HC Deb 28 January 1944 vol 396 cc1091-8

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—(Mr. Drew.)

Mr. Austin Hopkinson (Mossley)

I am sorry to detain the House but, if Ministers have other duties to perform, no answer to my few remarks is required and there will be no discourtesy if they find it necessary to leave before those remarks are concluded. I wish to call attention to the necessity, in view of the present state of the law, for special caution in making appointments to departmental and other posts. It is obvious that this is connected with recent decisions of the courts. There is no suggestion or any thought in my mind that those decisions were not perfectly right. The judges in question were capable of directing the jury and, therefore, if any harm happens to the State as the result of those decisions, it is not the fault of the judiciary but undoubtedly the fault of the law itself. I am precluded from suggesting that amending Acts are necessary in this instance, and therefore I am forced to adopt the form. Failing a law which effects this object, there is only one way in which the country can be relieved from the scandals that are taking place at present, and that is by the most serious consideration being given by every departmental chief to the appointments that he makes and the inquiries that he makes into the antecedents of the people employed by him in responsible positions.

I am going to take examples from some time past, so that it is difficult, except for the Ministers concerned, to trace them, because I do not wish to be unfair to anyone. I take it that it is the duty of every Member of the House, more than of any other member of the public, if he has reason to believe, when an appointment is being made to a responsible position in the Government service that that appointment is going to some man who is utterly unfitted by his past to hold such appointment, to convey that information to the Minister concerned, so that the Minister may have an opportunity of making the necessary inquiries, to see whether these contentions are justified or not.

Some little time ago an appointment was being made to a position where the possibilities of a dishonest man enriching himself to the detriment of the country were enormous, and the public interests concerned were of the greatest importance to us, not only during the war but subsequently. Hearing who was selected for this appointment, I saw the Minister and gave him a complete dossier of the man in question—the blackest dossier which could ever be attached to anyone in a responsible position in Great Britain. I had information from a man holding a responsible position in a foreign country. Whether that information is right or not, I do not know. All I can say is that the man who informed me was in a responsible position. He told me that this individual had fled from that country, with a warrant out for his arrest for fraud. The answer that I got from the Minister amounted to this: that it is unfair to dig up a man's past. In view of decisions of the courts, which show how powerless the law against corruption is, I ask the House, am I not right in suggesting that very much greater caution should be exercised over these appointments than has been the case hitherto?

Let me take another case, also dating well back into the past, so that it cannot be traced and no injustice can be done. A very notorious gentleman known to a large number of people outside the House and in it, after standing for Parliament as one of Sir Oswald Mosley's candidates, was received into the bosom of the Conservative Central Office. A Member of this House employed him for some time, I can only say not with complete satisfaction to his employer. He became a member of a university, not I think to the complete satisfaction of the university. Early in the war he appeared with the King's commission at a provincial centre and a local lawyer asked me if I knew anything of the gentleman, because he particularly wanted to know whether he was a truthful person. I said, "Why do you want to know? Have you any doubt? "He said, "He informed a client of mine that he was a Member of Parliament, and I found that he was not. He also told the client of mine that he was a barrister, and his name was not in the law list, so I began to doubt his credentials." I gave my lawyer friend some advice. The gentleman in question left the Army. Later, I was asked about him by a member of a public corporation which had taken him into its employment. He also wanted to know. I told him. He left that corporation. A few months later I found him in a substantial position in one of our Ministries. Again I spoke to one of the people concerned and he left that Ministry. The next time I found him he was in charge, under another Ministry, of very important things on a very large scale. Then I gave it up—I thought that if I still chased him he would probably soon be in the Cabinet.

I give these examples not to amuse the House but to show the seriousness of the position and the callous indifference to the national interest that is shown in making these appointments. You have only to look at the newspapers in the past two years. You get one Department wanting a superintendent of store depots. A man is appointed. Within a few months he is convicted of embezzlement to the extent of over £1,000 and it comes out in evidence that he had only been released a few months from a long term of imprisonment for the same crime. It is not one or two cases. There are many of them, though it is only the bigger ones that come out. It is all, to my mind, a symptom of a lowering of our standards of public life which has been remarked very largely by people outside the House and within it.

We are not maintaining our standards in the way we used to maintain them. Hon. Members will remember that in the summer of 1940 many Members were going about saying, "We are fighting against gangsters. We must therefore employ gangsterism." That is the most damnable non sequitur I have ever heard invented. Because the people we are fighting against are gangsters and crooks therefore we must be gangsters or crooks or we cannot win. The right hon Gentleman the Member for Devonport (Mr. Hore-Belisha) was right, when early in the war he described this as a Christian crusade. This is the cynical attitude of mind which is being shown, I am sorry to say, among us in the House to-day, but it is not really the feeling of our fellow countrymen, who are far from being cynical. After all, what business has the cynic to be fighting this war? The cynic is a man who, in his heart of hearts, does not believe there is anything good or decent in the world, and therefore it is utterly useless to fight against any evil he comes across. I have been accused, myself, of being cynical simply because I do believe this country is the home of a decent and honest nation and that it is possible, by constantly fighting against graft and dishonesty when we see it to carry out the desires of a nation which is essentially sound at heart.

So far as concerns the case which gave rise to this discussion on my part, I am sorry to say that among my acquaintances—I do not say my friends—are some of the worst offenders in this respect, some of the worst grafters that infest the body politic at the present time. Until last Friday one of these acquaintances appeared to be distinctly what we call "under the weather." He did not seem to be enjoying life at all. I happened to see him again on Saturday, after the case had been decided, and I never saw a man so recovered in health and spirit as my acquaintance was after the case had been so decided that it could go out to the contractors of the country that it is possible, if you give an official a large sum of money and nobody can disprove that you gave it to him out of pure affection and for no other reason, that no objection will be taken, if that official recommends you for a very large and profitable contract which you are not very capable of carrying out. That is the position. That is the reason why Ministers must be pressed by this House to be ever so much more careful in these matters than they have been in the past.

Take our present situation. As all the world knows, we are likely to be undertaking, in a very short space of time, military operations not only of the greatest magnitude but also involving obviously very great military risk. We have to steel our minds to the thought that before these operations are successful, we may have suffered several severe setbacks in a military or naval sense. Our enemies—and some of our Allies, by the way—are entirely wrong when they talk about the existence of any appreciable defeatism in this country. It just is not there yet. But the potential defeatists of this country are those people who are making a good thing out of the war. Those are the people I am talking about to-day, and I want the Government to mark this, that if they take the steps I am urging them to take, if they get rid of graft out of the Departments—I am not talking of civil servants, I have come across no trace of it in the regular Civil Service—they must bear in mind this potential defeatist body, which will then become active. So it is no use going into a thing like this like a bull in a china shop because if we have an exposure of large-scale dishonesty just at the same time as a military setback it might result in a situation of very great danger. Hence it has always been my policy to drag these things into the light of day piecemeal, bit by bit, so that we do not get some horrible coincidence of large-scale scandal and military setback.

Therefore there is no time to be lost. The people of this country have to be made to understand that the Government are anxious to weed this thing out. Thank Heaven it does not exist to the same extent that we believe it exists in some countries. This country is supposed to be leading a crusade for all that is decent and honest and in accordance with the ideals of British men and women, and this country therefore must have absolutely clean hands. Finally I should like to repeat that there will be no discourtesy, if no answer is supplied by the Treasury bench on this occasion. For this is really what I may call a declamatory Motion and nothing more.

Mr. Reakes (Wallasey)

I have not been in the House a very long time but I have heard a large number of speeches. I have never heard one more mischievous than that to which we have just listened. I think it is a very unfortunate speech. Statements have been made which can very easily be misunderstood abroad. I am very glad that the Civil Service was exempted, but I am equally displeased to think that the temporary civil servants should have been singled out as a body of people, among whom this sort of thing, this graft, can go on. I think it is very unfortunate. I am not going to detain the House, but I have risen to protest against and to dissociate myself from an attack on a fine body of people who are rendering a vast service to the war effort.

Mr. Hopkinson

I merely said they were temporary civil servants because, in every single case I have seen reported, convictions for graft have been convictions of temporary and not permanent civil servants.

Mr. Reakes

The temporary civil servant has been singled out. What I want to know is what percentage of temporary civil servants out of the large number of those serving the country have been charged and found guilty. I was a temporary civil servant myself for 2½ years, and I mixed amongst many temporary civil servants in the postal and telegraph section. I was impressed by those men and women and by the way they did their work. I have also been in public life for 25 years and I have been a working journalist. I do not claim to have moved among angels during the whole of my life, but I do say that I have not discovered graft to the extent which one might imagine it to exist after listening to the hon. Member's speech. I make these few remarks so that the outside public should know that there is at least one Member of Parliament who disagrees with the speech which has just been made.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Assheton)

I did not come here prepared to make a speech, nor did I know what subject was to be raised. The hon. Gentleman made a number of very serious allegations but he has not, of course, given the House any details of those allegations. I should like to affirm the view just expressed by the hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Reakes) that the standard of honesty among civil servants both temporary and permanent is exceedingly high. I do not think any. Member of this House intends to cast any reflection whatever upon the Civil Service as a whole. It may well be that in circumstances of great stress, when large numbers of people have had to be taken into the Civil Service, one or two mistakes may have been made. That may well happen in circumstances of great stress but I hope the House will not believe for one moment that there is any cause for anxiety in general. The standards which the Civil Service has maintained for generations are still being maintained, and the standards are just as high among temporary as among permanent civil servants. I think it would be a disservice to this country if it were to go out from the House that the contrary view was held in any responsible quarter.

Mr. Maxton (Glasgow, Bridgeton)

If there is a feeling in the country that there are people in important positions who are not filling those positions properly, the Government themselves have a considerable responsibility to bear. The hon. Member for Mossley (Mr. Hopkinson) referred in passing to a case which was reported in the papers, I think last week, a most extraordinary case brought before the courts by the Ministry of Aircraft Production.

Mr. Hopkinson

By the Public Prosecutor.

Mr. Maxton

Surely the prosecution must be initiated by the Minister in charge of the Department. The Minister in charge of the Ministry of Aircraft Production is a very skilled and experienced lawyer. He brings his case into court, involving, I think—I have not examined this very closely—two civil servants holding fairly high positions, a director of a fairly responsible company and a manager perhaps. The case gets all sorts of publicity. All sorts of doubt and questions are raised in the minds of the citizens of this country on the initiative of the Government. The case, presumably, is brought not merely on the judgment of the head of the Ministry but on the advice of his legal advisers and the Public Prosecutor. The judge listens to the case for a couple of days; it is reported at length in the newspapers and the judge then says, "Take it away. It is just a lot of nonsense, there is no case. The men are discharged without a stain on their characters." But there is a stain on their characters, whatever the judge may have decided, and a very grave doubt is raised in people's minds.

People will say, "If this one case comes into court, what about the others that never reach the light of day?" If all civil servants and these business men doing jobs for the nation have clean records, why do the Government subject them to the obloquy of being hauled into court and exposed to all the publicity which has shone on them, when there has not been even a case that the judge will look at seriously against them? I think that the Government must not attack the hon. Gentleman the Member for Mossley for raising a matter of this sort. They must examine their own methods in these matters and if they have not a case against these people they should not bring them into court.

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