HC Deb 17 March 1961 vol 636 cc2012-22

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

4.1 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Gough (Horsham)

My object in bringing this matter to the notice of the House is twofold. First, it directly affects two of my constituents, both of whom were at the appropriate time civil servants. One of them is still active, whilst the other is retired. Secondly, the circumstances which I will elaborate seem to show some very grave defects in the system called Estacode which in itself is, or should be, vital for the security and well being of individual civil servants.

The facts are briefly these. My constituent, Mr. Hartley, joined the Civil Service in or about 1919 and towards the latter part of his career was employed for many years in the Science Museum. My story opens in January, 1956, when Mr. Hartley was the Senior Keeper, at a time when the then Director died after suffering a long and serious illness.

It is freely admitted that Mr. Hartley and the Director had their differences of opinion, but Mr. Hartley was very often the spokesman for the other Keepers junior to himself. However, at that moment of time, mainly on the death of the Director, it is an undisputed fact that Mr. Hartley was appointed Acting Director, which appointment he retained until the appointment of a new Director in May, 1956. In other words, for at least five months Mr. Hartley was given these responsibilities, and no question was raised as to his qualifications, or lack thereof, to undertake this task.

A month after he took on the acting directorship—that is to say, in February, 1956—he attained the age of 60. I have here in my possession a photostat copy of a letter dated 22nd January, 1955, signed by the then Director and Establishment Officer of the Science Museum, drawing Mr. Hartley's attention to the Museum Order No. 463 under which officers who are fit and efficient—I repeat the word "efficient"—are no longer required to retire on reaching the age of 60. The letter goes on to say this: Accordingly, I am writing to offer you continued service in your present grade for a period of four years after you reach the age of 60 on 16th February, 1956. You could of course retire at your own wish at any time during that period. Similarly the Department could call upon you to retire before your 64th birthday if they wished to do so for reasons at present unforeseen. I repeat the phrase "for reasons at present unforeseen".

It is fair assumption, therefore, that on 22nd January, 1955, there were no unforeseen reasons why Mr. Hartley should be called upon to relinquish the offer made to him under Estacode and elaborated in the letter from which I have just quoted. To underline the obvious fact that there were no previous unforeseen circumstances, it should he noted that in 1952, four years prior to the receipt of this letter. Mr. Hartley was made a Companion of the Order of the British Empire, which is a high honour in the Civil Service, or indeed anywhere, and which I believe I am right in saying had never before been awarded to a Keeper in the Science Museum.

I now come to October. 1956—eight or nine months after the extension of Mr. Hartley's service under Estacode and only four or five months after the appointment of the new Director who, I must say, is also one of my constituents, and who has been mentioned in a previous debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon (Sir C. Black) in another but coincidental case. That debate can be found at column 1421 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for 3rd February.

The new Director recommended, without warning and at only two weeks' notice, that Mr. Hartley should be reverted to junior rank. Upon appealing to the then Permanent Secretary, Mr. Hartley was informed that it had been decided to leave him in post but to retire him on his 61st birthday; that is to say, on 16th February, 1957.

Although Mr. Hartley pressed for reasons for this most serious decision, no reasons and no explanations were forthcoming. He was not even given an opportunity to state his case, nor has any such facility been afforded to him subsequently. Thus, within eight or nine months of his having been established in Estacode for a further period of service for four years, Mr. Hartley not only suffered abrupt repudiation of the offer but also a considerable loss of income for the three years' balance of service—and, of course, a substantial loss of pension for the rest of his life.

What was worse was the shortness of the notice and the general secrecy surrounding the reasons. These, my con stituent tells me, were extremely damaging to his reputation, especially as it has been subsequently maintained that there were no charges either of incompetence or misbehaviour. I should like to quote an extract from a letter written by Mr. Hartley to the Permanent Secretary on 18th December, 1957, which I have here.

The extract reads: It is a strange world in which someone who had served his Department many years and been invited to serve a further four years could be given notice, virtually without warning, of his immediate demotion, be denied the opportunity for effective appeal, dismissed altogether because he raised objections, and then be told that there are no charges and 'not necessarily' any implication of misbehaviour. I must draw the attention of the House to another paragraph in the same letter in which Mr. Hartley made accusations against his chief, stating what the Director said to a colleague who happened to be a close friend of Mr. Hartley: I have got the guns out and I am really gunning for folks now. If anyone should get in the way of stray bullets it will be his own fault. It will be advisable to keep inside the swing doors and off the streets, otherwise he might get hurt. I am astounded that no action was taken over that accusation. Mr. Hartley was not asked to withdraw it, nor was he questioned about it. In these circumstances, one can only come to the reluctant conclusion that the conversation he quoted was accurate. If so, and if, as I have pointed out, Mr. Hartley, within a few months of having his service extended, was drastically reduced in rank and permanently dismissed, there must be something radically wrong with the whole working of Estacode.

I have tried to keep this history as short as possible, but I must add that Mr. Hartley continued to press for an inquiry and repeatedly asked for reasons for his dismissal, but to no avail.

Shortly after this, Mr. Hartley put the matter in my hands, and although I took it up at the time with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Education I was told that nothing, could or would be done——

Sir Spencer Summers (Aylesbury)

I am a little confused by one point, and clarification would be generally helpful. My hon. Friend referred to Mr. Hartley as being demoted and dismissed. One can understand a person being dismissed, in which case he leaves the senior post he occupied; and one can understand his being demoted and so occupying a lower post. What I cannot understand is the description of a case in which both occurred.

Mr. Gough

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I was quoting a letter which Mr. Hartley wrote to his chief, and I quite agree with my hon. Friend that it seems another matter of inexplicability that no answer was forthcoming. Those were not my words; they were Mr. Hartley's words.

Recently my hon. Friend the Member for Wimbledon, referred in this House to a case in which the same director has been involved in an almost identical and summary dismissal of a senior colleague in another museum. I refer again to column 1421 of the OFFICIAL REPORT for 3rd February. This seems to put a highly serious aspect on the matter and obviously reflects on the good name of both my constituents. Even if Mr. Hartley was guilty of some serious breach and was properly dismissed, I still submit that a civil servant with such a long and distinguished service, holding such a high distinction as the Companionship of the Order of the British Empire, should still be told why he has been dismissed and should be given a proper opportunity to appeal against his punishment.

In any case, a full investigation is now vitally necessary to clear the other civil servant who, as I have said, is also a constituent of mine, and who must otherwise be branded in the public mind as a high-handed and autocratic official. My hon. Friend must realise that to refuse to reopen this matter is highly damaging to the director. The similarity of these two dismissals is so extraordinary that in the present atmosphere of secrecy some might draw what could be a very wrong deduction-namely, that here is a high-handed and arrogant man enjoying almost unlimited power and in a position to enforce punishment and dismissal on senior permanent civil servants without their having any possible form of redress. I cannot believe that to be the correct deduction, but I submit that these facts cry out for the truth to be brought to the light of day, so that perhaps both my constituents can be vindicated of these very serious charges.

It may be a pity that our museums are staffed by the Civil Service and are not independent bodies. It can well be argued that this is a domestic issue that can and should be settled within the framework of Estacode, but the plain fact of the matter is that, this being the second case brought to the notice of this House within a few weeks where serious allegations are made affecting the good name and integrity of senior civil servants, nothing short of an inquiry can give them the chance of clearing themselves of these damaging implications.

4.13 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Education (Mr. Kenneth Thompson)

I assure the House that it is not through lack of thought or want of consideration that the constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Horsham (Mr. Gough) has failed to gain more sympathy for his cause. I have gone again over ground already well trodden, by predecessors of mine, who in their turn have been called upon to examine the circumstances that my hon. Friend has just described.

I do not presume to fault my hon. Friend either for bringing the matter to the attention of the House or for the manner of his so doing. Parliament is the ultimate tribunal to which may be brought the cause of all who have laboured in the public service if grievance rankles or a sense of injustice wounds. But there is little I can say that will console and nothing that will benefit the aggrieved Mr. Hartley. He must know that the public service is in many ways different from other kinds of employment. Those at its higher levels must submit to especially searching assessments of efficiency and capacity as retirement approaches. The standards are high, the code strict. The final test is the public benefit.

Those who accept these disciplines are protected from injustice by the agreed code of establishment to which my hon. Friend has referred. Of course, there will always be some among those who administer the code and some among those who endure its administration who will fail to achieve the highest standards. But my experience in twenty-five years association with local and national Government officials has taught me to respect their general good intentions and their generally unimpeachable integrity. I see no falling from these high standards in the case that we are considering this evening.

What I have said will have led the House to expect me to admit that here we are examining events whose interpretation will permit of differing conclusions. That is so. There can be few duties more testing for those in responsibility than the examination of the performance and promise of a senior subordinate when his future is in question. Judgment can so easily seem to be compounded of fancies as well as facts, of prejudice and personalities. It was no great sinner who cried "Don't give me justice, give me mercy".

What the House must demand is that, so far as it lies within the competence of fallible human beings, the facts of any case like this will be carefully assembled, meticulously weighed and, finally, cautiously pronounced upon. Three Ministers of Education, two Parliamentary Secretaries and two Permanent Secretaries have examined the case of Mr. Hartley and all have, each in their time, supported the original decision about which complaint is made. It remains for me to try to satisfy the House.

Mr. Hartley served the Science Museum for thirty-seven years—by no means without distinction. His most important period of service was during the years from 1947 to 1956 when conditions were not made easier by the after-war problems of re-generating the Museum. He became the senior of the Keepers and on several occasions was Acting Director when circumstances made this necessary. Twice the Director of the time died in office and twice the full responsibility for the Museum fell to Mr. Hartley.

I must say at once that the best advice I can get leads me to the conclusion that these were not great days in the life of the Museum. Many factors may have contributed to this. They are not germane to this discussion except in so far as they set the scene which presented itself to Dr. Morrison-Scott when he became Director in May 1956—the third to hold the office in six years.

No doubt Mr. Hartley was disappointed when in 1950, on the death of the then Director, he was passed over when he applied for the post after having served for five months in an acting capacity. That may very well be. He would have been less than human if he had not felt that his service and his qualities deserved this recognition. Politicians least of all should criticise this attitude for the whole art of political life is to know when to hope.

Mr. Hartley was nearly 60 when Dr. Sherwood Taylor died and he did not apply for the Directorship. He was, as I have said, the senior of the Keepers and in that capacity he continued under Dr. Morrison-Scott.

The House, I hope, will permit me at this point to make clear two important matters which bear upon the outcome of this case and which arise directly from much of what my hon. Friend has said. The first concerns the duties and responsibilities of the Director of an establishment like this great national museum. He must be free within reasonable limits and with the concurrence of his Advisory Council to put his stamp and his character on its policy. His will be the final professional judgment on which that policy will rest. He will be answerable to the Minister through the Permanent Secretary for the course he pursues.

Below him, in the museum itself, he can look for and expect to receive the loyal acquiescence of his subordinates of all levels in his decisions subject, of course, to the checks and balances of discussion and consultation. The predominant concern is not personal ambition or preferment. It is not the dominance of one's colleagues or the elevation of one set of ideas or theories above another. These are the small change of all human associations. Above them, all concerned, staff, Director and Minister alike are the guardians of the public interest. There is no superior authority. In the terms of our sort of society it is a complex of responsibility and liability.

The second matter I must put squarely before the House flows from what I have just said and concerns the circumstances in which a civil servant retires. The provisions are based on a National Whitley Council agreement which makes it clear that the date of retirement of an officer who has reached the age of 60 is a matter entirely within the discretion of the Head of the Department, normally the Permanent Secretary.

Sixty nowadays is regarded as the minimum age of retirement and, generally speaking, the conception of a normal age of retirement is abolished. It is normal practice for Departments to review the efficiency of officers about to reach the age of 60 and to review the position regularly thereafter if they continue in the service beyond that age. In general, the higher the grade the more exacting the acceptable level of efficiency will be. I give the word its most comprehensive meaning. So it is to be expected that the higher the grade the lower will be the age at which officers are likely to be retired.

Retirement after reaching pensionable age does not connate inefficiency in the normally accepted sense, and no stigma attaches to any officer not retained. Departments are encouraged to arrange for the re-employment of officials in the lower grade after they reach the age of 60. This, too, is a matter for settlement in the light of departmental circumstances. Over it all, retirement or retention, presides one paramount consideration, the benefit of the public service.

I come now to the circumstances of the retirement of Mr. Hartley. I must give the House the facts as objectively and as accurately as I am able, for I do not like an assault on the reputation of a distinguished public servant on a charge of arrogance. There can be none more wounding and, I am satisfied, in this case none less merited. Dr. Morrison-Scott tackled his part of a difficult and distasteful duty with courage and with frankness.

The history of this case starts before Dr. Morrison-Scott appears. As Mr. Hartley approached his 60th birthday, Dr. Sherwood Taylor, the then Director of the museum, made the assessment required of him by the rules and in consequence he offered Mr. Hartley employment in his existing grade of keeper for a further tour years, subject, as I have said, to periodic review and to Mr. Hartley's right to retire earlier if he should wish to do so.

Then Dr. Sherwood Taylor fell ill and later died in office. Dr. Morrison-Scott succeeded him as Director. As was his right and, indeed, his duty, he reviewed this decision and, after about five months' experience of the working of the museum, decided it would be to the advantage of the service if Mr. Hartley relinquished his appointment as Keeper and suggested that he should be offered employment in the next lower grade of Assistant Keeper. He told Mr. Hartley of this recommendation and he, after some correspondence, appealed to the Permanent Secretary of the Ministry of Education with whom the final decision rested.

The Permanent Secretary of that time interviewed Mr. Hartley and, after considering all the facts, he decided that it would be in the best interests of the museum if he retired altogether on his 61st birthday.

It was the decision of the Permanent Secretary as head of the Department.

He notified Mr. Hartley of his decision. All this is within the rules and within the regular procedure. In the way in which the world understands it, Mr. Hartley was never downgraded.

Mr. Gough

I apologise to my hon. Friend for interrupting, but will he now or later say whether civil servants in that position have a right of appeal?

Mr. Thompson

The policy is for the facts of the case to be put fully before the senior official who will be considering them. In this case Mr. Hartley did have an interview with the Permanent Secretary with whom final decision rested. There is no reason to believe that at that interview anything less than full justice was done to Mr. Hartley's case by Mr. Hartley himself.

As I said, Mr. Hartley was never downgraded. In no sense was he dismissed. He attained and passed the age at which many retire, in his chosen career. Of course, it is easy to understand Mr. Hartley's disappointment. He had given long and valuable service to the Museum and he no doubt believed he could give still more. Like any one of us, however, he must submit to the judgment of his superiors on the probable worth of that future service.

What is not so easy to understand is why, in these circumstances, Mr. Hartley should feel that his retirement contains some element of malice. The rules under which he retired are framed to avoid precisely such a feeling. He may very well say—as, indeed, my hon. Friend has suggested, that if the personalities involved had been different or if the times had been different, a different conclusion might have been reached. That may very well be. What is certain is that the atmosphere of the Museum had to be improved, causes of unsettlement removed and the new regime properly supported.

In the circumstances as they were at the time, it was decided by the then Per- manent Secretary that the public interest would best be served if Mr. Hartley retired at 61. That decision has been frequently reviewed. I see no reason to dissent from it. I see no flaw in the established facts which might justify any further inquiry.

It is possible to hope, however, that Mr. Hartley, assured as he may be that no stigma marred his going, will spend his years of retirement in the knowledge that his contribution to the Museum may fairly be evaluated by the high position he attained in its service and by his own remembrance of the part he played during some of its most difficult times.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-seven minutes past Four o'clock.