HC Deb 03 February 1961 vol 633 cc1421-32

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the House do now adjourn. —[Mr. Bryan.]

4.1 p.m.

Sir Cyril Black (Wimbledon)

I am glad to have the opportunity this afternoon of raising the case of my constituent, Dr. Denys Tucker, who was dismissed from his position in the Natural History Museum on 31st July last. There has been much reference to this unhappy case, both in the national Press and in educational and scientific journals, and grave apprehensions have been aroused as to whether a grave injustice has been done to a distinguished scientist.

Dr. Tucker served in the Museum for about 11½ years. He was by about 10 years the youngest doctor of science in the Museum. That qualification, obtained at the age of 37, was obtained solely on the basis of the work that he did in the Museum. There is, I believe, no reflection in the circumstances of his dismissal on his professional competency. His work has, in fact, been spoken of in the most glowing terms by other scientists of international repute. His immediate superior in the Museum has said of him, Most people who know him would agree that in intelligence he is to be classed with a few of our most brilliant colleagues. The story really begins on 1st May, 1960, when a new Director of the Natural History Museum, Dr. Morrison-Scott, entered upon his duties. On 18th May, that is only eighteen days later, Dr. Tucker was informed by Dr. Morrison-Scott that he was recommending to the Trustees that his employment be terminated. It should be noted that a decision to recommend dismissal was taken first and only afterwards was Dr. Tucker given the opportunity to state his case. Sentence first—hear the case afterwards. It is perhaps not irrelevant to mention that I understand that Dr. Morrison-Scott had been previously involved. in other capacities, in at least two other notorious cases of dismissal, both of which attracted considerable adverse publicity and raised grave issues as to their justice.

Mr. Frederick Gough (Horsham)

I am very grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way, 'because I realise that he has very little time at his disposal. What he has said is perfectly true. Dr. Morrison-Scott now happens to be a constituent of mine, so I should be rather careful in what I say, but some four or five years ago in the Science Museum practically the same situation took place. Dr. Morrison-Scott had just come to take charge and after two or three months he got rid of the senior keeper, another constituent of mine, Mr. Hartley, in circumstances which I took up at that time with the Minister of Education without success. I feel that that is what one might call a coincidence which ought to be brought to the notice of the House.

Sir C. Black

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. As I said, Dr. Morrison-Scott informed Dr. Tucker on lath May that he was recommending his dismissal. He gave Dr. Tucker a list of charges dating back to 1949. Obviously these charges could not be within the knowledge of the new Director who had been in office for only eighteen days, and they were, presumably, founded upon hearsay and hearsay alone. How unconvincing these charges are on examination.

Dr. Tucker, when he began his service at the Natural History Museum held a temporary appointment in order to enable his superiors to judge whether he was competent for the work entrusted to him, and only subsequently was he put on the permanent staff. Later, he was on two occasions promoted for the excellence of his work, the more recent promotion being in 1957.

It is interesting to note that of the 18 charges made against Dr. Tucker 11 were prior to his promotion in 1957 and the other seven occurred more than a year prior to his dismissal on 31st July last. Moreover, according to Civil Service procedure, annual reports were, no doubt, given by his superior on Dr. Tucker's work during the whole period of his service at the museum, and Dr. Tucker is surely entitled to infer that there was nothing adverse in any of these annual reports because, if there was, Dr. Tucker was, of course, entitled to be informed.

We have, therefore, the case of a man vino, appointed first temporarily and then permanently, has served for 11½ years, with two promotions and no adverse comments in any of his annual reports, and is recommended for summary dismissal by a Director who has held his office in the museum for exactly eighteen days.

The Director said that he recommended this course because of Dr. Tucker's alleged long, continued, vexatious or insubordinate or generally offensive conduct towards the Director or Keeper or Deputy-Keeper or to others. I reach my first submission, therefore, that no circumstances have been disclosed or can be disclosed that could possibly justify the drastic penalty of dismissal being imposed upon Dr. Tucker.

I want to say a little now about the incorrect disciplinary procedure leading up to this dismissal. As the House will know, there is a code agreed between the Treasury and the Civil Service unions as to the steps to be taken if the dismissal of a civil servant is in contemplation. In the limited time available to me this afternoon, it is not possible to deal with the matter at length, but at least three of the important provisions of the disciplinary procedure were, I submit, not properly followed. The procedure requires inter alia, that

  1. "(a) the officer should be given in advance a written statement defining the charge and setting out particulars of the facts;
  2. (b) the officer should be required to submit within a reasonable time a written reply to the charge made against him, but in cases where there is a conflict of evidence between the charge and the officer's written reply, the officer may represent his case orally;
  3. (c) the officer in such case will have the right to represent his case orally before a suitable officer of his Department other than his immediate superior, and normally at least two grades above his own."
Dr. Tucker has been represented in this matter by the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, of which he is a member. The General Secretary of the Institution has contended all along that the proper procedure has not been followed. He wrote at length to the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, and subsequently, to the present Chancellor of the Exchequer, giving in detail the particulars in which he alleged the proper procedure had not been observed and inviting detailed comments on his observations. In each ease he received a reply to the effect that the Chancellor of the Exchequer was satisfied that the proper procedure had been followed, but all efforts to induce the two Chancellors of the Exchequer to comment on the detailed complaints made regarding the procedure followed have literally run up against a brick wall.

My second submission, therefore, is that, even if circumstances sufficiently grave to justify Dr. Tucker's dismissal exist, the methods used did not conform with correct procedure, were unsatisfactory and a denial of natural justice. If it be the case, which I do not for one moment accept, that justice has been done, my submission is that justice does not appear to have been done.

My third and final point relates to the treatment of Dr. Tucker since his dismissal. At the same time as Dr. Tucker was informed of the decision of the Trustees that he had been dismissed, he was informed by the Director that he would not be admitted to the Museum save to those parts of it which are open to the general public. I suggest that this amounts to persecution. It means that Dr. Tucker is barred from the libraries and collections of the Museum, the only large libraries and collections of their kind in the United Kingdom.

It is, I believe, a fact that any reputable scientist always has been and always will on application be afforded facilities to use the libraries and collections, and the treatment of Dr. Tucker in this respect is, I am advised, entirely unprecedented. For a scientist pursuing the type of study in which Dr. Tucker specialises, this exclusion is virtually professional death. To deny the facilities of the libraries and collections to Dr. Tucker, a scientist against whom no accusations of improper conduct or scientific incompetence have been made, seems to be nothing more nor less than vindictiveness.

What I ask from the Government today is as follows. First, the reinstatement of Dr. Tucker, or at least an independent inquiry into his dismissal. I understand that the position at the Museum which Dr. Tucker so brilliantly filled is still vacant and that his immediate chief is on the point of retirement. There will therefore be two senior vacancies in the department. Is it too much to ask that Dr. Tucker should be reinstated and a new start made by all concerned? If I have failed to satisfy my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary that this step ought to be taken now, I press on him with confidence the importance of ordering an inquiry into the circumstances of the case. This is the least that justice demands, and public concern about this matter will not be allayed until this step has been taken.

Secondly, the Financial Secretary ought to give some assurance that the correct procedure in disciplinary cases will, on all future occasions, be strictly observed. Good relations, whether in scientific institutions or in industry, depend upon the observance of proper codes in these matters. When the proper procedure is not followed trouble is bound to result.

Thirdly, the Financial Secretary ought to give an assurance there and now that he will without delay use his best offices to secure access for Dr. Tucker to the libraries and collections of the Natural History Museum so that he may be able to resume his scientific studies and research.

If Dr. Tucker has failed in any respect, it has not been in his service to, or his zeal for, the Museum. If Dr. Tucker had been an amiable mediocrity, there is every probability that he would have pursued a peaceful existence at the Museum until he reached a well-earned retirement. Because he was a man of brilliance, full of enthusiasm and zeal and anxious at all times to further the work and enlarge the usefulness of the Museum, he was, unhappily, brought into conflict with certain colleagues and may not, I readily admit, always have been as wise as he might have been in his contacts with them. He has, however, done nothing of which he has occasion to be ashamed. He has done nothing to justify dismissal and I come to this House, as the last and the final upholder of the rights of the citizen, with the plea that justice should now be done.

4.16 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Sir Edward Boyle)

It is perfectly right that we should spend a Friday afternoon Adjournment debate considering a personal matter of this kind. I apologise at the start of my speech for the fact that my voice is so bad. In any event, this is clearly a matter which comes within the purview of Treasury Ministers, because Treasury Ministers are the spokesmen in the House of Commons of the British Museum Trustees, to whom Parliament has given the responsibility of hiring and firing the staff of the British Museum.

Secondly, the Treasury has a general responsibility for policy and procedures affecting the conditions of service and, indeed, the whole disciplinary code of public servants. I make no complaint, therefore, that my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) should have raised this matter of Dr. Tucker in this afternoon's debate. I must, however, say at the start of my remarks that I cannot agree with what my hon. Friend said at the beginning of his speech when he said that this story starts on 1st May, 1960, when Dr. Morrison-Scott took up his present office.

During the last few days, I have done my best to read all the papers and relevant documents relating to this case. It is always a difficult matter to make up one's mind on the basis of documents; but, having read them all, I am bound to say, if I may put it this way, that my hon. Friend was not stating the whole truth when he described Dr. Tucker as a man of enthusiasm and zeal. One is bound to admit on the evidence of the documents that he had certain less admirable qualities, on which I do not desire to dwell but which certainly must be taken into account when considering the whole picture.

Secondly, the point which I wish chiefly to make is that before Dr. Tucker was dismissed, he had repeated warnings with regard to his conduct. The last straw was what I can only describe as a thoroughly offensive memorandum of 13th April, 1960, written some weeks before Dr. Morrison-Scott took over and written within a few months of the former Director's warning dated 10th November, 1959.

Let me make it clear right at the start that this afternoon I intend to uphold the Trustees' decision in this case. One thing of which I have absolutely no doubt is that their decision was not in any way taken hastily or without due consideration. This was a matter which had been dragging on for a very long time. Dr. Tucker had received repeated warnings with regard to his conduct and if the decision was the wrong one, which I do not believe it was, it certainly was not a decision taken in haste.

Sir C. Black

Will my hon. Friend say something about the annual reports? Were there any adverse comments in them? If so, why was not Dr. Tucker told?

Sir E. Boyle

I looked into that point while my hon. Friend was speaking, and I am told that it is not the custom to submit annual reports invariably on a man in the sort of position in which Dr. Tucker was. Just exactly how far Dr. Tucker could have been ranked as a civil servant is a rather complicated matter, which I do not propose to pursue this afternoon, but in fact I understand these annual reports did not exist. I think my hon. Friend is well aware of this, that Dr. Tucker was left in no doubt at all as to how he was regarded by his superiors at the Museum, and I have read the absolutely plain and explicit warning which he received in November, 1959.

My hon. Friend next raised the question whether the procedure laid down in the Civil Service Code was adhered to in this case. The Treasury have looked at this very carefully because, after all, we are the Department responsible for the public service. I am quite satisfied myself that the procedure followed was perfectly proper in the circumstances, but that is a matter about which, if I may, I am perfectly prepared to correspond with my hon. Friend in further detail, because, as he says, it is inherently important that justice should be seen to be done. However, so far as I have responsibility in this, I am satisfied that the proper procedure was followed.

The third point he raised was, I think, the most important point really, and that was the question of what happened to Dr. Tucker after his dismissal. As my hon. Friend has said, Dr. Tucker was denied access to the libraries and study sections and those parts of the Natural History Museum not open to the general public. May I say that this was a matter which, when I was preparing for this debate, caused me at first a considerable amount of concern, because I think all of us in this House are very uneasy about a professional man, above all, perhaps, a professional man of scientific eminence and brilliance, being denied access to the tools of his trade, as it were, and I quite understand the concern which my hon. Friend feels on this point.

Let me put the situation this way. There is first of all in the Natural History Museum a general library which contains what one may call the works of general applicability to natural history in all its various branches, zoology, entomology, palaeontology, botony, mineralogy. I do not think that Dr. Tucker is going in any way to suffer from being denied access to the general library because, I am told, the works in the general library are equally available in the science library which is a public library and in the library of the Zoological Society to which he belongs. I think he also belongs to the Linnean Society. I do not think, therefore, he will suffer any hardship on that score. Then there are the departmental library in which works dealing more specifically with those five subjects are kept, and finally the specialised sectional libraries, which contain works dealing only with sectional subjects.

When he appeals to work in the library, what I think he is really wanting to do is to work in the fish section, because he is an ichthyologist. In other words, he wants to work in the study section on fish, that being housed in the same place and which is precisely the place from which he was dismissed. Therefore, if one were to give Dr. Tucker continued access to that part of the library in which he wants to work we should in fact readmit him to work amongst his former colleagues. I believe, as I say, that this decision taken by the Trustees was a justified one, and about one thing I have no doubt at all: that is that it is no good dismissing a man for the reasons for which Dr. Tucker was dismissed and then allowing him to go on working among his former colleagues, seeing as how it was the circumstances of working among his former colleagues which caused the trouble in the first place. I believe myself that to dismiss a man and then to readmit him to work among his former colleagues is not a decision which would make administrative sense at all.

Mr. F. Gough

Surely, this is just denying ordinary, reasonable liberty to a person? I gather that if Dr. Tucker is denied this access he has got to go to the United States of America to get the sort of information he wants. Surely, this is denying reasonable liberty to a person.

Sir E. Boyle

I do not think so, for this reason. I would agree that when I first studied this matter I felt uneasy on this point, and I can quite understand my hon. Friend's concern about it. If this were a question of working in what we ordinarily think of as a library, it would be another matter, but here Dr. Tucker would be working in the specialist section of the library and he would also be working amid the study collection of fishes which is his own special subject. Therefore, he would be working in a very specialised part of the library among his former colleagues, and, even though he would not be a member of the staff, exactly the same difficulties as arose before would, I believe, happen again. After all, admission to the libraries and the study collections of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum is a privilege which may quite properly be granted or withheld at the discretion of the Director.

Sir C. Black

I think that 1 follow my hon. Friend's argument, but why bar a man in anticipation of difficulty arising? Surely the thing to do would be to give him a trial and if he gives any trouble then to banish him.

Sir E. Boyle

I have tried to study the documents in this case as carefully as I can. Incidentally, while I was at the Ministry of Education, I had some knowledge of and tried to read the documents in that other case that has been mentioned. After what happened in past years, and in view of the documents that I have read, I can understand the unwillingness of the Director to grant Dr. Tucker the privilege of admission to the library and the study collection.

Mr. Gough

I apologise for intervening again, but my hon. Friend the Financial Secretary has mentioned that he has some recollection of the case of Mr. Hartley. I pressed him at the time very hard and I would say that Mr. Hartley was completely denied opportunities of making any sort of appeal. Whatever judgment my hon. Friend has made in this case, and whatever freedom he denies to Dr. Tucker, may I ask whether he would be good enough to speak to his right hon. Friend the Minister of Education and reopen the case of Mr. Hartley? It is a little more than a coincidence that here we have in two cases Dr. Morrison-Scott becoming Director of one museum and then another and, in the one case within a matter of days and in the other within a matter of weeks, a senior colleague is dismissed. Fishes have been mentioned today, and I think that there is something fishy about it and that we should reopen it.

Sir E. Boyle

I am satisfied that whoever had been Director of the National History Museum in May, 1960, would have recommended the Trustees to take the same course. The right hon. Member for South Shields (Mr. Ede) has personal knowledge and experience of this case. But, of course, I will convey to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education and my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer what both of my hon. Friends have said this afternoon.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon suggested that there should be some inquiry into this matter. I think that surely it would be felt that some sort of prima facie evidence of impropriety ought to be introduced before an inquiry is set on foot to ascertain whether the Trustees of the British Museum have conducted themselves irresponsibly and wrongly in a matter concerning a man's livelihood.

I do not want to make too much of this, but the Trustees include not only one of the oldest and most distinguished Members of the House in the right hon. Member for South Shields, but also the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Lord Chancellor and you, Mr. Speaker. I am not satisfied that there is a case for an inquiry, and, from all I have been able to see in this whole matter, the Trustees have handled this case with great care and circumspection. I do not think that they could have come to any decision other than the one they came to, or that on administrative grounds it would have been practicable to give Dr. Tucker the privilege of admission to the libraries and the study collections.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at half-past Four o'clock.