HC Deb 18 July 1923 vol 166 cc2453-60

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Colonel Leslie Wilson.]


I apologise for detaining the House, especially after late sittings, but, unfortunately, we are compelled to take this opportunity of drawing attention to a matter of very great importance to Scotland, namely, the position of the procurators-fiscal and sheriff clerks who, since 1871, have been trying to obtain improvements in their conditions. The controversy has ranged over 50 or 60 years, until the appointment, a year or two ago, of the Blackburn Committee, which recommended a very great improvement in the rates of remuneration, status, pension rights, and general conditions of service of procurators-fiscal and sheriff clerks. Since the Blackburn Committee published its Report—and it was a representative and authoritative document—negotiations have taken place between the two branches of the legal service in Scotland, the Scottish Office and the Treasury. The position at the present time is this: New proposals have been submitted, with which both branches of the service in Scotland are perfectly dissatisfied, and the Scottish representaitves in the House have been asked to raise this matter on the Floor of the House, in order to ascertain the attitude of the Government.

This problem falls into two parts. There is, first of all, the problem of the procurators-fiscal. They are a peculiar service in Scotland. They have never enjoyed pension rights. They have not had anything like adequate remuneration. They are engaged in very responsible work which includes many duties performed by corresponding but separate officials in England. They have had suggested to them a scheme which differs materially from the Report of the Blackburn Committee, as far as they are concerned. That scheme is wholly unacceptable to the procurators - fiscal. The have made it perfectly clear that until their claim for pensions and superannuation is conceded there is no chance of agreement.

Coming now to the sheriff clerks and their deputes, they have also had proposed to them a scheme in the past few weeks which is, I agree, an improvement on the proposals which have so far been made, but which, from our point of view, cannot be regarded as satisfactory, because it differs materially from and falls far short of the Blackburn Committee's recommendation. It is proposed, first, to bring into operation the new scheme as from the date when the Sheriff Court fees in Scotland were increased—in April, 1922—and, in the second place, to give the sheriff clerks, who have been seriously under-remunerated, an allowance on retirement. They are not all to be entitled to pension or other rights. The allowance on retirement is to equal a week's pay for each year's service, which, of course, would be a miserably inadequate sum even for a man with long service in the Sheriff Courts, and which, if invested, would not enable these poorly remunerated officials in the past to maintain themselves in anything like comfort or decency. That was proposed after long negotiation with the Scottish Office and the Treasury, and our contention is that we must stand firm by the clear terms of the Report of the Blackburn Committee. Our object is to find out what attitude the Government is going to take in this controversy.

There are two things at least which I must say before I make way for other hon. Members who wish to support me on this occasion. The Treasury and the Scottish Office apparently take the view that the bonus which has been paid in respect of the increased cost of living must rank against the proposals we are making for an improvement in the condition of the officials in question. On that point the Blackburn Committee itself was perfectly clear. It indicated that the revenue from the service should not be taken into account in that way. I submit to the House that there is no Department of the State in which the principle is applied that remuneration of the officials is to be based on what we may call the earnings of the Department. We must remember that the bonus was introduced to meet the greatly increased cost of living, and it was given on the basis of a remuneration which, by common consent in Scotland, is shamefully low. I sincerely trust the Solicitor-General will not take refuge in that argument to-night, but even if he does, there is not the slightest doubt that a large increase of the income has taken place since the fees were increased and that there has been no improvement in the position of the officials, apart from the War-time bonus. I trust that the Government will declare for the terms of the Blackburn Committee's Report. They themselves cannot deny that that was a most representative Committee and our case is that anything short of its terms will be a serious injustice to the procurators-fiscal and their assistants and to the sheriff clerks and the deputes.


I desire also to enter my emphatic protest against the treatment given to a small but deserving class of officials, the value of whose work I have had special opportunity of estimating when I was acting as Crown Counsel. I join in what my hon. Friend the Member for Central Edinburgh (Mr. W. Graham) has said about the scandalous delay which has taken place in giving effect to the recommendations of the various Committees and particularly the Blackburn Committee, as to the necessity of improving the condition of these officials. The Blackburn Committee referred to the existing state of matters "as one that could only be described as disgraceful," which is a strong epithet to find in the Report of a Departmental Committee, and shows the strength of the case. The negotiations have disclosed that entirely inadequate proposals have been put forward which do not carry out either in the spirit or the letter the recommendations of the Blackburn Committee, and we find it necessary in the House of Commons to make our Parliamentary case as to the injustice being done to these civil servants. The procurators-fiscal, who have very responsible duties as public prosecutors and who also act as coroners, claim they should have increased salaries and allowances for their deputes; also official expenses and adequate pensions, which ought to be framed upon the basis of the actual service which has been given. Under the proposals now made no bonus whatever has been conceded to any existing official over 55 years of age. The gratuity offered is entirely inadequate, it is a mere pittance to men who have spent all their days in the service of the State. I respectfully submit that a case has been made out for a full and adequate pension for all these officials and that the older men should be generously dealt with. It is a strange position that we should have the highest officials of the Courts, the Sheriffs and Sheriffs Substitute, well paid and pensioned, and the lowest officials, the police, well provided for and pensioned, whereas Sheriff Clerks and Procurators Fiscal and their staffs are so poorly remunerated. The Sheriff Clerks perform very responsible duties. In Scotland they carry on the work of half-a-dozen English officials, and therefore they have a very special claim. It is a curious commentary on the whole situation that the Treasury should so far have taken possession of the additional court fees which have been already received owing to the recently sanctioned increase in fees, and that not even temporary allowances have been made to tide these men over the period when their whole claim is being considered.

I submit that in justice to these officials there ought to be the fullest provision made on the lines of the Blackburn Committee, and that any proposals which are submitted to them at the present time which they may be asked to accept should be fair and adequate instead of being out of keeping with the standards and views which have been expressed by that Committee. If the Solicitor-General for Scotland would consult the Chairman of that Committee and the Sheriffs and Sheriff Substitutes' Associations he would get a little further light on the matter. I am sure we, who are making our case to-night, have behind us, not only the opinion of this particular branch of the Civil Service, but also the opinion of many others outside, who feel that justice ought to be done to these men without further delay.


I desire to associate myself fully with everything that has fallen from the hon. and learned Member for East Fife (Mr. D. Millar). I have only one further point to bring to the attention of the Solicitor-General for Scotland, and that is the case of the officials in the Highlands and Islands, who are dealt with specially in the Blackburn Report, representing areas which could not be conveniently amalgamated with other areas. In that Report it was suggested that their pay should be £450 a year. So far from that recommendation having been adopted, I understand that no settlement has been arrived at with regard to their pay, but that it has been left to them individually to make an appeal ad misericordiam.That is as great a departure as can possibly be from the principles laid down by the Report of the Blackburn Committee, and I desire to lend what weight I can to what has been said already in our efforts as Members of this House to ventilate this long-standing grievance, and attempt to get some assurance from the Government that they intend, not only to do what is bare justice to these servants of the country, but adhere to the principles laid down in the Report of the Blackburn Committee.


I think the West of Scotland ought to have a voice in this also. This is a class of the hardest worked officials in the whole of our legal constitution in Scotland. Hitherto they have not been recognised as they ought, and all that we are asking is that some assurance should be given that these men should be adequately paid, that they should have some security of tenure, and that they should be pensioned. I want also to ask why it is that one part of the Blackburn Report was accepted and not the other. When it was proposed to do something for the officials of the Courts in Scotland, stringency of money was pleaded as against anything being done, and in order to get the money the Sheriff Court fees were raised. A considerable sum of money was raised thereby, and so far as I understand, after deducting what is due to Committees, there is still £25,000 left. All I want to ask the Solicitor-General—and I am sure he is sympathetic—is that these very hard-worked and very highly useful legal fraternity and their officials shall have adequate payment for the work which they do in Scotland. No one but who knows can realise the amount of work that these men do. They are really the backbone of the legal profession, as they prepare everything for the inquiries which the coroners do here in England.


May I just say, before the hon. and learned Gentleman replies, that I have been making inquiries into this matter, and I am very anxious that we should get a satisfactory answer?


I join with my Scottish colleagues in their regard for the work performed in Scotland by the Procurators-Fiscal and the Sheriff Clerks. No one connected with the law in Scotland can possibly hold any other view as to their most valuable and important work. In a sense, however, it is unfortunate that this matter should be raised just at the moment when the representatives of the two bodies are about to submit to their respective associations the proposals which have been put before them by the Treasury and by the Scottish Office. In regard to the salaries, there is a very great modification on the original proposals, and the proposals now arrived at after long consultation and discussion, do not, I think, as regards salary, differ very materially from what the officials themselves would regard as fair and reasonable. As to the clerks' salary, there is really no very great difference, speaking broadly, between the last offer made by the Government, and what these officials would consider fair and reasonable.

On the point of bonus, no one for a moment wishes to stress that question against these officials. Far from it! But it was represented that owing to the increased fees of a year ago the Government, which offered simply an additional sum of money, had, so to speak, made a clear profit. It is fair to point out that this is a question for the taxpayer, and that, so far from having made a profit upon the service by increasing the fees, the sum paid out in bonus since the bonuses were instituted considerably exceeded the additional sum which was gained by the increase of fees last year. No one desires to raise the question of the bonus except to correct the impression that the Government had really made a profit by raising the fees. The question could not be fairly dealt with unless it was allowed that the taxpayer had—very properly—provided a sum since the bonus was instituted very much larger than had gone into the Government coffers through the increase of fees. Of course, legislation would be necessary before these proposals can be brought into effect. The Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. James Brown) spoke of security of tenure. The staffs will get that through being established and will become civil servants. I do not, therefore, think that really there is a very serious difference with regard to salaries and tenure between the officials and the representatives of the Government, looking at the matter as a whole.

A further point has been raised, namely, that all officers should be established, and in calculating pensions, that back service should be taken into account. By Statute, the Treasury is not entitled to pay pensions for a service of less than 10 years. The Regulations provide that civil servants may have to retire at 60, and the ordinary rule is that no man shall be established over the age of 50. Under these proposals it is suggested that officials up to the age of 55 should be established, which is going five years beyond the ordinary Civil Service rule. As regards pension for back service, in analogous cases, pension for back service has not been given on establishment. Take the County Court staffs in England. Just the other day a scheme similar to the present scheme was accepted by the County Court staffs, and it would be difficult to justify different treatment to that for the Court officials in Scotland. However meritorious their work, and I have every sympathy and appreciation of it, it would be difficult to justify different treatment as regards pension for back service in their case, compared with officials doing analogous legal work in England who have, up to date, not been established, and are now being established on conditions similar to those proposed here, which do not include pension for back service. There are numerous cases in London, in the legal departments of Government offices, where staffs were remunerated up to the other day by a lump-sum payment made to one of the heads of the Department, and from the lump sum he had to pay the officials under his charge. It was, however, thought better that such officials should be established, and in numerous cases they have been established; but it has not been found possible to depart from the well-established Treasury Rule that back service should not count for pension.

If we were to depart from this rule in one case, it would mean departure in many other cases, and it would mean for the taxpayer a very large sum of money to grant back service. It is a costly proceeding. It would be equivalent, in the case of a man aged 50 years, drawing £300 plus bonus and with 20 years' back service, to an increase of from £150 to £200 a year in his pay. That means a very large sum, and it is impossible for us to treat similar services in a different way in the two countries. Of course, if my own personal and private desires could be considered in this matter, I should like to see special treatment accorded to these officers; but one must look the facts fairly and squarely in the face, and if we have similar bodies in England being established at the present time, and a scheme proposed for them which does not give them a pension taking back service into account in fixing their pension, it is difficult to see how it could be justified in another case. I have given these various instances of legal officers and legal Departments in London, and I have shown that in none of these cases—

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

Adjourned at half after Eleven o'Clock.