HL Deb 25 June 1964 vol 259 cc321-30

3.29 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this is a small Bill and does not need much explanation. The Pharmacy and Poisons Act, 1933, followed by the Pharmacy Act, 1954, laid down that in order to practice pharmacy it was obligatory to be a member of the Pharmaceutical Society. Four years ago the Society was approached on behalf of pharmacists who belonged to the Exclusive Brethren and who objected on the ground of conscience, to being members of the Society, since this made them members of a body which included persons not of their religious belief. I am advised that some 26 persons are involved, and that they are perfectly willing to accept all the other obligations, both monetary and disciplinary. The Pharmaceutical Society did all they could to find a way around the problem, but were tied to the Act, and the names of these people were accordingly struck off the register. I am advised that a further six persons who have qualified since 1958 have been unable to register. In many cases this has caused hardship, since it has meant either the loss of livelihood or the acceptance of a job in a hospital, under supervision, at a greatly reduced salary.

It is an accepted fact in this country that no one should suffer for his religious beliefs, however extreme they may be. It may also be noted that Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights issued by the United Nations stated: No one may be compelled to belong to an association". To put this mater right my honourable friend the Member for Wycombe in another place introduced this very small Bill, and I believe it is one that will commend itself to your Lordships. I would point out that the power to waive the requirements of membership will be in the hands of the Registrar of the Pharmaceutical Society. I have had talks with him, and the Society are perfectly satisfied that there will be no risk of professional standards being lowered if this Bill is passed through Parliament.

My Lords, I feel that I should say that I have little sympathy with the beliefs of the Exclusive Brethren. But I firmly believe that religious beliefs honestly held, however extreme, should not be the cause of a loss of livelihood to a person who is in every way otherwise perfectly qualified to carry out the profession of his choice. For this reason, I agreed to sponsor this Bill in your Lordships' House, and I ask your Lordships to give it a Second Reading. Subject to what my noble friend Lord Denham has to say, I understand that Her Majesty's Government have no objection to this Bill. I beg to move that the Bill be now read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill he now read 2a.—(Lord Grenfell.)


My Lords, before the Minister replies, might one just ask what is the religion of these Exclusive Brethren?


My Lords, it is a very strict sect within Christianity. As I understand it, they are not allowed to associate in any way with anybody else who does not think on the same lines as they do. It is unhappy in some ways, in that it has been known to break up families; in other words, they cannot feed together or speak together. But it is within the Christian religion—and very fervently within the Christian religion, I may say, though perhaps not in the way we should all prefer to see it.


My Lords, how can they speak to a customer in the chemist's shop?

3.34 p.m.


My Lords, this is a very curious little Bill, and the more I speculate on the motives of those initially responsible for persuading a Member to introduce this Bill, and for persuading the Government to support it, the more baffled I become. My concern is that this measure establishes a novel precedent which could be abused. We have heard to-day that this concerns 26 people of various sects in a profession. I was asking my noble friend how many he thought might be in this profession, but I should say the number is 30,000 or more. That is a conservative estimate of the number of pharmacists in the country, because I know that there are over 20,000 general practitioners, and I should say the number of pharmacists is probably nearer 50,000.

I would remind your Lordships that the Pharmacy Acts provide for every pharmacist to become a member of the Pharmaceutical Society; and registration, which involves a fee, is an essential part of membership. This entitles a pharmacist to work in a factory, as a trade representative, or to dispense prescriptions in a shop or hospital. I would remind the noble Lord, when he says that 26 people have been struck off the register, that unregistered pharmacists can, of course, work in factories, and they can work as trade representatives, so there is no question of these people being penniless. But only registered pharmacists, of course, can dispense in shops or hospitals.

Certain religious sects have decided that this membership is not compatible with their religious beliefs, and the noble Lord who rose just now asked what were their religious beliefs. We were told in another place that they want this Bill passed, because in 2 Corinthians, Chapter VI, verse 14, the Bible says: Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers …". The two sects which are principally concerned, I understand, are the Jehovah's Witnesses and the Plymouth Brethren. The Jehovah's Witnesses were founded in 1872, in Pennsylvania, and since then they have functioned under a number of names. I think they have changed their names about six different times. The Witnesses recognise Jehovah only, and they are opposed to accepting military duties. This I understand, because it is in conformity with the Quakers' attitude and the attitude of other sects. But it has no relationship to the work of an organisation which is of a highly ethical character, the Pharmaceutical Society. Furthermore, I would remind your Lordships that, when members of these sects applied for exemption from the Armed Forces, they were sometimes sent to hospitals as auxiliary workers; and I can never recall their raising any objection then to being yoked together with unbelievers.

It was said in another place—and the noble Lord, I think, has reflected it in his speech—that the sincerity of these members was such that they were prepared to pay the fees of the Pharma- ceutical Society. I think it should be mentioned here that, unless they paid the fees, they would not retain registration and ensure employment in every relevant field. Therefore, payment ensures their complete economic security in every such field. If they did not pay the fees they could still work. But paying the fees is not a great gesture; it is of course a gesture to secure their own employment. Again, I would say that the meetings of the Pharmaceutical Society are entirely voluntary. They often have a monthly meeting and they could have meetings of the branches in various areas, but nobody is compelled to go. Then why is it necessary for Parliament to introduce legislation to separate the Witnesses and Brethren from the unbelievers? I am wondering whether this is a test case and whether, having established this precedent, we shall be asked to grant special exemption for members of various sects in other fields in time to come. The provisions of this Bill are, of course, harmless, except that preferential treatment is given for no valid reason to a tiny minority. I say that if this were repeated later on for other organisations, a feeling of resentment might well be engendered among the majority. The Government supported this Bill. I take it that if we divided on it to-day the Government would put the Whips on and we would lose. But, my Lords, I do want to enter a caveat here, and say that I think that the principle behind this is totally wrong.

THE EARL OF SWINTON: My Lords, may I ask my noble friend who introduced this Bill, or the noble Lord who is going to speak for the Government, just one question which seems to me to be relevant? If these persons are admitted to be full practitioners as pharmacists, chemists, or whatever is the right name to call them, who is going to discipline them? As I understand it, the Pharmaceutical Society, which we know is an admirable body, has its own disciplinary body, just like the Law Society, which, again, as I understand it—the noble Lady will correct me if I am wrong—disciplines its members. Is that not right?


My Lords, it does not discipline its members: it disciplines any solicitor who is on the Roll, which is quite a different thing.


It has a disciplinary body.


I am afraid I did not quite catch that observation, but the Law Society can discipline its members.


No. The Law Society itself has no disciplinary power whatsoever. The Law Society can, if a complaint is made to it, refer the matter to a disciplinary committee, but is not a disciplinary committee of itself.


Et ego in Arcadia vixit. I made my living at the Bar for a number of years.


My Lords, if I may explain where the misunderstanding arises, the fact is that solicitors are not obliged to be members of the Law Society; there is no obligation on them to be members. Nevertheless, the Law Society has, by Statute, disciplinary powers over all solicitors.


I am much obliged. Equally, just as the Bar Council has jurisdiction over all barristers, presumably somebody has jurisdiction over all pharmacists, either the Pharmaceutical Council or their equivalent; or has the power to move a reference to some legal committee. If a chemist misconducts himself, short of prosecuting him in the courts, I presume there is some way of dealing with him as a member of a very honourable profession. What I want to know is this. If there people are admitted to be full practitioners in this honourable profession, who is going to discipline them, and will they be subject to exactly the same forms of discipline, whatever else they may be, as other chemists who misconduct themselves?


My Lords, as I understand it from the Pharmaceutical Society, these persons have fully agreed to accept the discipline which has always been imposed by the Pharmaceutical Society. They have agreed to pay their dues.


My Lords, in view of what the noble Baroness has said, I should just like to say that I have no sympathy with these people whatsoever: nor do I accent that their interpretation of the text from St. Paul which has been referred to is a correct interpretation. But the fact is that I commend the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, for making this plea and I commend the Government for listening to it. It is all the more important to me that it is a plea from a small minority, because in my view civilisation depends upon whether we listen to small minorities. I think it will be a sad day for this country when we are not prepared to listen to small minorities, however ridiculous we think their views might be, so long as they are sincerely held.

So far as the Law Society is concerned, which has been referred to by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, the fact is that membership of the Law Society is not obligatory upon any solicitor. A solicitor can join the Society if he so desires: if he does not there is no undue pressure brought upon him to do so. In fact, out of 20,000 or so solicitors, 18,000 belong to the Law Society and about 2.000 do not. I should have thought the profession we are now considering was analogous. Every solicitor has to be admitted to the Roll; and there arc certain disciplinary obligations upon the Law Society which bind all solicitors, whether or not they are members of the Society. It would be the same, as I understand it, with the Pharmaceutical Society.

The Law Society, which is in fact the trade union of solicitors, does not itself hear the cases. If a complaint is made to it, it instructs a firm of solicitors and they present the case to a separate body, the disciplinary committee, and the disciplinary committee then decide upon it. I think it is important from all points of view to realise that there is this separate disciplinary body—of course, all solicitors—to which a person is brought and to which he can make any defence that he feels obliged to make. I myself, unlike the noble Baroness, do not think that this Bill is an innovation in our law. I believe it follows exactly on the situation that we have in regard to solicitors in this country.

3.48 p.m.


My Lords, I rise, a little later than might have been indicated by the typescript list, to give this Bill a somewhat chilly welcome. I am myself a member of a religious minority, and as a member of a religious minority I am naturally sensitive to things that may affect the lives, work and consciences of other minorities. But I am also sensitive to the danger which might be done if the plea of religious toleration and freedom of conscience were to be carried beyond its logical conclusion. There is a distinct danger that, if the plea of freedom of conscience were to be abused, the whole principle of religious toleration would fall into disrepute and that much suffering would ensue to all the minorities. It is not quite clear to me whether we are to-day considering something that oversteps the logical mark or not, but I am sure that the caveat should be entered.

The three questions one has to look at surely, in considering a question of this sort, are these. Who are the people who are seeking this relief and making this claim on the grounds of conscience? What is the matter of the claim that they are making, the privilege they are seeking? And what are the grounds upon which they seek it? I am interested to learn that the people who are behind this Bill include the Jehovah's Witnesses. I was not aware of that; I had assumed it was entirely the Exclusive Brethren—those Exclusive Brethren, that is to say, who accept the leadership of one Big Jim Taylor, Junior, an American saint. These gentlemen call themselves saints. Other people may call them differently, but they call themselves saints. The Taylorite Exclusive Brethren might be described as a hived-off section of a breakaway group of a dissenter sect.

The Plymouth Brethren, as your Lordships know, are a well-respected group with extremely strict ethical principles. The Brethren split many years ago—I do not know the exact date—into the Open and the Exclusive Brethren. The greater part of the Exclusive Brethren have now come under the influence of this man Taylor. It seems that he claims that he is in fact an Apostle. The claims he makes, I am told, would leave a mediæval Pope quite cold.

As the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, has already said, some of the activities of these people have not been to the liking of the great majority of their fellow citizens. It is true that so strict are their principles about not associating with people who are not of their own sect that husbands will put their wives out of the house, children will not speak to their parents, and so forth. This is a very unpleasant aspect of their activities, but it is not an aspect of their activities with which we are dealing to-day. We are dealing to-day with only one matter—the matter which joins the registration of a pharmacist and his membership of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. Although this Bill says quite simply it is "An Act to amend the Pharmacy Act, 1954", your Lordships will recall that that Act is, itself, only a consolidating measure and the actual provision of law which this Bill seeks to amend was enacted in 1933.

It is true that this is unique among professional societies and associations. I am assured, as was said just now, that solicitors do not have to be members of the Law Society. I am told it is not essential for barristers to remain members of an Inn of Court. I was surprised to hear this; I did not know. Pharmacists are automatically members of the Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain so long as they remain registered pharmacists. The mere fact that this provision is unique to pharmacists is not entirely surprising. The different professional bodies have all grown up with different histories and probably each one of them will point to something in its constitution which is unique.

The purpose of this particular connection is quite clear to see. The Pharmaceutical Society, and consequently the pharmaceutical profession, is governed by a Council consisting of 21 elected members and 3 members appointed by the Privy Council. Where the governing body of a profession is to so large degree composed of the elected members of the professional body, it is essential that the body concerned shall be representative not of a section but of the whole of the profession. It was with that in mind that Parliament in 1933 decided that as soon as a pharmacist registered he should automatically become a member of the Pharmaceutical Society. The Society, 7 understand, takes the view—and the noble Lord, Lord Grenfell, will correct me if I am wrong—that any grave breach in this now traditional connection between registration and membership would almost certainly lead to grave damage to the constitution and the working of the constitution of the Society. They do not feel, however, that the very small number of exceptions which this Bill would allow would do any appreciable harm; in other words, the separation which this Bill will allow between registration and membership would be damaging in principle but not seriously damaging in practice, because the use made of it would be negligible.

What are the grounds on which exemption is sought? Here I have nothing left to say, because it has all been said for me by the noble Baroness opposite. There seems to me neither rhyme nor reason in the claims put forward by these gentlemen. But, having said that, I would add that there is one other point which some of your Lordships have already noticed and upon which I may perhaps give a slightly different emphasis. When a minority makes a claim to a right, the public is entitled to ask, though it seldom does ask consciously, but often unconsciously: "What pledge do you give of your bona fides? How do we know that this is not just a device with some hidden meaning that you have not yet revealed?" I think the answer is always the same. Again, it is never given consciously; but it seems to happen. The minority, who feel themselves, rightly or wrongly, to be oppressed, show the genuineness of their objections by being prepared to undergo considerable suffering rather than to acknowledge the law which they dislike. The noble Baroness has ventured to say—and I think she is probably right—that the amount of suffering that these people would undergo by ceasing to be registered pharmacists would, in fact, not be very great. That is so, if they are prepared to accept lower remuneration and a professional life with no future in the way of ambition to it.


My Lords, may I interrupt the noble Lord? A medical representative of a drug firm today earns very much more than a chemist in a chemist's shop or in a hospital. They would be able to do that.


I am obliged to the noble Baroness for that. Nevertheless some of these people, I am told, have sold up their own businesses and started out in different lines of work. I think on that score they are entitled to the benefit of the doubt. One knows— one sees it often—that a fool is pre- pared to suffer for his folly; but when a man says he is suffering on religious grounds he is entitled to the benefit of the doubt. A pledge of suffering has been offered and Parliament can redeem it by granting this small Bill. If any of your Lordships will walk towards Victoria and look into the Cathedral you will see there the body of a Recusant priest who was content to be hanged, drawn and quartered rather than deny his godly calling. Or, if you would step towards the City and go into Farringdon Street, you will see a large and ugly building with an engraved stone on it reminding us of the fidelity of conscience of the ejected Ministers of 1662.

You may say that I am comparing a mountain with a molehill; but I would give these people the benefit of the doubt. It was by the suffering of the Recusants and the non-jurors that the religious liberty of the minorities which is enjoyed to-day came into being. It may now be that Parliament is entitled to say: "Yes, we will take up the pledge you have given us of your sincerity and we will grant you this relief." However, like the noble Baroness opposite, I do not think we have heard the last of this particular sect, and it may be that in some other context they will form the subject matter of a debate in your Lordships' House in the future.

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