HC Deb 28 April 1865 vol 178 cc1205-18

said, he rose for the purpose of moving that a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the grievances referred to in the Petition of the Mayor, Merchants, Shipowners, and Commercial Traders of Liverpool with reference to the Out-door Officers of Customs. That petition was presented by his hon. Friend the Member for Liverpool (Mr. Horsfall) on the 20th of March, and it stated that much discontent and dissatisfaction prevailed among those officers, caused by inadequate salaries, a defective system of classification, and a probability almost amounting to certainty that those gentlemen would not be able to obtain that promotion which they reasonably expected when entering the public service. Petitions on the same subject had been presented from the Lord Mayor, Merchants, and Shipowners of London; the Lord Mayor and Merchants of Durham; the Lord Provost and Merchants of Edinburgh and Leith; and the Mayor, Merchants, and Shipowners of Hull. He intended to move, also, that these petitions be referred to the Committee. The complaint of the petitioners was that in the year 1860 the right hon. Gentleman the Chancellor of the Exchequer introduced certain changes, which had had the effect of increasing the weight of those officers' duties, and of diminishing their chance of promotion without increasing their pay. In his financial statement of the previous evening the right hon. Gentleman told the House that of the surplus of £4,000,000, about £752,000 had arisen from the augmentation of the Customs. [The CHANCELLOR of the EXCHEQUER: No, the Excise.] The right hon. Gentleman was reported to have said the Customs. The change which had taken place had caused great discontent and dissatisfaction amongst 3,000 officers, whose intelligence and zeal were equal to that of any other class. There could be no doubt that the duties of the out-door officers had increased; for, in the fifth Report of the Commissioners of Customs it was stated—in reference to a state of things which had arisen after the changes made in 1860—that the duty of the officers became more arduous every year. So pressing were the demands for despatch, and so great the importance of delay, that the Commissioners had been obliged to sanction the loading of steamers in many instances during the whole night, and the discharge of import cargoes as long as daylight lasted; while the privilege of loading and discharging from six a.m. to six p.m., formerly confined to a comparatively small number of articles, had now, by the revision of the tariff, become all but universal. In another portion of their Report the Commissioners observed— From the experience of the past year we feel compelled to speak even more strongly than we did in our last Report in support of every measure calculated to alleviate the severity of a blow hitherto unparalleled in the history of this, or, we believe, of any other public department. In their Report for the year before last the Commissioners remarked that the pressure on the whole out-door department had been exceedingly severe; and they observed that the cost of collecting the Customs had been gradually decreasing, notwithstanding the steadily advancing trade of the country. He held in his hand the statement of one of those Out-door Customs Officers in the port of London, from which he found that the class to which he belonged had a chance of rising by promotion to £130 a year, that it could not now rise beyond £90, and that there wore other serious changes which had worked most detrimentally to their interests. The Minute of 1860 at once blighted the hopes of thousands of those officers. In the petition of the out-door officers of Hull to the Treasury he found it stated— That the amalgamation changed all that was favourable in this state of things, by fixing the maximum at £65 and 1s. a day, instead of £76 and 1s. a day; by making £5 the uniform amount of promotion, instead of £10 and £5 alternately as before; by so enlarging the classes, especially those worse paid, as to make promotion a shadowy and doubtful thing; by reducing all actual salaries £6, though still received as personal allowance, so that when promotion does come it brings no relief, for £5 of the £6 personal allowance is applied in lieu thereof, and so no increase of income follows by lopping off unconditionally all remuneration for acting in a superior capacity, and by reducing all overtime pay to the uniform rate of 6d. per hour, although it was paid by the merchant, and never reluctantly in the out-door officer's case. If the House should consent to grant the Committee he would undertake to prove every allegation set forth in the petition. As to the competitive examinations established in the service, those officers complained, and most justly. Those examinations were very right and proper upon entrance to the service; but men who had been long in the service were most unfairly required to compete in these examinations with young lads of seventeen or eighteen who had just come from school. The hon. Baronet the Member for Stamford (Sir Stafford Northcote) concurred with him (Mr. Hennessy) in the opinion that this system was bad and indefensible. There should be a simpler standard for old officers, and a slight increment of pay, according to length of service The Government refused to accede to the prayer of the memorial from Hull, but they were afterwards induced to re-consider the matter and the Minute of April, 1864, was then issued. Yet that Minute, as the Liverpool petitioners stated, dealt only with the minor points of the question and left all the important grievances totally unredressed. Instead of the Is. per day daily pay, it substituted £16 per annum, the difference between the two not being very much. He made it to amount to 4s. a year; but in addition to that they were allowed to get what they had not before—namely, they were no longer subject to a stoppage of 1s. a day during their sixteen days' leave of absence. These two sums, with another addition of 10s., gave an increase of salary under the Minute to these officers of 30s., per annum. The remission of £4 for the stamp on Commissions could only benefit those who were entering, not those who had already entered the service. But he must not forget to mention another extraordinary boon granted to these officers. Some of them had to provide a uniform at their own expense, but the Government decided to give them a topcoat gratuitously. How did the treatment of these officers bear comparison with that extended to their employés by private establishments, and that adopted towards other branches of the public service? The large merchants and. traders who had signed these petitions knew what they paid to their own servants, and yet they said that these out-door Customs officers justly complained. Moreover, the merchants daily came into contact with these officers, which the Government did not. They were also the largest taxpayers, and therefore interested in keeping down the ex- penditure; but they were induced to move in this matter by the belief that the Government did not treat their servants as they would be treated in private establishments; and that as these men were placed in very trustworthy and responsible positions they ought to be put beyond temptation by fair salaries and reasonable prospects of promotion. Nor was that all. The merchants actually employed, and to some extent paid, these officers themselves. In the out-door offices of the port of London, there were 280 officers in the fifth class, and they received £20,000 per annum as their salaries. These men were the best paid of all; and he found that when the out-door officers were occasionally employed by the merchants, the merchants had to pay for their attendance, and the money was received by the Department. The amount paid in one year in that way was £5,176, or 25 per cent of the aggregate salaries of the fifth class of these officers in London. The petitioners asked that they themselves might have the power of increasing that which they paid to these officers. He would not weary the House with details, but he thought he had said enough to show that the subject was one calling for inquiry; and he hoped the Government would be prepared to do something to remove the discontent which prevailed in the service. It was not creditable to them, when their revenue was in such a flourishing state, to treat the men who collected it harshly and parsimoniously. Any merchant who found his business thriving in such a manner would be ashamed to pay his clerks not a single penny more than he did the previous year. But whatever might be the increase of the public revenue, whatever the prosperity of the country, or the increase of rents and in the price of provisions, these officers' salaries were stationary, and their prospect of promotion diminished. He begged leave to move the appointment of the Committee.


seconded the Motion. He said that many of his constituents were interested in this question. After the statement made last night, it would be but fair that the Government should take the subject into their favourable consideration. He did not mean to say that it was a right principle that salaries should fluctuate with the prosperity or adversity of the country, but after a series of years of prosperity such as they had heard of last night they ought not to allow the contrast between the flourishing state of the revenue and the condition of the officers of this department to remain so marked as it was at present. The state of the outdoor officers of the Customs remained nominally unchanged, but practically had very greatly deteriorated. These officers were men of character, and intrusted with large amounts of property; and they ought to be in a position, not of dissatisfaction, but of content, and be fairly paid for their labour. It ought not to be forgotten that the introduction of improvements and the rapid advance of economical science and business arrangement since the times when these men came into the service had greatly increased the work, while house rent, provisions, and all other necessaries of life were much dearer; and that the rate of wages, compared with what it was ten years ago, was more than doubled. He thought a very fair case had been made out for inquiry.

Amendment proposed, To leave out from the word "That" to the end of the question, in order to add the words "a Select Committee be appointed to inquire into the grievances referred to in the Petition of the Mayor, Merchants, Shipowners, and Commercial Traders of Liverpool, which was presented on the 20th day of March last, with reference to the Out-door Officers of Customs,"—(Mr. Hennessy,) —instead thereof.

Question proposed, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."


said, he had a petition intrusted to him, which he had been unable to present from merchants connected with the inland bonding port of Leeds, confirming the statements made in the petition referred to by the hon. Member for the King's County (Mr. Hennessy) and praying for inquiry into the salaries and for more liberal treatment of these officers. The petition stated most distinctly that their salaries were not adequate to the decent and comfortable maintenance of themselves and families; indeed, they were so small as to present grievous temptations to departure from honesty in the discharge of their duties. He supported the Motion.


said, that speaking for the merchants of Bristol he considered these public officers a very hard-worked class. They were ill-paid, yet put in places of great trust, and were often, therefore, placed in circumstances of great temptation. A case had been made out fairly calling for the attention of the Government, and he thought if the Motion were pressed to a division the Government might be induced to give some pledge that the condition of this deserving body of men would be improved.


said, that he had a petition from Shoreham, which he had been unable to present, in which it was stated that it was impossible merchants and traders could feel entire confidence that such responsible duties could be honestly discharged while great temptations were placed in the way of officers who were most inadequately remunerated for their services. They all knew that in other countries the dishonesty of Government employés was often traceable to the inadequacy of their pay; they imagined that at home that temptation was wanting, and that those employed by the Government were not obliged to plead the smallness of their salaries as an excuse for dereliction of their duties. The grievances alleged in this case, therefore, called for inquiry.


said, that he had taken great interest in this question, and been in long and frequent communication with the Treasury in regard to it. He should be wanting in his duty if he did not give his testimony to the very minute, careful, and conscientious attention which had been given to the subject by the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Secretary of the Treasury. So conscientious had been the inquiry by the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he should advise a man who had a good case to take it to that right hon. Gentleman and if he had a bad one to take it to somebody else. The hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hennessy) had omitted in his speech to mention a great boon which had been given to this branch of the service—namely, that of throwing open the whole of the Treasury patronage of the higher grades to the Customs themselves. He, however, was free to admit that that boon had not reached the men who were most aggrieved by the amalgamation of 1860—namely, those who had reached, or nearly reached, the top of their classes, who found themselves subject to a new classification, and instead of their reasonable expectation of immediate promotion, found their prospects of it so far removed, as almost to destroy hope of attaining it. The reason of the boon he had mentioned being useless to these men was this—the practice of the Customs was to give promotion either by selection or by competitive examination. Selection practically meant favouritism; and the class of old officers who were most aggrieved would probably make themselves no favourites by dwelling upon their grievances. But whatever chance of promotion they might have by selection, they had still less by competition, a system which should only apply to entrance into the service. It was not to be expected that these old men—although thoroughly good officers, because they possessed experience, and therefore had those very qualities of which a preliminary examination was only the imperfect test—would be up to the mark in general education easily reached by young men fresh from the instructions of their preceptors. He had pressed on the Treasury that a part of the Customs patronage should be given to seniority, coupled with competence and good conduct, but that that system should merely continue until such time as the claims of the sufferers by the amalgamation had been satisfied. He certainly thought that the right hon. Gentleman had adopted his views on this question; but whether they were in accordance with the opinions of the Customs authorities he was not aware; they had, however, been in no way carried out. After looking carefully into the promotions which had been since made, he found that very few of them had been given to the officers who had most suffered by the amalgamation which had taken place. He believed if his suggestion had been adopted, they would not have heard of the Motion of his hon. Friend, and the agitation would have ceased—at any rate, for a considerable time. He added the last words because he believed the day must come when the Government would have to entertain the very much larger question of increasing the salaries of all their public servants in the lower grades. He should, perhaps, not be wrong in saying in all grades except the highest, the social station and influence of which might be considered as part of the remuneration for the service rendered. He would not say that this question of an increase of salary should not be entertained by the Government, but it was the duty of the guardians of the public purse to resist as long as it was just and fair to do so an augmentation so considerable of the fixed burdens of the country, of which however he had no fear, when the national wealth was increasing by at least one hundred millions annually. He should not, therefore, be surprised if the Government resisted the Motion of his hon. Friend. Those who like him- self supported it should do so with their eyes open, and recollect that this was only the first step to a very much larger inquiry regarding other officers who might be shown to be no less sufferers, and required no less consideration than those whose claims were now brought before the House.


said, he had been prevented from presenting a petition from Liverpool in favour of the Motion. He should deeply regret if Her Majesty's Government should resist the appointment of this Committee. He would not say that these officers were either underpaid or overpaid, but it was well known that there was a feeling of dissatisfaction among them, and if the appointment of this Committee would remove that feeling Her Majesty's Government would do well to appoint it. He regretted that his hon. Friend had not extended his Motion, because it was not in the out-door department alone in which dissatisfaction existed, but also to a great extent in the indoor department, and if a Committee were appointed to inquire into the one class, that inquiry should be followed by another into the other class.


said, it would not, at any rate, be the fault of his hon. Friend who had just sat down and the hon. Member for Hull (Mr. Clay) if the House were not enabled to understand the real nature and effect of the Motion before them. In the case of public officers who were enabled to allege that in their reasonable expectations, grounded upon the rules of public service existing when they entered that service, they had been disappointed through the Acts of the Government there was, he admitted, a grievance, and it was a matter in which it was the duty of the Government to render an account of their proceedings to the House, and it would be perfectly within the rules of prudence to risk an inquiry by a Committee. That was a view of the question comparatively narrow, and it was upon this view that his hon. Friend, judging by his arguments, was about to support the Motion. On this part of the question he should say a word by-and-by. The Motion before the House was of importance, not because the representatives of several of the ports of the country had risen in their places to speak in favour of it, touching as it did directly and indirectly the especial interests of their constituencies, adverse to that of the coun- try at large. [Mr. HENNESSY: No, no!] It was not because several Gentlemen representing that class of constituents had given their opinions in favour of this Motion that the hon. Member was entitled to say that he hoped Her Majesty's Government would not resist this Motion. He thanked his hon. Friend the Member for Hull for declaring the true effect of this Motion. It was not a question relating merely to a particular case of officers who thought they had been aggrieved by the change of 1860. The question at issue had been fairly and honestly disclosed and ingeniously exhibited to the public view by the hon. Member for Hull and by the hon. Member for Liverpool, and it was, whether that House, composed of representatives of the public, was prepared to hear one by one all classes of persons employed in the public service, who should come forward as general solicitors for an increase of pay and emoluments, and that at the very period when the multitude of competent candidates for admission was far beyond what could be employed in any department. He hoped it would not be thought that he was presuming to dictate to the House if he ventured to point out that to enter upon that course would be a proceeding full of danger. If there was a duty that belonged to the executive Government, it was that it should be held responsible for the regulation and the pay of the public servants; and he was convinced that the House of Commons would at all limes be reluctant, as it ever had been, to take that particular duty out of the hands of the executive Government. He knew nothing that would tend so much to the disorganization of the public service, or anything which in its results would do more to lower the character of that great Assembly, than such a step. He ventured to say that the hon. Gentleman who made the Motion did not go to the root of the matter, but adopted the vague and general allegation of the petition which he read, and stated that the Treasury had simply dealt with certain minor grievances and had loft the major ones alone; and the hon. Gentleman ingeniously illustrated that proposition by a reference to the topcoats. The major grievances were two—one of which was not at all comprehended by the hon. Gentleman, and the other he conveniently passed over, taking no notice of it whatever. The case was this. There were several minor concessions made by the Treasury Minute of 1864. It was perfectly true that though there had been a difference of opinion about it between the period of 1860 and 1864, the Commissioners of Customs reported that with regard to certain classes of officers they had suffered with respect to their chances of promotion. He admitted that that was a very fair subject for consideration, and he thought, with regard to the promotion of public servants, that where there was an absence of misconduct, and where there was no incompetency, the Government could not justly estimate the position of the public servants if they neglected their prospects of promotion. Consequently an injury to prospects of promotion was an injury to position, which might be fairly described as a grievance. The two principal grievances complained of were the existence of day pay, and the injury done to the prospects of promotion. With regard to the day pay, the hon. Gentleman (Mr. Hennessy) had been answered upon that point by the hon. Member for Hull. It was shown that the hon. Gentleman did not understand the significance of the arrangement which was made, and by which a fixed allowance had been given to this class of officers after the expiration of a limited time in lieu of the day pay they formerly enjoyed. With regard to the prospects of promotion, how did that matter stand? The Government had endeavoured to open to this class of officers generally, not only equal, but superior prospects of promotion to what they possessed prior to 1860. The out-door officers could now be promoted to the class of examining officers. As his hon. Friend was aware, this had made a great improvement in the position of those officers. He had not the least hesitation in saying that they had not limited themselves to meeting a grievance, but had endeavoured to put these officers in the best position they possibly could compatibly with the interests of the public service. Here he might remark that the hon. Gentleman had given expression to an opinion which as a general rule he was perfectly willing to endorse. The hon. Member stated that he was a great advocate for competitive examination, but that such examination ought to be limited to the first entrance into the public service. The opinion was one which he himself entertained, but he was bound to say there was a distinction between manual or mechanical labour, and intellectual labour, and it would not therefore be safe to put an out-door officer, whose duties were purely manual and mechanical, to attain the rank of an examining officer whose duties were strictly intellectual without first of all passing the ordeal of an examination, because in such a change he might fairly be regarded in the same light as an officer hut newly entering the public service. The case was one not of ordinary promotion, but of transfer from one Department of the public service to another of altogether a different and much higher character. His hon. Friend said that he had been in favour of retaining the principle of seniority in that kind of promotion. On the one side there were the advocates for the retention of that principle; while, on the other, were those officers who were responsible for the discipline of the Department, who were of opinion that the principle of seniority was totally inapplicable to promotion in cases of this kind. The Treasury had, he believed, only done rightly in following the opinion entertained by the responsible heads of the Department. Under those circumstances, a very short experience would show whether the older officers would or would not be able to qualify themselves to take the benefit of the promotion. On this subject, however, they had had no Report, and he was bound to say that, though they did hope that those officers might he able fully to avail themselves of their chances of promotion, they could not consent to introduce into the administration of the service an inferior principle at the hazard of damage to the efficiency of the service, and in the teeth of the opinions of gentlemen in whose judgment they placed deserved confidence, and who were responsible for the due regulation of their Department. His hon. Friend said the hardship had arisen because those persons had not a fair share of promotion, but this minute having been passed in April last the question had not yet been before the Treasury. The Treasury had not yet received a report from the Customs on the subject, but if it were proved that those gentlemen had not had their fair share of promotion, and were consequently sufferers from the alteration of I860, he was quite willing to acknowledge that they were bound to make them compensation. The subject was at that very moment under consideration with reference to another class—the indoor officers. He must, however, say that because our revenue was now collected at a smaller expense than formerly it could not for that reason be inferred that our officers were worse paid. They were in reality better paid, and the decrease in the cost of collecting the revenue arose from our having simplified our forms and abandoned certain Customs duties which, though entailing a considerable cost for collection, made but little return to the Treasury. He was also willing to admit that if the likelihood of promotion were diminished the Government were bound to make some satisfaction. They ought not, however, to be asked to make that satisfaction by introducing into the public service ineffective persons when the satisfaction could be made by appropriating a certain grant of money adapted to the circumstances of the cases as they might arise. He was bound to say that there was also another point mentioned by the hon. Gentleman which had not previously been brought under his notice, and which called for some attention on the part of the Government. The hon. Gentleman had quoted an extract from the Report of the Commissioners of the Customs, stating that in certain cases the hours of the officers connected with the water-side and landing departments had been lengthened without those officers receiving any increase of pay. He would not say that he could not regard that as a grievance, because the contract which the men were bound by was for the service of the man and did not specify any particular number of hours. Looking at the state of things and the condition of the labour-market, he believed that as far as that statement was correct it was deserving of attention on the part of the Government. He was, however, assured on the best authority that it was only in rare and exceptional cases that any complaint of this nature could be made; but he would undertake that examination should be instituted into the matter. Those were the only points raised in the discussion which, in his opinion, could be at all described as grievances. He would, however, call the attention of the House to the fact that the Committee asked for by the hon. Member was really a Committee for the purpose of considering a wholesale augmentation of the emoluments of one large branch of the public service, and those who supported the Motion had frankly informed the House that if they granted it with respect to that department they must also grant it in connection with every department of the public service. It could not by any possibility stop at this point. It would pass from the out-door officers to the in-door officers, from the Customs to the Excise, from the Excise to the Post Office; nor did he know in what manner its operation after its commencement could be stopped. He believed, if they gave encouragement to the principle, they would find themselves entangled in the re-consideration of the emoluments of all departments of the public service, whether civil, naval, or military. He was sure that no House of Commons—whether dying or just born—whether about to meet its constituents or fresh from meeting them—would entangle itself in a principle so false with consequences so mischievous. The cases deserving inquiry should be investigated in a fair and equitable spirit, but as the proposition of the hon. Member meant something much wider and of a different character, he hoped the House would reject it.


said, he wished to state that he also had been prevented by the forms of the House from presenting that evening a petition from the merchants and traders of Tralee in favour of the Motion.


said, he wished to point out the great inequalities which existed in the remuneration of officers at the outports. At Whitehaven, where everything was getting very dear, the officers received lower remuneration than was granted in an adjoining town. Whether these had arisen from past arrangements or not, they ought not to be allowed to remain. It was impossible for merchants and shipowners who came in contact with these officers not to sympathize with them. If the Government should not listen to their complaints it was the duty of Members to urge attention to them.


appealed to the hon. Member for the King's County whether he did not think that he had got from the Chancellor of the Exchequer all that he wanted. The Chancellor of the Exchequer had promised to look into the complaint, and to remedy any grievances which he might find to exist. It must be remembered that two things were involved—an increase of pay and compensation for loss of promotion. It would be hard if, by the non-success of this Motion as to increase of pay—with regard to which it would probably fail—that the officers of Customs should be deprived of compensation for loss of promotion. The right hon. Gentleman had admitted the grievance, and had promised to consider it. Under those circumstances, it would be the wiser course for the hon. Member for the King's County to withdraw the Motion, and to reserve to himself free action for the future in case he should think that the Chancellor of the Exchequer did not properly redeem his pledge.


said, he had such confidence in the Chancellor of the Exchequer that he would have preferred that this Motion should not have been brought forward; but, it having been brought forward, he felt it due to an excellent class of men to express his concurrence in the statements that had been made of the hardships of their case. This was also the opinion of influential inhabitants at Greenock.

Question put, "That the words proposed to be left out stand part of the Question."

The House divided:—Ayes 80; Noes 69: Majority 11.

Question again proposed, "That Mr. Speaker do now leave the Chair."