HC Deb 29 May 1951 vol 488 cc174-84

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

10.46 p.m.

Mr. Geoffrey Cooper (Middlesbrough, West)

I am raising this matter at the request of a Mr. Baker, an employee of the B.B.C., not only because after 23 years of devoted service to the Corporation he finds himself sadly victimised, but because certain fundamental principles are involved in this case, affecting, as I see it, employees of almost every nationalised industry.

Equally important, I believe that the principles involved affect fundamentally the relationship between those in control of our nationalised industries and hon. Members of this House. Indeed, if cases such as that I am about to describe were ignored it would mean that these large public undertakings would develop into some sort of soulless Frankenstein monsters, without any truly democratic influence penetrating to keep them human and efficient; and I believe that if an organisation is to be truly efficient it must at the same time be human.

Mr. Baker appears to have been victimised because he dared to appeal against certain wrongful and unjust treatment meted out to him in 1946. He made his appeal to the Director-General, and in so doing went over the heads of the people in charge of his department, the engineering division. This never seems to have been forgotten, and from that time onwards further promotion was denied to Mr. Baker.

I have also been asked to bring this case to the notice of the House by the man's own trade union, because it is well known that trade union activity has been held in check for a number of years at the B.B.C. because the B.B.C. has refused, in the main, to recognise the trade unions and has instead dealt with its own Staff Association. The man's trade union has failed to get a redress of the grievance effectively in any other way. The man's union is the Association of Supervisory Staffs, Executives and Technicians. The union is affiliated to the T.U.C., so that in effect the matter I am raising tonight is one that not only affects all employees of the B.B.C. but also involves the relationship of the B.B.C. itself with the Trades Union Congress. As my hon. Friend who will be replying to this debate has an interest in the trade union movement, through his associations, I believe that I can count on his sympathy in considering the points I now wish to make.

Although I have been in no way briefed by the B.B.C. Staff Association, which claims to represent some 50 per cent. of the B.B.C. staff, I happen to know that it is greatly concerned at what it believes to be the management's failure to honour agreements with the staff and the Staff Association, particularly in the way reports are made confidentially on individual members of the Corporation's staff.

Before stating Mr. Baker's case, I should like to add one reason of my own for bringing this matter before the House. I do not disguise the fact that since first coming to this House in 1945 my concern at the poor standards of management of some of our public undertakings and I have more than once disclosed the rather unfortunate state of affairs in the B.B.C. In 1946 a debate was held on the renewal of the B.B.C. Charter, and some complaints I made then have since been confirmed in the Beveridge Report. After my complaints, Sir Valentine Holmes was asked to make certain investigations into the matters I raised, and I thought he found considerable difficulty, in the report he made afterwards, in whitewashing the B.B.C.

The case which I raised in particular was subsequently proved by the fact that the individual concerned was dismissed. There are at this moment certain complaints which have been brought to my notice by the well-known variety artist, Hughie Green, who put on the popular show, "Opportunity Knocks." He made certain complaints which received considerable comment in the Press. I should like to say, in passing, that that case is still under consideration. It will not be dropped until some satisfaction is obtained.

Since that time in 1946, I have continued to make criticisms, and I do not feel that I have been in any way unjustified in those criticisms. I am not the only one who sees these defects in the B.B.C.'s organisation. I cannot do better than quote some individual members of the B.B.C.'s staff who have made comments from time to time. They are people who have been employed in Broadcasting House and are, therefore, in a better position to know of the conditions inside than is anyone outside Broadcasting House.

Comments have been made, and experiences given, in books published by people who have been employed by the B.B.C. One of these was published before the war, and this and the others are more revealing than the present Beveridge Report. It was published by Mr. R. S. Lambert, and was called, "Ariel and All His Quality." It records a long battle against victimisation; it is an epic fight by an individual against the oppressive system and autocratic control of the B.B.C. management which applied at that time. He was a man of considerable influence in the B.B.C. organisation then, because he was editor of the "Radio Times," and his book recorded years of devoted service which was thrown away as a result of his resignation.

Then there was a book by Joseph McLeod, who was one of the most popular wartime announcers. He made the same point about the confidence of the staff being undermined by victimisation. More recently, since the war, there has been a book by Mr. Maurice Gorham, called "Sound and Fury." He was in charge of television, and therefore held a position of considerable responsibility, and his comments are worth consideration, as showing the unhappy and unhealthy conditions which still persist. He resigned from a responsible position because he felt that he had been treated unfairly.

What about the case of Mr. Baker? He adds one more example to the lengthening list of men who are dissatisfied with the inhuman treatment which the B.B.C. metes out to its staff. He continues to fight; others have left the B.B.C. in disgust. These include Mr. L. Hotine, senior superintendent engineer, Mr. H. B. Rantzen, head of design and development. Mr. J. MacLaren, acoustic specialist, building department, Mr. B. McLarty, heavy engineering section, Mr. A. Barrett, head of recording section, Mr. T. McNamara, head of the planning and installation department, all having over 20 years with the Corporation.

Mr. Baker's main point is that he had an adverse report made on his private, secret dossier, so that subsequent promotion was prevented. There are similar cases where individuals were given adverse reports on their private dossiers without those individuals being informed. There was a Mr. G. C. H. Tozer and a Mr. Wheatley, who incidentally fought his case and had the offending comment removed. There was Mr. P. C. Lynch, who was downgraded and whom the Staff Association was unable to help.

Mr. Baker joined the Corporation in 1929. He was at that time made a maintenance engineer at Savoy Hill. He was promoted to the position of senior maintenance engineer at Broadcasting House in 1936. He was then promoted to senior control room engineer in 1940, to assistant to the engineer in charge in 1941, and to assistant engineer in charge in 1942. Then at the time of the resettlement scheme was carried through in the B.B.C., he was downgraded to a senior control room engineer in 1946, but he appealed to the Director-General, as I said earlier, and was once again upgraded.

If the staff promotion system of the B.B.C. means anything at all, the promotion which this man obtained without making any application, being promoted on his merits, indicates that he is of real capacity. The sort of treatment meted out to him since is shown to be extremely unjustified. So far as Mr. Baker knew, he had no adverse reports on his personal record, and yet after 1946 he naturally felt, after his appeal to the Director-General, that he should have been put in the line of promotion like anyone else; but this promotion never came. By accident, he found out that two years previously he was given adverse reports which were entered on his dossier, applying to a period four to six years earlier; that is to say, in 1948 an entry was made without his knowledge, applying to 1942–46, and it could only have been made by the rather distant remembrance or opinions of his seniors, and it seems to him to be an extremely unfair manner of dealing with members of the staff.

This sort of thing, which has been going on is an indication of the justification for the reputation which these reports have obtained amongst the staff. They are secret dossiers, because adverse comments can be made without the individual knowing. I referred a moment ago to a book written by Maurice Gorham. He was writing an article last year in the "Sunday Times" and afterwards this article prompted a certain amount of correspondence, and one letter published in the "Sunday Times" came from the B.B.C.'s management. In explanation, the management said: Mr. Maurice Gorham, referring to the system of personal files which the B.B.C., like any other big employer, keeps of its staff, used the term 'secret dossier.' What he did not mention was the safeguards long in force to prevent the system from carrying this very implication. Every remediable adverse comment on an annual report must be conveyed to the individual. An official interview between an individual and his chief, if it involves criticism, must be recorded, and signed as a true version by both parties… I think it is particularly important to quote what follows from the B.B.C. staff regulations: …in all cases the interviewing officer should ensure that the individual is not left in doubt about the general character of the report. That letter was signed, "J. H. Arkell, Controller, Staff Administration, Broadcasting House." That letter prompted a number of replies. One signed his letter "I.J." and he wrote that never in all his time of service with the B.B.C. as an established member of the staff for over 11 years was he asked to sign an annual report. He says he had a criticism made against him which he did not find out until afterwards, but he had it successfully deleted.

All these things have been brought to the notice of the management over a number of years. In the B.B.C. staff paper, the "Bulletin," in March, 1948, was set out the position of the staff. It first quotes the staff instruction on this matter, with which I need not trouble the House. The B.B.C. will know what the instructions are. The comment of the writer of the article, the chairman of the B.B.C. Staff Association in 1947–48, was: Too many members have been able to say that they have never known of the existence of an annual report, or, if it was known, the contents have never been disclosed. It is because the staff instruction has, on occasions, not been observed that a legend of 'secret' adverse reports affecting promotion has grown up. There was an admission three years ago that there was this defect in management, and so far as I can see the management has never rectified it. There is evidence to show that this matter is still one that requires attention. I hope the evidence I have given will therefore give my hon. Friend the conviction that this matter is something which he should look into.

I should like to ask my hon. Friend one thing. I have failed utterly to obtain any satisfaction from the Director-General. He has not only refused to see me as a Member of Parliament, but refused to see this man's trade union official, who has sent him a letter asking for an interview. I believe that it amounts almost to a disregard of the Privileges of this House when the Director-General of a nationalised industry can refuse to see an M.P. to discuss in a reasonable and conciliatory manner the problems that may arise and may be brought to the attention of an hon. Member.

At this time when the Beveridge Committee are suggesting that the trade unions should be represented at the B.B.C., I think it is extremely unfortunate that the Director-General has refused also to see a trade union official whose organisation is affiliated to the T.U.C. It shows that the Director-General is making no very genuine effort to meet the T.U.C., which is trying to effect trade union representation at the B.B.C. I ask the Minister at least to agree that it is a reasonable interview which we are asking the Director-General to have with the people interested so that the matters I have raised can be properly discussed.

11.2 p.m.

The Assistant Postmaster-General (Mr. Hobson)

I want to say at the outset that I think my hon. Friend has spoiled what on the surface appeared to be a decent, fair case, by overstatement and generalisation. I took the trouble to take down verbatim precisely what he said in opening and I must say that I take the strongest possible objection to those remarks. They were the sort of remarks that one would expect at a Tory mass meeting, not in the House of Commons.

He said that the nationalised industries were "soulless monsters" and that their relations with their staffs were "not human." That is completely untrue, and no one knows it better than the hon. Member. Is he saying that the relations between the National Coal Board and the miners are of that character? Let him tell that to a mass meeting of miners, or go into the miners' lodges and say that, and then see how he will fare. Will he tell that to the power station men who work under the B.E.A.? Of course he will not. In fact, there is very satisfactory machinery for dealing with matters of discipline and promotion existing in the nationalised industries.

Then my hon. Friend referred to the "poor standards" of the nationalised services. Will he tell me that London Transport has a poor standard? Bless me, it is the finest transport system in the world and tribute is paid to it from the U.S.A. and from all over the world. Will he say that the B.B.C.'s services are not good? I submit that there are no broadcasting services which are superior to those of the B.B.C. I think it is most unfortunate that he should begin his case by stating it in a manner derogatory to the general policy of nationalisation which, after all, he claims to support.

Mr. Cooper

I think my hon. Friend will see when he reads the Official Report that I said that if this sort of case is not taken up and considered, there will be a tendency for this to take place.

Mr. Hobson

I wish that that clarification had come earlier: it was most unfortunate that it did not.

The position is that the Government and the Postmaster-General have no responsibility in this matter whatsoever. The question as to the responsibility of the Postmaster-General with regard to the B.B.C. was laid down very specifically in Broadcasting Policy (Cmd. 6852), which was debated at full length in the House and approved by all parties. What was said there—and here I quote from page 7, paragraph 16—was: …the Government's control over the Corporation is in the last resort absolute; they have, in peace-time, allowed the Corporation complete independence in the day-to-day management of its business. I am going to suggest that this is a case of day-to-day management. It is a question of promotion within the staff of the B.B.C. and an alleged injustice to a member of the staff. Therefore, there is no responsibility on the Postmaster-General. He has no power to intervene in a matter of this sort, and I do not think it would be proper for him to do so.

On the question of consultation, the White Paper is quite specific. It states, in paragraph 26: The Government consider that, in staff matters, the Corporation should retain the general independence which it now possesses… It further states: The Government consider, moreover, that there should be adequate machinery between the Board of Governors and the staff for the settlement by negotiation of terms and conditions of employment with provision for reference to arbitration in default of such settlement in such cases as may be agreed… In all fairness to the B.B.C. one must say that that policy has been carried out.

In this case which has been raised, I suggest that my hon Friend has queried the fact that there has not been sufficient consultation. That is the gravamen of his charge against the B.B.C. and its directorate. Mr. Baker has appealed twice, so that proves, beyond peradventure, that at least the appeal machinery exists, because it has been used. What is queried now, rightly or wrongly, is the outcome of that machinery.

The first appeal was to the Director-General on the fact that his post-war resettlement was not to the post of assistant engineer-in-charge but to senior control room engineer. That appeal was upheld, and Mr. Baker continued to be senior control room engineer. He appealed because the job involved shift work, and as an old shift worker myself I can sympathise with him. As a result he was given day duties as assistant to the engineer-in-charge, so that he was met in that particular case.

In 1948 he complained that he was passed over by a junior colleague for the post of deputy to the assistant engineer-in-charge. He complained, probably quite rightly, and he was told he had certain shortcomings. Here it is perfectly true to say, as has been stated by my hon. Friend, that Mr. Baker was not acquainted with his shortcomings, and to that extent the B.B.C.—and they admit it—did not carry out strictly the conditions of the Board of Governors and the Director-General. But an appeal was heard, and heard not by the staff representative but actually by two Governors appointed for the purpose. While they regretted that Mr. Baker was not informed of his shortcomings, nevertheless they found that there had been no injus- tice to Mr. Baker. It does seem to me that, as far as the appeal machinery is concerned, it has been carried out meticulously.

On the general question, I do not think there has been anyone more outspoken than I was in the House in the last Parliament with regard to the fact that the B.B.C. did not recognise trade unions. May I say with all due modesty that I was happy to see that the Beveridge Report took that view. There will be ample opportunity—and the Government have promised time—to discuss future relations of the Postmaster-General and the Government vis-à-vis the B.B.C., and I have no doubt that my hon. Friend and hon. Gentlemen opposite will be keen to express their views on what they consider to be the correct relationship. Already there has been a démarche by the B.B.C. to the Trades Union Congress to discuss these matters of trade union recognition, and no one will be more happy than I—as an old trade unionist—and many of my hon. Friends and hon. Members opposite that the B.B.C. are considering some way out of this impasse, which has caused strong feeling on both sides over a period of years.

I cannot help feeling that this is essentially a trade union matter. As an old trade unionist, I do not think I should like my grievances discussed in the House of Commons. It is not usually done that way. It is far better that it should be done with the appropriate trade union. If the man had been a member of A.S.S.E.T. and not a member of the Staff Association, and the Corporation had refused to deal with him, it would have been regrettable but correct, because it is their present policy; but in this case the machinery has been used, with the result I have indicated.

Reference has been made by my hon. Friend to the Director-General refusing to see a Member of Parliament. But was he refusing to see a Member of Parliament, or was he refusing to see my hon. Friend in his capacity as a trade union organiser? That is a fair question to put. If he was refusing to see my hon. Friend as a trade union organiser, in accordance with the present policy of the Corporation, he was correct. If he was refusing to see a Member of Parliament, that is a matter for the House and for the Governors. It is possible that it was because my hon. Friend was acting on behalf of the union, and the Director-General thought he was carrying out the policy of the Corporation, that he did not see my hon. Friend. If he was refusing see a Member of Parliament I should be very sorry.

Mr. Cooper

I should like to make it clear that he had refused to see me on a matter I put to him affecting a number of cases, including this one, and he refused because, in his own words, he thought no useful purpose would be served. It was this unilateral decision to which I objected.

Mr. Hobson

I still think it a trifle nebulous. My hon. Friend has succeeded in bringing this case before the House, and his views will receive the attention of my right hon. Friend, and I am sure the B.B.C. will take notice of what has been said. I know that dealing with anything about the B.B.C. in the House is a difficult matter. The powers which my right hon. Friend uses are technical powers: the cost of the licences, collecting the money, wave-lengths, hours of broadcasting, sites of stations, height of aerials. Problems affecting the staff or the programmes the House has rightly left to the discretion of the Governors and the Director-General.

It only remains for me to say that we shall have an opportunity to discuss this matter, and it would be undesirable—whatever views we may have—to proceed piecemeal to tackle the problem. I would far rather leave it as it is and let the full House deal with the relationship between the B.B.C. and the Government.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Fifteen Minutes past Eleven o'Clock.