HC Deb 13 March 1963 vol 673 cc1435-43
Mr. Darling

I beg to move, in page 45, line 33, at the end to insert: (3) Any chief inspector or other inspector whose appointment is terminated for reasons of incompetence to perform such duties as are prescribed in this Act may appeal to the Board for an inquiry into the termination of his appointment, and if the Board are satisfied as a result of such inquiries that the appointment was wrongly terminated, they shall so inform the local authority and the local authority shall rescind the termination on such terms as the Board shall approve. We discussed this matter in Committee, and, although the Parliamentary Secretary said that in normal circumstances an inspector, who might be in difficulties concerning his competence with his local authority would have a right of appeal to the Board of Trade, he could not see that this would often happen in practice and that the cases would be so few and far between that we should not legislate for them. We have proposed the Amendment because, on thinking the matter over and discussing it again with representatives of the Weights and Measures Inspectorate, we believe that there is a need here, and it has become more obvious because of an Amendment which the Parliamentary Secretary accepted earlier today.

Two points are involved. The first concerns the status of weights and measures inspectors. We have said throughout our discussions on the Bill and on the two previous abortive Bills, when we had the opportunity to make our views known here and there, that in time—we hope that it will not be very long—weights and measures departments of local authorities will become increasingly important and will cover a much wider range of activities, which are not covered in the Bill and therefore they cannot be discussed in detail. We believe that the weights and measures departments and the weights and measures inspectors will be, so to speak, the focus of consumer protection legislation in so far as it requires local application.

We believe that weights and measures inspectors will be almost on a par with local medical officers of health and other people in high positions in local authorities who have the right of appeal in certain circumstances to the appropriate Government Department. Directors of education have the right of appeal to the Minister of Education and medical officers of health have the right of appeal to the Ministry of Health. We believe that the chief weights and measures inspector and inspectors working under him in a local authority should have the right of appeal to the Board of Trade.

Obviously, if a chief inspector is dismissed from his post on the ground that he is not competent to carry out the duties laid down in the Bill, his appeal can be on the ground of competence only. We are not here concerned with character or with whether he gets on with his local authority. We are concerned with whether he is competent to do his job. In certain local authorities, the local councillors are in close contact with their local weights and measures inspector because of the smallness of the local authority. I do not know whether it has happened or whether it will happen, but it may be that a local inspector gets on the wrong side of local councillors who are engaged in trade. He is the person who will interfere or intervene in their trading activities. It may be that they will reach the point at which they do not like the weights and measures inspector and decide to get rid of him on the ground that he is incompetent. This could be very damaging.

All that we suggest is that, just as certain other local government officers have the right of appeal to the appropriate Minister, weights and measures inspectors who are dismissed because of alleged incompetence shall have the right of appeal in order to vindicate themselves and to prove to the Board of Trade that they can do their job. We are therefore concerned, first, with the status of inspectors, which we think will increase. They will become more and more important in local and national affairs. Secondly, there can be pressure from local councillors on weights and measures inspectors operating in a small local weights and measure authority. I do not think this kind of pressure could possibly be brought to bear in a county borough or county council because there the size of the administration is such that all kinds of pressures which might exist on the inspector are cancelled out inside committees of the council. I therefore do not think that this sort of thing would happen in a large weights and measures authority. It might happen in the kind of authority which the Parliamentary Secretary to-day has been asked to set up. Even if it is never used, we should provide weights and measures inspectors who are dismissed from their posts with the right of appeal.

Mr. G. Elfed Davies

I support the Amendment for one very simple but fundamental reason. I believe that it is the inherent right of a Britisher to appeal against a dismissal, and it is important that the Amendment should be accepted for that reason alone. What should be clearly understood is that the Amendment makes it clear that the right of appeal is solely against dismissal on the ground of incompetence to perform such duties as are desecribed in the Bill. The Amendment provides that appeal may be made to the Board of Trade for an inquiry into the termination of the appointment. I believe that a dismissed chief inspector, or any other inspector, is entitled to have his case heard, and I feel that the Board of Trade is the most competent body to pass judgment about whether the action is justified.

I served for some time as the chairman of a local authority committee which dealt with weights and measures. If I were in that position today, I should feel much happier and much more satisfied if what is proposed in the Amendment were in the Bill. It would give a great measure of satisfaction to the inspectors and would provide a safeguard which is not now provided. It would not take away the power of dismissal of the local authority if it is satisfied that such power should be exercised. I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to accept the Amendment in the belief that it will improve the Bill considerably.

Mr. Wainwright

I support what has been said by my hon. Friends. There is a danger in small councils that someone will dominate the issue in an affair of this kind. If an inspector happens to have crossed the path of a very important person on the local authority when carrying out his duties, he could be placed in an invidious position.

In so far as the Government have accepted an Amendment which entitles rural councils to make application to be an authority of this kind, it is all the more dangerous for an inspector who is carrying out his duties in a diligent manner. The smaller the authority the greater his danger. I should not like to create the impression that this will happen frequently or even on any occasion, but I think that we should make certain that the position of the inspector is safeguarded. If we allow the local authority to have the power to dismiss the inspector without appeal, then his status is not as high as it should be, because from time to time he will be afraid of crossing the path of some very important person on that authority.

7.30 p.m.

Another important matter is that it is not a question of his just being dismissed. His whole future is at stake. If he has been dismissed wrongfully and has been carrying out his duties diligently, and this is not brought out by some kind of inquiry, that person's whole future will be changed and he will have the greatest difficulty in getting a job with another local authority.

My hon. Friend the Member for Rhondda, East (Mr. G. Elfed Davies) mentioned the status of the Board of Trade as being that of a kind of high authority for passing judgment on such an issue. He gave the impression that the Board of Trade would be the highest form of authority on this issue. I would not place so much faith in the Board of Trade as to say that, but in the event of there being any action taken against an inspector that was unjust or unfair, I have every faith in the Board of Trade searching out the facts.

What worries me is that if an authority dismissed an inspector and it was proved that he was wrongfully dismissed, it would not alter the fact that he would still be in an invidious position in getting his job back with the authority. Despite the fact that this Amendment will strengthen the Bill, it would seem that we cannot safeguard the inspector to the extent that we should like. But I am certain that the Amendment, if accepted, will place him in a stronger position than he is now.

It is the duty of the Government to ensure that a servant of this kind, who is the servant of a council, shall be safeguarded. Having been a member of a local authority for 20 years, I can appreciate the position of any person working for a local authority. If I go back in history, I can appreciate even more the dangers of dismissal for the slightest reason or the slightest difference that a person may have with a member of a local authority. Therefore, I hope that the Government will accept the Amendment.

Mr. D. Price

This Amendment would give inspectors of weights and measures the right of appeal to the Board if they were dismissed for incompetence. This question was raised in Committee on the Motion "That Clause 41 stand part of the Bill", and the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hillsborough (Mr. Darling) then suggested that—and he has made a passing reference to it again today—there were precedents for this in other local authority fields. Since the Committee stage I have looked into this. I agree with him that there are some cases where local authority officers cannot be dismissed without the consent of the appropriate Minister. But, I suggest, these cases all have an historical background, some of them dating from the time when the Minister in question was responsible for the whole or the greater part of the local officers' salaries. There has, so far as I am aware, never been any provision in weights and measures law for an appeal by an inspector of weights and measures against dismissal. I think that the hon. Member will agree with me on that. Neither has the central Government ever been responsible directly for any part of these officers' salaries. Therefore, the cases to which the hon. Gentleman drew attention are not, I think, entirely relevant.

In the great bulk of cases—this is the important thing, particularly in view of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Dearne Valley (Mr. Wainwright)—local authority employees have no right of appeal to the Minister of the central Government Department. Personally, I do not think it proper to provide in the Bill such a right for weights and measures inspectors, as distinct from all the other local government employees.

The sort of problems which the hon. Member for Dearne Valley and, to a lesser extent, the hon. Member for Rhondda, East were reciting to the House, indicate a matter which should be discussed in the context of local government generally and not particularly in the context of weights and measures inspectors. Further, I suggest that as the local authority is made by this Bill, and as the local authority has been by previous legislation, the employing authority, this is a matter for consultation between the professional or trade union bodies to which the local government employees belong and their employers.

One knows that we have tended in this country to leave these matters for collective bargaining between representatives of the employees and the employers, although not to the same extent as some of the continental countries have in laying it all down by statute. We cannot, of course, put it in black and white but that has been the general tendency. Yet the hon. Members for Dearne Valley and Rhondda, East think that there is a serious danger of undue influence being put on a weights and measures inspector.

Mr. G. Elfed Davies

I did not suggest that I was afraid of influence. That was not the point that I was making. My point was that the decision which will be made on a man's competence under this Bill would be the local authority. That is what I want to drive home. I would be more satisfied if the decision were made by a lay body which could give the right of appeal.

Mr. Price

I take the point made by the hon. Gentleman. I refer back again to the point which I thought that the hon. Member for Dearne Valley was making. That was the suggestion that without this right of appeal on matters of competence a weights and measures inspector might find himself subjected to undue pressure from a member of his committee which he could not withstand. Theoretically, certainly that is a situation which could apply to an officer in any side of local government activity. I do not know how serious the matter is or how often there have been cases of that nature over the whole of local government, but if this is a problem it should be tackled within the general context of local government and not specifically in the context of weights and measures.

As to technical competence, we do not believe that this is a practical issue, because the few cases of dismissal of which we in the Board of Trade are aware and of which we have records have all been on grounds of character defect, which would not be covered by the Amendment, and not on grounds of lack of competence by inspectors.

An inspector of weights and measures must possess a certificate of qualification granted by the Board of Trade to the effect that he has sufficient skill and knowledge for the proper performance of the functions of an inspector. An appeal to the Board of Trade against dismissal on grounds of technical incompetence could, therefore, be judged only by re-examination of the inspector by the Board. I suggest that it would be an unusual and unprecedented step to require a professional officer to resit his qualifying examinations later in life to determine whether he retained the technical skill and knowledge that were necessary for his duties.

If a barrister, for example, loses a case, his client might feel that he had not pleaded the case as well as possible, but that does not give the client the right to demand the Bar Council to insist that the barrister resits his examination for the Bar. A doctor whose patient dies is not required to resit his medical examination. I do not believe that this is desirable or that it deals with the practical issue. All our records show that over the years, the very few inspectors who have been dismissed have not been dismissed on the ground of technical competence. We are dealing with a problem that certainly has not arisen in the past, and for the substantial objections which I put forward earlier I cannot recommend the House to accept the Amendment.

Mr. Darling

The Parliamentary Secretary has adroitly evaded the issue. In Clause 42, part of which the hon. Gentleman quoted, the Board of Trade lays down a rule that only people who possess sufficient skill and knowledge for the proper performance of their functions as inspectors will be so employed. The Board of Trade is to govern their qualification; it will decide whether a person shall be employed as an inspector.

All that we are saying is that, having established the position that the Board decides whether an inspector can be employed by a local authority, if a local authority dismisses an inspector and he considers that allegations about his competence as grounds for his dismissal are not accurate, he should have a right of appeal to the body which stipulates the qualifications and decides whether he should be employed.

The precedents that the Parliamentary Secretary tried to quote are beside the point, particularly if we consider them a little more carefully. Take education, for example. The Parliamentary Secretary said that we should leave these matters to the collective bargaining of local government. I hope that if we accept the hon. Gentleman's suggestion of withdrawing the Amendment, he will treat his view as a precedent to be followed by the Minister of Education. That would be a very good idea.

7.45 p.m.

As I said when proposing the Amendment, the real point at issue is the status of the inspectors. They will become more and more important. I do not think that the N.A.L.G.O. procedures for dealing with these matters would be appropriate for inspectors. They have to come nearer to those for medical officers of health and directors of education in the local government hierarchy and we must provide that kind of protection for them. It may be that the Parliamentary Secretary has been advised that this is unnecessary because there are no cases on record of inspectors being dismissed for incompetence.

Again, however, we are looking to the future. We are not considering the past, I am confident that, in the wider scope that we intend the weights and measures administration to have, provision of this kind is necessary.

We can, of course, make sure that the matter is dealt with again in another place. To give the Parliamentary Secretary and his advisers an opportunity to think it over again, because they have been forthcoming on many of these administrative problems and we do not want to cause them too much difficulty at this stage, and in the hope that they will take note of the sensible representations that we have made, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.