HC Deb 20 March 1950 vol 472 cc1713-20

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

11.59 p.m.

Sir John Mellor (Sutton Coldfield)

The War Office Printing and Photographic Department, which is called C.I. Reproduction Services, and which is situated at 5 to 6, Old Cavendish Street, just off Oxford Street, is in a substantial building on four floors and I think about 70 people are employed there. I understand it is an absolute War Office rule that no private work should be done, but in September last the police made an investigation and discovered that private work had been done in War Office time and with War Office material.

That work had been done between November, 1948, and March, 1949. It consisted in the preparation of a number of loose-leaf catalogues for a company called Glass Developments, Ltd., scientific instrument manufacturers, of Brixton, and it involved a considerable amount of photography, photoprinting and other preparation. Altogether it required some three cwt. of paper. It is the fact that the senior executive officer who at the material time was administratively responsible for this establishment was the brother of the managing director of Glass Developments, Ltd. and this senior executive officer in November, 1948, introduced his brother at these premises in Old Cavendish Street to the technical officer in charge and to the principal photographer.

Following that introduction, work upon these loose-leaf catalogues was put in hand. The managing director of the company visited the War Office premises on more than one occasion and a considerable number of glass articles, which bore the name of Glass Developments, Ltd., were photographed, and photoprinting done which involved many members of the staff. Ultimately, the finished work, which was of a substantial character, was dispatched in hampers to the company.

On 16th December last, the then Secretary of State for War made a statement in answer to a question by me: The number of man-hours expended on the work irregularly performed is not known, since, in breach of standing instructions, no record was kept of time worked on the job. As the War Office was being robbed, I think it scarcely surprising that no record was kept. The then Secretary of State continued: The paper used weighed 3¼ cwts., the greater part of which was the weight of the manilla covers. The paper appears to have been part of the daily floating stock of very much greater volume drawn for the ordinary REPORT, 16th December, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 370.] It seems to be rather surprising that it was a practice to keep no record of stock appropriated to a particular job. The police found some specimens of this catalogue on the premises of the company when they went there, but the bulk of the work had already been distributed to the trade and therefore the actual quantity which was produced is a matter of guesswork.

On 6th December last, the then Secretary of State for War made this statement: The value of the work is estimated at about£115. The cost of the paper was£25."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th December, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 1700.] Therefore, it will be seen that the transaction was not only large, but also was of some substantial commercial value. It would have been produced entirely at the expense of public funds if it had not been that the police intervened and that the War Office extracted£115 from the company. I should have thought that this involved a prima facie breach of the criminal law and that it would have been appropriate for investigation in the courts instead of in a hole-in-the-corner way in the War Office. This, at least, must be admitted by the Financial Secretary, that there was a very serious breach of Civil Service discipline, a breach by four senior officials in a department in which they hold very responsible positions.

On 13th December, when I inquired about what action had been taken, the then Secretary of State said: Suitable disciplinary action has been taken in each case."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 13th December, 1949; Vol. 470, c. 2510.] On 14th March, I asked the present Secretary of State what disciplinary action had been taken and he replied that suitable action had been taken. In other words, he told me to mind my own business. If the Secretary of State for War will not say what action was taken, I will. These four officials only suffered a few weeks suspension from duty on half pay. To the best of my knowledge and belief the most any of them suffered was seven weeks suspension from duty on half pay and the least was one week. As the Parliamentary Secretary knows, in one case this was not the first offence of this character.

These men have been dealt with in the Department although the punishments, in my submission, were purely nominal, and of course I cannot reopen the individual cases. What I do say is that if such trivial punishment is to be meted out by the War Office for such grave offences, the discipline, morale and self-respect of those employed in the War Office must inevitably suffer. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary if he will give the House an explanation of this extraordinary treatment. I also ask him why this department is retained. Why does the War Office require this place for photography and photo-printing? Why cannot its functions be transferred to the Stationery Office? Is it a fact that it is required for some secret work? If it is, I should say that it ought to be placed in much more reliable hands.

12.9 a.m.

Sir Herbert Williams (Croydon, East)

I happened to hear something about this case before I came back to this House. I do not know whether my information is accurate, but I am told that the police knew all about this, and that is rather confirmed by what my hon. Friend the Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) has said, namely, that the police went to the place, where they discovered these catalogues printed at public expense for the benefit of a private firm. That seems very near to stealing. I hope we shall be told why, when that was reported in the appropriate quarter, no steps were taken to initiate a prosecution. This is really a first-class scandal. It may be that only£115 was involved. It may have been more—no one knows the facts—but why did not the police, or the Public Prosecutor, take steps to make sure that these people were prosecuted?

12.10 a.m.

Colonel Gomme-Duncan (Perth and East Perthshire)

In listening to the case put forward by the hon. Baronet, I must say that I found it extremely disturbing information. As the hon. Member for Croydon, East (Sir H. Williams) said, this is not a matter of the sum involved—£120, or whatever it may be—but the fact that certain officials of considerable standing should have so far failed in their duties as to permit such things. I think that this reveals somewhere a very grave laxity, and I feel that when the traditions of the British Civil Service, with its fine record—a record higher than almost any in the world—are at stake, it is most deplorable that the Secretary of State at that time should have taken such a light view of the whole proceedings.

I can only assume that he took a light view because of his action, and the Financial Secretary has an opportunity to put it to the public through this House that the War Office, and the Civil Service as a whole, will not permit this sort of thing among officials, high or low. There should be a full inquiry with a further report to this House and further steps should be taken because, in the interests of the British Civil Service, which, I agree, has a difficult and responsible job, and in the interests of this country. the matter should be thoroughly threshed out. The whole thing should be taken as far as it is possible to take it, and I hope we shall be told this evening what steps have been taken to see that there is no repetition.

12.12 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. Michael Stewart)

I would say first that I agree with the hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Sir J. Mellor) that this is a very disturbing matter, and I appreciate the concern he has shown by bringing the matter before the House tonight and by putting Questions. It is not necessary for me again to go over the facts of what occurred. Those facts are as have been described, but for, I think, two very important exceptions. which I shall come to in a moment. It is always a matter of very great concern when a member of the British Civil Service does not prove entirely worthy of the very high trust reposed in him. It makes a case of any kind such as this seem worse.

The two points on which I part company with the hon. Baronet are these. It is not correct to speak of a hole-and-corner investigation. The fact is that the War Office were informed by the police that they had information about this case, and in accordance with regular practice we invited the police to make a thorough investigation. The full facts of the matter and the conclusions of the police went to the Director of Public Prosecutions. He expressed the view that there was no ground to support a criminal prosecution. Strictly speaking, I think everyone will agree with the verdict—I think it was the verdict of the hon. Baronet—that there is only one word which can apply to the use of public time and materials for a private purpose.

At the same time, however, serious as any breach by a civil servant may be, we must get a sense of proportion in considering this very grave indiscretion and neglect of regulations. It is also a fact that this matter is materially different from deliberate corruption. If it had been established that any of these people had received personal gain for obliging the firm in this way,. or that they had got in this way any hope of personal gain, it would have put the whole matter in a very different light indeed. But the careful investigation that was carried out, both by the police, and later, which is the normal procedure, by a board of inquiry in the War Office—although it did establish, as I say, grave indiscretion and very serious disregard of regulations—produced no grounds for supposing that any of the civil servants concerned had either gained anything themselves out of the transactions or acted with any hope of personal gain.

Sir J. Mellor

Will the hon. Gentleman agree that the police took the view that the evidence very closely supported a criminal prosecution and that it was after discussions between the War Office and the Director of Public Prosecutions that it was decided not to prosecute?

Mr. Stewart

I have been guided definitely by the view of the Director of Public Prosecutions, which was not a view we suggested to him, but a view which he presented to us. In face of that, I do not see really that we could have acted other than in the way in which we did act. I think we were right, in view of the facts and in view of the opinion tendered to us, not to make this a matter of criminal prosecution.

There then arises the question of the disciplinary action that we took. In addition to the action referred to by the hon. Baronet, the two junior and less responsible people received a reprimand and a warning. The two more senior people received a severe reprimand. I know what the reaction of hon. Members and the general public on first hearing that may be. They may say that is only a form of words, but I have made inquiries and I find that is very far from being the case. It is something which will stand in these men's way for the rest of their careers in the Civil Service and which will be a definite hindrance to them and a constant reminder of the serious irregularities that they have committed. I feel that, considering the nature of their offences and the nature of the action that has been taken, we have tried to hold the balance correctly between the need to vindicate the honour of the Civil Service, on the one hand, and the desire not to behave in a disproportionately and unreasonably harsh manner, on the other.

There remains the question of what precautions we are taking against any similar occurrence in the future. Clearly there can be no absolutely certain check against a breach of trust by somebody in whom it is felt proper to put trust. For that sort of thing we must look to a much wider field, at the whole method whereby the Civil Service is recruited and standards of conduct are maintained. We came to the conclusion, following examination of this case, that we must have an expert examination of the system of control of materials in this Department, since if we could have had a closer control of materials these matters might have been detected before the abuse reached any serious stage at all. If that expert examination suggests measures we can usefully take. we shall take them forthwith.

The question has been raised by the hon. Baronet of why this reproduction service exists at all and why the whole work is not done by the Stationery Office. That is not particularly for any security reason. It is true that some of the work which it does could be done by the Stationery Office, but it also does work of a type that the Stationery Office does not provide for—certain types of photography, the microfilming of overseas corespondence and so on, which we cannot get done in the Stationery Office. That is one reason for the maintenance of this unit. If you have a unit for that kind of work, it is often economical to group with it certain other types of work which could be done by the Stationery Office. I do not feel, therefore, that there is any danger either to security or to the honour of the Civil Service or even to economy by the maintenance of this section. I hope that the further facts I have been able to lay before the House tonight will convince them that, unfortunate and undesirable as this whole episode has been, we have done our best to deal with it in an appropriate manner.

Sir H. Williams

Then if the civil servant in question had walked away with the paper for his own benefit, his action would have been theft; but if he gave the paper to his brother, it would be an action which was undesirable but which did not fall within the category of theft?

Mr. Stewart

It would be undesirable to answer hypothetical questions reflecting on the repute of a civil servant which may imply censure on him. I am not going to be saddled with hypothetical questions of this kind.

Sir H. Williams

Was not his brother head of the firm?

Mr. Stewart

I do not think any useful purpose would be served by discussing this.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-one Minutes past Twelve o'Clock.