HC Deb 15 March 1920 vol 126 cc1983-90

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Sir R. Sanders.]

Brigadier-General CROFT

The question to which I wish to call the attention of the House is one which affects the Government and the country, in that certain irregularities have been condoned in a department of the Ministry of Munitions, whilst a public servant in a responsible position, who called attention to the abuses which existed, and pressed for action in connection with them, has been summarily dismissed. This public servant is Mr. C. J. Hankinson, who was recently Superintendent of the Archives Department of the Ministry of Munitions, and the character and efficiency of Mr. Hankinson fortunately cannot be impugned, because I have seen the most flattering references to his services by those placed above him, and the Deputy-Minister of Munitions, in answer to a question to-day, has also stated that there was absolutely nothing against his character. Although I Mr. Hankinson took active steps to prevent me from entering this House, so far as I am aware that is his single lapse from sound judgment. He is in the Borough of Bournemouth a highly esteemed resident, and has been a Justice of the Peace for some years. For three and a half years he has been an assiduous and a devoted servant of the State in various Government Departments, and Superintendent of the Archives Department in the Ministry of Munitions for nearly a year. Some half year back Mr. Hankinson became concerned because a rumour reached him that there were certain irregularities going on in his Department, in that a certain official named Mr. Stephenson was always allowing his staff, during working hours, to visit public houses, encouraging the playing of cards during Ministry hours, using a Ministry lorry for the conveyance of the luggage of his friends to the station, using an emergency door in these buildings and other irregularities.

At first Mr. Hankinson found it difficult to prove these facts, owing to the following circumstances. The buildings are of a scattered character, and all are connected with telephone and, as afterwards transpired, the telephone operator, who is a friend of Stephenson, was able to notify the approach of Mr. Hankinson. Mr. Hankinson, however, did not succeed in, obtaining sufficient evidence to warrant his applying to Mr. Biggs, who is the Principal Registrar, for the dismissal of Stephenson. When he did obtain sufficient evidence, he claimed, on this ground, that he (Stephenson) was taking his subordinates to licensed premises, although he had been cautioned and reprimanded; secondly, that his conduct was subversive of discipline; and, thirdly, that he removed an important document from the Registry without permission, and, when reprimanded, used insulting language to the Superintendent. Nothing was done for the moment, and, when Mr. Hankinson pressed the matter, he was informed by his superior, Mr. Biggs, that Stephenson could not be removed without inquiry. Mr. Hankinson welcomed the inquiry, and said he would do everything he could to assist it. A few days later Mr. Biggs asked to see the staff, and Mr. Hankinson agreed that he should not be present during the inquiry. The female staff was examined, and their evidence was taken by a lady whom Mr. Biggs brought down, and described to-day, in answer to a question, as an appropriate officer. Who was the lady to send down to inquire into the conduct of Mr. Stephenson? Miss Stephenson, the sister of the accused. The House will realise the impartial nature and character of the inquiry—this searching inquiry and determination to reach the truth when a sister is deliberately employed in order to substantiate the accusation or otherwise against her brother! This was on Feburary 14. Mr. Hankinson protested to Mr. Biggs that such an inquiry was neither impartial or just. The reply was that in bringing Miss Stephenson down the right thing had been done. The matter could not rest here. Mr. Hanknison relied upon the female staff entirely. What happened? Mr. Stephenson dismissed? No, he was transferred to another department of the Ministry of Munitions. Was the telephone operator dismissed? No! Mr. Hankinson received notice on February 25 that his services would be dispensed with on April 14, and another gentleman was given complete authority. In other words, he was completely superceded. Mr. Hankinson was subsequently told that his services would be dispensed with on March 16 instead of April 16—in other words, he was told to go immediately. The House will agree that further inquiry was required, and I put down the following question on March 9: Brigadier-General CROFT asked the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Munitions whether his attention has been called to the fact that Mr. C. J. Hankinson, the Superintendent of the Archives Registry of the Ministry of Munitions, has been dismissed from his post and deprived of his authority within 24 hours of pressing for an impartial inquiry into charges of grave irregularity on the part of a subordinate official; and can he make a statement on this matter?


In common with a large number of temporary officials, Mr. Hankinson is being released with full notice in order to effect reduction of staff. Mr. Hankinson asked for the inquiry referred to, not prior to his release, as suggested in the question, but five days after he had received notice of the termination of his temporary appointment. This notice was in no way connected with the subject of the inquiry. In order to ensure the efficient carrying on of the work it was necessary to appoint a successor as soon as possible, and this was done four days after the date on which the request for the enquiry was made."—[OFFICIAL REPORT; 9th March, 1920; Vol. 126, Col. 1127.]

Although I do not for one moment believe that the Deputy Minister of Munitions was in any way aware of the facts, I can only say that he has been deliberately misinformed, and I would describe the whole of that answer as a tissue of terminological inexactitudes. Mr. Hankinson has been summarily dismissed, not after full notice. Secondly, he was not dispensed with in order to effect a reduction of the staff, because the staff until this morning had been increased by five extra men, and it was only when a question was put on the Paper yesterday that hurriedly four of the members of the staff were informed that their services were no longer required. Further than that, Mr. Hankinson we are told, asked for an inquiry after he was dismissed, but was not dismissed until 20th February, and therefore it was not true that he asked for an inquiry subsequent to his release. I am anxious to afford the Deputy Minister of Munitions an opportunity of replying, and I will only say this, that Mr. Hankinson was not released four days after the date of the request for an inquiry, but eleven days subsequently. In answer to questions we received a lump answer, in which much point was made of the fact that this was an ex-service man and that those charges had been brought because they were ex-service men. But charges have been brought against no one except Mr. Stephenson and the telephone operator, and it is, therefore, no good bringing in the fact that he is an ex-service man. I have, I think, submitted a case which shows grave irregularity, and I hope the Deputy Minister of Munitions will take the earlist opportunity of putting a grave injustice right. Mr. Hankinson had given faithful and excellent attendance to his department. A slur has been put upon him in front of the whole staff. He had conducted this department efficiently with a very small staff, and suddenly a man comes down to succeed him. That is not the way to conduct Government business, and I hope the Deputy Minister of Munitions will take the earliest opportunity of restoring Mr. Hankinson to his post.


When my hon. Friend first gave notice of his intention to raise this question he said his desire was to call attention to gross irregularities in the Ministry of Munitions. What to-night were these gross irregularities declared to be? This is not a case of a number of civil servants working round a mahogany table at Westminster living a life of case. The men involved in the charge made to night are all ex-service men, every one of them, and they were doing exceedingly laborious work in a factory in Sudbury. It has been part of our policy from the beginning to employ ex-service men wherever possible, and the reason why it became necessary to discharge Mr. Hankinson was because they had to get rid of a man who was a temporary man or give up the policy of engaging ex service men.

Brigadier-General CROFT

He was re placed by Mr. Durrant.


Let me come down to these grave irregularities described by the hon. and gallant Member. Visiting public-houses, using a lorry to carry his own luggage, using insulting language to an official superior, and card playing. What are the facts about visiting public-houses? The men took their lunch between the hours of one and two at the factory. They were all old soldiers, and they wanted to have a drink before their meal. They observed the habit they had acquired in the Army. The luncheon hour was fixed for exactly one o'clock. The men did not go out for their drink in the Ministry's time. They went out at one o'clock. Mr. Hankinson objected to their going out at 1 o'clock to the neighbouring hostel, conveniently placed, in their own time, because he said: "That makes the luncheon hour of the canteen late." He tried to put a stop to this arrangement. The men said: "We have been used to having a drink with our dinner, and we are going there to get one." Any man who had any nous in charge of ex-soldiers would have made an arrangement by which the hour at which the luncheon commenced was made ten minutes past instead of one o'clock. Mr. Hankinson failed to do that. The complaint on which this is based is due entirely to the fact that these men, in their own time, between one o'clock and ten minutes past one, went to this hostelry near by and got a drink. As to the card-playing charge, it was never substantiated. No evidence was ever produced. I thought it necessary to see Mr. Stephenson. I am surprised at the hon. and gallant Gentleman using the reckless language he has used about a fellow soldier. Mr. Stephenson was not a civil servant who had shirked fighting. He was an old soldier who did not need to be conscribed into joining the Army. He was in India with the Army when the War broke out. He went to France in November, fought all through the early days of the War, and he was wounded in Egypt. To-day he carries in his body the result of his gallantry. He came back and took charge of these men, all ex-Service men. Mr. Stephenson's reputation is just as important to him as Mr. Hankinson's is to him. He may not belong to the same social class, but he has done just as good service to the country, and I deplore the way in which these attacks have been thrown about against a man who has done such gallant service during the war. As to the card playing, there was no evidence produced, and as to the charge of using insulting language, I believe that it amounted to the fact that in the course of conversation between Stephenson and Hankinson he expressed some doubt as to whether his official superior or he was telling the truth. All these facts were gone into. They were carefully examined on two occasions, and a second inquiry at which Mr. Stephenson's sister was not present confirmed the finding of the first inquiry. If the hon. and gallant Gentleman had only been informed he would not have touched this case with a barge pole.

Brigadier-General CROFT

Tell the truth in answer to questions.


That I have done. The suggestion is that Mr. Hankinson was dismissed as the result of asking for this inquiry. He was given notice as long ago as November last that his temporary work was coming to an end and he must get ready to find another job. That is the fact about the one serious charge. The drinking was done by the men in their own time. They were doing rough and unpleasant work. They had all done good service. Was I, in these circumstances, to have agreed to Mr. Hankinson's request that Mr. Stephenson should be dismissed on the one ground that he had been discourteous? I was not prepared to do that then, nor am I prepared now. He has not been able to get influential Members of the House to crowd the Order Paper with questions, and it was for that reason that I thought it necessary to see him. His reputation is as important as Mr. Hankinson's. He has done just as good service, and the decision taken by the Ministry is a decision which will stand.

It being half-past Eleven of the Clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at half-past Eleven o'clock.