HC Deb 25 January 1962 vol 652 cc555-64

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

10.12 p.m.

Mr. Clifford Kenyon (Chorley)

I am glad to have this opportunity to raise the case of Mr. W. T. Foster, of Euxton, because I feel that an injustice was done to this young man in an application which he made as a technician in the Public Health Laboratory at Preston. I will just outline the circumstances. This youth, aged 18, had been a student at the Chorley Grammar School and succeeded in obtaining his G.C.E. at Advanced level.

When he left school he did not have a job and tried to obtain entrance to university. Owing to there being no vacancies he was unsuccessful, and he then sought to obtain other jobs to pass away the time until he could enter university. He became a labourer on the new motorway which is being built between Preston and Warrington. He then saw offered a position with a local firm in a laboratory, a position which he accepted. Later, he saw an advertisement for a technician in the Public Health Laboratory at the Royal Infirmary, Preston.

He made application for this position and attended before some selectors for

an interview. He attended that interview, at which there were three other candidates. The following day he received this letter: Dear Mr. Foster, I regret to inform you that your application for a job in this laboratory was not successful. Your application academically was by far the best, but your 'winkle-pickers' and Teddy-boy trousers were sufficient for us to give the job to the next best applicant. That is signed by the director of the laboratory, Dr. L. Robertson.

I have had certain correspondence about this matter, although I have solicited none. Dr. Robertson, when he found that this matter was becoming public, wrote to me a letter in confidence, and he followed that with another letter which was marked "Private and confidential". I have been on the telephone to him today, and he will not allow me to quote from either of those two letters.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

He cannot stop my hon. Friend.

Mr. Kenyon

What I can say is that, after examining all the correspondence and the newspaper reports made at the time, I have reached the conclusion that the selectors were absolutely biassed not against the boy but against his clothes.

I do not know Dr. Robertson and I can judge only from his letters. I hope that I do not misjudge him and the selectors. However, the emphasis which Dr. Robertson places on the way a person dresses is, to my mind, both ridiculous and extreme. One may be able to judge a person's calling or his profession by the way he dresses, but one cannot judge his character or his ability in that way. The emphasis Dr. Robertson places on the way a person dresses is most peculiar and certainly shows a bias.

The Minister may say that there were other aspects which were considered also. I am not allowed to mention them, but I have come to the conclusion in reading the letters that these other aspects have been brought in only to justify the rejection which was made in the first instance.

The letter of 7th December which I have read makes just the bare statement that: Your 'winkle-pickers' and Teddy-boy trousers were sufficient"— sufficient in themselves— for us to give the job to the next best applicant". I wish to follow up that point in a letter of 13th December from which I am allowed to read. Dr. Robertson says: Whereas he was academically the best candidate, there were certain aspects of his personality which led us to offer the position to the next best candidate,"— judging his personality from his dress. He goes on to say: I believe that the style of costume worn by some of the youth of today acts as a pointer to certain inherent character defects and from past experience these can have a most disrupting influence on other members of the staff…I feel that these clothes indicate an attitude of mind which militates against a good social atmosphere in the laboratory. He adds—I think that these words are remarkable and very significant— As soon as we saw the youth, and the dress that he affected, we knew what to look for. I think that those words indicated bias and prejudice even before the youth had a chance to speak. Bias and prejudice were allowed to operate against this youth. We cannot judge the character of this lad by the clothes which he wore. I want to point out three things from which I consider his character can be judged much better.

This lad attended the Chorley Grammar School until he was 18 years of age. He lost his father some years ago and the mother made some sacrifices to keep the boy at school—because this is a working-class family—until he was 18. She was prepared to make further sacrifices to send the boy to a university. The fact that he reached Advanced G.C.E. level shows that he is, in the first place, a worker. Then, because he could not enter a university, he wished to contribute to the upkeep of the home, and he was not beyond taking a labouring job on the motorway in order to contribute something to the home. In my opinion, that action is of far greater importance and indicates far better the lad's character than any clothes that he wore. He was then offered work in a laboratory with a large local firm, which was prepared to take him as he was, and he has worked there ever since.

Another thing in his favour is that this lad wanted to work in the National Health Service. The subjects in which he excelled were biology and chemistry and he wanted to make what contribution he could to that service. He made application to obtain this position, which was at a lower salary than the one he was receiving in the laboratory of the private firm. I think that also indicates sincerity on this lad's part to acquit himself in public service. Taking these three things only—I could give more examples—I judge him to be worthy of the position for which he applied, but he was turned down because of his clothes.

About a fortnight or three weeks ago I was watching the programme "Tonight" on the B.B.C. television. There was on it a man who had worked in the tailoring trade for sixty years. One of the questions put to him was, "What sort of work did you do sixty years ago?" His answer was, "I made Teddy-boy trousers". Therefore, this type of clothing, worn by many youths today, is not something new.

In July last year I visited a Sunday school at a town in the North. The choir came down out of the choir stalls and sat in the front pews. When I looked down, I noticed that all the men were wearing winkle-picker shoes. I was rather taken aback for a moment, but the fact that they wore those shoes did not may any difference to their singing. They were remarkably good singers. To judge a person by the clothes that he wears is absolutely artificial.

There was at one time in the laboratory to which I have referred someone who wore the type of clothing which I have mentioned. The laboratory had an unfortunate experience with him. On that the lad with whom I am concerned tonight is judged. From the letters from Dr. Robertson, I say that there is such a prejudice in that laboratory against anyone wearing these clothes that the pitch is queered for him before he goes there and that the attitude of prejudice and bias will spoil the atmosphere and social life in the laboratory, not because of the person who enters it, but because of the attitude of those in it.

This injustice to this lad is something that we should seriously consider. What will be the effect on the National Health Service if this sort of thing happens? Here is a lad who is admitted to be academically the best—in fact, Dr. Robertson, in one of his letters, says that he is by far and away the best. Yet, because of his clothes, he was turned down and another candidate whose qualifications were in no way comparable with his obtained the position. This sort of thing is not good for the Health Service. I feel that this doctor and the selectors who were with him ought to be told quite frankly that the Service should come first.

I believe that this boy has not had a fair deal. He was in every way qualified for the position both acedemically and from the point of view of his home life. His character and the actions to which I have referred show what kind of lad he is. I know that the Parliamentary Secretary cannot give the lad that position—I do not think that he would want it now—but I ask her to take the matter up with the selectors concerned and to point out to them that we need in the National Health Service the best brains that we can get. Together with character, that should be the outstanding quality for which we should look.

10.30 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Miss Edith Pitt)

In trying to help the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) in this case of Mr. Foster, I think that it is probably best to try to set it in perspective. To do that, I must go back in history for just a moment or two.

As hon. Members who are interested will know, the Public Health Laboratory Service started at the outbreak of the war. It proved very good, and continued to be operated by the Medical Research Council. Then, in 1960, it was felt that we ought to establish it on a permanent basis as an independent body. The Public Health Laboratory Service Act, 1960, established and incorporated the new Public Health Laboratory Service Board as a statutory body capable of acting in its own right as agents for the Ministry, which is why I am answering in this debate.

The Board's headquarters is in London. There are 57 constituent laboratories outside London which, to some extent, act as parent laboratories to area laboratories, and this is where the Preston laboratory comes in. The Preston laboratory is an area laboratory and, for that reason, it is quite small. There is a staff of 15, made up of a director, who is a consultant bacteriologist, a chief technician, three members in the technical grades, four student technicians, two clerical staff and four maintenance staff. This small staff is illustrative of an area laboratory, providing a very highly-skilled and important service in the locality under the direction of a bacteriologist of the highest rank.

I come now to the individual case of Mr. Foster, who applied for a student technician post at this Preston laboratory. The minimum educational requirements stipulated by the Board for candidates for these posts is that required as a prerequisite for admission to the Institute of Medical and Laboratory Technicians, namely, possession of the General Certificate of Education at Ordinary level, or equivalent qualification, with passes in four subjects—English language, mathematics, one science subject and one other subject.

Candidates meeting those educational requirements are considered, and those with the best academic qualifications are interviewed under local arrangements by the director of the laboratory and the chief technician, and two references are required. Responsibility for making the selection lies with the director of the laboratory, and he is then required to inform the Board headquarters of the name and full particulars of the successful candidate, together with information about his references.

Detailed inquiry would be made of the director of the laboratory concerned if the recommendation raised issues of doubt about the qualifications or suitability of the recommended candidate. There are standing instructions that before making their recommendation to the Board, directors should have taken up the references of those under consideration, and if there is any doubt about who is the best candidate, in all respects, far the post, directors are expected to make such further inquiries as seem to them to be necessary.

Four candidates satisfied the minimum academic qualifications for the post at Preston and, at interview, the field was narrowed down to two. One was Mr. Foster who, as the hon. Member has said, was 18½ years of age and had eight passes at G.C.E."O" level in 1959, and two passes at G.C.E. "A" level in 1961. The other was a candidate of about 16½ years, with six passes at G.C.E. "O" level in 1961. He was a member of the sixth form at his school at the time of his interview, and had good academic potentialities.

The interviewing committee considered the academic qualifications of the two candidates particularly carefully, bearing in mind the difference in age, the stage reached in their school careers, together with their aptitudes for the long period of training and further study—five years is normally the minimum required to qualify for this work—and the likelihood of their possessing and developing the personal qualities required for satisfactory relationships with other members of the laboratory staff, professional and technical staff in the laboratories and hospitals in the Health Service, with whom the Preston Laboratory is in contact, and members of the public. The Committee decided to take up most carefully the references named by the two candidates on the short list.

After it had weighed all the relevant information, the selection committee considered that the younger candidate was to be preferred to Mr. Foster for the appointment. The director accordingly reported his selection to his headquarters, in accordance with the procedure I have outlined, and in due course this younger candidate was formally offered the appointment. I have not mentioned his name because, of course, he does not come into the picture and it might be embarrassing to him as he has the job.

Normally, directors of laboratories are expected by the Public Health Laboratory Service to pass on to the headquarters office any representations received from unsuccessful candidates about their non-selection. The headquarters office is more familiar with procedure in such matters and would make such inquiries as were necessary before replying to any such representations.

In this case, however, the director felt that it might be helpful to Mr. Foster to have some information about his non-selection. Unfortunately, the director's very short letter was, as he now realises, misleading and, it is fully acknowledged, unfortunate in expression. It was inappropriate that it should contain references to the "best application academically," since such a phrase does not pay regard to the selection committee's assessment of the different stages in school career and of promise related to the requirement of the particular post; nor was it accurate in referring to the "next best applicant," since it was, of course, the director's considered view that the younger candidate actually recommended was the best candidate. Similarly, the specification of any particular farm of dress as the main cause of rejection was extremely misleading.

Mr. Kenyon

Is not the Minister aware that what she has just said is in direct contradiction with what Dr. Robertson himself has written?

Miss Pitt

I have explained that the letter was a mistake, and if it said anything at all it ought to have contained more than it did to explain why Mr. Foster was not the chosen applicant. I should like to assure the hon. Gentleman that I have seen all the correspondence in this matter.

I should like to associate myself with the Board's regret that this letter was, in fact, written and to tell the hon. Gentleman that the Public Health Laboratory Service Board has thought it right to issue further guidance to the heads of their laboratories about the proper form of any correspondence with candidates after completion of the selection procedure.

The Board believes that, in fact, the best candidate, in its full and proper sense, was chosen for the post, and I have no reason to dissent.

10.39 p.m.

Mr. Kenneth Robinson (St. Pancras, North)

I think that, to some extent, the House will sympathise with the hon. Lady in having to defend tonight what is quite clearly a totally indefensible position. I think that she made the best possible case in an impossible situation. She described the doctor's letter as "unfortunate in expression" and I think that the whole House would agree with that. But the hon. Lady also described it as "misleading," and I do not think that we can accept that. Many of us have, in various capacities, sat on selection committees. Those of us who are in any way associated with the National Health Service frequently have to do it.

We are all aware that there are times when prejudices rear their ugly heads, perhaps for some trivial reason, and we all do our best—at least, I do and I think that most people do—to suppress those prejudices and come to an objective conclusion. It may not always be possible. But in this case, for the director of the laboratory at Preston to commit himself to writing in a letter that the reason this man was not selected was the way he was dressed is the most monstrous piece of behaviour.

That is why I take issue with the hon. Lady about the word "misleading", because no one would invent this as a reason for turning a man down and it must have been the real reason, and, therefore, it must have been blind prejudice in a matter which should have been one of total irrelevance to the selection committee.

The hon. Lady said that the letter should have contained more than it did. I think that it should have contained less than it did, because it is most unfortunate and in every way deplorable that expression should have been given to this rank prejudice on behalf of the man apparently most responsible for making the appointment. Mr. Foster has suffered a real injustice and I am glad that my hon. Friend the Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) has gone to the trouble of raising the matter on the Adjournment tonight. It is difficult to see how any remedy can be made to Mr. Foster, but at least further guidance is being issued by the hon. Lady's Ministry to directors of public laboratories in this service.

However, I ask that the hon. Lady should look into the matter from another point of view. It is whether a doctor who can be so misguided and so utterly stupid and prejudiced as to write a letter in these terms is really a fit person to hold a responsible administrative post of this kind. I am not calling in question his professional—

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 eighteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.