Memorandum from the Peace Pledge Union (Conscientious Objection)
presented to the Select Committee on the Armed Forces Bill, January 2006

Executive Summary

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 service.

 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.

The Problem

 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 procedure exists.

 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.

 January 2006