HC Deb 14 February 1940 vol 357 cc791-8

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Mainwaring

I beg to move, in page 5, line 9, to leave out "national service," and to insert "service under the Commission."

I move this Amendment in order to ascertain whether the proposal in this Clause means the creation of a new privileged class in this country. I would remind the Committee that prior to the outbreak of the war, when we were dealing with the first Military Training Act, considerable emphasis was placed by the Government on the importance of equality of training for those people who were to join the Services. I think the phrase used then was to the effect that "duke's son and cook's son" were to have equal treatment. The surprising thing is that when war broke out, the Government immediately departed from that idea of equality, and proceeded to create all manner of special classes. Under paragraph (d) of this Clause the Commission will be empowered, subject to the concurrence of the Minister, to make payments to any officer or servant of the Commission or to the dependants of any officer or servant of the Commission who is engaged in any national service or has been injured or killed in the performance of any such service. What is meant by "any national service"? There is some mystification as to what payments are to be made in respect of any person who has been killed or injured in the performance of "any such service." The whole thing is left entirely in the hands of the Minister and the Commission. They are to determine what payments are to be made in this respect. I wish to know, therefore, from the Minister whether this does not mean the creation of a special class? A miner, a railwayman, an industrial worker of any kind may likewise be involved in national service. If any untoward accident happens to such a man, what kind of treatment will he or his dependants receive? Are these officials to receive special treatment and precisely how far do the Government propose to go during this war in the creation of special privileged classes in this country? If this is a national emergency, it ought to be met on the basis of equality for every citizen in this land, and there is no justification for introducing into this or any other enactment special conditions for special sections of the community.

3.59 p.m.

The First Commissioner of Works (Mr. Ramsbotham)

The hon. Member is under a misapprehension as to the meaning of this Clause. There is no question of any privilege or of any special treatment of any kind. The situation is this. The Wheat Commission incurs certain administrative expenses in discharging its functions under the Wheat Act. Those expenses include expenditure on the staff which is engaged in the work and the purpose of this proposal is to enable the Commission through the Minister to make arrangements, such as good employers normally make, in cases of injury or death among members of their staff while in their service. This question would not arise at all if the Wheat Commission were an ordinary Government Department but it is not a Government Department and consequently has no specific power to make payments in respect of staff who are, for example, released for the fighting services—such as many good employers make—or who, in order to meet contingencies, are released and loaned to other Departments. That has already occured.

Without this Clause the position would be that a member of the Wheat Commission sent to another Department would be in difficulties in regard to his salary, which, of course, no one could possibly contemplate. Indeed, if he wanted to be sure of his salary, he would have to resign from the Wheat Commission and obtain his salary from another Department, and in this case he might lose superannuation rights and so forth. There is no question of any special treatment or privilege; we are merely safeguarding the position of servants of the Wheat Commission under special circumstances. If that is sufficiently clear to the hon. Member, I hope he will not press his Amendment.

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Mainwaring

If I followed the explanation correctly, the Clause provides that any body of people who may be taken from the service of the Commission into the Armed Forces would also get their salaries paid, and that is just the complaint I make, that in every piece of legislation of this kind you bring in a special body of men who get special treatment in the service of the country. Do the Government propose to make the same provision for miners or for any other body of industrial workers who may be drafted into the Armed Forces? I am surprised that the industrial workers of the country have not long ago rebelled at this sort of process, this continuous enlargement of the area of privilege in the land, always at the expense of the industrial workers. It is time this sort of thing was stopped, and, as far as I am concerned, I shall object to it. It is not democracy, it is not Socialist principle, but it is all the while extending the area of the specially privileged classes in the country. I shall, therefore, force the Amendment to a Division.

Mr. Ramsbotham

I am sorry the hon. Member cannot accept my explanation. I should be sorry to put the Wheat Commission in a position worse than that occupied by good employers of to-day.

Mr. Mainwaring

What does the right hon. Gentleman mean by "good employers"? Does he presume that all employers in the country are in an equally good position to treat their employés in this manner? He ought to be aware that the conditions in industry in this country vary considerably, and the better intentioned employer might well be in the least favourable position to deal with his employés in this form. It is radically unfair to deal with employers on that basis, and the only way in which equal treatment can be given and employers as a whole deal equitably with their employés is for the Government to legislate to that effect. Let them, if they desire to give good treatment to men in the Forces, start by giving us evidence of their readiness to give a decent allowance to the soldier's wife. Let them start there. They resist every effort to increase allowances to the miner's wife or to give a decent possibility of pension to all, though they are prepared to assist in creating special classes, and I for one, on behalf of the average rank-and-file soldier and his wife and dependent children, object to this creation of privileged people.

4.5 p.m.

Mr. T. Williams

Might I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether these non-civil servants who have been employed by the Wheat Commission are intended to be drawn into exactly the same position as civil servants for this particular purpose; and, secondly, whether these Wheat Com mission employés are calculated actually to lose unless something is done to give them a compensation status? I know that my hon. Friend the Member for East Rhondda (Mr. Mainwaring) is right in raising the point of discrimination between wage workers on the one hand and salaried officers on the other. I have said myself from this bench that the time has now arrived when we ought to cease compensating the professional and sending the unemployed worker to the Employment Exchange, and every fresh Bill that comes along, widening the breach and broadening the discrimination between the two classes, is altogether unfair. At some time we shall have to take a stand most definitely on this question, but I doubt very much whether this is the opportunity for us to subject ourselves to gross misrepresentation because these people who have been employed partially on a private and partially on a Government job may be diverted from the Wheat Commission to a Government Department or possibly into one or other of His Majesty's Forces. I doubt whether this is the right moment for us to express our resentment to the extent of marching into the Division Lobby. I do, however, share my hon. Friend's disgust at the continued discrimination between one section and another, and much as I share that disgust, I hope he will not feel disposed in the circumstances to force his Amendment to a Division.

4.7 p.m.

Mr. T. Smith

Very often in the courts one hears lawyers say they are not concerned about what was the intention of Parliament; they are merely concerned with what an Act of Parliament says. If this Amendment were carried, it would lay it down that compensation could be paid in respect of any officer of the Wheat Commission if he was killed or injured while in the service of the Commission. But this paragraph states: subject to the concurrence of the Minister, to make payments to or to the dependants of, any officer or servant of the Commission who is engaged in any national service. I do not know who will explain the legal side of the matter for the Government, but I could visualise one or two cases in which the ambiguity of this paragraph could be called into account. Let me give one that may not be quite sound, but I think it is. Suppose you had an officer or servant of the Wheat Commission doing some form of national service voluntarily while still employed by the Commission, and in the course of that voluntary national service he was either killed or injured. I would contend, if I happened to be one of the dependants of that man, that I could read into this paragraph that I would be entitled to claim compensation from the Wheat Commission, and I do not think that that is what the Government intend in this paragraph. I think it would be more watertight if the Committee were to accept the Amendment than to let the Clause go as it is worded.

4.9 p.m.

Mr. Dingle Foot

I rise to put in a slightly different form the point raised by the hon. Member for East Rhondda (Mr. Mainwaring). While I do not object to payment of compensation, I think these words are unnecessarily wide, because I have looked through the Bill, and I am unable to find any definition of the words "national service." The words by themselves might cover a very large range of services, and the range is likely to increase as the war goes on. It will be within the recollection of the Committee that at the beginning of the war we passed a Measure dealing with people in the various Civil Defence Services, and stated that compensation should be payable by the Minister of Pensions to them or their dependants. But in that Measure we carefully defined the services to which we were referring; that is to say, we carefully denned, by implication, the circumstances in which compensation should be paid. If the Government are going to adhere to this form of words, it seems to me that there should be some definition in the Bill of what is meant by the term "national service."

Mr. Ramsbotham

I will look into that question between now and the Report stage, and, if necessary, we shall have to put it right.

4.11 p.m.

Major Colfox

Do we understand that, supposing an employé of the Commission were to join the Army or Navy and were to be killed, his dependants would be entitled to a pension from the Commission and also to one from the War Office or the Admiralty, as the case may be? If that is the case, I find myself, in spite of the way in which the hon. Member opposite has stated his case, with a certain amount of sympathy for him. It seems to me that whatever service the employé happens to be performing at the time should be remunerated by the Department which he is serving at the time of his injury or death, and not remunerated in addition by the Wheat Commission, as would be the case under the Clause as drawn.

4.12 p.m.

Mr. Ramsbotham

I think the meaning is clear. This practice is adopted in a very large number of cases by local authorities and others, of helping financially those who join the Services where the case merits it, and I think the Commission should have the same power. As regards the pension in the case mentioned by my hon. and gallant Friend, it would be drawn from the Army or Navy, as the case might be.

Mr. Mainwaring

I want to enter an emphatic protest from this side. I know of some hon. Members on this side who are prepared to support this principle, and I want to say to them as well as to the Government that this is a principle that they cannot, on behalf of the working class of this country, support. We cannot continue to create privileges in this manner.

Amendment negatived.

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."

4.13 p.m.

Mr. Charles Williams

I would like to have some explanation of paragraph (a) of this Clause. We are told that you have to extend the powers of the Wheat Commission, but I do not think we have had any explanation from the Government as to how far those powers are intended to be used. As I read the Clause, the Commission can enter into agreements for hiring premises, and they can do a great many other things, such as loaning their assets to any Government Department or any person designated by any Government Department. I feel sure that whoever is in charge of this Clause would wish to enable the Committee to have some knowledge as to the extent to which the Government wish to use these powers, which are very extensive and which will probably have to be extensive, but it is up to the Committee to know to what use the Minister anticipates putting these powers before we give him a completely blank cheque in the matter.

Mr. Ramsbotham

I do not think my hon. Friend has quite understood the position. It is not a question of increasing the powers of the Wheat Commission.

Mr. Williams

It is apparently a matter of extent. According to the Bill, you are widening their responsibilities, and I think that is to give them greater powers for extending their actions where necessary.

Mr. John Morgan

It is clear that the Commission would have power to deal with premises or staff. What lies behind the idea of a loan, and what operation is in mind by the inclusion of this paragraph?

Mr. Ramsbotham

This, I understand, includes all property.

Mr. Morgan

And reserves of cash?

Mr. Ramsbotham

Already some staff of the Wheat Commission have been loaned.

Mr. Ridley

I think the Minister should be in a position to answer a little more specifically these questions. The Clause says the Commission may enter into any agreement for the letting or use of their premises, or for the hiring or use of any of their equipment, or for the loan of any of their assets to any other Government Department, or persons. Surely there is a distinction between premises on the one hand and assets on the other. There is a distinction between Departments and persons.

Mr. Ramsbotham

Calculating machinery and so forth.

Question, "That the Clause stand part of the Bill," put, and agreed to.