HC Deb 09 February 1931 vol 248 cc173-8

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


I wish to raise the question of the appointment of the Chief Traffic Commissioners who are to operate under the Road Traffic Act. During the last few weeks I have submitted a series of questions to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Transport, which had for their object the eliciting of information which would give the House particulars of the men who had been appointed as Traffic Commissioners. On the 28th January, my right hon. Friend informed me that out of the 13 appointments he had made, he had appointed six men with pensions ranging from £395 to £833 per annum in respect of positions previously held. I want to make it perfectly clear that, in objecting to the appointment of old age pensioners to these positions, I am taking the only opportunity that Parliament provides of raising this matter on the Adjournment.

As far as I can understand the position, it is this: Invitations were issued to people likely to seek appointment to these posts, and, as a result of that invitation, approximately 3,200 applications were received. To go through that number was a task that could never be undertaken by the head of any Department, having regard to the many onerous duties he has to perform. So it is obvious that the duty of examining these applications was undertaken by some permanent official in the Department of the Ministry of Transport. As a result of this examination a short list would be provided from which the Minister would be asked to make these appointments. We were then brought to the point where the Minister, exercising the plenary powers conferred upon him by this House, set to work. He appointed those whom in his opinion were best fitted to occupy those particular posts. It is remarkable that in response to a supplementary question which I put on 29th January as to whether out of 2,500,000 persons who were unemployed the Minister could not find men of sufficient mental capacity and administrative ability to fill these posts, my right hon. Friend should put me cavalierly on one side and say that the appointment of these commissioners was never expected to be a solution of the unemployment problem. With that result I entirely disagree. We were told that in these appointments it was essential that there should be a certain number of chief constables who had done similar work, but I find it hard to reconcile that statement when I examine the full list of the 13 gentlemen who have been appointed to the 13 traffic areas. In the number appointed there are two lawyers who have had no practical experience of traffic organisation. The only qualification I can find for the appointment is in the words of my right hon. Friend in response to one of my questions, when he said that one of these gentlemen was a lawyer with considerable experience, legal experience, and that he understood the Welsh language.

There are scores of men of undoubted mental capacity and excellent administrative ability who at present, owing to acute trade depression, are denied the opportunity of earning their own economic existence who could have been brought into these positions and would have discharged the duties attached to them in an efficient way. It is obvious that my right hon. Friend, in making these appointments, has forgotten all the tenets to which he claims to be particularly attached.

How often has he stood on the platform and told his audiences that the elementary philosophy of Socialism meant that no man should have two dinners until everybody had had one? But we find him in this instance appointing men who, out of the coffers of a generous State, are provided with the wherewithal to live a life of happiness and comfort on a pension of twice the amount that I get for sitting in this House and doing the work of a Member of Parliament. My right hon. Friend may claim that he has done the right thing, and has appointed the right men to fill these posts, but I would remind him that I have been in the public life of a great town in this country for the last 20 years, and it has been my task on many occasions to take a leading part in the appointment of men to positions even more responsible than that of a chief traffic commissioner. The same efforts have been made to induce me to give such positions to people who ought to be retired, in order that they may do another man out of a job. I have resisted those efforts, and always shall resist them, because I am convinced that a generous State giving a pension of £833 a year for work previously done demands from that individual that he shall retire and make way for someone else.

There is a further feature which compels me to raise this issue. For 20 years I have been attempting to introduce a universal superannuation system—a system whereby, by a contributory process, all men and women will have the opportunity, when old age comes upon them, to go into a happy retirement. The greatest weapon with which my opponents have been able to flog me in the past has been the statement that is always made that, if you pension these people off, the day after they get their pension they will be entering into the labour market again and doing someone else out of a job. In this instance, if the Minister of Transport has done nothing else, he has given my opponents a little longer time in which they can thrash me for the efforts that I make in that direction in the future. I have tried to introduce this matter in a very courteous way. I have not tried unduly to hit the Minister of Transport. Nothing that I have said will belittle the good will and esteem in which the Minister of Transport is held in every quarter of the House for the work he has done in his Department. But I earnestly plead with my right hon. Friend, I entreat him—not that we can do anything now, so far as these 13 appointments are concerned, but for the future—that in any appointments he may make he will see to it at all events that the principles of Socialism, with which he has told us he is in entire agreement, will be upheld, and that there will be no more old age pensioners put into positions of this description.

The MINISTER of TRANSPORT (Mr. Herbert Morrison)

I am afraid that in the five minutes which remain it will not be possible for me to cover the ground as fully as I would wish, but I will do my best. My hon. Friend has referred to the principles of Socialism which I have preached, and which I have been preaching to-night in another place. But it is also a principle of Socialism that in the filling of public appointments, whether by Ministers or local authorities, it is very necessary that those who are filling such appointments, particularly if they are positions of great responsibility, should not fill them in the spirit that they are merely putting somebody into a job. But in the case of positions of exceptional responsibility and of a new administrative character like these, the man who is filling the appointments ought conscientiously to feel in his heart that he has not been influenced by any extraneous consideration, but has tried conscientiously, honourably and straightforwardly to choose from the applicants for the position a man who, in his judgment, could best discharge the responsibilities which that position entails. That, in my judgment, is completely in accordance with the principles of anyone who desires to see the public service properly administered. There were published advertisements, to which anyone could reply. The positions were not filled by officials of the Ministry of Transport. It is true that I had the assistance of officers of the Department as a committee, assisted by the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission, to whom I am grateful. The final responsibility of making these appointments is entirely mine. I accept that responsibility, and I wish in no way to devolve that responsibility upon the officers of the Department or the Chairman of the Civil Service Commission. My hon. Friend has indicated that the two lawyers whom I have appointed ought not to have been appointed. As far as I know neither of these gentlemen had a pension and with regard to the appointment for South Wales, there has been general agreement from Members representing constituencies there that the appointment was a very good one and generally popular.

Let us come to the question of the men with pensions. Let us face the point that public pensions to some extent are often regarded as deferred pay. I do not wish to argue the point. I only mention it as a point which is made. These positions were not pensionable themselves; they were appointments for a limited term of years and the salaries were modest and it was obvious that if I wanted, among others, people with the experience of chief constables who had been doing this work of licensing public service vehicles, I could not possibly have got a chief constable to come out of the service and forgo all his pension rights merely for the honour and privilege of serving me for three or five years, after which he would get no pension. If I wanted chief constables I was bound to take men who were near the pensionable age and had acquired pensionable qualifications.

Take the case of the Chief Constable of Middlesbrough. Here was a man who had been co-ordinating the activities of a large number of authorities on Tees-side. Three county boroughs, six non-county boroughs, nine urban districts and three rural districts. He had been organising a regional licensing and co-ordin- ated traffic system—just the man I wanted for this task with the experience that was so necessary, and it was essential that in the new organisation we should take over the experience of the old. According to my hon. Friend the Member for Halifax (Mr. Longbottom), I ought to have said, "Notwithstanding his special qualifications, his special knowledge and exceptional experience, I have a principle that nobody having a pension can have this position." And I should have set him aside and taken somebody else whom I knew to be definitely inferior in qualifications for the task. [Ivterruption.] I cannot help it; however many of my hon. Friends may interrupt me I cannot do that and I will not do that. Nor will I be accountable to this House in detail for each appointment which I make. This House conferred that responsibility on me because it trusted me, and I must discharge that responsibility conscientiously according to what I believe to be right. Therefore I cannot come to the House of Commons and be required to justify every one of those appointments. But take that one—and it is conclusive. There he was, with special experience of this type of work. I should be disregarding the interests of the State—[Interruption.] The man will not be there for ever. He had special experience, and I should have been wrong if I had ignored that experience and appointed somebody who had not had the special experience. I am sorry to disagree with my hon. Friend. On the general principle, I agree with him. I will apply it where-ever I can. It is much easier to apply it for the lower appointments. It was not easy to apply it for these special appointments where special experience was desirable, and I believe—and I cannot withdraw or modify that belief—that what I did was right, and if I were faced with the same circumstances, I should be compelled to do the same again.

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