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Campaigning in parliament for a Peace Tax

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

Latest from our Education Worker, Karen Robinson

The last time Conscience launched a Bill in parliament, trying to change the law so that citizens have the right to conscientiously object to paying the military proportion of their taxes, was in 2016. The Bill called for a Peace Tax.

You can read about the Taxes for Peace Bill 2016 here.

I have been doing some research on previous campaigning within parliament to try to bring about a Peace Tax and I came across a fascinating parliamentary research briefing, ‘Hypothecated Taxation'.

It was written by Antony Seely and produced by the House of Commons Library in 2011:

The briefing begins by describing what it means by ‘hypothecated taxation’.

The research briefing includes sections on the following themes:

‘The case for hypothecation’, ‘Hypothecation and the NHS’, ‘A peace tax’, ‘Hypothecation and green taxes’, and ‘Earmarking revenues: road fuels, tobacco duties, and National Insurance Contributions’.

Reading the Peace Tax section I could see that the period 1993-2006 was a very active one for the campaign. Here is a list of the Early Day Motions, Ten Minute Rule Bills, and petitions supporting a Peace Tax which were presented during that time.

Below, I have reproduced the Peace Tax section of the research briefing in full. You will see it includes a speech made by Neil Gerrard in 1994 when presenting his Ten Minute Rule Bill, “Conscientious Objection (Public Expenditure) Bill”, and a speech made by John McDonnell in 1998 when introducing his Ten Minute Rule Bill, “Military Expenditure (Conscientious Objection) Bill”.

A peace tax
Though hypothecation has been discussed most in relation to health spending, there has been a small but consistent campaign that it should be applied to military expenditure, and that taxpayers who are conscientious objectors should be allowed to have that part of their taxes diverted into a specific fund - a peace tax - and spent on other ends. In December 1993 sixty two Members signed an EDM which Neil Gerard MP had put down supporting such a tax, and in January the next year Mr Gerard put the case for this reform when presenting a Ten Minute Rule Bill: The Bill's simple purpose is to allow people who have a conscientious objection to their taxes being used for public expenditure on military purposes to be able to register that objection and to divert that part of their taxes to a specific fund that will be used for peaceful purposes connected with the development of international security. When a Government of whatever persuasion have been elected, they have the right to decide how to spend our taxes which end up in a single consolidated fund. We cannot allow someone to say, "Do not spend my taxes on roads or education". To change that, one can vote for a different party at the next election; we cannot expect Governments, local authorities or anybody spending public money to please everyone all the time. I agree with that, as do others who support the Bill. However, it is a special case. I do not consider that it is a special case that I have to prove to justify the Bill as it has already been recognised by Parliament. If conscientious objection can be recognised in wartime, why not in peacetime as well? In practical terms, it is not a difficult exercise. All that would be necessary is for the number of registered conscientious objectors to be known by the Inland Revenue. The average individual contribution to the Ministry of Defence budget can be calculated and a simple multiplication of the two figures produces a sum of money to be paid into a peace fund. That would certainly satisfy people who support my view. The Bill would specify in general terms the purposes for which the fund could be used I mentioned the need for research and development into converting industry from military to non-military production, the study of causes and resolution of conflict, community-based work to develop and maintain democratic structures and human rights in areas of potential conflict. People have strong personal objections on religious, ethical or moral grounds to taking part in war, and I am asking the House to recognise that similar objections are held by people in respect of the spending of their taxes on arms. One need not be a pacifist to respect the sincerity of the beliefs of those who are or to acknowledge that people have the right to a conscience. I am asking the House to allow the means for that conscience to be expressed and not violated. I ask the House to support my Bill. 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.

The Bill did not make any further progress, though in October 1998 John McDonnell introduced a similar Ten Minute Rule Bill, when he put the case as follows:

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 (No.2) Act 1916, which introduced conscription for the first world war 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 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 arqued 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. In March 1999 Mr McDonnell, Mr Gerard and Mr Jeremy Corbyn each presented petitions in support of the right conscientiously to object to the military proportion of taxes.» Mr Corbyn also raised the issue during Treasury Questions in June, when the then Chief Secretary, Alan Milburn, responded by saying, "the Government have a duty and obligation to make proper provision for our country's defences. That is precisely what we are committed to doing. I say in all candour that his proposal would undermine our ability to do that, and that is why the Government will not contemplate it." Although Members have raised the issue in subsequent EDMs, and the lobby group Conscience has continued to lead the campaign for a peace tax, there has been no indication that the idea has ever been actively considered by the Government.

The important role Conscience has played in lobbying for a Peace Tax is recognised in the last sentence above. Earlier in the briefing the author describes people’s efforts to achieve a Peace Tax as ‘a small but consistent campaign’. It is our job, in the 2020’s, to build on our consistent, persistent, rich campaigning history until everyone has the right to divert the military proportion of their taxes to peaceful purposes.

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The first Peace Tax Bill was presented to the House of Commons on 26 March 1986 by Dennis Canavan MP .It passed its first reading unopposed and was printed by the HoC (Bill 124). It was not given any further time by the government and so made no further progress. It allowed any person on the Electoral Register to claim conscientious objection. Gerald Drewett

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