HC Deb 07 April 1938 vol 334 cc680-6

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Captain Hope.]

11.8 p.m.

Mr. Turton

I make no apology for raising at this late hour the question of the dismissal of the Malton graders. It is a well recognised axiom of our law that no man shall lose either his employment or his reputation without being given an opportunity of having that decision reviewed by an independent tribunal. It is an axiom of which we are very jealous in this country, and we are still more jealous of any infringement of that axiom by a Government Department or any statutory body.

On the 11th January of this year the Malton graders were dismissed from their employment by the Livestock Commission and were given no opportunity of having that decision reviewed. Previous to that date they were regarded as three of the best of the cattle livestock judges in the northern counties of England, but since that date, by that decision, they have been branded either as incompetent or as dishonest, Every effort that has been made by them, by their representatives in different organisations, whether butchers, farmers or auctioneers, or whether by those who represent them in Parliament, has met with no success. That I suggest is a very unsatisfactory situation to arise, and I would ask the House, who are really the only forum to which the men can now come, to consider the position and the reasons why these men were dismissed, and to use what force the House can to secure to them an independent hearing of their case, if not reinstatement.

The Minister, at Question time, said there had been numerous complaints against these men, but there is no issue upon that. A certain super-grader who was in charge of them, a Mr. Wright, did make frequent complaints about these men from 1935 to January, 1938, but no complaint, I suggest, was made that had not been actuated by Mr. Wright and it is a noteworthy fact that in the very month when these men were dismissed, Mr. Wright was promoted to a higher sphere, either as vindicating his judgment, or, as the House may think, in order to remove a man whose methods and whose manner had become distasteful to the whole of Northern England.

Let me give one or two instances of the complaints. The first one gives the clue to the whole affair. Of course, there is no greater spur to anger than ridicule. In July, 1935, one of the graders, a Mr. Weighell, produced a steer for certification. When a grader produces an animal of his own, he can take no part in the grading, and the other graders have to do the certifying. That animal was certified. Mr. Wright came along and said, "That animal has not been properly castrated." He bent down and said, "It has a stone; I can feel it has a stone." Mr. Whelan took that animal away, and submitted it to a veterinary surgeon, and the veterinary surgeon's certificate was signed, and on 9th August, 1937, that animal was re-presented, and the other graders passed it. When Mr. Wright came along, he again made the same complaint and got very angry. The veterinary certificate was produced. On such an occasion a little laughter is indulged in. Then Mr. Wright tried to change his ground, and still refused to pass the animal on the ground that it had not been castrated within the first nine months of its life. The animal being at that time 21 months old it would be a very curious objection, difficult for Mr. Wright to substantiate.

That was the origin of the whole affair, and as the House can imagine Mr. Wright was not very friendly with the graders after that time. He used to come up to the graders and say, I have seen at Hull some of your cattle which have been passed but ought not to have been certified." On one or two occasions, a grader said, "Will you kindly give us the number of the animal? "—all these animals are numbered—and on looking it up the grader found that such animal had never been before the Malton graders at all. Finally there came an incident on 7th January this year. The graders had been performing their normal work. Mr. Wright arrived, with a Mr. Myers, who was under him. He strode into the ring and stood in the passage way waving his arms and gesticulating and saying, "These beasts which you have passed should not have been certified." Of those animals which they had certified he rejected 12. Of course if he was right they had been acting most improperly. I have taken the trouble, because I thought this was a grave issue, to trace those 12 animals which he had rejected.

I can tell the House this: I have managed to trace II of them. Four of them went to Manchester arid two of those were killed at Manchester deadweight centre and passed out as select grade, that is top super quality. Two of them were, in fact, bought by a friend of Mr. Wright who used to buy rejected animals, and who came from Leeds. One of these was passed, I understand, as select grade, to the evident advantage of the gentleman who bought it. That makes six. I have gone further. There is one man, a gentleman named Mr. Atkinson, of Scampston, who had four animals rejected. He said that the next week two similar animals from the same yard were sent by him to Malton, and they were passed. He said that the animals that were rejected on the 7th were better than those which were passed on the 14th.

Finally, I have my strongest case to put. Mr. Barnley, of Wigganthorpe, owned one of the 12 rejected on the 7th. He was very dissatisfied. He sent the same animal on the 14th to the same market. As these men had been dis- missed, there was another panel of graders and another super-grader; not Mr. Wright, but Mr. Myers, and they passed the same beast on the 14th that Mr. Wright had rejected on the 7th. I have given the House 11 out of the 12; I have failed in one case to trace the animal.

I submit on those facts that there is a prima facie case made out that the men have not been fairly treated. If it is thought that I am suggesting that the public purse has been robbed by laxity on the part of these men, let me give figures, which I got from the Minister, which I think put the case very clearly. In the whole period from August to January, these men had to judge 2,500 animals. They rejected 474, and gave quality subsidy to 214. I have obtained comparative figures from other markets and I find what I know to be the fact that the standard of grading was higher at the Malton market in that period than at other markets in the North of England, or even in the South.

These men were dismissed on 7th January, and from that period another panel has been put in by the Livestock Commission. What happened? In two months that new panel has passed for quality subsidy more animals than the Malton dismissed panel passed in five months. They passed 218 for quality subsidy, and the State has had to pay 218 seven-and-sixpences in two months, whereas the Malton panel made the State pay only 214 in five months. The new panel have rejected some 300 fewer animals than the old, and instead of rejecting one in five they are rejecting only one in seven.

Here is surely a case for review. The Livestock Commission refused to consider this matter at all. They want to stand by Mr. Wright who, as the hon. Member for South Croydon (Mr. H. G. Williams) would say, as Wright, cannot be wrong. I want to see this wrong righted, and I ask the Minister, who is the executive officer in this matter, however strongly he may feel that he would like to stand up for his Livestock Commission in this matter, yet to secure that justice is done in this. House and that grievances can be redressed.

11.20 p.m.

Mr. W. S. Morrison

If I were not convinced of the justice of the case, I should not defend the Commission or anyone else. In my judgment, the Commission acted throughout this unfortunate affair with great patience and have worthily discharged the heavy responsibility placed upon them by Parliament to see that this subsidy from public funds is administered uniformly and justly. I cannot traverse the whole story, but I would remind the House that there are some 800 centres at which cattle may be presented for certification, and at each centre there is a certifying authority, composed of three persons—a farmer, an auctioneer, and a butcher—all of whom are qualified to judge the quality of cattle. The scheme provides that the Commission appoints these men as its agents in the district and provides also that it may terminate their appointments if they are not carrying out the duties imposed upon them to the satisfaction of the Commission.

In this case there has never been any suggestion of dishonesty against any of these men, nor, in the widest meaning of the term, any suggestion of incompetence in the sense that they know good beasts from bad beasts. That is not the point. The point is that if this sum of public money is to be administered fairly it must be administered with uniformity throughout the whole country or abuses of the gravest character will commence. If it becomes known that an authority for its own purposes adopts a different standard from others you will get all sorts of preferences by farmers going to that one place. The only trouble against these men is not lack of knowledge of cattle but the fact that for some reason they have not done what was required of them, that is to say kept the same standard as that which is uniform for the rest of England. It is rather an old story, but the Malton centre has given the Commission and the Cattle Committee which preceded it far more trouble than any other certification centre in England. This particular series of events terminated in the way to which my hon. Friend has drawn attention.

Letters were sent by the Cattle Commission to these men on 12 occasions drawing attention to the unsatisfactory state of affairs as revealed in the reports of their inspector, Mr. Wright and other persons, and asking them so to arrange that they would grade the cattle in the way that was uniform over the whole of England, Wales and Scotland. After all that trouble, still the matter was not satisfactory, and the Commission, as a body entrusted by this House with the duty of administering public money justly and fairly, had no alternative but to ask these men to resign. After they had done so, the Commission did what any good employer does, namely, asked them to come and have an interview with the Commission. Nothing that transpired at that interview, I am told, gave the Commission any reason to alter its decision.

My hon. Friend has drawn attention to certain incidents which he states have occurred.

I am well aware that this incident of retirement has created a great deal of feeling in the district that my hon. Friend represents, and when you get that state of affairs you get an amazing crop of stories on both sides of the matter. Neither my hon. Friend nor myself was present op the occasion of certain incidents which he described with Mr. Wright. So neither of us can from personal knowledge speak about it. You get different accounts of what transpired. As regards Mr. Wright, however, I ought to say that there is no doubt at all as to his experience in judging cattle. He has spent practically all his life in the livestock business, and the Commission have a very high opinion of his capabilities as a judge of cattle. Indeed, a few months ago they promoted him to be a divisional inspector with general supervision over the whole of the North of England.

The Commission's chief inspector has frequently been told by farmers and buyers that Mr. Wright is an extremely good judge of cattle. Mr. Wright's duty of securing uniform and proper grading of cattle in Yorkshire is difficult. He has a very strong sense of duty and has done his utmost to raise the standard of grading. The remarkable thing is that no complaints have been made against him in the other counties under his charge. The Commission consider that he has performed his invidous task very satisfactorily. They do not think that Mr. Wright's reports were actuated by any hostility against these men. Reports of unsatisfactory grading have been made by two other officers of the Cattle Committee and the Livestock Commission. There you have two other officers who have made these reports unsatisfactory to the graders who are the subject of our discussion at the moment, and in addition, the Commission have had complaints of grading cattle at Malton for other men who are butchers and dealers.

I have given a great deal of attention to this matter. I believe the fact that grading at Malton was unsatisfactory has been fully established. There has been an improvement in recent months. I do not say that that in itself is due to the grading when Mr. Wright was there, because cattle are normally better in the winter months.

I cannot traverse all the points which my hon. Friend mentioned, but I believe that, when you are dealing with public money and setting up a Commission, to give it out in rather a complicated scheme of this character, the House ought to support the men who are put in the position to handle the public money, unless they believe they have acted contrary to public interests or the dictates of justice.

I am rather sorry the matter has been raised in this way. I hope that it does not create in the House or elsewhere the feeling that there is something wrong in the administration of the subsidy. The very reverse is the case. One of the essential parts of the machinery consists of those 800 certifying authorities, each including a butcher, a farmer and an auctioneer, and the number of complaints against their decisions has been surprisingly small. It is fair to say that both the Commission and the certifying authorities as a whole have carried out the onerous duties imposed by this House to the full satisfaction not only of myself, but of all branches of the livestock industry.

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