Memorandum from the Peace Pledge Union
presented to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, January 2006
This submission reviews the history of, and present provision for,
discharge from any of the regular or reserve armed forces on the ground of
having developed since enlistment or commissioning a conscientious
objection to further military service. It argues that the present
provision although important and worthwhile is shrouded in secrecy by the
Armed Forces and therefore little known. It recommends a specific
amendment to the Armed Forces Bill to provide for a statutory instrument
relating to discharge on the grounds of conscientious objection.
1. The Peace Pledge Union an independent secular pacifist organisation is
formally recognised by the Ministry of Defence as having an interest in
sittings of the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors to hear
applications by any member of the Armed Forces of all ranks and rates
regulars and reserves for discharge on the grounds of having developed
since enlistment or commissioning a conscientious objection to further
2. The principle for creating such a procedure was established during the
Second World War when it became clear that, apart from those men and women
who claimed conscientious exemption from military service ab initio,
there were others who originally accepted call-up but then changed
their minds on conscientious grounds and others again who had enlisted as
regulars — in one case so far back as 1931 — who also felt unable
conscientiously to continue. For these two latter groups the Appellate
Tribunal set up to hear cases of people in the first group who were
aggrieved by the decision of their Local Tribunal was empowered to sit as
an Advisory Tribunal to hear applications for discharge on conscientious
grounds and tender advice to the Admiralty War Office or Air Ministry as
the case might be, whether a particular applicant should be discharged or
not. It became an established convention that the advice would always be
accepted and if a discharge were recommended it would follow as quickly as
ordinary protocols would allow.
3. This procedure continued after the Second World War until the
abolition of National Service in the early 1960s when the Appellate
Tribunal was wound up. An unsatisfactory period followed during which
there was no clear procedure for dealing with cases of conscientious
objection by regulars. In 1970 however, after representations by bodies
such as the Peace Pledge Union and the National Council for Civil
Liberties, the Ministry of Defence established a new procedure albeit
modelled on the old.
4. An application by any member of the Armed Forces for a discharge on
conscientious grounds is in the first instance to be submitted in writing
to the person ’s commanding officer who forwards it with relevant
observations to the Personnel department of the Ministry. If the Ministry
accepts the application the person is discharged forthwith. If the
application is rejected the applicant is informed of the right to appeal
to the Advisory Committee on Conscientious Objectors (ACCO).
5. ACCO was therefore set up in 1970 comprising a Chairperson and Reserve
Chair both QCs and four lay members the whole appointed by the Lord
Chancellor. For any hearing a panel comprising one of the Chairpersons and
two lay members sits. Hearings are held in public on premises away from
any MoD property. There the applicant is invited to present and answer
questions on his/her case in a relatively informal way and to bring
witnesses and be supported by a friend or legal representative if desired.
The Committee ’s conclusions are presented in the form of advice to the
Secretary of State for Defence and if the advice is for a discharge that
follows as expeditiously as possible.
6. During the Second World War and the post-war conscription period, the
Ministry of Labour and the Armed Forces recognised the Central Board for
Conscientious Objectors (CBCO) as having a legitimate interest in the
topic and an expectation to be informed of developments and procedures.
That recognition was continued so far as ACCO was concerned until CBCO was
wound up in 1988 when the Peace Pledge Union was recognised by the
Ministry of Defence as the successor body for that purpose.
7. Members of the Select Committee may feel having read so far that the
procedure is a wise if unusually generous provision and wonder why any
further representations should be made about it. There is nevertheless a
problem. Very few people even within the Armed Forces are aware that the
8. The procedure is set out in Queen ’s Regulations for the Army
(Volume 5 Instruction No 6 (Retirement or Discharge on the Grounds of
Conscience) but it is marked “RESTRICTED IN CONFIDENCE ”.
There used to be a passing reference in QRs for the RAF to an
obscure leaflet on the topic but even that has disappeared from recent
editions. I have never been able to discover any reference to
conscientious objection in QRs for the RN or in any other
accessible RN documentation.
9. There is indeed the Kafkaesque situation whereby although as the
person nominated within the Peace Pledge Union to be the channel for its
monitoring role vis a vis ACCO, I was sent a very helpful but informal
memorandum on the procedure by the MoD in 1991 when I asked whether I
could have reference numbers of relevant Defence Council Instructions. I
was informed in a letter dated 3 October 1991 from Personnel and Logistics
(Legal Services) MoD “I am unable to provide you with the serial numbers
of classified documents ”.
10. The word “classified ” of course relates to the Official Secrets Acts
and for all I know I may have breached them by citing the Army QRs
reference in paragraph 8 above. It is small wonder that when in 1991 L/Cpl
Victor Williams Royal Artillery felt conscientiously unable to report for
deployment to Saudi Arabia to participate in the Gulf War, he was unaware
of any procedure for seeking a discharge on such grounds. As he said in a
statement read at his court-martial, RABarracks Woolwich, September 1991:
“Had I known or been informed of a procedure for stating my reservations
about this I would have not felt the need to go absent without leave ”.
For the want of public disclosure of conscientious objection provisions,
Victor Williams was sentenced to 14 months imprisonment and the army was
put to the trouble and expense of prosecuting him.
11. Although the evidence I have cited is 15 years old the position has
not changed. The army provisions are still “restricted ”; the RN and RAF
provisions are nowhere in the public domain.
12. The Peace Pledge Union urgently recommends therefore that in Clause
328 of the Bill there be inserted in subsection (2)(a) after the word:
“discharge ” the words “ including on the grounds of having developed a
conscientious objection to further service ”.
13. It would follow from Clause 363 (2)that regulations would be made
concerning conscientious objection which as statutory instruments would be
in the public domain and openly and clearly accessible.
14.Such a recommendation takes advantage of the welcome attempt by the
Bill at consolidation and unified codification of the law concerning many
aspects of Armed Forces discipline and procedure; also for the first time
it would if implemented bring into the public and statutory arena the
well-established but also almost entirely concealed provision for
conscientious objection by volunteer armed forces personnel.
15.The United Kingdom can justly lay claim to the honoured position of
having first made provision for conscientious objection to part-time
military service so far back as the Militia Act 1757 and being the first
country to legislate in the Military Service Act 1916 for conscientious
objection simultaneously with full- time conscription. In the new era of
open government and enshrinement of humans rights within domestic law, it
is time to bring conscientious objection to continued regular or reserve
service out of the shadow of obscure military documentation and into the
daylight of the statute book. Ninety years after the Military Service Act
1916 it is time for a new beginning in a new millennium.