HC Deb 29 July 1952 vol 504 cc1435-46

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

11.25 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Hurd (Newbury)

I wish to draw the attention of the House to the treatment which a constituent of mine, a Mr. John Chesterman, has received from the Ministry of Supply. The House has heard of Chesterman on several occasions since he was dismissed by the Ministry of Supply in December, 1947. This is, indeed, an extraordinary case of zeal in the public service leading to a man's downfall. Never has there been a breath of suspicion against the honesty, integrity or competence of Chesterman, with his record of 26 years' service in the Metropolitan Police, including a period of special service in this House, the award of the King's Medal for Gallantry and 6½ years' service in the Burghfield Ministry of Supply depot as a detective and patrolman.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham (Mr. Remnant) and I have many times, by Parliamentary Question, sought to probe the reasons why Chesterman was dismissed from his post at Burghfield. So far, we have had no satisfaction. On 6th December last I presented a Petition to this House signed by 2,100 neighbours and friends of Chesterman asking for a public inquiry to be held into the matters alleged to reflect on public administration at the Burghfield depot, and the circumstances in which Chesterman was dismissed. I hoped that this Petition, framed in moderate terms and so widely supported, would lead the Minister of Supply to decide that the public inquiry required an independent investigation. Unhappily, as the House knows, our public petition procedure leads nowhere beyond the green bag behind Mr. Speaker's Chair and the counting of the names on the petition by the Public Petitions Committee.

However, the Minister has now had further time to study the papers in this case and I hope that tonight he will be able to respond in two ways. Firstly, by making a statement that will clear Chesterman's name beyond question, so that he can find another suitable post where his ability and probity can be of value to the community. Secondly, I want the Minister to agree that there are good reasons for an independent inquiry, even at this late date, into the circumstances of Chesterman's dismissal so that if he has been wronged he can be suitably compensated.

I will put the facts briefly. After his exemplary 26 years' police service Chesterman was engaged at the Burgh-field depot to check pilfering and other forms of dishonesty and misconduct. Everyone agrees that the standard of honesty at Burghfield has been high, considering the many temptations which are bound to arise when there is valuable Government property lying around. For this high standard I think some credit can be given to Chesterman, having regard to the special duties on which he was engaged. It was, he tells me, his duty to investigate 150 cases of alleged larcenies in the factory and adjoining hostel. In many cases he worked closely with the local police. As my hon. and learned Friend the Attorney-General will know, and I am glad that he is in his place tonight, several cases were brought to the courts by the Director of Public Prosecutions. For this work Chesterman earned high praise.

A month after his dismissal, that is, in January, 1948, the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Minstry of Supply, the hon. Gentleman the Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones) wrote to me: It is recognised that Mr. Chesterman performed useful work and he was zealous and conscientious in the discharge of the special duties allotted to him at Burghfield…I am sorry that Mr. Chesterman had to leave our service, bearing in mind the good work which he has done for us. Why, then, did the Ministry of Supply get rid of him? The plain answer seems to be that Chesterman made himself a nuisance by doing his job too well. The Ministry first gave the reason for dismissal as redundancy, and then, when, in fact, further appointments were made, decided to say that Chesterman failed to obey his superior's orders and was guilty of indiscipline.

What is the truth of the matter? There are two outstanding points that the House should know. In the course of his work Chesterman received anonymous letters. I suppose that a great many policemen and C.I.D. men do. He received one on 30th October, 1947, at his private address, alleging the theft of Ministry of Supply property including two refrigerators, and mentioning a senior official employed at the Ministry's Henley Depot. He reported this to the Superintendent of the Burgh-field depot and to a local C.I.D. officer.

Here I should mention that Chesterman had, in March, 1945, been sworn in as a special constable to perform duties, at the Ministry of Supply Depot, Burghfield, and within 15 miles thereof. Accordingly, he was accustomed, and, indeed, bound by his oath, to work with the local police. In this case the Burgh-field management refused the request of the police that Chesterman should co-operate in investigating the matter. Indeed, on 4th December Chesterman was instructed to return his warrant card and received a new card. By deleting the words and within 15 miles thereof his sphere of action was restricted to Burghfield depot itself. He could no longer pursue Ministry inquiries outside, even though Burghfield property was involved.

The second fact to which I wish to draw the attention of the House is that Chesterman reported on 24th November to the fire patrol officer that a senior patrolman, after clocking in early on the previous Sunday morning, was away nearly all day until he clocked off in the evening. That was one of Chesterman's duties, to keep watch on the timing and attendance of the staff. Later that week Chesterman was instructed to work certain specified hours which excluded Sunday duty.

I have spoken of the alteration to Chesterman's special constable's warrant. At the same time as he was told to hand in his warrant, on 4th December, he was instructed that in future he should wear the uniform of a fire patrolman, and this Chesterman saw meant working under the same official whom he had a few days before reported for being absent from his duties. He declined to accept this public snub, and, indeed, degradation. He was then given a fortnight's notice by the Superintendent of the Depot. He was not allowed to put his case, although he asked for a hearing as a member of a trade union. I do not understand why his trade union did not pursue this matter more thoroughly.

Much more could be said on Chester-man's side of the case. The correspondence has been voluminous and the case has been put personally by my hon. Friend the Member for Wokingham and myself, at the Ministry. The impression I have is that the headquarters of the Ministry of Supply have never been at all sure of their ground in this case. Twice the Ministry have offered to see whether Chesterman can be reinstated in a responsible post, but nothing came of these offers. No one, I think, who has followed this case can be happy about the actions of the Ministry of Supply. Indeed—one further incident—not content with dismissing Chesterman, they tried to get him out of the way altogether by asking his landlords, the Mid-Wessex Water Supply Company, to alter the tenancy of his house adjoining the depot during 1949. That was not very good behaviour on the part of a Government Department.

I know this case well—in fact, too well. It will be in the public interest to have an independent assessment of the rights and wrongs of the case. Whatever the outcome of such an inquiry, it is bad for a Government Department to give the impression that it is above the law and need not answer for its actions. The Attorney-General must, I know, be concerned about this aspect of the case. Chester-man has suffered grievously in mental stress as well as in loss of income. He has a police pension, but his life savings of £1,250 have almost gone, and he has not had the benefit of unemployment insurance. He asks for an inquiry and is supported by neighbours and friends— 2,100 of them—who signed a petition to this House.

I am very anxious that justice should seem to be done and that we should not make Chesterman into another Inspector Syme. I therefore ask the Parliamentary Secretary, who, I know, has given close personal attention to this case, to tell the House that the request I make is granted for the sake of Chesterman and thousands of others who work at Ministry of Supply depots up and down the country and who are jealous that the good name of the branch of the public service in which they are employed should be upheld.

11.37 p.m.

Mr. Jack Jones (Rotherham)

I intervene in this debate very briefly to tell the House what I myself did in regard to this particular case when I was privileged to be a junior Minister at the Ministry of Supply. I wish to assure the House and the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd), who has raised this matter in a courteous way and who informed me of his intention to speak tonight, that everything was done that was right and proper in the interest of Chesterman himself.

There was I, a new junior Minister, straight from the orbit of trade union activity, who had spent 20 years of my life defending the rights of workmen. If an inquiry is to be held that is a matter for the Ministry to decide, but the officials of the Ministry would tell the hon. Member how zealous I was about cases of this sort being carefully sifted and properly examined before any decision was reached.

I can assure the hon. Member and the House that I went into this case very carefully indeed, and was very anxious to see that justice was done. Here was the case of a person to whom the ordinary routine and discipline of the Ministry of Supply would have been applied in the ordinary way, who took exception to an instruction to carry out proper duties, and refused to carry them out. We had no alternative but to discharge him.

I would put on record the valuable services of this man, but I was astonished to find that one whose duty it was to see that discipline was maintained himself failed to maintain that discipline. It was the refusal to carry out himself what he himself insisted upon being carried out by others that caused disciplinary action to be taken.

11.40 p.m.

Mr. Peter Remnant (Wokingham)

I am glad that the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones) has spoken and has raised the question of indiscipline, because, though that may be his view, I am able to discover no details of an alleged act of indiscipline. None has yet been made available to me or is known to Mr. Chesterman, unless it be the suggestion that Mr. Chesterman was asked or instructed to serve under an official whom he had reported. If that should be the instance of indiscipline alleged, then I consider it an extremely dangerous one to make and one which is quite unjustified.

Mr. Jack Jones

If my memory serves me right, one of the acts of indiscipline was that Mr. Chesterman bluntly refused to be measured for the uniform which he was expected to wear in the carrying out of his duties.

Mr. Remnant

Would the hon. Gentleman be prepared to go into a court and support that allegation, and back it as a reason for the dismissal of a man whose probity is otherwise proved? If so, though he is entitled to his opinion, his sense of justice differs very much from mine.

Before the Minister replies, I want to go a little further into the point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) about the wording and the handling of the warrant card. I do so only because I believe that particular instance is typical of many which justify Mr. Chesterman in believing that he has suffered a grave injustice.

My hon. Friend has given the date on which the warrant card was issued and on which Mr. Chesterman was sworn in before the justices. That warrant card includes the words: and within 15 miles of the depot. Those words had to be included on the card because they are part of the Special Constables Act, 1923, under which Mr. Chesterman was sworn in.

I am suggesting that the Superintendent of the Burghfield depot was acting ultra vires in taking it upon himself to alter the wording of the warrant card which, although issued by the Superintendent, had been made out as it should have keen in accordance with the instructions contained in the Special Constables Act.

In answer to a Question asked by me in the House on 7th July, 1950, the then Minister of Supply gave the reason for the inclusion of those words as being that they were due to the closing of a neighbouring depot and the desire that Chesterman's duties should be confined to the Burghfield depot, whereas, in fact, the neighbouring depot had been closed some four months previously and the covering letter which accompanied the issue of the new warrant card to Mr. Chesterman included no such reason at all. It said: I am ensuring that there can be no claim that a warrant card issued over my signature"— that is, the Superintendent's signature— entitles him to act in any Ministry of Supply matter within 15 miles. The new warrant card, signed by me, confirms only that he is empowered to act as a special constable in connection with Ministry of Supply matters in the depot whatever powers may have been conferred on him by the police. There is no question in that of his working at a neighbouring depot.

I would remind the House that on receiving that letter Mr. Chesterman contacted the detective-sergeant who is used to making inquiries at Burghfield, as he was bound to do since the police pension which had been granted to him was contingent on his giving to the regular constabulary all the information and help that he could give. He was bound to do it, and I suggest that the officials at this Ministry depot, in declining to give him permission to help on constabulary work were stopping him, quite plainly, from doing his duty.

I want to give the Parliamentary Secretary adequate time to reply, but I hope that, in the few minutes he has left he will not say that there is insufficient time for him to comment. I assume that he, at long last, is convinced that justice must not only be done, but must seem to be done, and must be seen to be done; that he must clear Mr. Chesterman's name of allegations made against him. I hope he will agree that there is a prima facie case for inquiry which will lead, also, to the clearing of the Ministry from the accusation that it has acted as judge and jury in refusing to accede to Mr. Chesterman's request.

11.46 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. A. R. W. Low)

My hon. Friend the Member for Woking-ham (Mr. Remnant) has just said that he hopes I shall have sufficient time to reply, but it so happens that every time I answer one of these debates I am left with less than 10 minutes for an answer which really requires at least a quarter of an hour. But I shall do my best to answer the points that have been put.

As has been said, this is a quite extraordinary case of zeal in the public service; there is no quarrel about that, but I must quarrel with my hon. Friend when he says that it was that zeal which led to Mr. Chesterman's downfall. I must at once give an assurance that that is quite wrong.

Before dealing with the facts I would, despite some of the rather harsh things which have been said tonight, pay a tribute to my hon. Friends for the equally remarkable zeal that they have shown for the last five years in pursuing this case. They have pursued successive Ministers and successive Parliamentary Secretaries, and it has taken them nearly five years before they have reached the Floor of this House; and I am here tonight to try to explain what happened nearly five years ago. I will, therefore, briefly summarise the facts, after adding that my hon. Friends have ensured that the Ministry should give the fullest consideration to the complaints and allegations made by Mr. Chesterman.

Mr. Chesterman was appointed in the Ministry of Supply with the grade and pay of a patrolman to the Patrol Unit, which is maintained at each of the large storage depots of the Ministry, primarily to cover security. After his appointment, this Patrol Unit was merged with the Fire Brigade, and the members of it became known as fire patrolmen. But although Mr. Chesterman had been appointed as a patrolman, he was given the special task of watching in plain clothes for incidents of pilferage, and so on. This was an unusual procedure in a Ministry depot. There is no doubt that he was both zealous and conscientious. He brought to the notice of the Superintendent certain irregularities, which were dealt with.

Late in 1947, the Director of Storage at the Ministry headquarters in London decided that Mr. Chesterman should undertake the normal duties of a fire patrolman and that he should wear the appropriate uniform. In other words, his plain clothes duties were to cease, and the special task given to him earlier no longer applied. This decision was taken because the activities at the depot and the number of people having access to the depot had decreased considerably.

The position was fully explained to Mr. Chesterman and he was offered employment in the normal Fire Patrol Force. He was not prepared to accept this. He would not consent to wear uniform. In those circumstances, the Superintendent of the depot gave him a fortnight's notice on termination of employment, nominally because he was redundant. A full discussion took place with the officials of his trade union, who made representations on his behalf.

The house, about which I was asked, belongs to the Ministry of Supply and the Water Board collect the rent. Perhaps that will clear up one point made in this debate.

My hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Mr. Hurd) asked me to do two things. First, to make a statement that will clear Mr. Chesterman's name beyond question; and second, to agree that there are good reasons for an independent inquiry, even at this late date. I will do the first, but for the reasons that I shall give I cannot do the second.

My hon. Friends raised the personal side of the case and the public interest side of the case and I will try to answer them under those two heads. First, on the personal side, I cannot see that any question of wrongful dismissal arises. Mr. Chesterman was a temporary employee of the Ministry. In the circumstances which I have outlined the Superintendent decided to terminate his employment and gave him two weeks' notice. One month after his dismissal the then Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply wrote to my hon. Friend, and the words my hon. Friend has quoted are surely signs that the Ministry did not wish to do anything to interfere with Mr. Chesterman's prospects of further employment.

At no time since Mr. Chesterman left the Ministry of Supply service have the Ministry of Supply been asked for a reference. If they had they would have given one very much in the terms of the letter written by the hon. Member for Rotherham (Mr. Jack Jones), the former Parliamentary Secretary. I should like to confirm tonight what he said then. Mr. Chesterman left the Ministry of Supply service without a stain on his character. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury, in the early part of his speech, said as much. It seems to me that he really left because he was unwilling to accept conditions of service laid down for him. I repeat that we have never refused a reference. We have never given one, because we have never been asked for one.

I believe that what Mr. Chesterman really wants is to be re-instated at Burgh-field. That we cannot arrange. Mr. Chesterman, during these last five years, has made a number of allegations against the Superintendent at Burghfield and has created such an atmosphere between himself and the staff there that we could not contemplate re-employing him there. The same does not apply to other Ministry of Supply establishments, though I must be fair, and say that it is only very rarely that vacancies of a type suitable to Mr. Chesterman will arise. But if Mr. Chesterman applies for employment in one of these establishments, other than Burghfield, we will certainly consider him along with others. There will be no special preference and there will certainly be no discrimination against him.

I now turn to the public interest side of this matter. Broadly speaking, there are two separate issues—the warrant issue and the issue about the various reports made by Mr. Chesterman. The card issued is only a so-called warrant. It is not a proper warrant with any legal validity at all. It is an identity card designed and drawn up by the Superintendent of the depot. Mr. Chesterman had been appointed a special constable to exercise the duties of special constable at the Burghfield depot. When he was sworn in before two justices, under Section 3 of the Act of 1923, the oath was as stated by my hon. Friend.

Nothing that the Superintendent did affected this oath. It is important to remember that this is not a general appointment of special constable, but a limited one. Mr. Chesterman remained in the employ of the Department and under the orders, of course, of the Superintendent of the depot, who at once issued him with a so-called warrant card identifying him; and this card originally referred to duty at Burghfield depot only. I think that the circumstances in which it was altered have been explained. Those circumstances related to the opening of the depot at Theale, in the sense that it was brought under the administration of Burghfield, and the closing down of the Theale depot. There is no mystery or "hanky panky" about it. It was absolutely clear and was all explained to Mr. Chesterman.

Finally, I can assure the House that all the reports made by Mr. Chesterman have been examined and that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury knows, some of these matters were looked into by an experienced Chief Inspector of the Metropolitan Police, C.I.D., in 1950. In those circumstances, I ask the House to accept from me that these things have been examined fully both by myself and others.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'Clock, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Five Minutes to Twelve o'Clock.