The United Kingdom Bill 151

19 October 1999

Military Expenditure (Conscientious Objection)

Mr. John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington): I beg to move,

That leave be given to bring in a Bill to give taxpayers the right to direct that proportion of their income tax which would otherwise be spent on military purposes to a fund for international aid.

I come to the House directly from the funeral of my constituent, Brian Cooper, the driver of the Great Western train in the Paddington rail disaster. I take this opportunity to send the condolences and the sympathy of the whole House to his family.

The central purpose of the Bill is to give taxpayers who have a conscientious objection to war the right to direct to the Department for International Development or to a non-military security fund the proportion of their income tax that would otherwise be spent on military purposes.

I shall briefly explain the detail of the Bill, and then set out the rationale for its enactment. The Bill would give all taxpayers the opportunity to express on their tax return their conscientious objection to the expenditure of their taxes on preparations for war or the prosecution of war. Taxpayers would be able to express their desire for that proportion of their income tax that would otherwise be spent on military purposes to be spent instead on the prevention of war--to be invested in the search for peace rather than the pursuit of war.

Tax revenues would be diverted either to the Department for International Development, to assist areas of the world deemed at risk of conflict, or to a non-military security fund. The fund, which would be established by the Bill, would have three purposes. First, it would support research into non-military conflict resolution and peace building. Secondly, it would establish a United Kingdom mediation and arbitration service, for use at an early stage in areas of potential conflict. Thirdly, it would support international peace-building organisations, including the United Nations. The fund would be managed by trustees, appointed by the Government, with experience of non-military security, who would report annually to Parliament on the disbursement of the moneys allocated to the fund. I envisage that the simplicity of those measures would enable the scheme to be introduced as early as the tax year 2001-02.

The rationale behind the Bill is as follows. The right of conscientious objection has been acknowledged in this country for centuries. In the late 17th century, the Government sought to induce Quakers to engage in military activities. They refused, and went to prison in a body. Subsequently, in the Militia Ballot Act, Quakers as a body were excluded from military service.

The general right to refuse on the grounds of conscience to participate as a combatant in military service was included in the Military Service (Number 2) Act 1916, which introduced conscription for the first world war. Bonar Law said in the Chamber that conscientious objectors were no less filled with patriotism than others fighting in the trenches, and the legislation provided alternative ways in which individuals opposed on religious or ethical grounds to fighting could serve their country in a pacific rather than an aggressive way.

The right to conscientious objection has also been recognised in the United Nations declaration on human rights and the European Union convention on human rights. More recently, the legal right to act in accordance with one's conscience has been placed firmly on the statute book by the Government through the Human Rights Act 1998.

My Bill seeks to give meaningful recognition to the right of conscientious objection and to bring the practical exercise of that right up to date. Modern wars are no longer fought with conscript armies in which a conscientious objector can refuse to serve; they are fought with high-tech weapons paid for with our taxes. Today we are not conscripted to fight; instead, our taxes are conscripted to pay for the high-tech weapons of modern warfare and the trained professionals who fire them.

For those who object to war, there is little moral difference between actually firing lethal weapons and paying for someone else to do so. The Bill gives meaning to the right of freedom of conscience in the modern world. If the right of conscientious objection is to have any real meaning today, it must be the right not to support the pursuit of war with our taxes. We must allow those who object to war the right to have their taxes used for the prevention of war.

Bonar Law acknowledged the heroic humanitarian contribution made by many conscientious objectors during wartime, and modern conscientious objectors should be allowed to make their contribution to society by investing their taxes in the peaceful service of our community.

The Bill is not an attempt to allow people to avoid paying taxes, or to reduce anyone's tax burden. Any taxpayer who wished to exercise the right under the proposed legislation would pay the same amount of tax. The only difference would be that the proportion of their tax that would have been spent on military purposes would be diverted from waging war to waging peace by developing non-military security initiatives.

Organisations such as the United Nations and the European Union already invest in non-military security work, but that is undermined by the lack of funding and a lack of political support. The Bill could release additional resources to enhance peace building and conflict resolution, thus preventing potential conflicts and addressing their root causes without resorting to military force.

In recent years, there has been a tragic failure to invest in conflict resolution at an early enough stage, and that has resulted in bitter and bloody wars, with all the resultant human suffering. Ireland, Palestine, Somalia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Kosovo, East Timor and now Kashmir represent a litany of failures of the civilised world to invest its resources in preventing conflict. They reflect our disastrous propensity to watch disputes fester and grow, only to intervene belatedly and militarily.

Non-military security involves a flexible, imaginative, interventionist approach to securing peace. It is based on prioritising mediation and other peace-building techniques as a way of avoiding armed conflict. It requires resources and the development of an independent arbitration service ready for use at the earliest possible stage of any potential conflict. It includes the monitoring of the implementation of agreements between parties to a potential conflict, which necessitates the creation of an independent peace-monitoring service. It involves the stabilising of areas of potential conflict by promoting the establishment of democratic structures, civil authorities and an independent media structure to protect human rights and build social cohesion.

Where conflicts have occurred, the Bill would enable the release of resources to invest in the rebuilding of the social and economic infrastructure of a conflict zone, including the clearing of landmines and the rebuilding of homes, hospitals, schools, workshops and factories. Those resources could also support the conversion of industry from military to civil production, and could be used to retrain people in the skills needed to rebuild their communities and their economy so as to secure long-term peace.

Various arguments have been used against the measures proposed in the Bill, and some have expressed opposition to the principle of the Bill, but the right of conscientious objection has been accepted in principle in Britain for a considerable period. The Bill does nothing more than put that principle in a modern setting.

The Treasury initially raised some practical objections to the operation of the Bill's proposals, and argued that it broke the Treasury's sacred rule of opposing hypothecation of taxation. With the introduction of the system of self-assessment for individual taxation, there are no practical hurdles left. As for the alleged offence of hypothecation, the Government have introduced hypothecation of taxation in their congestion charging proposals.

Another charge is that the Bill would set a precedent for others to direct their taxes, thus opening the floodgates to other objections to Government expenditure programmes. Although many may wish to divert their taxes for political reasons, the right to refuse to kill or to pay others to kill on our behalf uniquely rests on a basic human right that is recognised in domestic and international law.

Last year, this country budgeted for more than £21 billion of military expenditure. That represents about 8.5 per cent. of the Government's total expenditure and an annual contribution of roughly £500 per taxpayer for military programmes. With such large sums, a relatively small number of taxpayers opting to exercise their rights under the Bill would result in a major investment of resources in preventing conflicts in the world by promoting peace-building measures.

The campaign to extend the right of conscientious objection to taxation has been waged across Europe and the United States. By enacting the Bill, the Government, who have been elected on a commitment to an ethical foreign policy and to putting human rights at the heart of government, could establish themselves as a world leader for peace.

In 10 weeks' time, we shall celebrate the 2000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ and the start of a new millennium. It may be worth reminding ourselves of Christ's words in the sermon on the mount. He said:

Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.

The Bill could assist us all in becoming peacemakers, and would make a small contribution to ensuring that the next millennium is a millennium of peace.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. John McDonnell, Mr. Harry Cohen, Mr. Jeremy Corbyn, Audrey Wise, Mr. Neil Gerrard, Mr. Tony Benn, Dr. Rudi Vis, Ms. Jenny Jones, Mr. Alan Simpson and Mr. Cynog Dafis.

Mr. John McDonnell accordingly presented a Bill to give taxpayers the right to direct that proportion of their income tax which would otherwise be spent on military purposes to a fund for international aid: And the same was read the First time; and ordered to be read a Second time on Friday 5 November, and to be printed [Bill 151].