HC Deb 07 February 1945 vol 407 cc2188-96

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Major A.S.L. Young.]

6.3 p.m.

Mr. Lipson (Cheltenham)

I desire to raise the question of the refusal of the Minister of Health to recommend the release of the deputy clerk to the Gloucestershire County Council, who is now serving in the Army on non-operational duties. I do so because there is an issue involved in this refusal which is bigger and more important than the incident itself. The Minister of Health is in a very special way associated with local authorities. They look naturally and properly to the Ministry of Health for guidance in their many problems and for help in their difficulties. It is only to be expected that when they put up to the Ministry what they consider to be a reasonable proposal it should receive proper consideration. The Gloucestershire County Council feel very strongly that they have been treated very unreasonably by the Minister of Health over this particular matter. The clerk to the county council first took up the matter with the Ministry himself. When that was unsatisfactory, my attention was drawn to it and I was asked if I would intervene. I wrote a number of letters to the Minister, but the result was unsatisfactory, and I therefore put a Question on the Order Paper and the answer to that was equally unsatisfactory. Perhaps it will make the position clear if I read the Questions and answers so that the House can judge for itself. I asked the Minister of Health: Why he refuted to recommend— that is all he was asked to do, because it does not rest with him; his is not the responsibility for the release. —the discharge from the Army of Captain Brewis, who is serving overseas in a legal capacity and whose release is urgently needed by the Gloucestershire County Council, of which he is deputy clerk, to relieve the heavy strain upon the officials of the council in consequence of losses through death and illness of responsible members of the staff at a time when the work of the council has considerably increased. The answer from the Minister was: I have carefully considered the facts of this case but I am satisfied that there is no prospect at the present juncture of securing the release of this officer who is serving overseas, and, in the circumstances, I do not feel justified in putting forward a recommendation. In a supplementary question I asked: Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware that, for health reasons, this officer is not allowed to take part in any operational duties? Does his answer mean that there is an embargo forbidding Ministers to recommend to the Committee that has been set up that those not engaged in operational duties overseas should be released? and the Minister's reply was: No, Sir. There is no such embargo. It is a matter for Ministerial decision. I have heard this suggestion before that those not engaged in operational duties should be released automatically, but the contention does not bear examination. The war could not be carried on without the services of many who are not engaged in operational duties."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th January, 1945; Vol. 407, c 358–9] Nobody asked for the automatic release of men engaged in non-operational duties. What was urged upon the Minister was that the circumstances were such that this man would be very much better employed if he were to return to his duties with the county council than if he continued with his non-operational duties.

What are the facts of the case? First, as regards the man himself. As deputy-clerk to the county council, he was not liable to conscription. He was exempted from service and could have stayed at his duties under ordinary circumstances, but, like many others, he had prepared himself for an emergency which might occur and which did occur. He was a Territorial and therefore he was called up at the outbreak of war in the Royal Artillery and joined an anti-aircraft battery. He has, therefore, served for over five years. After a period of service in this country he went overseas, served in North Africa and took part in the campaign there. Then he became seriously ill, which necessitated two operations and a period in hospital of six months, with the result that, over a year ago, it was decided that he was not medically fit for operational duties and he was transferred to the Judge Advocate's Department in the Middle East, where he is doing the work of an ordinary solicitor or lawyer, the sort of work which any man with a taste for advocacy could carry out, work which carries no very special responsibility and which could be carried out by somebody who could be sent from this country who had not served overseas before. He is a man of either 35 or 37 years of age.

That is the position so far as the man is concerned. What is the position with regard to the county council? The department of the clerk to the council at the outset of war consisted of 18 members. The present clerk himself was appointed only in October, 1943. Before that his predecessor had been unwell for a time, and was away from duty, so that the work of the council necessarily suffered. As I say, the present clerk came in Octo- ber, 1943, and, obviously, it has taken him a long time to become thoroughly acquainted with local problems. He cannot be so well-informed as the man who held that office for a considerable period. Before the war the clerk of the council had a staff of 18. Now he has only seven. His deputy-clerk has been called up, the assistant deputy clerk, who had been in the service of the council for a great many years, has died, and the chief of the next grade of clerks, the confidential clerk to the clerk of the council, who was in the service of the council for over 40 years, and who was a mine of information and a most valuable officer, collapsed and died suddenly a few weeks ago.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

Do I take it that the man who succeeded the person who died was somebody brought from another place, and that the man whose release is now being sought was deputy to the man who died? Was he an applicant for that position, or was it a case of bringing in a new man and now asking for him to come back so that he can be instructed in his work?

Mr. Lipson

He was not an applicant for the post. The previous clerk resigned because of ill-health, but as the deputy clerk was overseas he was deprived of the opportunity of applying for the job, a matter which I, personally, regret very much, because I think it is hard lines that jobs of this sort should be filled in the absence overseas of men who might wish to apply for them. I have given the staff position: pre-war, 18; now only seven. Yet there is all the routine work of the council to be done and, in addition, heavy responsibilities have been put on the county council as a result of the legislation we have passed in this House. The recent Education Act, which has given new responsibilities to county councils as local education authorities, has thrown an immense amount of work on the council, as has the Town and Country Planning Act. Moreover, we have an additional responsibility in Gloucestershire, which has not, fortunately, been the experience of other county councils, and that is that the city of Gloucester has recently brought forward a Bill in another place to extend the city boundaries at the expense of the county. The county consider that a most unreasonable proposal to bring forward at this juncture, but they have to be prepared to fight that Bill and that involves heavy work on all officials of the council in every department.

The strain on the county council's officials is such that it is becoming more than they can reasonably be expected to bear. I have already intimated to the House that the assistant deputy clerk and the chief confidential clerk have died. The clerk next to him was taken ill a few weeks ago, is still away from duty, and is likely to be for some months. The position of the Gloucestershire County Council administration is becoming intolerable. It is under these conditions that an approach was made to the Minister to ask him to release the deputy clerk of the council, who is engaged in the Judge Advocate-General's Department—he is unfit for operational duties—in the Middle East. The Minister gave me the answer I have read to the House.

I assume that the Minister has a very poor opinion of my intelligence and thinks I shall be satisfied with an answer of that sort. The only result of it has been to destroy very considerably the confidence of the county council in the Minister's fitness to hold his position. They feel that they have a right to look to him for assistance. When one writes to him, he does not answer the letter himself. I got the answer from his Parliamentary Private Secretary. I do not object to that so much when the answers are favourable, but I object very much when they are unfavourable. I am under the impression that he does not read the things himself, but hands them over to his faithful Parliamentary Secretary, who handles the matter for him. When an answer has to be unfavourable, it ought at least to go out under the signature of the Minister himself. He ought to be here now to defend himself, but he sends the right hon. Lady instead. I congratulate her on her right to be described in that way, but obviously she has been sent here with her brief. If the Minister was here he might be able to say he would give the matter further consideration, but obviously the right hon. Lady has to come with the brief which the Minister has approved. I ask, in spite of that, that she will request him to reconsider the matter. In the years ahead local authorities will be looking to the Ministry of Health for help and guidance. My right hon. Friend's contemptuous attitude towards the difficulties of local authorities is such that they feel that they have not got in him the kind of Minister they have a right to expect, but a broken reed on whom they cannot rely. All he is asked to do is to recommend. Unless he does, there is no chance of the proposal going through. Naturally, the Secretary of State for War will have a very important voice in deciding a matter of this kind. He can quite properly say: "I cannot recommend this, because you could not get the support of the Government Department." The recommendation of the Minister of Health is vital to the success of the appeal. I believe that from every point of view the case is unanswerable.

6.19 p.m.

Mr. McKinlay (Dumbartonshire)

I am interested in this as a member of a considerable local authority. It appears to me that Gloucester is famed for more things than limericks. I should like to know how the new county clerk came to be appointed. The hon. Member would have had an unanswerable case if the local authority had been left without a county clerk, or a man who was new to the job. It seems that he never had an opportunity to apply for the job. It may be that his age was against him. It may be that he is a man for whom there is no preferment. What was his age, and where did he come from? Local authorities throughout the country are confronted with the same difficulties, but they have always managed to surmount them. It is going to establish something very difficult for us if servants of local authorities are to be released from the Forces. I know dozens of private firms which are wallowing about in difficulties because their key men are away. There never were so many essential men in the world as we have had in this country during the last five years. I could make out a case for the essentiality of three members of my own family. I do not want to make the matter difficult for the hon. Member, but I, as a member of a local authority, may possibly want to go to the Secretary of State for Scotland for a recommendation to release some of the staff of the local authority with which I am associated, but I would like to have an unanswerable case when I do so. What would happen if I were to go to my right hon. Friend and say, "Will you O.K. a recommendation for this release as being essential in the interests of my local authority, because the town clerk and nearly all his assistants have passed away"? Gloucester must be an unhealthy place.

Mr. Lipson

It is because of overstrain.

Mr. McKinlay

We want to appoint someone to the town clerkship. We have a man in view, and what would be the position if we went to my right hon. Friend and said that a deputy trained by the local authority, who is now serving in the Forces, should be brought back although he had never been given the opportunity to fill the job? The Secretary of State might ask if the man was an applicant for the job, and if he was, he would recommend that he should be released. If the appointment was then made he would have no hesitation in saying that he was an essential man. Apparently, however, the man mentioned by the hon. Member for Cheltenham (Mr. Lipson) has not been appointed.

Mr. Lipson

The assistant deputy, who has since died, was alive at the time of the appointment.

Mr. McKinlay

It is as well that we should appreciate the difficulties confronting the Minister in these matters. I am not speaking out of mischief but because I am interested as a member of a local authority.

6.24 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Horsbrugh)

I realise that this problem goes beyond the difficulties of one local authority and that the decisions taken naturally affect other local authorities. The problem comes up very often nowadays, and the Minister of Health has the utmost sympathy with the local authorities in the appalling difficulties under which they are working. Officials are working under great strain and great difficulties. My hon. Friend seemed to consider that what my right ho[...]nd learned Friend the Minister of Health had done wrong was to refuse to recommend the release of this official, as if every case should be recommended by the Minister as though it came within the class of what is called "vital national importance."

On 11th July last, as the hon. Member will find if he looks at HANSARD, the Financial Secretary to the War Office made a very clear statement about the difficulty of releasing men from the Forces. He pointed out that, in particular, it was almost impossible to do so when they were overseas. The hon. Member said words to the effect that "this man is only serving in the Judge-Advocate General's branch in North Africa," but he will agree with me that if this particular man were allowed to go home, somebody else would have to serve, because the work must be done. Therefore, we have to face the fact that each case of this kind has to be looked at on its merits. It has been laid down quite clearly that men can be released only in cases of vital national importance.

Since that statement was made we have heard how the man-power situation has become even more difficult and how another 250,000 are to be called up, or combed out of the Services, for operational work. The pressure is greater now even than it was when the statement was made in July last. There is tremendous pressure on man-power. The only cases in which it has been possible to arrange for return from overseas for local authority officials are a few in certain categories, specialists and people with particular technical knowledge in connection with the housing problem. That has been done, but in all other cases the matter has to be looked on with reference to the difficulties of the man-power situation. Of course, my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Health would like to help all the local authorities in their difficulties. It would have been very much easier for him if he had said, "Yes," in which case my hon. Friend would not have come down to the House and used the language which he has used to-day.

We know it would be of no use for one Minister simply to pass his responsibility off on to another Minister. He has his responsibility; that is why these matters have to go to the sponsoring Departments to see whether they fall within certain ea[...]ories. If it could have been shown in this case that it was a matter of vital national importance, if it had been a case of a technical officer in connection with housing—because people of that sort can be brought home—my right hon. and learned Friend would have recommended it. It is no use at all, if we are to have a sponsoring Department, if the Minister concerned cannot have the courage to state to this House, as he has stated to my hon. Friend in answer to his Question, that a man does not come within this category, that he is serving overseas and that it has been laid down quite clearly by the Government that people cannot be withdrawn, and that this case is being treated, as other cases are, on its merits. We realise the difficulties of this local authority, as we realise the difficulties of them all.

This case has been treated fairly. Due consideration has been given to it. Ever since last October we have gone into it most carefully. I can assure the House that my right hon. and learned Friend personally has looked into this matter. If it had come within the scheme laid down, he would have made a recommendation, but he can only forward names of those whose work falls into certain definite categories. Otherwise, what is the use of having any recommendation at all? All cases would have to go automatically to the Committee for decision, This scheme has worked fairly throughout the country and among the different local authorities. It would not be fair to accede in this case. There are many cases unfortunately of local authorities who are doing a very difficult job—they have much extra work and they have lost staff; their present staff may be older and over-strained; it is because of those facts that we have tried in every way to help them. This case is not one in which it falls to the Minister of Health to recommend, because we do not think it is a matter of vital national importance that the man should return.

I hope, after that explanation, that my hon. Friend will realise that the Minister of Health did not have a poor opinion of his intelligence when he replied to the Question but a good opinion of his intelligence, which he still has, I hope now that he will realise what the situation is and will see that, at this time of the war, the difficulties of the man-power situation make it impossible to accede to his request.

Question put, and agreed to.

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