HC Deb 15 March 1956 vol 550 cc662-5

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £16,884,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of scientific services, including a grant in aid to the National Institute of Oceanography, and a subscription to the International Hydro-graphic Bureau, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1957.

Mr. R. Bell

This Vote includes, I see, the Admiralty Compass Observatory, in my constituency, and I want to raise with the Parliamentary Secretary, or perhaps more specifically with the Civil Lord, a matter which has been raised with him on many previous occasions and with which he will be familiar, but which is one of considerable importance and is becoming, I venture to say, one of some urgency, and that is the conditions of employment, and more especially of remuneration, of the civilian staff at the Observatory. It is, I suppose, the 372 mechanics referred to on page 78. I see that the number is estimated to fall from 372 in the year 1955–56 to 338 in the year 1956–57.

A great many of those men fall into the category of dilutees. That is to say, they entered Admiralty employment under the relaxation agreements of 1939 or 1940 and they are still governed by those agreements. Their conditions of pay are still as set out in those agreements. Many other of their conditions of service, such as those relating to pensions, retirement, security of employment and, above all, priority of dismissal are all regulated by the fact that they are dilutees.

In the past, this has not been considered a very urgent matter, although it has been recognised on all sides as anomalous. It has been possible to say that it does not matter very much as the number employed in these technical and engineering services has been constantly growing. Therefore, the question of redundancy has been purely academic and it has been hoped that before it ever became actual the matter would have been amicably settled by agreement between the Admiralty and the trade unions concerned. Undoubtedly progress has been made between the Admiralty and the trade unions concerned, but I think I am correct in saying that progress has not gone so far as it has between the Air Ministry and trade unions concerned in relation to dilutees employed by that Ministry. In some degree the status and entitlement of the dilutees employed in the Admiralty service is lower than that of those in the Air Ministry service.

This Vote and information I have had given to me lead me to believe that that situation is passing and that the number employed as mechanics is beginning to go down. Whether that is part of the national economies which have to be made in some parts of the defence services or whether it is due to regrouping of effort in these scientific services, I do not know. The fact remains that the number is beginning to decline and, therefore, the question of redundancy is becoming urgent.

This problem, which has been ticking along quietly enough for the last 10 years, is now ceasing to be one which we can allow to continue permanently unsolved. It is a very difficult problem; everyone recognises that. The trade unions, as a matter of principle, have to retain certain standards and certain requirements. They naturally say that the special conditions of wartime should not be prayed against them in peacetime.

9.15 p.m.

Against that, we have to remember that these technicians and mehanics represent a once-and-for-all operation. We earnestly hope that there will never be another war. Some of them have been in this status of dilutees now for fifteen years and, broadly speaking, it is impossible for them by any means ever to get out of this category. They are dilutees for ever, they are deferred men for ever, and for however long they stay in the Admiralty Compass Observatory, even if for twenty or twenty-five years, when staff has to be cut they must be the first to go, and the youngest and newest entrants, who have been there for perhaps only a year, must stay in preference to them. That is not justice when it is carried on for that length of time and to that extent.

We all want to see expenditure on defence eventually reduced. We hope that the state of the world will one day permit very much greater economies in our defence services. Before that happens this problem must be solved, otherwise the Admiralty will be left with some very difficult human problems on its hands, and I do not know how it will solve them without getting into serious trouble with the trade union. I ask my hon. Friend the Civil Lord, who has had this worrying problem on his hands for a long time, if tonight he can give any hopeful news about it and to undertake to regard it as urgent and to try to find an agreed solution very quickly.

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. Simon Wingfield Digby)

Perhaps I may make a brief reply to one or two of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Buckinghamshire, South (Mr. R. Bell). I am aware of his interest in this difficult problem of dilutees. I cannot at the moment give a full answer concerning the amount of work at the establishment he mentioned, but I believe that there has been a slight falling off in some of the work that it undertakes for another Department.

The general question of dilutees is a difficult problem. We employ a number of dilutees in the Admiralty, not only under this Vote but under several other Votes. It has, therefore, been a matter to which we have devoted a good deal of attention.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, a number of dilutees have been working at our establishment for a long time. The fact remains, however, that they did not serve an apprenticeship, and, although they may be thoroughly efficient at the job they do, some of them would not be able to turn their hands to the variety of work that a full craftsman would be able to do.

I have had conversations with some of the unions on the pay and status of dilutees. We have agreed with them to raise considerably the range of merit pay to which the dilutees are entitled, although they are not entitled to the full range of merit pay to which they would be were they fully qualified craftsmen. We have, in fact, recently reached agreement with one of the unions—it is not the only one—with a view to upgrading all those dilutees who are thoroughly efficient to the full status of craftsman, which will solve their particular difficulty. But we have not had the same success with every union and I suspect that the union which my hon. Friend has in mind is one with which we have not been able to reach agreement on the upgrading of dilutees. I can, however, assure my hon. Friend that we shall continue to give careful thought to the problem and will have further talks with the unions concerned as necessary.

Mr. Bell

Has any progress been made on the vital aspect of their deferred status in relation to redundancy: that is to say, they must be the first to go when staff is reduced?

Mr. Digby

As long as they remain dilutees and are not upgraded to full craftsman status, I am afraid that that problem must remain.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £16,884,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of scientific services, including a grant in aid to the National Institute of Oceanography, and a subscription to the International Hydrographic Bureau, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1957.