HC Deb 03 February 1948 vol 446 cc1765-76

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

10.0 p.m.

Mr. Dye (Norfolk, South Western)

I desire to bring before the House a matter of some importance, namely, irregularities in the control of prisoner-of-war labour amounting to corruption and what, in my opinion, is the unjust dismissal of one of the labour officers whose action brought the irregularities to the notice of the Norfolk Agriculture Executive Committee.

I regret having to bring this matter before the House tonight, but I have by Questions in this House on 15th and 18th December, and by conversation and correspondence with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, endeavoured to obtain a satisfactory settlement. I also regret that my right hon. Friend is not present tonight to reply to what I have to say. I notice that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary is present. He will, I know, give careful attention to what is said. I trust he will not be bound unnecessarily by what has been prepared for him, but that he will be able to use his own judgment. What I am asking him to do is to assure the House that all the irregularities have been brought to an end and that Mr. Pegler, the official to whom I have referred, is reinstated pending some further impartial inquiry into the responsibility for what has taken place.

It is not surprising that trouble should arise when it is remembered that something like 250,000 prisoners of war have been employed in agriculture during the past three years. They have come under the control of officials—a perfect bureaucracy. It is true that there are committees, but their actions are shrouded in secrecy. The surprising thing is that the system should have survived so long after the war. These prisoners are virtually slaves. They are sent hither and thither by the officials, according to the demands of the farmers, and they cannot complain. They have no interest in what they do and no organisation to speak for them. That makes it all the more necessary to guard against corruption in their use and administration.

It transpired that one official had used prisoner-of-war labour for the repair and redecoration of his home and that another, several weeks later, had used similar labour for the cultivation of his garden, all without payment. The prisoners were conveyed from the camps concerned in vehicles belonging to the committee, and booked out in one of the working gangs engaged in piece-work jobs. The assistant labour officer who got this labour for nothing could not have done so without assistance of other officials, or by implicating others working under him. Much more important, however, is the way it was possible for some farmers to receive prisoners for work on piece-work rates and put them to other work for which no account was or could be rendered. It was also possible to get the prisoners mixed up with other labour on the farms so that it was impossible to measure up the actual work they had done. Had these prisoners gone out on day rates, and the full charge had been made, no such irregularities could have taken place. But the system whereby the supervisors could make bargains with farmers on an acreage basis opened the door to all kinds of abuse. For example, some farmers would get all the prisoner-of-war labour that they wanted, while others had to go short. I drew the attention of the Minister to these practices in my letter to him of 18th December and I mentioned two large farms where it had been going on.

The Committee's vehicles have been used for private purposes day and night, some officials always having an abundance of petrol coupons. So far, I have not received the slightest indication that these practices have been stopped. These abuses have been the subject of common talk for some time. Indeed, they were known to exist by members of the Agricultural Executive Committee; but as one member said to me, "We cannot put our finger on the actual spot because those who know would not come forward with the evidence." These abuses were also known and disliked by many of the labour officers in charge of the camps and supervisors in charge of the gangs. Because they wanted to stop this practice, a meeting of 11 officials took place at the Cockley Cley Camp on 30th October.

I cannot understand why the Committee, knowing as they did that irregularities were being talked about, did not even take their officials into their confidence. The difficulty that confronted these lesser officials was that they did not know how many of their superiors were implicated in these matters or were receiving benefits in some form or another from the farmers who were receiving favourable teatment. Nevertheless, it was agreed that Mr. Pegler should make a report to the chief labour officer for Norfolk or to the executive officer. In an effort to protect himself against any possible retaliatory action on the part of his superiors, he came to me, as the Member for the Division, so that I would be informed of what was taking place. He urged, however, that I should take no immediate action, but should let him make his report so that the matter could be dealt with locally through the Committee. It subsequently proved that their fears were well founded, and so it is that I find myself pleading the cause of an honest man who has been victimised for doing what his workmates asked him to do in the interests of the country.

What did the Norfolk War Agricultural Executive Committee do when Mr. Pegler's report came before them? They got three of their members together with the three chief officials to hold an inquiry at King's Lynn on 24th November. Mr. Pegler was asked to attend and to give evidence. At no time was he treated in any other way except as a witness. He was questioned by members of the Committee and the officials. He was only present when giving evidence or answering questions. At no time was any charge made against him. In fact, the only charge that could have been made against him was that he did not take effective steps earlier to report his superior officers to the Committee for breaches of conduct. In no way did he benefit by what had happened. He had in fact made earlier attempts without success to see the chief labour officer. When eventually he was successful in fixing an appointment with the chief labour officer, that official informed the assistant labour officer who immediately went to see him and attempted to persuade him not to make the report.

The assistant labour officer was present all the time and could speak in his own defence. The chief labour officer was also present and to all intents and purposes, he was part of the committee of inquiry; yet he was the responsible officer for the administration of prisoner-of-war labour, and such irregularities as had taken place over the past two years revealed his inefficiency. He knew that his assistant labour officer in West Norfolk was having the use of prisoner-of-war labour and he ought to have taken steps to see that he paid for it properly. There is, however, the point that prisoner-of- war labour should only have been supplied for agricultural work. The decoration of houses and private gardening does not come within that category. Therefore, when the chief labour officer acquiesced in his assistant's action in having prisoners, he was already breaking the rules laid down by the Ministry. His part in the proceedings, therefore, cast a doubt on the validity of the so-called court of inquiry.

When my hon. Friend, in reply to my question on 15th December, said that he was satisfied with the recommendations of the sub-committee, or tribunal, as he calls it—and it will be found in column 1468 of HANSARD of that date—he certainly could not have considered whether they reached their conclusions after conducting their inquiry in such a way as to do justice to all concerned. I maintain that they were prejudiced against this official, Mr. Baker, by the presence all the time of these officials, and that Mr. Pegler was never given an opportunity of replying to criticism of his actions made in his absence, nor was any charge preferred against him. He was, however, suspended from duty, and was later paid a month's salary in lieu of notice, and he was dismissed from his post and suffered the same fate as two assistant officers who had not only broken the regulations, but benefited themselves in so doing.

Such an inquiry is clearly contrary to the elements of natural justice. In a written reply to my Question on 18th December, my hon. Friend stated: The committee of inquiry…informed Mr. Pegler that they were dissatisfied with his conduct and asked him for an explanation. This was not regarded as satisfactory."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th December, 1947; Vol. 445, c 401.] Mr. Pegler denied that statement, and he is fully prepared to refute it in the presence of those who made it. In the next Question which I put to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary on the same day, I asked him for an impartial inquiry, but the answer I got was that, unless evidence of other irregularities was supplied, there was no reason for a further inquiry. I therefore submitted, on 18th December, a further letter to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture giving ample grounds for a further inquiry, and, when we consider the effect which that action against Mr. Pegler had on other officers, I think that the action of the Ministry and of the officials of the Committee is deplorable.

I regard this matter as of great importance, because I feel strongly that we should keep our public service free from all forms of corruption. The idea has gained currency that, by greasing the hands of officials, it is easy to get prisoner-of-war labour, and great damage has been done to the prestige of the administration. We must remember that, in the county agricultural committees, other services are provided such as feedingstuff coupons, machinery permits, et cetera. I have heard complaints from my own constituency, and also from other counties from people interested in this case, which have not strengthened my confidence in the Ministry, and I trust that my hon. Friend's reply tonight will be reassuring to the House and to those who live and work in the villages of Britain.

10.13 p.m.

Mr. Gooch (Norfolk, Northern)

I am sorry the word "corruption" has been used in the statement which my hon. Friend has just made to the House. Undoubtedly, some irregularities have taken place, and that has led to proper action by the Norfolk County Agricultural Executive Committee. I think I should say that my interest in this matter arises from the fact that I was a member of that committee during the whole period of the war, and in addition to that, I served as chairman of the labour subcommittee of that committee for the whole period. Therefore, I think I have good reason for saying a few things about what was happening both in the committee and in the county during the war years. The men who were associated with the work of the committee, as the members of the committee themselves, tried to do their duty conscientiously throughout that period. That applies very definitely to the members of the committee, who worked under difficult conditions. It also applies to the chief officials of the committee who were men of honour and integrity. During my period of office the staff generally gave no cause for complaint.

Following this Debate the impression may be gained that the Norfolk Committee's operations were accompanied by widespread and long-term corruption, but I want emphatically to deny that that was so. Nor is it so today. It can be said for the committee in Norfolk that directly these irregularities were reported to them action was taken, and the guilty parties dealt with. I gladly pay my tribute to my colleagues on the committee, with whom I had six years' very happy association, and also to the members of the staff of that Committee. Directly the present troubles came to light definite action was taken. I am still a member of the labour sub-committee. I did not know anything about this business until my hon. Friend raised it in the House. Directly the matter was raised here, and on my return to Norfolk, I asked for a special meeting of the committee of which I was a member, so that I could become acquainted with all the facts of the case as known to the staff and members. I attended a meeting of the sub-committee, where the whole of the facts were disclosed to me.

The committee of inquiry which went fully into this business was presided over, I believe, by a county alderman and a magistrate, whom I regard as a very trusted trade union leader of many years' standing. I was told at the meeting of the subcommittee of the finding of the inquiry, and I must confess tonight that, in view of the facts that were disclosed to me at that meeting, I cannot for one moment quarrel with either the conclusions or the recommendations of the committee of inquiry. I should like to deal with some of the facts of the case as told to me.

The charge brought against W. Thornton, the deputy labour officer, was that for a considerable period between 3rd December, 1946, and 23rd April, 1947, a prisoner of war from Cockley Cley Camp worked in his garden without payment. Pegler, the man referred to by my hon. Friend was the informant, and he was also in charge of the Cockley Cley Camp. After hearing the very large volume of evidence at the meeting of inquiry from the district labour officers, the camp labour officers and the supervisors, the committee of inquiry were forced to the conclusion that Pegler, who was in charge of the Cockley Cley Camp, was deeply involved. They accepted his evidence that he was away sick from towards the end of November, 1946, until either 6th December or 9th December, 1946. During this period arrangements were made for the supply of a prisoner of war from Cockley Cley Camp for work, and they were made without Pegler's knowledge by a labour officer named Beart, and he was considered to be in charge during Thornton's illness. The fact remains, however, that this was freely admitted by Pegler, that he learned of this irregularity upon his return, and in spite of that the prisoner of war continued to work until nearly the end of April, 1947.

Pegler was informed of these facts, and the committee asked for an explanation, which briefly was as follows. He realised that the arrangement was wrong and he took steps to see that it was stopped. The steps which he in fact took were to approach Beart, French and Nock, camp labour officers, and he attempted to see these labour officers. Pegler finally brought these matters to the committee's attention early in 1947, but it did appear to the committee of inquiry to be a gross dereliction of duty on the part of a labour officer to allow this practice to continue for such a long period, during which he took no effective action to have it stopped. They considered that when his local approaches failed he should have raised this matter with the labour officer of the committee. No really satisfactory explanation was offered as to why he did not do this. The prisoner of war was withdrawn on 23rd April, 1947, and Pegler did not raise the matter with the committee until early November.

The committee of inquiry was forced to the reluctant conclusion that the matter would not have been raised but for the dismissal of a supervisor named Bridges during October, 1947. It seems that Pegler was on fairly intimate terms with this supervisor named Bridges, and he knew that Bridges was doing his best to obtain evidence of misconduct of members of the committee's labour staff. The inevitable conclusion was that Pegler thought it not advisable from his own point of view to report the facts to the committee, presumably in the hope of protecting his own position. These are the facts as presented to me. I have no reason to doubt the facts which I have given to the House, and, in the face of these facts, the war agricultural committee is to be commended rather than condemned for the action which they took in this case.

10.23 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture (Mr. George Brown)

There is little that I can usefully say to the House in the interests of my hon. Friend's constituent or anyone else beyond what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture said to him in a letter of the 29th January, 1948, from which I will quote the relevant portion. He said: Mr. Pegler has instructed a solicitor who has been in correspondence both with the Secretary of the Committee and with the Department's solicitor, as a result of which he came to see the latter on the 19th January. In his letter, Mr. Pegler's solicitor states that he has instructions to take proceedings against the members of the Committee for libel. The conversation between the Ministry's solicitor and Mr. Pegler's solicitor was merely as to the procedure to be adopted in the event of Mr. Pegler deciding to proceed with his action. In these circumstances, Mr. Pegler having instructed a solicitor to act on his behalf, it would be quite improper for me to discuss with you the merits of the case. Since interviews have taken place between the two solicitors on the question of the issue of a writ, it would be very improper for me to go any further than that letter, and I hope that the House will agree.

In order that silence may not be misinterpreted, I would like to say a brief word about the wider allegations of general corruption so far as the committee's officers are concerned. Let me say at once, that I do not believe, nor do I think that any of my hon. Friends who have been associated with the executive committees will accept the allegation that our committee officials generally in the country are engaged in any widespread corruptive practices. They are loyal men. I am concerned about this, because this is, in a sense, a new service, and we have often seen that when a new service begins we have to build up esprit de corps and morale, and it is easy to start off on the wrong foot by suggesting that unsuitable people were going in for the work. If any hon. Member has any evidence of alleged irregularities I will see that it is immediately given the closest possible examination as my right hon. Friend has already promised. I am willing to discuss with any hon. Member any particular case he thinks merits examination and have the closest investigations made. I was sorry indeed to hear my hon. Friend talking about the bureaucracy of the officials. It is not so. It is bad for hon. Members to talk about them in that way, for they are a lot of good fellows who are doing, in my view, a very difficult job.

We have heard allegations about how prisoners of war are supposed to be treated as slaves. That is the kind of thing we might say among ourselves in this House and it might not mean a lot, but when said in public it could be used outside the House and outside the shores of this country to create trouble and difficulty for us. Let me put it on record that in no case have German prisoners of war been treated as slaves or pushed into employment, as was suggested, with no organisation to look after them. I flatly deny that these prisoners of war have been treated in that fashion. They have indeed been treated better than, I suspect, we would have been treated in similar circumstances. I have heard no suggestion anywhere else that prisoners of war have been treated in any sense as slaves or less than they really deserved. I cannot usefully add any more to the Debate, and it looks as if the individual case to which I have referred must now be allowed to take its course.

Major Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)

On a point of Order. In view of the fact that part of the Joint Under-Secretary's reply referred to legal proceedings which are being taken, is it in Order for an hon. Member, who knows legal proceedings are being taken in a case, nevertheless, to raise the matter on the Adjournment?

Mr. Dye

Further to that point of Order. Surely the House has not been given any evidence that legal steps have actually begun, and, therefore, it is quite wrong for anyone to plead that the matter is sub judice.

The Secretary of State for the Home Department (Mr. Ede)

Further to that point of Order. This phase of the matter has given us some concern. As I understand it, there have been interviews between solicitors intimating that an action may begin. In the course of my experience, such interviews are sometimes held and no action, in fact, does arise. I suggest that until the process has been issued or the necessary preliminary steps have been taken, it cannot be difficult to see that the matter is not actually sub judice although if the persons have some knowledge of the intention of the parties they might be guided in their action by that knowledge.

Mr. Pritt (Hammersmith, North)

Might I add that the commonsense ruling which the Home Secretary has suggested is the regular practice of the King's Bench?

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Major Milner)

The question would not appear to arise in this case as it is not strictly sub judice. In any event, the Chair had no knowledge of the details, and, no doubt, the Joint Under-Secretary was correct in the judicious reply he made having regard to the fact that interviews have taken place.

Major Legge-Bourke

I should just like to say that I was not imputing anything on the part of the hon. Member for South-Western Norfolk (Mr. Dye), but I was only anxious to get a Ruling.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-nine Minutes past Ten o'Clock.