HC Deb 31 July 1923 vol 167 cc1414-23

I desire to raise the question of the writing assistant class of civil servants. This is a question that was touched upon somewhat in the Debate which we had upon certain members of the clerical staff of the Civil Service some three or four months ago. The history of the case is that the writing assistant class was introduced into the Civil Service of this country in 1911 with a view to avoiding financial expenditure which would arise out of the recommendations of the Hobhouse Committee. This particular writing assistant class is confined to women workers, and when I say that large numbers are affected I mean that there are at least 3,000 who are in receipt of a wage and bonus which, together, are not sufficient to keep body and soul together.

In 1920 the Civil Service Reorganisation Committee made certain recommendations whch were contingent upon certain conditions being observed. The recommendations included one that this particular class, a temporary class, should continue to, exist until 1925. The conditions of that recommendation were that there should be free promotion from that class to other Departments of the Civil Service, and that the age of recruitment should be from 16 to 18 years. We are well aware that during the War the War's exigencies compelled a certain variation from the age of recruitment with the consequence that the vast majority, certainly 3,000 of the writing assistant class, are women whose age averages about 30, and who consequently cannot be regarded in the same light that we would regard new recruits whose ages were 16 to 18 and who have not the responsibility that persons of a more mature age have. The wages and bonus of the present class are a minimum of 39s. 6d. per week, and a maximum of 43s. It is anticipated, in fact it is definitely settled, that in next September even this miserable wage and bonus will be subjected to a reduction. When we had a Debate in the House a few months back on various sections of the Civil Service the Southborough Committee was set up. The terms of reference to that Committee, unfortunately, did not bring within its purview the condition of this unfortunate section of the Civil Service. Although considerable pressure was brought to bear upon the Treasury and the Prime Minister, we were informed that the Southborough Committee would not consider the circumstances of this class, but that everything would be done for them through the National Joint Committee composed of the official side and the staff side.

The National Joint Committee has been considering this question. Only this afternoon, in reply to a question which I put to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, I was informed that the Treasury are well aware that no promise of an increase in the wage or bonus has been made to this section of the Civil Service, but that the whole matter is under consideration. It is to that point I wish to address my remarks. I hope that the Treasury will regard those remarks not in the light of a bitter complaint, but merely in order that they may thoroughly understand that there is dissatisfaction existing in the service in regard to how the Joint Committee are handling the claims which are being submitted on behalf of the writing assistant class. As a matter of fact the official side of the Joint Committee have refused to discuss the claims submitted by the staff side owing to the basis of the cost of living being involved. As well as rejecting the staff proposals they apparently consider the matter can be left in the air, because they resolutely refuse either to make alternative proposals themselves or in any way to suggest a way out of the difficulty. That is the position of this class, large numbers of whom have shown their interest in this matter by seeing various Members of Parliament. They are anxious that the Treasury shall consider the whole ques- tion in a very sympathetic manner with a view to endeavouring to bring about, in the Joint Committee, some amelioration of the position so that this section may receive a little better treatment than they have had in the past.

I want to say that the Southborough Committee have recommended that retrospective effect to April, 1923, in regard to an increase of from 8s. to 12s. per week on the salaries of those whose case it was the duty of the Committee to inquire into. I think it would be a very reasonable claim that would come from the staff side in the light of the recommendations made by the Southborough Committee. So far as this class is concerned in the Civil Service it is difficult to expect it while we have so many grades probably living under similar conditions and receiving widely different salaries and pensions. So far as the class to which I have referred are concerned I think it will be agreed that the women in our Civil Service, many of whom are ex-service women, have to maintain a decent standard of life, and live in respectable surroundings.

As a rule they are persons of good education and they have to maintain a position worthy of the Civil Service, and if these women are to do all that, and come up to the standard that the honour and dignity of the Civil Service demand we must be prepared to pay them an adequate wage. It is because of these things that we hope the Secretary to the Treasury will give a sympathetic consideration to the position which has arisen. I hope we shall have an indication that whatever may have been the cause of the deadlock in the National Joint Committee with regard to the question of an increase, the official side may come forward with some recommendation which may be considered by the staff side in the light of the way in which they have put forward their proposals.


I should like to emphasise the appeals which have been made by my hon. Friend. The House knows that the precincts of the House have been invaded by a large number of women and girls recently who came to the House of Commons appealing to hon. Members to see that something might be done to meet the position in which they find themselves in regard to their wages. There were a large number amongst those 400 or 500 girls who were here last night who are finding it exceedingly difficult to make both ends meet on the wages they are receiving. So far as the merits of their case are concerned it is as strong as the case of those whose claims have recently been considered by a Committee of which I myself was a member, and which I hope I may refer to without impropriety and which considered the question of the Lytton entrants.

These women were not included in the terms of reference to that Committee, but their case is a very strong one. Whilst it is true that they only perform the minor writing duties, nevertheless those duties require a great deal of care and call for qualifications which ought to meet with the appreciation of this House. There were many of the girls here last night who are finding it almost impossible to live. I heard—as I have heard before—the plea of the girls who find that the wages they receive are not sufficient to enable them to get a decent living. They have to go up in the morning by workmen's trains because they cannot afford a season ticket cut of their very meagre wage. They arrive in the City long before they are due to go on duty; they have to wait about, and they get home late in the evening, and from early breakfast to getting home at night they do not get a decent meal. They carry sandwiches with them because they cannot afford to purchase an ordinary lunch, and in some Government Departments where they have refreshment branches special arrangements have been made, and special rooms are set apart for the girls who cannot afford to pay the ordinary tariff. I suggest if their case is substantiated, as I believe it is, it is for the House of Commons to remove the grievance by encouraging the Treasury to believe that the House will be behind it in coming to a settlement.

So far, I understand, on the National Whitley Council they have arrived almost, if not quite, at a deadlock. The Prime Minister gave as his reason for not including them in the terms of the South-borough Committee's reference, that a joint Committee had been set up on the National Whitley Council on which the girls were represented. Now on the eve of Parliament breaking up there is some prospect of a deadlock. The girls think it is necessary to bring their case to the attention of the House in order that the Treasury may be encouraged, if necessary, to make some offer to the staff side which will be acceptable to the girls. I sincerely hope that the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will give instructions to his representatives on the official side of the Committee to come forward with an offer which may be negotiated upon by the staff side.

Then I want to say a few words as to the case of another class of Civil Service women. This time it is the case of women who have gone into the clerical grade which is a grade with a higher status than the girls of whom I have been speaking. They have a particular grievance at the present time, because they find themselves being paid less than their own colleagues in the same grade who entered the Service a year later. Again I have to refer to the Southborough Committee, because the people who entered the clerical grades in 1920 were included in the recommendation of that Committee and consequently got rises ranging from 8s. to 12s. weekly. But the girls who entered for the 1919 examination, which was a stiffer examination, were from the very fact of their having passed that examination, and having longer service, disqualified from receiving that rise. Some of those who failed in the 1919 examination, and thereby were enabled to enter for the 1920 examination, have fallen within the terms of the Southborough Committee's recommendations, and are, in a way, in consequence of their failure, being paid from 8s. to 12s. a week more than the girls who passed in 1919. That is a matter which I think the Treasury might well remedy, and I think they should remedy it, because the merits of the case dictate that course. They should not take refuge behind the pure technicality that these girls are not regraded, but should examine the case from the point of view of its merits.

My object in rising is to urge the House to indicate to the Department that they do desire the Treasury to deal adequately and justly with this grievance. When you have, as the result of inquiry, a settlement of the case of a number of civil servants, the Department should not say that it will just take that number or those grades of people who are technically within the terms of the Committee's finding, and do nothing for anyone else who happens to be outside. I think they should say that, the House of Commons or a Committee, having examined the case, and having come to a judgment, that must be the standard on which the case of those whose claims are analogous shall be examined. I believe that not only are the claims of these 1919 girls analogous, but that they are even stronger than the claims of those for whom the House of Commons has done something. I think, therefore, that the Treasury should at least place the 1919 entrants on an equality with those of 1920. I feel sure that it is only necessary to bring this matter to the attention of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, and that he will give instructions that treatment on the lines I have indicated shall be meted out to the girls in question.

The SOLICITOR-GENERAL (Sir Thomas Inskip)

My right hon. Friend the Financial Secretary to the Treasury has asked me to make a short reply, which is all that is necessary in this case, but I hope the hon. Members who have raised this question will not think that he is lacking in courtesy in not being here at this moment. He has made two speeches this evening, and he has other duties still to attend to. I think that everyone who has heard the observations of the hon. Members will appreciate the truth of what I say, and will realise that these questions—many of them, as has been mentioned, technical and complicated—are not really suitable for being dealt with across the Floor of the House. If there were a very glaring case of hardship, or any refusal or failure to work the machinery which is being set up to settle these different questions, of course those would be matters which it would be proper to raise here on the Floor of the House; but the invasion to which the hon. Member for Carlisle (Mr. Middleton) referred as having taken place in the Lobby is, perhaps, almost as unsuitable a method as could be devised for settling these questions. The hon. Members are well aware that the machinery under which these questions have been considered is the machinery which has been accepted by both sides as the proper way of dealing with these difficulties.

The hon. Member for Edge Hill (Mr. Hayes), who introduced the matter, made a statement which, I think, if I heard him rightly, is not accurate. He said that there was a maximum of 43s., which I understood him to say included the bonus. The real facts are that in accordance with the recommendations of the Reorganisation Committee of the National Whitley Council, who fix the basic scale of pay, the rates of pay which are now being received, with the bonus included at the current rates, begin at 32s. 5d. at the age of 16. They are 36s. at the age of 17, and 39s. 7d. at the age of 18, which I think hon. Members will feel is a rate that is a little better than the rates paid outside the Civil Service. They rise by annual increments of 3s. 7d. a week to a maximum of 64s. 4d., which is rather more than £1 above the figures that the hon. Member mentioned as a maximum. I am not here to argue whether these rates are the rates that ought to be fixed. All I know is that they follow strictly the rates fixed by the National Whitley Council. They are in accordance with the agreements that have been made, and unless good cause is shown before that body for altering these rates, they appear to be better than is paid outside Government Departments. The duty of the official side of the Council is to preserve a proper balance between the employés and the general taxpayer, subject to any gross failure to give a decent standard of living. When the hon. Member says that these girls, as the great majority of them are, find it difficult to keep body and soul together on these wages, while I am not in the least unsympathetic and do not suggest that they are high rates of pay, I find it a little difficult to believe that these women find it more difficult to keep body and soul together on these rates of salary than other women who are doing precisely the same, and possibly more responsible, work at slightly lower rates.


The point with regard to the wage for 18 years of age is that that wage is applicable to some of the women clerks who are 30 years of age who are recorded on the rate of pay applicable to 18 years.


I understand that temporary women clerks appointed by limited competition enter at 39s. 7d., which is the eighteen rate, and then they proceed by the annual increments. I do not propose to discuss the rates this evening. The hon. Members have made their observations, and I am sure the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will pay attention to them, but at the moment, as they are aware, the matter is under consideration by the appropriate tribunal. Only on the 28th July the staff side wrote a letter that they were anxious the official side should consider. The official side is meeting to-morrow afternoon to consider what reply should be sent to this latest request put forward. In the circumstances, I think it is better that I should ask hon. Members to wait until the machinery has—as I hope it will not—broken down before requiring the question to be taken up outside the Council. It is not that we are not sympathetic to genuine attempts to better the conditions of people whose salaries are not sufficient, but that we think the best place to deal with it is the body chosen by both parties.


The point I raised is separate from the National Whitley Council, and I take it that the Solicitor-General will see that my points are brought to the notice of the Financial Secretary to the Treasury.

The SOLICITOR-GENERAL indicated assent.


I think this House will deprecate this method of bringing up a question affecting the administration of the Civil Service before Members of the House. It is a great pity, when a tribunal is actually in operation dealing with this matter of a certain class of civil servants, that agitation is at work outside and pressure is being brought to bear on Members of this House to interfere with the deliberations of a body which is honestly and sincerely doing its best to adjust these differences. I have the privilege of serving on the Committee which is dealing with this question of writers' assistants, and I assure the House that on the official side every possible sympathy is being extended to the cases of these civil servants, and, as the Solicitor-General points out, if a comparison is to be made—and I do not want to enter at all into the merits of the case—between the rates of remuneration which these civil servants receive and those of girls in similar or comparable occupations outside I think the verdict of the House would be that these civil servants are very fairly and reasonably treated by the Treasury. It is most unfortunate for the Civil Service that it lends itself, through its voluntary organisation, to pressure of this kind being exercised by this House. The Council, for the origin of which you, Sir, were responsible, in dealing with the relationship of employers and employed is working admirably in the Civil Service, and we have had so far the most amicable discussions on the official side and the staff side in dealing with this question. During the time I have served on the National Whitley Council of the Civil Service I have not seen the smallest bitterness imported into our discussions. Any bitterness which has been imported at all has been brought into our relationship with the Civil Service by hon. Members opposite who are interfering without rhyme or reason with the work of the Civil Service.


I am on the Council.


I have not seen the hon. Member there. I wish the House to understand that the Treasury is really doing its best and the Treasury officer responsible for the working of the National Whitley Council of the Civil Service is giving every possible consideration to the cases of these writers' assistants. A case can always be made for girls employed in work of that kind.




Women and girls too. You have to judge dispassionately, keeping the interest of the taxpayers before your mind. You have to make comparisons between the circumstances in which the women are employed and the circumstances in which they are remunerated for similar employment outside, and I protest against hon. Members opposite making appeals of this kind at the very time that every effort is being made to do what can possibly be done in the interests of these writers' assistants. The officers of the Treasury are as sympathetic towards the interests of civil servants as hon. Members opposite, and I believe if a plebiscite of the lower grades of the Civil Service could be taken, you would find the treatment these civil servants have received at the hands of the Treasury would be endorsed by the great majority of civil servants themselves. I hope the House will leave to the tribunal which is now carefully and conscientiously and dispassionately examining the question, the fullest liberty to deal with it without any pressure brought to bear from the House itself.