HC Deb 20 December 1945 vol 417 cc1605-19

3.33 p.m.

Mr. W. J. Brown (Rugby)

I do not wish to deflect the House from the subject it has been discussing, but it has been arranged that I should raise another matter of a different kind, affecting some 750,000 public servants in Britain. The House will remember that early in the war we adopted what has been generally called the Essential Work Order, the effect of which has been to forbid any person employed on essential work to leave his occupation, except with the consent of the National Service officer of the Ministry of Labour. Conversely, employers were prohibited from dismissing their workmen except in cases where a similar consent was given by the National Service officer of the Ministry of Labour. The purpose of the Order was to prevent something happening which did happen in the last war. That was the enticing, of workmen away from one enterprise to another, by the offer of better conditions and higher wages, to the disruption of the industrial war effort at that time. It was desired to prevent a repetition of that sort of thing. That was thepurpose of the Essential Work Order. May I emphasise that it was not the purpose of the Essential Work Order to establish slavery in Britain?

Throughout the war the Essential Work Order has not been applied to the public servants of this country. Civil servants have not had the protection against dismissal which the Essential Work Order gave. Nor have they been debarred from leaving their employment, except in fact. Forif they left they were liable to redirection by the Minister of Labour who would probably direct them back to their old department. Sothat they have had no benefit from the Essential Work Order. But after the war had come to an end, a new Order, called the Civil Service (Control of Employment) Order, 1945, was put into effect, which has theeffect of imposing upon public servants in Britain the negative aspect of the Essential Work Order. That is to say, it makes it impossible for them to leave their occupations, whether they are permanent or temporary, except with the consent of the National Service officer of the Ministry of Labour.

I should like to make it plain that for permanent civil servants this matter has mainly an academic interest. They spend their lives in the public service, they do not normally resign, and it is no great hardship to them to be told that they must not, because they do not want to, any way. This Order mainly affects the very large number of temporary civil servants now serving in Government Departments. I want to emphasise that for the overwhelming majority of these thousands of temporary staffs there is no prospect whatever of permanent employment in the public service. The total provision made in the White Paper, which was approved by this House of Commons in the last Parliament, was for the admission of about 2,000 temporary civil servants to permanent jobs. The remainder of the scores of thousands involved can have no hope of permanent employment in the public service. They must look to outside industry and commerce for their future livelihood. It seems tome that the State, when it is dealing with some scores of thousands of people whom it has told it cannot give permanent employment in the Civil Service, ought not to make it difficult for them to find their livelihood outside. If the State were saying, "We will give you permanent employment, you have no cause to worry about your future life," that might be all right, but when the State takes precisely the opposite view, it ought not to make it difficult for those men to leave.

It may be said that they have a right of appeal, and it is true they can appeal to this National Service officer. But the National Service officer himself is a civil servant, and when a Government Department appeals to a civil servant as judge, it is idle to pretend that the civil servant occupies a position of complete independence. Theoretically he does, but it is an extraordinarily difficult thing for an individual National Service officer to put himself in opposition to the Government Department which is refusing a man permissionto leave, and many applications to be allowed to leave are turned down. Even when the application is not turned down, it frequently happens that a long period of delay occurs before the case can be heard. I conducted three of these cases the other day, cases of prison officers in Holloway, and it was a matter of some weeks between the application being made to be allowed to go, and the hearing of that case by the appropriate Ministry of Labour tribunal. I need not tell Members of this House that the prospect of getting a job depends very often upon a person being able to go to it quickly. Employers will not sit back and wait when they want to get their works going again. If they offer a job to a man, and he can only say, '' I cannot tell you now whether I can take it, and it will be weeks before I can let you know," his prospects of getting the job are very low indeed.

I should also like to tell the House that, by agreement between the Civil Service trade unions and the Government, we have adopted a rule governing the order of discharge of temporary employees in the public service. That rule is, "Last in, first out." Everybody will at once see that that is a reasonable rule to adopt, but the House will also see straight away that it means there are somethousands of men who will have to get out within a very short period of time, and that it may be a matter of the utmost urgency to them to make arrangements for then future life, which they cannot do while this Control of Employment Order remains in force.

My next point is that the pay of these men is abominably low. A temporary clerk in London gets £ 3 14s. a week, with a war bonus currently in the neighbourhood of 23s. a week. In other words, he is getting less than £ 5 a week— if working in London; in the provinces the figures are correspondingly lower. It is true that the bonus element in that remuneration is under consideration, and may be slightly increased before long. But the House will agree that this is a very low rate of payfor such people, and I submit that it is really monstrous to use an instrument like the Civil Service (Control of Employment) Order to compel people to remain in sweated labour. That is a monstrous abuse of the original purpose of the Essential Work Order, which ought not to be applied to public servants.

There is a further point, of great importance to the House. There has to be an immense reduction of staff in the public service in the period that lies ahead. Before the war public servants of the nonindustrial grades numbered 330,000. Today they number well over 700,000. There was a vast recruitment of temporary staff because of war conditions, and those vast establishments ought, in the public interest, to be reduced as rapidly as possible, having regardto the requirements of the public service. I warn the House that there is no more sure way of preventing the reduction of those largely-inflated staffs than to allow this Control of Employment Order to remain in existence. It will operate to inhibit, to alarge extent, the natural processes of reduction that ought to take place as the commitments and obligations of the war period die down now that the war is over.

I would next remind the House that the longer we keep temporary staff unnecessarily the greater is the danger that we shall re-create in the public service, after this war, exactly the same problem that we created after the war of 1914-18. The problem created then will be remembered by older Members of the House. We kept on the temporary staffs month after month and year after year until, in fact, they had established a moral claim to permanent employment in the public service. When that point was reached we were compelled to grant establishment on a wholesale scale, and we had to subordinatethe long-term interests of efficiency in the public service to the necessity of meeting a problem which, if we had been wiser, would never have been allowed to grow. I submit that we ought not to repeat after this war the errors we made after the last war, with the warning of the last war now available to us.

The next point is that slave labour is always bad. You cannot get good hearty work from men whom you compel unwillingly to stay on the job. I notice that there is an absence of cheers from the Government side of the House.

Miss Jennie Lee (Cannock)

The hon. Member took us by surprise. We have not heard that one before.

Mr. Brown

If hon. Members have heard it before it appears to have left some uneasy consciences behind, because there ought to have been a spontaneous cheer at the assertion by me that slave labour is bad labour. There was an ominous silence, and I hope that does not mean that Members opposite are beginning to compound with the idea of slavery. For if they are, it will be necessary for meto go into sharp, aggressive, determined, hostile and vehement opposition. Slave labour is bad labour. If you compel men to stay on in a public Department when they want to be away, you will not get the work of that Department properly done, and when youkeep them there on wages which are an outrage, and which ought long since to have been put on a proper basis, I submit that the offence is double what it would have been if the conditions had been reasonable. I urge, therefore, that if the Government wantto retain large numbers of temporary staff in the temporary service, because they argue that if they go now the work of public Departments will be impeded, they have a clear way out. Let them give such conditions in the public service as will induce men and women to remain. Do not let us use this weapon of the Essential Work Order to keep unwilling men and women in the Civil Service, who have to think about their future life and who would leave tomorrow if they were free. That would be a monstrous thing for any Government to do, and doubly so for a Labour Government to do.

I hope I have not been unduly hostile to the Financial Secretary in what I have said. He knows very well that I am not motivated by any feelings of hostility towards him, but I hope he is coming up to scratch today. For he is getting a bad reputation in the public service. I have raised a number of Civil Service issues in this Parliament, and, so far, I have had satisfaction on none. I asked for a Debate on the pay of the administrative staffs, on which we had a White Paper, but it was turned down. I asked for a Debate on the scientific civil servants to which a Labour Government, above all—which is now going into the field of industry— should pay special regard. That request was turned down. In the last Parliament I had Motions on the Paper dealing with the counting of war service towards pensions, and the age-barred officers. I have asked my hon. Friend to meet those cases, but so far he has not done so. When I suggested, as a way out of the difficulty, that the Government might appoint a Select Committee, to enable these issues to be considered upstairs in privacy and quietness, and thus to avoid thrusting on me the painful necessity of coming into conflict with them onCivil Service issues, that suggestion was turned down by the officials inside the Treasury. Now you cannot have office without responsibility, and it is part of the responsibility of office to take decisions. When a Minister is convinced that his Treasuryofficials, or whatever the Department may be, are not dealing adequately and justly with a particular issue, it is for him to decide, and to tell his Department that his decisions must be carried out. A Minister who does not do that is not fit for the responsibility of office.

It is important that a Minister should not fail on issues affecting hundreds of thousands of public servants in Britain who are entitled to his protection. I hope the hon. Gentleman will announce that he intends to make conditions in the public service such that they can attract the service of willing-hearted volunteers, who will do the work because they want to, and because they are reasonably paid, and that he will cease to rely on the mechanism of an Order compelling men andwomen to remain where they are, whether they want to or not, because that in the easiest and most facile way out of the immediate difficulty. I ask him, therefore, to withdraw this Essential Work Order which, I would remind the House, was imposed on the Civil Service trade unions without their being consulted. That has not been my hon. Friend's responsibility; it was done by another Government.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Glenvil Hall)

That is very kind of the hon. Gentleman indeed.

Mr. Brown

If I have to be severe, I want also to be just. But if it was the responsibility of another Government, it is the responsibility of this administration to determine whether that Order shall apply any longer, and, as I have said, I would ask the hon. Gentleman to announce today that he intends to withdraw it.

3.50 p.m.

Mr. John Edwards (Blackburn)

Before the Financial Secretary replies, I would venture to detain the House for a minute or so because I have taken part in the negotiations on this and related matters right from the beginning of the war until the issuing of the Civil Servants (Control of Employment) Order earlier this year. After very long negotiations, in February, 1944, the staff and official side of the National Whitley Council came to anagreement on a quite reasonable Essential Work Order for temporary civil servants. This was not a blanket order, but one which would have permitted some controls to be exercised, department by department, after proper consultation. This agreement was dropped in August, 1944, by the Treasury and everyone then assumed — and had every right to assume— that it was not the intention of the Government to impose controls in the Civil Service apart from the general control under Defence Regulation 58A. It was in May of this year that the order was introduced freezing all civil servants.

In that connection I want to impress upon hon. Members that the words, "civil servants," for this purpose, not only cover the clerical people for whom the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown) very specially speaks, but covers, for example, something like 300,000 people in the Post Office — postmen, sorting clerks and related grades, and the 50,000 telephone men for whom I have a special responsibility. While I subscribe in general to what the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rugby has put forward, I do not assent to his view that this is a matter of academic interest only to permanent civil servants. Some of the men I represent — the skilled telephone men— are on a long scale of pay which has a maximum in London of 75s. a week (basic). It is not a matter of academic interest to these men whether they are to be free or not to seek alternative employment outside. I suggest to the Financial Secretary first that equality of treatment should be given to those employed by the Crown and that the relaxations in labour controls announced on 13th December by the Minister of Labour ought to be applied to them at once by revision of the Civil Service (Control of - Employment) Order. Secondly, there is really no case for a blanket order freezing all civil servants. If there is need for control at all it should be applied Department by Department and after proper consultation with the staff associations concerned.

People in the Civil Service, high and low, are trying to get out because they either want security of the kind described by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rugby or because they want better pay. I agree with him entirely that the State should now rely on the inducements of decent wages, security and better conditions of service rather than attempt to continue to control, civil servants under this order.

3.54 p.m.

Lieut.-ColonelLipton (Brixton)

May I put a question to the Financial Secretary, in the hope that he may find it possible to deal with a particular class of civil servant, to whom reference was not made by the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown)? They are the temporary shorthand typists, many of whom were directed against their will into Government service and who never wanted to work for the Government. Many of them want to get out at the earliest possible moment and if the principle of "last in, first out" is going to apply, it will impose on them an additional hardship. These temporary shorthand typists, many of whom have been in the Service for some three years or more, are anxious to know when they can get out. Everybody else has been told, but they want to know. Perhaps my hon. Friend will be able to deal with this particular class of civil servant in his reply.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Glenvil Hall)

I want to deal adequately with the points raised by the hon. Member for Rugby (Mr. W. J. Brown), but as I realise that many other hon. Members are waiting to speak on the Adjournment I do not want to take too long. The hon. Member said that I, personally, had failed him four times. He gave four instances. Two of them referred to something he had done or said in the last Parliament, andthey were beyond my control. Two of them referred to the fact that time has not been found for Debates on two matters. I need only mention, for the hon. Member knows it very well, that the time of this House is not, unfortunately, under my control. The hon. Member has made this matter one of great interest to himself. On more than one occasion he has raised it. Towards the end of the last Parliament he put down a Motion to annul this Order. The Motion should have come up at some date earlier this Session,but unfortunately for him he ran out of time. It might very well be that that lesson will be of use to him when he comes to correct his book on Procedure, when it begins to run, as I am sure it will, into its second edition.

Mr. W. J. Brown

That is pretty rough, when I delayed the matter at the request of the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I asked the hon. Member if that was the case, and I was assured — and I was very glad to hear it— that I was not responsible. The hon. Member must be ready to take as well as to give. The Control of Movement (Civil Service) Order with which we are now dealing was brought into operation, as the hon. Mem- ber correctly said, last May. Its object was made quite clear by the then Chancellor of the Exchequer on 15th May last; he said that the Order was being proposed by the Government, for the better regulation of the employment of civil servants both temporary and permanent during the period, upon which we have already entered, when reductions of staffs should be possible in many Departments but when on the other hand an uncontrolled and sudden loss of staff might gravely prejudice the performance of essential services. A little further on in the same statement the same right hon. Gentleman said: A further important point is that it would not be right for persons employed in the Government Service to be completely free to leave essential work, and to take up other work, while persons in the Fighting Services or in scheduled civilian undertakings arestill tied." — [OFFICIAL REPORT, 15th May, 1945; Vol. 410, c. 2275 and 2276.] That is the real reason why I am unable to hold out very much hope this afternoon to the hon. Member that the Order will be annulled at a very early date. Without some such measure of protection as the Order gives it would be impossible, in the circumstances now prevailing, to keep a sufficient staff for the needs of the various Departments, having regard to the work which they have to undertake. This Order cannot be takenin isolation, but must be viewed as part of the general complex machinery relating to labour control. Defence Regulation 58A is not sufficient for meeting difficulties which might arise. We have the Control of Engagement Order and the Essential Work Orders, a very large number of them, which apply so extensively to industrial staffs all over the country. The Order now under review is, in a sense, an Essential Work Order, in that it applies to the Civil Service non-manual grades the same type of limitationand advantage which is applied to industrial workers. There are, or there were until recently, about 8,000,000 people subject to Essential Work Orders, and during the war there was a consensus of opinion that, although we all regretted that these controlshad to be instituted, nevertheless they were essential if the war was to be fought to a successful conclusion.

It is true, as hon. Members behind me and as indeed my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby said, that the history of this matter goes back to 1943, when consultations took place between the National Whitley Councils, staff side, and the Civil Service Commission, as to what might be done to ensure that temporary civil servants should not leave the Service at the crucial moment and go into other occupations where the pay or prospects were better. It was agreed at that time between the two sides that certain Departments should be allowed to have the advantage of what might be called Essential Work Orders, that is that certain designated Departmentsand the people who worked in them should be put into a category of their own, and that people who were in other Departments should be free to come and go, as they pleased. As those interested in this matter know, it was felt by the Government that it wouldbe grossly unfair to treat one civil servant in Department A differently from another in Department B, and if controls had to be imposed, it was essential that they should be evenly applied over the whole of nonindustrial Civil Service staffs. Therefore,the plan, which had been one the trade unions themselves were willing to accept, fell through.

In the early part of this year, before the war in Europe came to an end, it was felt that this could not go on and that, when the war came to an end, there would, unless there was some control, inevitably be a lot of people wishing to leave who would have to be kept if vital services were hot to run the risk of falling down entirely for lack of adequate staff. The war in Europe ended rather suddenly, and that wasthe reason why further consultations were not entered into between the two sides. In addition, apart from that, there had in the previous years been ample consultations on the whole matter, and the Treasury was well aware of the view held by the NationalWhitley Council on the staff side. Nevertheless, I think the ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer explained, to a deputation which came to see him and which included, amongst other representatives, my hon. Friend behind me, exactly the circumstance why this Order had to be promulgated without further consultation with the unions. On 13th December the Minister of Labour announced in this House certain new Regulations dealing with people now under the various Essential Work Orders, and made it clear that what he said applies to the civil servants who come under this particular Order, as well as those others who are under the Essential Work Orders. He made it clear that Essential Work and similar Orders must remain, for the time being, in certain industries and services We feel that the Civil Service is one of those, and that it is impossible to put it among those which are ranked as less important and to which the Essential Work Order need not apply.

Mr. W. J. Brown

Is it not the case that in the announcement made by the right hon. Gentleman the Minister of Labour the other day, control was lifted from all men above 30?

Mr. Hall

My right hon. Friend went on to say that there were certain essential services to which the Order must continue to apply. As far as the Civil Service is concerned, that is the present situation. It is true that there are 700,000 or more non-industrial civil servants, two-thirds of whom are temporary. The House will therefore realise that there are nearly half a million temporary civilservants employed by the Government and subject to this particular Order. A number of Ministries have to depend almost completely upon these temporary civil servants. For instance, 98 per cent. of the staff of the Ministry of Food are temporaries, and almost the same percentage are temporaries at the Ministry of Fuel and Power and one or two other of the new Departments. The Post Office has had a tremendous amount of work thrown on to it during the war and it still has a great deal of additional work whichit would not have in normal times, such as the payment of demobilisation benefits and other gratuities. In one direction and another, the Post Office has had, during the war and since the war, a great deal of extra work to do, and for this work it must have staff. There was a time during the war when it appeared that, owing to the lack of staff, many of the functions which the Post Office performs would break down altogether. That danger has passed, and we have got to see that it does not recur. I would like also to remind my hon. Friend the Member for Rugby that without this Order it would be impossible to switch people from one Department to another when some Departments, as is now the case, come to an end, and others begin to expand. All of us hate controls, and all of us want to see this type of control come to an end at the earliest possible moment; but it is impossible for the Government to carry on vital services at the present time without the assistance of this Order.

There are one or two points that were made by the hon. Member with which I would like to deal in conclusion. He said that there was no prospect for many of the temporaries now in the Civil Service to remain, and that as they were tied It was impossible for them to look outside. That may very well be so, but unfortunately it does not apply only to people in the Civil Service. There are men and women in the other Services who are equally tied.

Mr. W. J. Brown

This Order covers every man and woman in the public service up to the age of 60 years. We are not keeping men in the army up to the age of 60 years, nor are we keeping women in industry.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

There are people in the fighting services who are over 30 and there are a very large number who are below 30, and there is nodoubt that they are under the same disadvantage as the people to whom my hon. Friend refers in that they are not at liberty yet to seek the job which will offer them the best terms and security of tenure.

Mr. Harold Maemillan (Bromley)

Before the hon. Gentleman leaves that point might I ask a question? He referred to the analogy between the men and women in the Fighting Services and those in the Civil Service. Is it proposed to have any kind of demobilisation scheme for the Civil Service upon the analogyof the Fighting Services, or are the people in the Civil Service, whether they would have been in groups one to 10, whether they are old and have long service, and so on, to remain indefinitely?

Mr. Speaker

I hope the hon. Member will not be led into the details of demobilisation. Many hon. Members have already waited a long time to discuss the next subject.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

There is, in one sense, no analogy whatever between the Fighting Services and the Civil Service. I was quoting from the ex-Chancellor who said that it would be unfair to treat the Civil Service better than the Fighting Services were being treated. The real analogy is not between those in the Fighting Services and those in the Civil Service, but those who are now subject to Essential Work Order controls, and those in the Civil Service.

Mr. Harry Wallace (Walthamstow, East)

Might I ask my hon. Friend to clear up this point? A person employed in the Post Office as a temporary officer has no prospect of permanent work in the Post Office. He may be anxious to get back to another job somewhere. He is being held in the Post Office and he cannot go. He is in a very different position under the Essential Work Order.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

People are held under an Essential Work Order, and they will continue to be held. Make no mistake about that. What my hon. Friend and those shouting with him are asking us to do, is to put the Civil Service in a class by themselves.

Hon. Members


Mr. W. J. Brown

That is nonsense.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

We have to think of the vital services of this country. The Ministry of Food, to mention no others, is at the moment absolutely dependent on the temporary Civil Service. Nearly 98 per cent. of their staff is temporary. If this Order went, with the knowledge that we all have of the desire on the part of industry generally to get staff, particularly typing and shorthand and clerical staff, I am afraid a large number of them would leave, and the very first to cry out would be Members of this House who come down here,day after day, putting Questions on the Order Paper, wanting to know why this, that or the other has not been done.

Mr. Kendall (Grantham)

Is it not a fact that all women, other than nurses, now in industry are free to take up any job? Certainly that applies to typists in industry.

Mr. Glenvil Hall

I do not think that is so, but the analogy between the ordinary woman in industry and those in the Civil Service is not as close as some hon. Members may imagine from my earlier remarks. We have to realise that, if we allow complete freedom to women in. the Civil Service, as in other industries, we would find ourselves in difficulties. The hon. Member for Rugby said that the National Service officer was not impartial. That is not true. From the experience we have had of the National Service officer, although he ranks, in fact, as a civil servant, he does not use that fact to prevent his being impartial. He does frequently give the civil servant the benefit of the doubt, and, if there is any doubt about it,there is always the Ministry of Labour Tribunal to which the civil servant can go in the last resort. I am sorry to have taken so long, but I feel that it has not been entirely my fault. I am sorry I am unable to accept my hon. Friend's request, although we hope that, quite soon, we shall be able to annul this Order and allow the "temporaries" to choose their own jobs.