HC Deb 23 January 1930 vol 234 cc478-86

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. T. Kennedy.]


I wish to raise the matter about which I gave notice at Question time to-day. I refer to the discharge of ex-service men now serving as temporary civil servants in Government Departments. I do not deny that successive Governments have done a good deal to ease the problem of temporary labour in the Civil Service; I do not deny that in the early stages of the post-War period dismissals from the Civil Service on a large scale were inevitable; but for some time past the size of the temporary clerk problem in the Civil Service has been so small as to make it a perfectly practicable thing to give security to the remaining temporary staff. Successive Governments have pledged themselves in the plainest possible language that no efficient ex-service temporary clerk should be discharged from the Civil Service to make room for incoming recruits from school. That pledge was made by the last Government. It has been endorsed by the present Government, but I shall submit to the House that, if that pledge is being carried out in the letter, it is being violated in the spirit in a way in which this House ought not to tolerate. It may be true that an individual ex-service man is not being put on the street in order that a boy or girl from school may come in to occupy his particular seat; but What is happening in the Civil Service is that temporary men are being discharged, that established civil servants already in the Department are being transferred to the seats that these men leave, and that then open competition recruits are being brought in to fill the place of the civil servants thus transferred.

The evidence for what I have said may be found in the fact that during the last four years no less than 2,354 boys and girls have been brought through open competitive examinations into the Civil Service. During the same period, dismissals of temporary ex-service men who ought never to be called temporary after from 10 to 15 years' service for the State, have been proceeding at an average rate of 450 per annum. My hon. Friend who will reply will probably tell the House that a considerable proportion of the ex-service men dismissed year by year have subsequently been found places in other Departments through the operations of the Joint Substitution Board. I am not concerned whether that is the case or not. If only one ex-service man finds himself on the streets after 10 or 16 years' work for the State, in order that a boy or girl may come in from school, my case remains just as good as if the number ran into scores or hundreds or thousands.

That ought not to happen, but, if my hon. Friend says that he has been able to replace the bulk of those being discharged, what does that mean? It means that what I say is true. If over a period four years, during which you have had to dismiss a number of men, you have found it possible to replace them in other Departments, surely the logical deduction is that it is perfectly practicable at this stage of the problem to assure every efficient ex-service temporary clerk that he can have security of tenure somewhere or other in the Civil Service. I ask the House to conceive the attitude of mind of men of anything from 30 to 50 years of age, in most cases with families, and with anything from 10 to 15 years' service in a temporary capacity, being presented, as a hundred men at Kew are now being presented, with a notice that in one month from now their services will not be required in that Department. That is a situation in which we ought not to place any of those men if it is possible, as I tell the House it is possible, to give them security of tenure.

The next point I wish to make is this. The Government have set up a Royal Commission on the Civil Service. It is part of its terms of reference to consider the future of these very men of whom I am talking. I say it is a monstrous thing, while that Commission is considering the future of these men, that their future should be destroyed by dismissals. The essence of the appointment of a Commission of that kind, if the Government are sincere, is that while it is sitting and until it presents its report the men into whose fate it is inquiring ought to be assured of security of tenure, and nothing ought to be done to sabotage the work of the Commission before it has had the opportunity of considering the problem and reporting.

The next point is this; even where the Government are able, when men are dismissed from one Department, to send them to another, that often imposes a very severe tax upon the individuals concerned. They are poor men. The maximum salary of a Grade III Clerk, as most of them are, is 67s. 7d. a week. None of those men can yet have reached the maximum, and the average rate would be about 62s. If a man is moved from Kew, where he has been for a large number of years, and where he has made his home, and is sent to the Custom House in the East End of London, or to the Money Order Department in North London, or some other department in the City of London, the net effect is to tax him to the tune of several shillings a week for travelling expenses as the result of the move. I beg the Minister, if he is compelled to effect those transfers, to do to these men what be would do with established civil servants, and make good to them the extra cost of travel. I think it is inhuman that the Government should mulct those individuals who have given military service, and after that long periods of Civil Service, of several shillings a week from a paltry wage of 62s. or thereabouts, on which they have to keep a wife and family.

I shall probably be told by the hon. Gentleman who is to reply that there is need for a measure of open competitive recruitment to the clerical and writing assistants' classes of the Civil Service. I am not going to deny the desirability of a measure of open recruitment from the point of view of this State service, but if one half of these 2,300 seats which have been filled by boys and girls from school had been utilised to give permanency to men who are now insecure we should not have needed to put questions to-day about dismissals from Kew or to raise this matter to-night. It is not a matter of ignoring the needs of the State's service, but of relating the State's service to the State's own responsibility towards an exceedingly deserving body of men.

At some other time I shall need to raise in the House the effect of the recruitment of boys and girls from school to the executive class of the Civil Service and the clerical class of the Civil Service, with promotion prospects to writing assistants, typists, P men, and so on. I am not raising that issue to-night. To-night I am raising these two specific points. I, as an old civil servant, tell the House that it is a perfectly practical thing for the hon. Gentleman on the Front Bench to say in this House to-night that every temporary clerk who is efficient shall be assured of security of tenure, and he can do that and "till meet his needs in the way of open competitive recruitment. That is a perfectly practicable thing to do; and I ask him to do it. The second thing I ask him to do is to deal with that point about extra travelling expenses where transfers are involved.

My last word, for I want to leave the hon. Member plenty of time to reply, is, we do not want to find him acting as the mouthpiece of Treasury officials on this issue. Nothing has discouraged me more as a newcomer to these benches—and I am going to put this with the utmost possible candour—than to witness the way in which our Ministers make themselves the mouthpiece of replies that any civil servant could tell them were wrong replies. We want something better than that from Labour Ministers. We passionately want something better than that when the employment of married men with families is at stake. We are entitled to ask for it, and I hope the Financial Secretary to the Treasury will give it to us.

Commander SOUTHBY

I want to associate myself with all that has been said by the hon. Member for West Wolverhampton (Mr. W. J. Brown), and I am sure every temporary Civil Service clerk will be grateful to him for the way in which he has put forward their case. After the War these men went into the Civil Service, and they were assured of jobs in the Civil Service as long as they were able to carry out their duties efficiently. Although it may be argued that this contract has been honoured in the letter, it cannot be argued that it is being honoured in the spirit. We may be told that it has been necessary in the interests of economy to replace these men by boys and girls, but this House, I am sure, would not wish to see economy practised to the detriment of men who fought in the War and who were assured of jobs when they returned, as long as they were competent to carry out their duties.

The FINANCIAL SECRETARY to the TREASURY (Mr. Pethick-Lawrence)

As hon. Members who have been in the House for some years are aware, we have always been exceedingly careful to do justice in this matter. The House has to take care of the efficiency of the Civil Service, but so careful have we been in the past that even the efficiency of the Civil Service has not been allowed to stand in the way of justice being done to the ex-service men, and we have frequently appointed committees in order to make sure that everything possible was being done to protect the interests of the ex-sevice men. Let me say what has taken place. In the first place, apart from the ex-service men who were pre-War in the Civil Service, established in the ordinary way, the following steps have been taken to protect the interests of the ex-service men. Acting upon the recommendations of the Lytton and Southborough Committees there was an examination and the result of it was that 16,000 ex-service men have been established as civil servants. There was a number of men who did not qualify, and as a result it was felt that there was still a large number of ex-service men who might become dispossessed of their employment. Those who did not pass the examination were examined and their case was brought under review. Acting upon the principle that those who had the highest claim upon the State should be given preference, a further 8,000 were put into a P class, and those men would be quite certain to retain their jobs although they were not exactly established and did not become pensionable as the ordinary established men were.

That means something like 5,000 ex-service men were left as temporary civil servants. Those 5,000 men are subject to two promises. The first is that for every three vacancies that occur in the P Class through promotion, discharge, death or any other reason, one of the remaining ex-service men who are not established shall be given a P Class position. The second promise is one which was given by my predecessor in office and which I have confirmed, namely, that pending the recommendations of the Royal Commission, the appointment of new entrants to the clerical class of the Civil Service by open competition will not be allowed to result in discharge from the Government service of any efficient ex-service temporary clerk in order to make room for a successful candidate from such examination. At the same time I think it must be clear to hon. Members, who are accustomed to deal with ordinary affairs, that it would not be possible to go beyond that, and promise that there would be no recruitment from outside the Civil Service. I do not think that my hon. Friend who raised this question suggested that. I may perhaps be permitted to quote a recommendation contained in the Second Report of the Select Committee on Estimates, presented to this House in 1929. They said—


A Tory committee.


I do not know how long the hon. Member has been in this House, but I may inform him that these Committees are not party Committees—


I have been long enough in the House to know that they are.


I am sorry; I was facing the other way and did not notice that it was my hon. Friend who made the interjection. The Select Committee's recommendation was as follows: Whilst your Committee agree that in the circumstances existing after the War the arrangements made were appropriate, they consider, in the interests of future efficiency and in view of the urgency of correcting the existing distribution without delay, that steps should be taken as occasion arises to resume the system of open competition, with the intention, on the one hand, of improving the standard of admission to the various classes and, on the other hand, of maintaining a regular flow of recruits at the normal ages. I think it must be apparent that it would be impossible for the Government, being responsible for the efficiency of the whole Civil Service, to do away with open recruitment so that people at the ages required should be admitted; I at as I have already pointed out, it takes care at the same time to safeguard the position of the ex-service men.


Can the hon. Gentleman give us any information as to how many men have been promoted from the "P" class on to the permanent establishment? The "P" class men have no pension rights, and it is an inferred moral obligation that they would be gradually promoted from the "P" class on to the establishment with pension rights.


I am told the answer to that is 1,100.[...] course, I cannot give any definite promise that as jobs peter out there will not be some discharge of temporary men.


What becomes of the pledge?


The time is very short. If hon. Members want me to deal with the subject, I must be allowed to proceed, or they will suffer through my answer not being satisfactory.


The hon. Gentleman has occupied nearly two-thirds of his time with a recital of past history, and has not yet come to the specific point of my speech which is: How does he reconcile what is happening with his own pledge?


I must take the subject as a whole. If hon. Members had not interrupted I should have come to the point. I cannot promise that as jobs peter out men will not be discharged, but that is not the pledge. The pledge is that men will not be discharged in order to find room for new entrants through examination. At the, same time, it is the effort of the Joint Substitution Board to find places for men who are discharged, and I assure my hon. Friend that in certainly the great bulk, if not in all cases, jobs have been offered to the men who have been discharged in either the same or in some other Department on the same lines as those from which they have been discharged. With regard to the men who are subject to discharge at present, I am informed that already the Joint Substitution Board has found places for several of them, and before their notices expire, a very considerable proportion of the men discharged will have had places found for them, and although I must not be taken to give any definite pledge, I am hopeful that a substantial number of those who remain will before a very great while after their discharge has taken place, be replaced in some Department, so that they will not suffer appreciably.


Will the hon. Gentleman explain how it is, if the Government has given a pledge that no ex-service man shall be turned out to make room for an incoming open competition recruit, that at one and the same time you have boys and girls coming in by the hundred—600 from the last examination alone—and men being discharged? How can he reconcile that with the pledge?


The fact is, that those engaged in Government Departments are not all exactly the same. Human beings are not like sheep in a field. They all have different work, different grades of work, and different responsibility. It is not possible absolutely to say that every man who is turned out can be put into any job that arises. We have to take all sorts of things into consideration, but broadly speaking every man that has been discharged has been found work at the same time that the new entrants have come in. The pledge has been observed not only in the letter but in the spirit, and it is the intention of the Departments to keep that pledge in the latter and in the spirit in the future.


May I give notice, that in view of that wholly unsatisfactory, lame, inadequate and irrelevant reply, I shall raise this matter on another appropriate occasion if I am in order in so doing.

Lieut.-Colonel ACLAND-TROYTE

I am sure the whole House thinks that the hon. Gentleman's answer has been entirely unsatisfactory and nothing but mere quibble all the way through.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine minutes after Eleven o'Clock.