HC Deb 18 April 1946 vol 421 cc2969-80

4.2 p.m.

Air-Commodore Harvey (Macclesfield)

We were informed yesterday that time would be given after the Easter Recess to discuss the problem of unemployed ex-Servicemen. I am today raising the subject, and I do not apologise for doing so, because I feel that dealing with this important subject would not be out of place and that it would enable the Minister to reply in greater detail when he deals with the problem after Easter. My remarks, so far as officers are concerned, apply equally to the men in the ranks who are unemployed. I am most alarmed at the number of unemployed ex-Servicemen who have fought in both wars, that is, men who have reached the age of 47, 48 and anything up to 60 years of age. In my opinion, those are the most difficult cases of all to place in employment. A great number of these ex-officers have been promoted from the ranks, so there is no question of trying to do more for the officers than the men from the ranks. They should he considered on the same basis, and everything possible should be done for both of them.

I appreciate that during the last 25 years all jobs and appointments have become more specialised in industry. I think that is generally recognised, whether it is engineering, printing or whatever it may be. The individual must have a greater knowledge of his particular job than he did before, and this does not make it any easier to place the individual concerned. These men who fought in both wars have given something like 12 or 13 years of their lives to the State. They receive small gratuities—I say small—particularly after this war. It is not really enough to reinstate them in business after six and a half years of war. That is a very long time for them to give to the State, and then they find themselves without a pension and have to start life again at, say, the age of 50. After the last war—admittedly it was a shorter war—they came out from 1919 onwards and it took them one or two years or even more before they were settled into what might be a fairly secure job. I fully appreciate that the Government have difficulties in this matter. Everything these days is difficult—anything I say, I hope, will be constructive— and it is particularly difficult during the transition period from war to peace in industry, but there is no doubt in my opinion that further efforts are necessary to try and absorb these men into industry and, I might say, into Government Departments.

With regard to the Appointments Board, I am far from satisfied generally with the efficiency of the regional boards. Generally speaking, they are courteous and well laid out, but they need more imagination. They need men to go out to industry and sell these people into the jobs. I visited the Appointments Board in Tavistock Square the other day as an employer, asking to be given some names of men to till an appointment worth £600 and £700 a year. Needless to say I was received with open arms. I have since received a postcard from the Appointments Board which begins like this: It is desired to acknowledge receipt of your order for personnel. What are we dealing with? If the Appointments Board tackle the problem on this basis, they are beginning wrongly—

The Minister of Labour (Mr. Isaacs)

Would the hon. and gallant Gentleman forgive me for interrupting? Has he not since received a communication offering three men?

Air-Commodore Harvey

That is quite right. I have received a communication since, but I think the postcard could be better worded. It is a small point, I agree, but I put it forward as a suggestion.

My impression was that the Appointments Board was snowed under with work, though the gentleman in charge assured me that he was getting all the staff he wanted. I must say that he showed me everything I wanted to see and the visit lasted one and a half hours. When eventually I said that I was a Member of Parliament, then I was rushed upstairs. There was a strike of the lift workers that day and I had to walk up seven or eight floors, but he had to walk up after he had shown me round. It is the regional boards, however, that I am mainly discussing this afternoon.

I would like to refer to the Question which I addressed to the Minister on 19th March, when I asked him how many ex-Service officers were unemployed. He gave me the figure of 10,023 as being registered, and said that many of these ex-officers were asking for salaries of £1,500 a year. Unfortunately, that reply received great publicity throughout the national Press and it created a very bad impression among employers because they thought, "Well, this is just what I suspected—ex-officers asking for the moon." It probably put quite a number oft going to the Appoint- ments Board and asking for names. When I asked the Parliamentary Secretary on 4th April how many had asked for £1,500 a year, I was told that 30 had asked for £1,500 and 241 had asked for £1,000 a year. I submit that those figures are really very small indeed, and most modest, because I should say that some of those men, at least, are worth more than £1,500 a year. I agree that they may probably have to start at a lower figure and work upwards, but, out of 10,023, 30 is a very small percentage. I was most disappointed with that reply, and I do not think that questions of that nature, which affect such a large number of officers, should be brushed aside with such an evasive reply, if I may say so with respect.

I have received a lot of correspondence from all over the country from these men who are in desperate plight, and the average salary asked for works out at about £400 a year, which I think is reasonable, because, after all, if you are working with your hands, with a little overtime it is not difficult to make £8 a week. I was told that there was one job going at the Appointments Board at £2,000 a year. There may be others coming along if we can get the Appointments Board to "sell" these men, the good men, and those who are not so good into less paid jobs.

Without wearying the House, I would like to quote a few cases where I think there is great hardship, and which show inefficiency on the part of the Appointments Board. One officer left the Royal Air Force in October, 1945. He registered with the Appointments Board and has not heard one word since. An ex-technical officer, late Royal Air Force, with 25 years' experience, applied to the Appointments Board, who did nothing for 14 months. He then wrote to the Ministry of Labour, was given an interview by the Appointments Board, and was told that as all his experience was practical, nothing could be done for him. In July, 1945, B.A.O.C., when they saw him, said they wanted a younger man. Here is a Government organisation with the offer of an engineering officer aged 50 who could quite well have taken on maintenance of aircraft at a base at home, or in a temperate climate overseas.

Another man, an ex-naval officer, unfortunately "axed" in 1922, took on a job as a garage mechanic at £1 a week. He served again in this war and was invalided out with tuberculosis in 1944. He cannot get a job, and did not even get a suit of clothes. That was before the date when civilian clothes were issued. Another man is a London exporter of rare books. He had a job open worth £400 a year and wrote to the Appointments Board who sent four men to him. One man was a water engineer. That shows that the matter had not been carefully considered by the Appointments Board who sent along a water engineer to deal with rare books. This employer went on to say that the Board were very amiable and polite, but that there were dozens of ladies running backwards and forwards with cups of tea. That is what he said. I did not myself see that. Although I was offered a cup of tea, I did not see them being taken round. The bookseller eventually advertised in "The Times" and had 60 replies, and is now fixed up.

The Government themselves should engage men in the Appointments Department who have had experience in industry. I do not think it is any good taking on a Regular officer who has had no experience in business at all, to sell jobs to business men. It may be that a few Regular officers would lose their jobs if this suggestion were put into effect, but I think that in the long run more jobs would be found for others. The employers have helped, but have not helped enough. If these men had failed to serve in this last war—most of them joined up right at the beginning of the war or before the war started— there might have been no industry left at all.

I think the Government ought to consider, when allocating contracts for materials or goods, the number of ex-Servicemen over a certain age who are employed by the firm concerned. After the last war, we had what was known as the King's Roll by which firms were called upon to engage 4 per cent. disabled men. Could we not have something similar for men who served in both wars, with a smaller percentage, of course? It would help to absorb some of the men. So much for the employers. The Government in turn must also help. Many of these men wanted to continue in the fighting Services, and I believe that if their cases had been given greater consideration many could have served for at least five or seven years and so completed 20 years in all, and then be given a small pension. Many could be absorbed into the Allied Control Commission. I know that a great number of officers who have been given jobs in Germany and Austria at very high salaries were in receipt of really good pensions. It may be argued that these men are most suitable for the job. I am prepared to believe that some of the 10,000 odd are suitable for some of these jobs. But a number of them are employed straight from the Army and Air Force and get the jobs because they are on the spot. I know that is so, and it is putting others serving overseas and in remote parts of this country, at a great disadvantage.

Likewise, the Government Departments should open up the ranks to take in more men by raising the age limit so that they can be used, particularly in clerical Departments. Many of these men have no specialised knowledge and that is perhaps the only job they could fit into. That is my suggestion in that direction. I have been told that there are jobs available as port fishery captains. Ex-naval officers would be very suitable for a job such as that but the upper age limit is 40. That limit could quite well be 55. A retired naval officer could do the job just as well as a younger man. The unfortunate thing is that these figures are increasing weekly. There are thousands of men who have not actually registered with the Appointments Board. As a result of my small interest in this matter, I have been able to fix up three or four men with a job because employers have written to me asking for names. If that could happen in a small way to me, surely the Government with all the resources they have at their disposal, could really tackle this job and put some imagination into it? In many of my letters I am told that the ex-officers are selling their wedding presents and furniture. They are absolutely destitute. These men must be given a real "break." I ask the Minister to consider setting up a Committee and calling for assistance in all directions. I am sure if the Government tackle this job as it should be tackled most of these men could be found jobs at the present time.

4.17 p.m.

The Minister of Labour and National Service (Mr. Isaacs)

First I would like to say to the hon. and gallant Member that there was not the slightest need for him to apologise for bringing this matter forward. He has served a very useful purpose. I thank him not only for the information he has given but also for the manner in which he has put that information forward. I will not go into detail at the moment with regard to several of the things to which he referred—Government service, commissions of inquiry and things of that sort—but they will be carefully noted, because I assure him and the House that we are very anxious about this situation. After the last war I was connected in an informal way with an association in London for the placing of ex-Army officers in jobs. I know what a heartbreaking job it was. I know how some of these men suffered. I, personally, am very anxious now that he country should do everything within its power to assist these men to get resettled after the service they have given to the country. As I hope to point out in a moment, this aid is not all within our power. We have got the men; what we want is to find jobs for them.

The hon. and gallant Member for Macclesfield (Air-Commodore Harvey) referred to further efforts being necessary to sell our service to employers. He mentioned in that connection that we should have people experienced in industry to go out to employers. Not long ago we had complaints in the House that we were not having these men contacted by ex-Servicemen. For that reason, we got ex-Servicemen into our offices feeling that a man fresh from the Service—

Air-Commodore Harvey

I think the Minister misunderstood me. I meant, not regular officers who have done nothing but Army and military service, but men who have served in the war, and who have had business experience between the two wars.

Mr. Isaacs

Of course, most of these people, except those who are ex-regular Army officers, have in fact had experience. The point is a good one. Our main point is to induce employers to come to this service and to take the men we have got. The hon. and gallant Gentleman himself mentioned two or three inquiries about some men he was interested in, and for whom he got jobs. Well, the jobs were there. As a result of all the contacts I have had with employers in this matter, having gone round the country and visited our regional offices, I have not heard of any complaints from employers to any extent such as the one mentioned by the hon. and gallant Member. Obviously, there is here and there a "slip up." In the case that was mentioned, it was said that a firm wanted someone to handle rare books, and that a water engineer was sent. I would presume, on that basis, that there was nobody on the register who had any knowledge of rare books, and the idea of the service is to get the employers to try out somebody else. It was perhaps thought that this man might have the necessary background and qualifications and might be, useful. We do not know what "water engineer" means. He may have been a man who had been engaged in mending the mains in the street, or he may have been in the hydraulic station, but we are not going to quarrel about that. I shall be happy to cooperate with any hon. Member in this House in order to "push across" this service.

The hon. Gentlemen mentioned postcards. I got into trouble in this House a few weeks ago about "personnel ". I shall have a look at these postcards, because obviously we do want them to look human. We do not want to send out communications to indicate that we are handling this human material as we would pieces of wood or buckets of water. There are one or two facts and figures which I would like to give to the House, but, first, I join with the hon. Gentleman opposite in saying to employers, "Please do not drag up this old bogy of too old at 45, because it just will not do." There are men at 45, men in the Services and, in some instances, men who, like myself, hope they are doing all right in their new service, although considerably over 45. I am sure that employers will find that many of these men, though they may not be so quick on the uptake in their new business undertaking, are men who, because they are of middle age and want to settle down, are steady men who, having got a job, will appreciate it I appeal to employers to give these men a chance, because they have to live, and men of that age were found very useful in many ways during the war and will be very useful in industry.

I hope the House will not run away with the idea that this Appointments Service of ours, which is mainly under examination at the moment, is merely concerned with ex-officers. It relates to ex- Servicemen, and, therefore, other ranks, and to civilians, but at the moment, its main problem is, and will continue to be, that of the ex-officer. Unemployed ex-officers represent only a quarter of the registrations at offices of the Appointments Department. On 8th April the live Register was 42,491, which included 20,871 persons who are in employment A great number of them who register with us are in employment, hoping to find a better job with better pay and prospects. Like wise men, they are not throwing away the dirty water until they see some clean water coming in its place. Of that total, 21,620 were unemployed; and, of that figure, 9,690 were ex-officers, 3,333 were ex-other ranks and 8,597 were civilians. Therefore, the register of unemployed persons does not consist entirely of ex-officers or ex-Servicemen. Unemployment of ex-officers registered at Appointments Offices and on the Technical and Scientific Register has decreased steadily each month since January. On 14th January, the figure was 10,860, on 11th February, 10,497, on 11th March, 10,023, and on 8th April, 9,690.

It has to be remembered that officers are being released at the rate of 20,000 a month from the Forces and they register with us at the rate of 4,000 a month. Every now and then there is a sudden rush of registrations, which for the moment, inflates the register. On 14th January, there were 3,381; on 11th February, 4,518; on 11th March, 5,402; and on 8th April, 6,635 employed ex-officers registered at appointments offices. Up to 31st March, 1946, over 190,000 officers had been released from the three fighting Services. From 1st May, 1945, to 8th April, 1946, the number of ex-officers who had registered as unemployed with the Appointments Department rose to nearly 9,000, excluding about 800 ex-Merchant Navy officers. These figures show that about 5 per cent. of the demobilised officers are registered as unemployed. That is not a high figure as a percentage, but taken as persons out of work it is a considerable figure.

Air-Commodore Harvey

What about the number who are not registered?

Mr. Isaacs

As to that, we have no information. We would like to register them, but publicity for the men to come and register is one thing, and publicity to get employers to come with offers of jobs is another. Publicity with regard to employers is a matter to which I would like to pay special attention as soon as possible. Out of 9,103 ex-officers who were registered as unemployed on 8th April at the Appointments offices, the age distribution was as follows: Over 55, 584; 45 to 55, 1,758; under 45, 6,761. I am not quite sure whether I am on thin ice, but I think that consideration might be given to the possibility of retaining some of these ex-officers, between the ages of 45 and 55, without the "ex-," a little longer as Service officers and letting them go on for pension. I took advantage of the opportunity, when visiting a very famous military educational establishment, not so very long ago, to talk to some of the younger officers taking their staff course, about this idea, and —perhaps not surprisingly—they were rather reluctant to think that these old fellows were going to be in the way of their promotion. We have always to consider the other side of the question.

At present, we are placing ex-officers at the rate of 500 a month. That is not bad, but it is not good enough, and I should like to be able to place double that number. The only way to do that is to get employers to come to us and give us an opportunity to place these men. I have spent many years of my life grumbling about employers, when acting as a trade union official, but I have found on this occasion, a most ready willingness on the part of employers to give these men a trial. Many of them say that they have not a job immediately, but that they might have one in six months' time: "Send the man along, and let us have a look at him." A great problem is that a number of these men, especially the younger men, were employed in the commercial side of business, on the road as travellers, salesmen and the like, and while every effort is being made to get the wheels of industry and commerce turning again, until we can get adequate supplies of goods coming out of the factories and into the shops, there will not be many opportunities for them. In the meantime, we have a special business training scheme, so that young men who have no actual knowledge of inside business, managerial work, and so forth, may have an opportunity of receiv- ing training. That has started well, and some 700 applicants will begin this month to train for executive positions in commerce and industry.

I assure the hon. and gallant Gentleman who raised this matter, that we are not sitting still. We do not mind being prodded, because it will make us feel that we are making headway, even if other people think that we are not. Here is a service for those who have rendered service to the nation, and any Government which passes an Act of Parliament enabling things to be done for the people requires to see that it is implemented. I appreciate the manner and method in which the hon. Gentleman has brought this subject forward, and I promise that everything he has said will have consideration. We shall be very glad indeed to discuss it and to see if we can do anything about it. I do make my appeal to the employers to make a good deal of use of this service and to give it a trial. Then if they want to go somewhere else they can, but I do ask them to give it a trial.

Finally, I would say that I am glad the hon. Gentleman did not find people running all over the shop with cups of tea, when he paid his visit. I am glad to hear he was received with courtesy, because we do impress on our staff the importance of that, both as regards the men and the employers. We have improved our offices. They are rather different from the old labour exchange offices which were like public house bars. We have sought to make the men coming into them feel welcome. They can be interviewed in privacy. The people who do the interviewing are ex-Service men, who served, if not in the last war, then in the previous one. We want the men to feel that a helping hand is being extended to them and that we want to assist them. After full investigation, personally, in many districts I feel that the Ministry of Labour, in the regions, is served by a most loyal and devoted staff, by men who really try to do their job. They do "slip up" now and again. There are black sheep in every organisation. But I can assure the House that the purpose of the Ministry of Labour, acting for the Government, is to make these men welcome. I hope that all concerned will use this service and try to make it a success.

Colonel J. R. H Hutchison

The right hon. Gentleman invited suggestions. Will he consider with the Financial Secretary to the Treasury whether there might not be some sliding scale of taxation to induce employers to use this service? Will he consider the possibility of introducing taxation, in such a form that it penalises employers if they do not take the proper percentage of ex-Servicemen through this service, and so that they may have a remission of tax if they take more than the appropriate percentage?

Mr. Isaacs

I would remind the hon. and gallant Gentleman that I have a lot of problems of my own. Do not add to them one which really belongs to the Chancellor of the Exchequer.