to-day. Those who joined the Non-combatant Corps obtained their release on the same footing as other members of the Armed Forces by way of the operation of the age and service scheme. Those who were registered unconditionally took their place at the time of such registration with their fellow citizens without obligations for National Service. Those who were conditionally registered were directed to some civilian work deemed to be of national importance, some of them into employments under the Essential Work Order, others directed in particular occupations and the balance selected occupations with the approval of the tribunal.

The National Service Act, 1939, in dealing with the conditionally registered conscientious objectors, provided that they were to continue to be subject to the condition until the end of the present emergency, the emergency to which that Act was directed, an emergency which is coterminous with the emergency for the purposes of the Armed Forces of the Crown and the date of promulgation of which is at present, of course, quite indefinite for the future. The consequence is that unless some steps are taken, these conditionally registered conscientious objectors would be under the compulsion of remaining in their present occupations for an indefinite period, that is, until the period of emergency under the National Service Act is declared to be brought to an end. It is with a view to that situation that this Bill has been prepared. The Bill is designed to put the conditionally registered conscientious objectors in the same position, as near as may be, as the man or woman serving in the Army, that is, the age and service principle will apply. The conscientious objectors will form, so to speak, a corps among themselves, sub-divided into age and service groups on the same principle as the Armed Forces, and each age and service group of these conditionally registered conscientious objectors will be released when the whole of the group in the Armed Forces to which they belong has itself been released.

For instance, if one takes Group 24, when the whole of all ranks of Group 24 have been released from the Army—the Army has been taken for simplicity's sake—then conditionally registered conscientious objectors of the same age and service group will be released. As regards women I ought to mention that, the same principle applies and, in respect of married women, they are free to be released whenever they choose to ask that they may be. From what I have said previously, your Lordships will appreciate these conscientious objectors may be in occupations governed by the Essential Work Order or, in work to which they have been directed by the Ministry of Labour. It is, of course, not intended that the release should be a mere formality. It is intended that it should be a reality, and consequently those who are serving in work under the Essential Work Order, or in work to which they have been directed by the Ministry of Labour, will be allowed to leave that work to seek other work, and will indeed in all respects on release be in the same position as a member of the Armed Forces who has been released in the normal way.

I ought perhaps to tell your Lordships how the period of time will be calculated for the purposes of calculating an age and service group. It will be calculated normally from the date of registration by the Tribunal or, if there has been an appeal, by the Appelate Tribunal, but in the case of those—and there was a considerable number—who served in the Armed Forces prior to their registration, the period during which they served in the Armed Forces will count towards their service in calculating their age and service group. Furthermore, there may be a number, such as the members of the Friends' Ambulance Unit, who did wholly admirable and indeed noble work during; the war, and, so far as they are concerned, the Ministry of Labour will take steps to see that they are released, having regard to the nature and quality of the work which they have done.

There is little more that I need say to your Lordships except perhaps this, that what is known as the Class B scheme, for the purposes of release from the Armed Forces, will be applied for getting out-of-turn releases in the case of those conditionally registered conscientious objectors; in other words, the release of such conscientious objectors is being assimilated to the release of those in the Armed Forces. I have wished to acquaint your Lordships in general terms with the purpose and the contents of the Bill, the Second Reading of which I now move.

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

5.25 p.m.


My Lords, there are one or two points in respect of which I should like elucidation from the noble Lord, Lord Nathan. He said, if I understood him rightly, taking Group 24 as an example, that these conscientious objectors would be released as the last people of their own class; when Group 24 of the Army was released, these conscientious objectors would be released at the end of Group 24. Well, that is 211 right as regards the Army. I should like it to be made quite clear—as I am sure the noble Lord will make it quite clear—that there will be no people of that particular class left in the Navy or Air Force when these conscientious objectors are released. It is only fair that the Air Force and Navy should have an assurance—as I am quite sure my noble friend opposite will agree—that there are none of that class left when these conscientious objectors are being released.

There is another point. As I understood it, there are different classes of conscientious objectors, some more conscientious or less conscientious—I do not quite know how you express it—than others; whether these are the least conscientious or the most conscientious I do not know, but, at any rate, they have been put in Government employment, they have been—what is the present term?




—directed to particular employment as I understand it. Now this Bill says that if a man who is a conscientious objector is directed to Government employment, the moment this Bill is passed and his category is reached that man is released from Government employment, in spite of the fact that people of his own age and his own category, who would have been in the Army except perhaps for some physical disability, are still kept in Government employment, still employed and not able to move to other employment. It seems to me grossly unfair, as I hope noble Lords behind me will agree, that a man who may have lost a limb or an eye in the last war and was not able to go into the Army or the Air Force or the Navy, however much he may have wished to do so, and who was directed by the Government to certain employment—it may be directed to employment in Sheffield while his wife and family were living in Devonshire—should have to go on being employed by the Government in Sheffield with his family some hundreds of miles away, whereas the conscientious objector is allowed to go and do what he likes and join his own family. I do not think that is fair. I hope the members of the Government Bench will think this over before the Committee stage is reached, as I presume there will be a Committee stage, on this Bill. I am saying nothing against the degree of conscientiousness of the conscientious objectors, but it is not fair to the man I have mentioned., who wants to serve his country, to be kept in a place where he does not want to be while the conscientious objector is allowed to go free.

There is another point in respect of which I should like elucidation from the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, and that is this: As I understand it, with regard to this Bill, if I remember the noble Lord's words, he said that it places the conscientious objector as near as maybe in the position of the man in the Army, the Navy, or the Air Force who is to be demobilized. Well, with regard to an employer of labour, when a man is conscripted and taken away to the Armed Forces, on his return that employer of labour is obliged, and quite rightly so, to re-employ the man who has been his servant, he is obliged to re-employ him in the work in which he was engaged in 1939. If, as I understand, by "as near as maybe" the noble Lord means that under this Bill a conscientious objector may be demobilized or de—whatever it is—what is the right word?




Released. If the conscientious objector is released by the Government, can he thereupon go to his former employer and say, "You must kick out this ex-Service man whom you are now employing and must reemploy me on the conditions on which you employed me before"? I am sure I have the support of people behind me when I say that if a conscientious objector has been put in some factory for reasons of his own and for his conscience, and the employer of labour has then filled his place with a discharged and maybe wounded man from the Services, that employer should not have to discharge that wounded man and put the conscientious objector back into his job. Those are the points upon which I should very much like elucidation from the noble Lord before we read this Bill a second time.

5.31 p.m.


My Lords, I would like to support the noble Earl, Lord Rosebery, on one point. I think the noble Lord, Lord Nathan, in summing up the Bill, said the idea was to make the release of conscientious objectors similar to that of the Armed Forces in regard to the groups. I am sure that is very laudable, and we would all agree with it, but I want to stress the point so well made by Lord Rosebery. Do let us have it similar, and not give the conscientious objector a preference over other people who have been directed to work on the same terms as himself—I forget the expression now—under the Essential Work Order. I do not think he should have any preference over those people. I quite agree that we have gone one step; we have equal conditions for conscientious objectors with the Armed Forces in regard to release; but do not let them have extra privileges for release from the work to which they were directed. That is the only point I want to make.

5.33 p.m.


My Lords, let me relieve the mind of the noble Earl, Lord Rosebery, at once in regard to the third of the three questions that he put to me, by saying that the provisions of the Reinstatement Act do not apply to conscientious objectors, so his anxieties on that score I can thus readily dissipate. So far as the Government employees are concerned, it is of course true that those who have been directed into Government employment, or who have accepted release from the Armed Forces and been posted to (I think it is) W reserve for that purpose, may come within the provisions of Defence Regulation No. 58AA, under which they can be held by the Government Department. It only applies to temporary civil servants. It is open to the temporary civil servant to apply to the official chief of his Department, and if he is able to make out a good case why he should be allowed to return to civil life he will be permitted to do so. The demobilization—if that is the term I may use in this connexion—of the civil servant will not, as matters stand at present, depend on age and service groups, but will depend, in the first place, upon individual release to deal with individual cases, and then, no doubt, upon the withdrawal of Defence Regulation No. 58AA.

As regards the assimilation of release to the Army principle, it has, of course, to be remembered that the conscientious objectors are wholly or for the most part actually in the Army in the sense that they were called up to the Army, and, having been called up to the Army, they have appealed or made an application.


I do not want to interrupt in any way, but I know of quite a number of conscientious objectors who failed in their Army medical examination and therefore could not have been in the Army.


If a conscientious objector were of a degree of health which incapacitated him from service in the Armed Forces of the Crown, he would be in exactly the same position as any member of the public who was not a conscientious objector, and the fact of his being a conscientious objector would not indeed arise. It only arises when he is called up, and the release of this conditionally registered conscientious objector is assimilated to the Army releases, in the first place, because he was or is in the Army, although sent to other work as a result of his appeal to the Tribunal, and also because the Army system of release is far the simplest and relates to the far largest number of people. Throughout the three Services, the system of release so far as the actual groups are concerned does not run absolutely evenly for a variety of reasons, partly owing to tradesmen's questions and matters of that kind, and the Army system has been adopted for the reason I have indicated; that they were called up to the Army and also because it is the simplest scheme. I can say to the noble Earl that they are released in respect of the same group but after the release of all ranks in that group.


In the Army?


In the Army. I have not answered the question put to me by the noble Lord, Lord Chesham, in what I said just now. The noble Lord, as I understood him, put the matter thus: that those who were conscientious objectors directed to particular jobs should not now, on their release as conscientious objectors, be released from the obligations of the Essential Work Order or the direction. But I would say to the noble Lord that as release under this Bill, and release indeed at all during the emergency, depends upon a man being released under the Essential Work Order or the direction—that is, the compulsory service from which he is being released—if he were to be retained in the essential work or in the directed work, then the release would be wholly nugatory. It would be a frustration of the whole purpose that his release should be effected.

Let me tell the noble Lord what, as I understand the position, actually happens. On the conscientious objector in question being sent for release under his age and service group he will report himself to the local Ministry of Labour and National Service officer and say: "I have received a notification from the Ministry of Labour that I am to be released under this particular Act. I am now released; here is the notice." The officer of the Ministry of Labour and National Service would say: "Be it so. I now release you from your obligation in this essential work or in this directed work." Upon that, the conscientious objector is in the same position as a released soldier; he has a period of, I think, eight weeks within which to find work which may be suitable and convenient. It may even be his former work to which he returns. If he succeeds in finding a position within that time, then, just as in the case of a soldier, the Ministry of Labour and National Service takes no further interest in him; but if he fails within eight weeks to obtain employment by his own activities, then he becomes, like anyone else who has been released, subject to such obligations as may remain for the direction of labour. I will repeat what I said initially. The object of this Bill is in all respects to assimilate the release of the conditionally registered conscientious objector to that of the soldier released from the Army.

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