HC Deb 11 November 1947 vol 444 cc344-54

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."—[Mr. Popplewell.]

11.17 p.m.

Mr. J. S. C. Reid (Glasgow, Hillhead)

I venture to ask the House to turn its attention for a few minutes to a case of injustice done to public servants by the Postmaster-General. The matter arises in respect of a number of different places in the Kingdom but I deal only with cases in regard to Glasgow because it is only there I know the facts intimately. I would rehearse them very shortly. During May of this year, 99 full-time temporary postmen, whose average age was as high as 52 years, were dismissed by the right hon. Gentleman in Glasgow, without any suggestion that they had in any way failed in their duty to their employers or the public. "Temporary" is rather a misnomer, because a great number of these men had seen the Post Office through the difficult years of the war and had seven or eight years' service, but that counted for nothing. They were suddenly dismissed for no reason, apparently. I was approached on the matter and something was said by the Assistant Postmaster-General in an earlier Debate raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Westbury (Mr. Grimston), who, while raising the general question, was good enough to mention the question of these Glasgow men. The Assistant Postmaster-General stated that they did make an attempt to put into operation a new service. He went on to say that as a result of the fuel crisis and various other matters, including the need for men in productive industry and they decided to cut the services and reduce the number of men accordingly. Immediately they made the decision to cut the services and provide men for industry, they began to reduce the number.

It might well be held, that after they had dismissed those men some weeks might elapse before all of them found other places in industry; there might be a temporary period in which there would be a slight margin of unemployment. It turned out that they did not get employment. I asked on 22nd July what the position was, and the Minister of Labour told the House that no less than 64 of them, after eight weeks, were still out of employment. There are two other interesting things. I was told the Postmaster-General had never consulted the Minister of Labour whether the men were likely to find employment if dismissed. But the whole purpose was that they should find other employment in the national interest. This was a very grave failure on the part of the right hon. Gentleman's Department.

The Minister of Labour went on to say that the Government had never given any indication that men who had been dismissed from one job would be forced into another. A direct rebuttal to the right hon. Gentleman. What did he do? The right hon. Gentleman at once changed his ground, and invented the ground of redundancy. It was no longer said that it was done in order that these men could go into productive employment. It was said that the men had been dismissed because of redundancy. Nobody who knows how inefficient the Post Office services are, could possibly accept that excuse. Acting on information received, as it said in another connection, I asked the right hon. Gentleman how much overtime the remaining postmen had to do in the next few months, and I was told 66,000 hours in Glasgow Yet we are told that the action was taken because of redundancy. The thing makes no sense at all. The men concerned, I should add, were postmen of both grades.

What happened after that? I asked the right hon. Gentleman if he had taken on more men. He has taken on far more men than the number he dismissed. At least 48 of them are men under 30 years of age who would have been useful in productive employment. What he has done is to dismiss a number of men who could not get other employment because they are too old, and he has taken in their places still more men who would have been available for other employment if they were not employed by the Post Office; and there are still half of the number of men dismissed, after five months, who have not found another job. Will not the right hon. Gentleman change his mind? Will not he admit that he has made a serious mistake; that these men cannot get into productive employment? Can he say that they would not be useful in the Post Office increasing the postal services? The right hon. Gentleman would save money if he took them back, because he would save unemployment benefit and also a certain amount of overtime rates. Why, then, will he not do it? It really is astonishing. I have rarely seen a decision which combined stupidity with injustice to such a degree.

Now the right hon. Gentleman cannot be accused of being an unjust man. Why, then, has he done this? Why does he stick to his decision? I wish to ask him this: is there a clue to be found in what I read in a newspaper? I saw, in a newspaper report of a Labour Women's Conference on 1st October, that a certain lady from Edinburgh had protested about this matter. But it was pointed out to her that the matter rested between the Post Office and the various unions concerned, and she withdrew her resolution. I do not know by whom this was pointed out, but obviously it was done by someone in authority. Was it done with the right hon. Gentleman's consent? Had he upheld that? Is it a case of the unions having forced his hand? Has he allowed himself to be driven into an unjust course at the behest of these unions? Otherwise why does he commit this injustice? Unjust it obviously is. Those concerned are men who have given many years of good service, and there is useful work for them to do in Glasgow. This is a thing of which any decent private employer would be ashamed. Is this the sort of thing to be expected from Government Depart- ments as employers? Many of us have always suspected that Government Departments were not good employers. It appears now that Government Departments have descended to very low depths. I do not want to take up more time of the House, but I do say that I hope there can be a denial that trade union pressure has anything to do with this. But, if the right hon. Gentleman can deny it, then why does he maintain this unjust position; a position unjust to the men and to the public?

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Eric Fletcher (Islington, East)

The right hon. Gentleman has referred to conditions in Scotland in this matter, and I would like to draw the attention of the House to the fact that very similar conditions exist in London. I have had occasion to write to the Minister, and to his predecessor, about this, and I should like to support the plea we have just heard from the right hon. and learned Gentleman opposite. I should like to urge the Postmaster-General to reconsider this matter because I believe that a great hardship has been caused to these post men in London who have been dismissed on the grounds of redundancy and who have been unable to get another job, while younger men who could have got other forms of employment elsewhere, have been taken on. I hope my right hon. Friend will look at this matter in the light in which it has been put, and will say that something is to be done for these men.

11.26 p.m.

Mr. Hector Hughes (Aberdeen, North)

I support the plea which has been made by the right hon. and learned Gentleman. Many of these men offered their services during the war, but were rejected on medical grounds from combatant service. They served in the Post Office, and gained technical knowledge, which they used for the benefit of the State. Later, they were thrown on to the scrap heap, and both they, and the nation, were at a loss. They acquired special knowledge during their service with the Post Office which might well be utilised by the nation.

We have heard tonight of cases in general, but I would like to raise a particular case. We have heard of cases from Glasgow, but this is one from Aberdeen. Mr. J. MacLean, of 5, St. Peter's Gate, Aberdeen, was a temporary postman discharged on 30th May. I quote from the Minister's letter. Mr. MacLean was one of a number of ex-Regular Service men, nominated by the National Association for the Employment of ex-Regular Sailors, Soldiers, and Airmen, who were interviewed by the Post Office on 17th September, 1946. While not selected for an established postman vacancy, he was given temporary employment in Aberdeen from the 24th September when additional staff was required on the introduction of the postwar postal service. After a period on postman duties, he was again considered for a permanent situation, but was found to be unsuitable. He was given no explanation why he was unsuitable, and I would like the Postmaster-General to tell me why this was so. As temporary employment was available, he was retained with other temporary postmen, pending the filling of posts by permanent candidates. After that, his employment was discontinued, and he was thrown on to the scrap heap. He joined the ranks of the unemployed, his life was disorganised, and there was serious loss to him, to his family, and to the State. I emphasise the double loss, on the one hand, to him, and on the other hand, to the nation. This man is representative of a class, and his case ought to be considered.

11.29 p.m.

Mr. Rankin (Glasgow, Tradeston)

I should like for the few moments available to me to say a word on this matter, for it has troubled a good many people. As the Minister knows, I have had correspondence with him on the subject, and I think that there is a good deal of confusion created by the answers which have been given. For instance, on 6th June of this year, it was pointed out in Volume 438 of HANSARD that one reason for dismissal was that these men should be turned over to production rather than to the process of distribution; but, as most of the men who were dismissed were about 50 years of age, they were unable to get jobs in production and, so they could neither perform service on the distributive side, nor the productive. Later on it would appear that the reason was that by reducing its demands on the labour market the Post Office caused more ex-Service men to become available for employment. Thus by restricting their services they caused ex-Service men, who would normally have come back from the Army into Post Office work, to be kept out of the Post Office, and thereby turned into production service.

The confusion has been created here again because we have discovered since then that many people who were round about 30 years of age, have been taken into the service of the Post Office in spite of that later decision. I hope my right hon. Friend will tonight be able to clear up this confusion, because, in addition to the facts I have given, I understand that something like 178 part time workers have been taken on since these dismissals, and something like 51,000 hours of overtime were worked during the months of June and July. The question is immediately put to me why not retain some of these men of 50 years of age who have been dismissed the service and thus save the overtime which has been worked since? I hope the right hon. Gentleman will be able to clear up some of these points.

11.31 p.m.

Colonel J. R. H. Hutchison (Glasgow, Central)

May I add my support to the criticism from both sides of the House that has been levelled at this action. This is a small muddle, not a muddle on the grand scale to which we are accustomed. Therefore, perhaps it will be easier for the Minister to reverse matters and put things right. Whichever way one looks at this question undoubtedly a muddle has taken place. If it is a question of making men available for industry, men of over 50 are not the men to be chosen, and if it is a question of redundancy, why has extra recruitment taken place. I want to draw attention to the most extraordinary answers which I have had on this question. In August I asked what the position was, and I was told that 75 postmen had asked for assistance in Glasgow, and of these men the Department were successful in placing 22. Then on 6th November, some months later, I put the same question, and got the answer that 75 had registered and 16 had been placed in employment by the Ministry. They seem to work backwards like winding a film the wrong way. There were 22 in August and only 16 some months later. These unfortunate individuals are making no progress in being placed in industry. Whichever way one looks at it something has gone wrong, and I would ask the right hon. Gentleman to reverse this procedure, and press Button B for these men and let them have their places and their money back.

11.33 p.m.

The Postmaster-General (Mr. Wilfred Paling)

I agree that a lot of Questions have been asked on this matter, and they have been asked at various times. If one simply took the whole of those Questions as they stand, I think it would be difficult for anyone to sort the facts out. I grant that readily. Let me see if I can present a picture to the House of what actually happened.

During the war the Post Office, like every other industry, contributed a large quota of its men to the fighting Services. It had to make up for those men in the best way possible from those who were left at home. By virtue of the fact that the fighting Services wanted the young men, the people at home whom we had to get in their places were necessarily older people and they came in as temporary postmen. In most cases they were too old to become established workers in the Post Office. They were taken on as purely temporary people, and were warned or informed that their service was of a temporary nature and might be ended at any time.

I was asked whether these people had done a good job and the answer is, "Yes." They were very satisfactory. They were not sacked because they were inefficient, but because in the course of time the young men came back into the Post Office for their jobs, and so some of these temporary men became redundant and we had to dismiss them. Then in 1946 we put on extra services, I think one delivery and one collection per day in most of the country. Later on we also did the same in London. That steadied the position for the time being, but then the snow and ice and frost came, and the extra delivery and collection were stopped in London. That was the position for the time being, and before we had got back to the situation that had obtained at the beginning of the year to put back the services again in London, we were asked along with other civil services to make a contribution to supplying men for productive industry. We tried to fulfil that obligation and we went into the matter and looked to see what we could do. We decided that the services should not be restored in London, the extra collection and extra delivery had to be taken off in the Provinces as well, and that meant that we could find men from the Post Office service for productive industry.

Now, by reason of our agreements, and the fact that these men were temporary and most of them old, they were the first to go. These men were stopped, up and down the country. We contributed several thousand people. In most of the country, despite the fact that these men were fairly old, I believe they were absorbed into industry. But in two or three places, and in Glasgow in particular, it was difficult to absorb them as had happened in other parts of the country because there was a rather larger percentage of unemployment obtaining in Glasgow than in most other places. I think that this is the case today. These people went out—99 were stopped—and I think that a percentage of them have not got other work. That is the position today.

The next trouble is this. It was laid down by this House a good many years ago—I think that this goes back almost to the Boer War—that people who had been in the Armed Forces and who had been Regulars at that time if they had seven, ten or 15 years service, were given the opportunity of going into the Post Office. It was very difficult for those people to come back and find a job in the ordinary industry of this country—and because of that, if they had done a certain number of years of service, they were given the opportunity of going into the Post Office, into what was in most cases, if they fulfilled the conditions, likely to be a permanent job, and a fairly secure job. We had to give 50 per cent. of the postman jobs in the Post Office to those people. In Glasgow, probably again because of the fact that unemployment existed there rather more than in most places, there were quite a number of these ex-Regulars who had first preference. Then, ex-Service men who had served during the war were second. Quite a number of these people in Glasgow were waiting on the Employment Exchange books for jobs in the Post Office. My duty was clear.

Colonel Hutchison

Can the right hon. Gentleman say anything about the 178 part-time female staff?

Mr. Paling

The female staff are in rather a different position. Not many of these men would want part-time jobs of that kind: some of them are very small. That was our trouble in Glasgow and this was what we had to do. I am assured that if I had got away from the 50 per cent. I should get into trouble with the Services and some organisations which look after this business. These were the people who have been filling these jobs since the temporaries were dismissed. The other 50 per cent. are filled mainly from boys coming into the service and from auxiliaries and from younger men who in the country districts have filled part-time jobs. At the moment there is still a waiting list of these people in Glasgow. It must be said that in view of the position in Glasgow where there is unemployment we might have made an exception and kept people on. If I had done that I am sure I should have got into trouble when 50 per cent. of the other people, whose claim went back for a generation or two, were waiting for jobs. If I were to make an exception in Glasgow, that would have to apply to Post Offices generally; and if we were to expand our services in Glasgow or any other place where unemployment was bigger than usual, we should have got into trouble because other centres would be open to do the same.

Mr. J. S. C. Reid

In view of the overtime worked, surely it would have paid the country to have kept these men on?

Mr. Paling

It is not always possible to cover overtime work with regular duties. I have got the figures here and it works out in the case of postal and telegraph officers at 0.4 hours per week per man; in the case of a postman, higher grade, 3.2 hours per week per man; in the case of a postman, lower grade, 2.7 hours per week per man; and in the case of a telegraphist, 0.2 hours. Even if one reckons that together and if it had been possible to do all this overtime together and employ regular men it would have been very small indeed. But it is not possible to do that. This overtime is of such a character that we cannot possibly put on regular men to carry it out.

I do not like sacking men if they have to remain unemployed, particularly in these days, and considering how long these men were out of work. But for the regulations we might have acted differently. I did not like doing it but I am tied by these things. This was a regulation laid down by this House a generation ago. I think that if I attempted to do anything like that, hon. Members on the other side of the House would probably be the first to protest against it.

Mr. J. S. C. Reid

What regulation compelled the right hon. Gentleman to dismiss those men? None whatever.

Mr. Paling

I am telling the right hon. and learned Gentleman that first we dismissed them in order to find people for productive industry. Hon. Members on that side of the House were clamouring that we should do it, that Civil Service people should be combed out to find men for productive industry. Hon. Members opposite were clamouring louder than anyone else that that should be done. We did it. Then we had to set the others on from this 50 per cent. pool of ex-Service candidates. Again, it has been laid down by this House—there is no confusion about the matter—

Mr. J. S. C. Reid

Only injustice.

Mr. Paling

There may be injustice in the mind of the right hon. and learned Gentleman. If it is injustice, it has been laid down in the direction I have just indicated. It is of no good for hon. Members opposite to protest against that. This regulation of 50 per cent. is laid down, and I have no power to go outside it. The question of finding men for industry operated throughout the length and breadth of the country, and operated successfully, except in Glasgow; but in Glasgow it did not, because of exceptional circumstances. I said I could not treat Glasgow exceptionally, as in Glasgow there was a waiting list of Regulars and ex-Service men, waiting for these jobs. We have put these people into those jobs.

Colonel Hutchison

But did the right hon. Gentleman know that all over the country there is the greatest difficulty in placing old men in industry? Employers are appealed to, not only in Glasgow, to try to get over this difficulty.

Mr. W. R. Williams (Heston and Isleworth)

Is the hon. and gallant Gentleman suggesting that the Post Office and Government Departments should Carry redundant forces at this time, when they are trying to find men for industry?

Colonel Hutchison

If I have the right to answer that—

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Mr. Hubert Beaumont)

The hon. and gallant Gentleman has exhausted his right to speak.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve Minutes to Twelve o'clock.