HC Deb 07 December 1943 vol 395 cc932-42

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn.—[Sir J. Edmondson.]

Mr. A. Edwards (Middlesbrough, East)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to a matter raised in the House by the hon. Gentleman the Member for North-East Leeds (Mr. Craik Henderson) on 3rd November, when attention was drawn to the dismissal of Mr. W. S. Venner, and the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on that occasion was asked to give an undertaking that, if Members disclosed to Ministers the names of persons, such persons should not be victimised. On that occasion the Financial Secretary, and at a later date the Minister of Aircraft Production, gave an assurance that this man's dismissal had nothing whatever to do with the information that he disclosed to a Member of Parliament. One must accept the Minister's statement on that, but I am concerned with the gravity of what appears to be victimisation of members of staffs in the Departments. I want to tell the House a simple story of my own experience and then see whether the House does not agree that we should insist on the Minister giving the undertaking that, when members of staffs come to us, sometimes in despair, having gone through the normal channels and obtained no satisfaction, they should not be victimised. It is a serious matter if Members disclose the names to Ministers. It is not sufficient for Ministers to say, "It is not for this purpose." If this were a single case, I might pass it over. I want to tell the House of many cases, and I will quote the statement on that occasion of the hon. Member for Gorbals (Mr. Buchanan), who said: Is he aware that if this kind of thing is allowed to go on, it will be a very serious matter, because Members cannot exercise their public functions unless information is supplied to them?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 3rd November, 1943; col. 670, Vol. 393.] I want to be very careful in these days. It is usually taken that these are attacks on civil servants. I am much more careful in taking up cases of complaints of these men to-day than I was a year ago. I have had some rather serious cases. In most of the cases that come to me the Departments are right and the complainants are wrong, and sometimes grievously wrong, but that makes it all the more important that, when these cases are mentioned, they should have particular attention and there should be some method of getting a fair inquiry. I will go back a few years. If the junior Minister present thinks it necessary, I will gladly give the names. It was at the time when the present Home Secretary was Minister of Supply, and two members of the staff came to me and said that there was a very serious racket going on in the Department in which immense sums of money were concerned and that some superior officer was insisting on these juniors passing orders in an irregular way. This man refused to do it. One man came to me with this information. I went to the Minister and said, "I am not sure whether this is a matter for you or for Scotland Yard." I told him the story, and he said, "I have just appointed a special man for carrying out investigations of this kind. Go and see him and, if he wants to follow this through, I will accept whatever he wants to do." The man a little later got a knighthood, and his name, I think, is Sir Henry Wilson. This was his first job, and he was rather pleased when I went to him. We met members of the staff the same day, and the thing looked very serious indeed. The following day it came to the notice of the officials of the Department and the chief civil servant in the Ministry of Supply ordered an official inquiry over the head of the Ministry of Supply. The Minister said, "Now that they have appointed this investigation we shall have to drop yours," so Sir Henry Wilson and I were prevented from carrying on the case. I reported later that I had been in at a conversation when one of the men concerned had actually offered a bribe to the man who gave this information, at that time a temporary civil servant. There was an investigation—I am not suggesting it was not a fair one—and I gave evidence before the Committee myself.

In spite of the Minister's undertaking that the man would not be victimised or suspended, he was dismissed at a few days' notice. The Minister, however, saw that he got his job back after the Committee reported, though he may have been reprimanded. Many months later he came to me at the House of Commons and told me that the reason given to him for his dismissal was that he had on one occasion attended a meeting of the Mosley Party. He admitted that he had been there on one occasion but had never paid a penny to it or become a member of it. There was also present at the same innocent meeting the son of a prominent member of the present War Cabinet. He was not thrown out. It is difficult to believe that there was no connection between the two cases. A long time later, the second man who had given evidence before the Committee and suggested that there were serious malpractices in the Department was thrown out. There was a respectable period before that happened. I do not believe that any action was taken to get down to the real culprits.

That is one case. Another important case concerns the machine tool department of the Ministry of Supply. I suggested to the Minister that he should let me go and tell him the story. He was concerned about what was going on. We were with him for the best part of an hour, and the man told his story as bluntly and plainly as could be. The Minister had an inquiry. Prior to that, the chief man against whom there had been complaints said that either this man went or he went. There was, I believe, a fair inquiry, and, to the credit of the Minister, it was the high-up man who went and not my man, but my man was threatened with all sorts of things for daring to give information outside. It is a serious thing to give information from a Department, but, if a man only does it in desperation after having failed to get anyone else to take action, he is entitled, and Ministers are entitled to take notice. They always have taken notice. What I complain about is throwing men out as Mr. Venner was and alleging that there is no connection between that and his action.

I laid a complaint to the former Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Aircraft Production, and it ended in the police court recently. The Parliamentary Secretary asked me what was the name of the man who gave his information and asked me whether it was Nicholson. I told him that he could not expect me to give the name as I had had too much experience of people being victimised. He said, "How can you expect me to take action if you cannot trust me with the name?" I said I would take him at his word if he guaranteed that the man would not be victimised, and he gave me his word. Within a month or two that man was thrown out in the same circumstances as Mr. Venner, and the allegation was there was no connection with his having given the information. It is too strange a coincidence that so many of these cases should happen. I had a conversation with the Minister of Supply's head man, because I had been told that there was overstaffing at the Ministry. He said, "Don't worry about that, for we are going to have a clean sweep." I asked how many he would get rid of, and he said," I will give you a thousand before lunch." That was Sir William Rootes and he was very happy about it. A month later I went to see how he was getting on with the clean sweep and found that the only man thrown out was Sir William Rootes. That is what they do with people who try to tell them they are overstaffed. They would not stick to Mr. Venner; they would try and throw the Minister out if he said they were overstaffed. The present Minister, however, is a quite fearless man and I have the greatest admiration for him.

On one occasion Sir Horace Wilson took exception to something I had said because I alleged that when there was an investigation taking place within the Treasury for a reduction of staff Sir Horace Wilson sent a notice out that nobody receiving more than £1,000 a year had to be subject to this review. In the House I said that there was a document to that effect. I met him a day or two later and he emphasised that I had said in the House that there was a document which I thought I could produce. I said I would try and produce it. I asked whether there was such a document and he said that was nothing to do with it, but he would not deny it. A few days later I got the document and sent him the references. I have never heard a word from him from that day. The present chief of the Civil Service was with him at our conversation and he has never had the courtesy to mention the matter since. The present Postmaster-General was then Financial Secretary, and he begged me to give the name of the man who gave me the document. I would no longer trust any Minister with a man's name, however, because I knew what would happen.

I have mentioned these cases, not because I want to raise issues that are dead and gone or because I do not think the investigations were satisfactory, but in order to emphasise that when complaints are given to Members, Members should be able to use them with absolute safety for the people who have given them information, especially when undertakings are given that they shall not be victimised. It is said that the men should have taken the normal steps to get satisfaction within the Departments. Let us assume that they had done all they could and in desperation had gone to a Member of Parliament. The Minister should take notice of those cases and there should be some method whereby men who give information could be adequately protected.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Assheton)

There is not a great deal of time, and I want to try and answer the points which my hon. Friend has raised as far as I can. There are also on the Treasury Bench the Parliamentary Secre- taries to the Ministries of Supply and Aircraft Production, and they will be able to deal with the particular cases the hon. Member mentioned. I can refer only to the one case of which I have any personal knowledge, and that is the case of Mr. Venner, and I thought I made it clear, when I was answering a Question in this House, what the position was. When Mr. Venner came to see me on a certain Saturday morning he brought with him a letter which showed that he had already been discharged, and so it is clear that his visit to me cannot under any circumstances have been the cause of his discharge. It is clear there was no case of victimisation on that occasion. I wrote to the Minister of Aircraft Production after I had seen Mr. Venner to inform him that I had some information which I thought would be of value to him, but that case is clearly one where there was no victimisation, and that is the only case of which I have personal knowledge.

I should like to say a word about the general position of civil servants, because I think it is important that the House should understand it. It is not proper that a civil servant should make representations to any outside person about his personal position, about his pay, about his prospects or about his failure to obtain promotion. There is an absolute rule in the Civil Service which forbids officials attempting to bring political or other outside influence to support their personal claims. I am sure everyone will agree that that is perfectly proper. Any thought that political pressure or patronage would have any influence to improve any civil servant's position is quite foreign to our conduct of affairs.

I want to emphasise that, because it does happen, under the guise of complaining of mis-employment or under-employment, that a civil servant is really trying to urge that he is too good for the job he is doing, that his abilities are being under-employed, and that he should be promoted. That happens, as my hon. Friend knows quite well. Of course, a civil servant may want to make representations about under-employment or about mis-employment without any intention whatever of bringing pressure to bear with regard to his personal position. The motive may be a very high one, but a high motive does not justify irregularity. Even on those occasions he ought to make representations first inside his Department. There is no doubt about that. He should make them first to his superior officer. If he feels that no adequate notice is taken by the superior officer, he should make representations to the establishment officer. If he finds that no notice is taken then he may make representations to the head of his Department; and, finally, if he thinks the matter is of such importance and that no other effective remedy is open to him, he can address his representations to the Minister himself.

I am sure the House will agree that that is the right way for a civil servant to make a complaint or a suggestion. To take it first to an outside person, even to a Member of this House, is, to say the least, unbusinesslike and in my opinion it is actually subversive of discipline. In all big organisations it is absolutely essential to have discipline. A big organisation cannot be run without it. In big organisations, as my hon. Friends know, there are constantly troubles and difficulties about fluctuations of work and so on, and those can be adjusted if the staff themselves call attention to them, and I can say with confidence that all Departments are most anxious to do what they can and are glad when the staff call attention to matters. What I want to stress is that there is a reasonable and proper procedure in these matters and that inevitably if a civil servant does not follow the reasonable and proper procedure he is creating trouble for himself.

On this question of victimisation—it is important that we should get this right—I have already said that if a civil servant approaches a Member of Parliament he is breaking the rules. He is also breaking the rules if he approaches him about his work or about the organisation of the Department, without trying first to get the matter set right through the ordinary machinery. I say this, however, that even if a civil servant approaches a Member of Parliament, contrary to the rules, I do not believe that any Minister or any permanent head of a Department, of any establishment officer would allow victimisation on that account. I just do not believe it. It would certainly be wrong if victimisation took place on that account and I do not believe that responsible Ministers or officials would allow it.

I am very jealous of the reputation of the Civil Service. It is my privilege, not my duty, to represent it in this House, and I resent any suggestion that its internal affairs are not conducted fairly and properly. I am ready always to look into any particular example that may be brought to my notice by any Member of the House, and I can say with confidence that victimisation of any person who has made a proper complaint would be absolutely contrary to the traditions of the Service and that any official in the Civil Service who was found guilty of it would himself be punished. Now, in order to make it possible for my hon. Friends to answer one or two of the detailed points that have been made, I will give way.

Mr. Tom Brown (Ince)

Will the Minister explain how it is that the three civil servants who have made complaints to hon. Members of this House have been dismissed afterwards?

Mr. Assheton

I am suggesting that Ministers who know about these cases in their Departments might be able to answer such points.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. Sandys)

I wish to deal with the two specific cases of which the hon. Member gave me notice, and in order not to bring in the Gentlemen's names I propose to call them Mr. A and Mr. B, if that will suit the hon. Member's convenience. I can deal with them only very briefly. The first case that he mentioned was that in which he had received information from an official of the Ministry of Supply, and later there had been an investigation and the official had been suspended. It is perfectly normal procedure to suspend an official, while an investigation is taking place into what were very serious allegations which the official had made against other members in his branch. It would be very difficult for them to carry on while the investigation was being made. At the end of the investigation, the official was reinstated. As a result of the inquiry he received a reprimand, but he was reinstated fully in his job and he carried on.

Incidentally, the allegations he made were, far the most part, proved to be unfounded, although there was some substance in the less important allegations, and the inquiry came to the conclusion that he had acted in good faith. For that reason they felt that a reprimand was sufficient. What happened was that the Ministry dispensed with his services several months later, as the hon. Member said, but for entirely different reasons. The hon. Member said he had Fascist associations. I do not propose to go into that aspect of the matter. I do not think it would be right and proper for me to do so. I would say that a very grave and serious responsibility rests upon any Minister of a Service and Supply Department in war time to assure himself that those to whom very important State secrets are being entrusted in their daily work are fit and proper people for that task.

The Minister cannot afford to take responsibility for entrusting vital State secrets to any but highly trustworthy persons. In this case the official was dealing with all our gun productions and had passing through the branch, not only particulars of guns in production, but also designs of future guns—information which could only be placed in the hands of highly trustworthy people. The Minister went into this case very carefully and felt that in the circumstances he would not be justified in retaining the services of this man in a position of extreme trust.

Mr. Silverman

In any capacity?

Mr. Sandys

In any capacity where he would have to deal with highly confidential matters of this kind.

Mr. Silverman

Was he otherwise employed?

Mr. Sandys

No there was no other employment available for him, and it was decided in the circumstances to dispense with his services. I can assure the hon. Member that the two decisions, that is to say the decision following the inquiry into the allegations which he made and the decision of his dismissal had no bearing upon one another. I go further and say—and I think there is evidence of this on the files—that when the case came up for consideration by the Minister, the civil servants in the Department pointed out to him explicitly that if he consented to the discharge of this official, there would, most likely, be a charge made outside or in this House of victimisation and it was in the light of that consideration that the Minister considered that he must do his duty and proceed with the discharge.

I should say that, before Mr. A left the Department, he made very serious allegations of corruption against Mr. B, whose case was the other case mentioned by my hon. Friend. My hon. Friend suggested that those allegations were not properly investigated. They were very thoroughly investigated. There was not only the first set of allegations into which we inquired, but another set which were handed over to Scotland Yard and were very thoroughly gone into and were not substantiated. With regard to Mr. B, he carried on in the Department for nearly a year—I think 11 months—after the incident occurred. Incidentally, my hon. Friend will recognise that he behaved in a most unusual and unorthodox way in pursuing his inquiries in the Department. I understand that my hon. Friend after he received this complaint, went into the Department and carried out investigations among the officials in the Department.

Mr. A. Edwards

That was after the Minister had given me permission.

Mr. Sandys

I understood that previously the hon. Gentleman had taken evidence in the Department. However, with regard to Mr. B the case is perfectly clear. He gave satisfaction in the Department for 10 or 11 months after the incident. Then there was a change of head in his particular branch and a complete re-organisation. The new head of the branch took a different view of the abilities of this official. As a result of the re-organisation it was decided, quite independently and on a much lower level, to dispense with his services. I should say that the head of the Department was unaware of the incident when he dispensed with his services. I think that is perfectly clear on the files.

Question, "That this House do now adjourn," put, and agreed to.