HC Deb 09 March 1966 vol 725 cc2223-33

9.3 p.m.

Dame Joan Vickers (Plymouth, Devonport)

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak tonight, the first time in a Consolidated Fund Bill debate and to raise the question of the application of apprentice group instructors for non-industrial status. As I have raised, this matter before and there has been considerable correspondence about it, it would be a simple matter for the Minister of Defence for the Navy to get up and say that he will give me all I have previously asked for, in which case there will be no need for me to make my speech. I do not know whether to be hopeful. I notice, however, that the hon. Gentleman is not looking in my direction.

The Minister of Defence for the Navy (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu)

I am listening to what the hon. Lady has to say.

Dame Joan Vickers

There has been so much correspondence between us, and as I raised the matter on 29th July last year and still have not had an answer, I thought that the hon. Gentleman might have one ready for me.

On 27th September, 1964, when the Prime Minister made a speech in Plymouth in regard to the Royal Navy he said: Another issue…we believe in fair wages and conditions. For a long time, and a great deal of correspondence, I have been raising the question of the application by apprentic group instructors to have non-industrial status. I consider it is high time that this group were given adequate reward for their work.

It is interesting to note that the instructors who do exactly the same job at H.M.S. "Caledonia", "Fishguard", "Thunderer" and "Condor" have obtained this status. They were given it on 1st April, 1955, under A.F.O. 2134/55. These civilian trade instructors were transferred at that time to non-industrial status. I can give him the exact date and reference—CE/L11694/51 of 5th August, 1955. These people have exactly the same duties as those for whom I am pleading with the Minister today and have this non-industrial status.

It has been agreed, I understand, by the Minister that this group of instructors have an arguable case. On 9th July, 1965, the Minister in a letter said: The question is still under discussion following a recent review, and no decision has yet been reached. He went on to say: Suffice to say that the views of the instructors themselves, well known as they are, are being fully taken into account in the current consideration of the problem. He also wrote to his hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Mr. Adam Hunter), who has Rosyth dockyard in his area, and a copy was sent to me. This was also dated 9th July. He said: Unhappily, in one sense, this review had to be halted because the trade union representatives on the Navy Department Industrial Whitley Council, including those who represent the apprentice group instructors, requested a discussion of the general principles which in the future should govern the transfer of industrial staff to non-industrial terms of service. He went on to say: While the discussions between the trade union side and the Treasury were in progress the Chancellor accepted a proposal by the trade union side for a standstill on future transfers. He later continued thus: This does not prevent us in the Navy Department from doing our own thinking on this issue". This is what I am requesting the hon. Gentleman to do tonight—to do his own thinking on this issue—because this matter has been lagging for far too long.

He went on to say: Nor does it prevent us from considering, fully and without bias, all representations, however impolitely expressed". I would hope he has never had anything impolitely expressed, either by me or by anybody in Devonport, but, however impolitely expressed a representation may be, he is not going to be deterred, whether he receives it from Rosyth or elsewhere.

I really think it is about time that these people got their adequate rights, because, continuing the correspondence I received from the hon. Gentleman, he said: As regards your reference to the Amalgamated Engineering Union, we have heard nothing from that body on this subject for years". This is not surprising, because the union is obviously not anxious to make representations on behalf of a body of people if they are going to lose them as members, and these men, having got non-industrial status, would automatically, I presume, join the Civil Service union, and the Civil Service union is very willing to have them, but that body, unfortunately, is not a negotiating body for conditions of service.

So this group of very worthy people, who are doing an excellent job, seem to fall between two stools. They cannot go back to the union which was originally their union and they cannot be helped by the other union to which they would go, because, apparently, it is not a negotiating union.

I want to know why the Navy Department does not take any action, and why it is settling back on trade union disagreements. Surely, as is pointed out in one of the quotations I have made, it is high time that the Navy Department made up its mind about this very urgent problem. I should like to know from the Minister whether, in truth, he really accepts the need for this change, or whether it is being held up by the Treasury.

These men have very high qualifications. In the Navy Department, they are not given a syllabus by the Navy. They have to put over their own syllabus, which is a practical and theoretical one; they start the courses, and they have full responsibility. They personally plan each course, and in Devonport they have been extremely successful. They also set examinations and mark the papers. In the training that they do, I gather that they are considered to be a vital link in industry. What is more, they have the arduous task of seeing that machines are cleaned and in order, and that equipment is there. They order stores, they give lectures, and they maintain discipline.

That is one of the reasons why they want the additional status, but it is not the only reason, because there is also a question of pay. In their non-industrial status in the dockyard, their weekly earnings are a minimum of £16 19s. and a maximum of £19 19s. If they were given the status which I am requesting, they would get a minimum of £1,201 and a maximum of £1,320. The lowest-paid Government instructor receives £6 2s. a week more than these people do. Instructors in the rehabilitation centres only have to prepare men for certain trades, but these instructors have to prepare men for many trades. They also have to prepare them for the Ordinary National Certificate, for the Technical Certificate and for the City and Guilds.

I should have thought it was high time that the moratorium was raised and that these people were given the pay and status to bring them into line with other people doing the same work, and above those in other Government services who are doing less arduous jobs. I hope that what I have said will persuade the hon. Gentleman who is going to reply that the time has come to give these men the status and pay that they deserve.

When I asked for this debate, I also mentioned surgery assistants, who are in the same position. They are holding very responsible jobs in the surgeries of the dockyards. Many of them are State-enrolled nurses and they have had to take courses in first-aid, home nursing, life saving and so on. Quite a number of them are in sole charge of the surgeries for considerable periods of the day. Some of them have no medical officer with them and have to telephone to the nearest medical officer if needed, but it is entirely up to them to take immediate action necessary when a casualty is brought in. To my own knowledge, on more than one occasion recently they have been savers of life, and I should have thought that they were worthy of the status which they request.

When I appealed on their behalf and mentioned that they were members of the Transport and General Workers' Union, I received a letter from the hon. Gentleman in which he said: I am not surprised to learn about the Transport and General Workers not taking up their case since the trades union side of the Council have agreed with the Chancellor that a moratorium should be placed on all future non-industrialisation pending negotiations. Can we learn tonight how long the Chancellor's moratorium is to last? Does it cover all people who wish to improve themselves, or it is just connected with people who work in the dockyards? Is it a Government decision over the whole range of workers, because I think that it is a very high-handed method of dealing with a most important question.

Finally, I should like to mention the claim by the metal polishers for their rates to be brought up to those of electroplaters. I have written to the hon. Gentleman about this, and I have here his reply dated 24th February. All the time we are fobbed off by being told that things are still under negotiation. Apparently this claim is still under negotiation between the trade union side and the official side of the Shipbuilding Trades Joint Council, and the position at the moment is that the trade union side is considering its reply to a reasoned statement by the official side.

I think that people are getting rather frustrated by being told, in answer to all the points that are put forward in regard to getting any form of regrading, and in regard to giving people a better chance in life, that things are under negotiation, under a moratorium, under consideration between the officials of one Department and another, and so on. I hope that tonight the hon. Gentleman will be able to give me a satisfactory reply by saying that the Navy Department has been able to make up its mind, if not on all three of the categories which I have mentioned, at least on one of them, the application by the apprentice group instructors for non-industrial status, because I feel that it is high time that the hon. Gentleman's Department took some definite action and did not allow the matter to lie between the trade unions and the Treasury. Surely the hon. Gentleman is in command of his own Department? I hope that tonight he will be able to give me a satisfactory reply.

9.17 p.m.

Mr. Adam Hunter (Dunfermline Burghs)

I rise to support what the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devon-port (Dame Joan Vickers) said about apprentice group instructors. The hon. Lady has presented a picture as true as that which has been given to me over the past year. This came to me a little over a year ago, and because I have been in constant touch with the apprentice group instructors my knowledge of it is almost perfect. What the hon. Lady has said corresponds with my information.

I understand that this claim has been under consideration for 12 years. This is a very unfortunate situation indeed. The hon. Lady referred to the work done by these apprentice group instructors. They would like to be brought into the linked departmental class, and I had much correspondence on this subject with my hon. Friend when he was Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy.

I have been to Rosyth Dockyard and observed these men at work. As the hon. Lady said, it is skilled work, and I think that it can be regarded as a specialised job. I understand that at the moment they have under them 536 apprentices, so I think it will be agreed that they are doing a big job.

It seems that this is a long-standing anomaly. The men feel that the negotiations have been far too protracted and that something should be done to bring them to a successful conclusion. During my correspondence with my hon. Friend I have received the greatest courtesy and even sympathy, but that is as far as I have got. He has from time to time enumerated the difficulties, and I appreciate them.

These apprentice group instructors in Rosyth Dockyard have been very patient and tolerant. I would like my hon. Friend to tell us that he is concluding negotiations to improve the status of this group of workmen. If he can tell us that tonight the hon. Member for Devonport and I will be happy to know, because it will be a very satisfactory conclusion for these men.

9.20 p.m.

Mr. Ian Fraser (Plymouth, Sutton)

I want to add a few words in support of what has been said by my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers) and the hon. Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Mr. Adam Hunter). This subject has no party interest in it. It is one in which many hon. Members, and in particular my hon. Friend the Member for Devonport, the hon. Member for Dunfermline Burghs, the hon. Member for Bodmin (Mr. Bessell) and the hon. Member for Chorley (Mr. Kenyon) have been closely interested in during the years in which this matter has been negotiated.

This is a highly technical subject, the essence of which is the equality of status and pay which we hope to get for the apprentice group instructors as compared with the civilian instructors at naval training establishments. All those who are interested in this matter will agree that this is the centre of the whole case. It concerns the comparison with the civilian instructors at naval establishments such as H.M.S. "Raleigh" at Torpoint and H.M.S. "Thunderer" at Manadon. It is a question of industrial and non-industrial status in the dockyards.

There is no doubt that the curricula which these apprentice group instructors are engaged in teaching their students is a very serious one. I should like to give as an example the case of a man who has to teach a syllabus which includes the use of trade tools, lectures on lessons of management, safety first, dockyard regulations, the use of oxy-acetelyne or propane or coal gas, air blow-pipes, metallurgy, annealing, the molecular structure of metals and alloys, pipe-bending, pipe fabrication, assembling and template work, and the use of all sorts of metals and alloys, such as copper, aluminium, steel, cupronickel and chromium.

These men are not engaged in any amateur approach to the matter; they are highly technical men, and after months of inquiry into the matter I cannot find that either in the technical quality of the syllabus which it is their duty to teach or in their technical knowledge they are in any important respect inferior to the civilian instructors at naval establishments with whom they wish to be compared, and who draw a considerably higher rate of pay.

This case dates back for eight or nine months. The Navy Department has always expressed interest in the matter. In a letter which I believe was written to the hon. Member for Dunfermline Burghs the Department used the phrase, "a cast-iron case", without committing itself as to the cast-iron nature of the case. We have been constantly told that the matter is under consideration and that it would receive careful consideration. We have been told that the Navy Department would carefully consider the views of these apprentice group instructors. We want to know tonight what has happened in that interval. There is no doubt that these men feel deeply and seriously about these things and that nothing which has passed since the time when we first raised it has affected the depth and seriousness of their feeling. We want to know what is the present state of this situation.

I should be grateful, in particular, if the Minister would deal with certain specific questions. One point put to me by representatives of these men was that, in their belief, this matter has not yet been considered by the Admiralty Joint Industrial Council. That may or may not be right, but it is what they believe and what they say to me.

Secondly, they believe, whether rightly or wrongly—I await confirmation on this from the Minister—that the trade union side can give them little or no help in this matter. They feel that their representations through trade union channels have not had a satisfactory result.

We want to know what the Government feel about this case and what is the present state of these negotiations. We hope very much—I press this on the Minister—that we shall be able, as a result of tonight's debate, to come to a successful conclusion rather more rapidly than might otherwise have been possible. This is a highly technical and narrow matter. It concerns only a few people, but they are important to the Royal Navy, to the Services in general and to this country for that reason.

I have no doubt at all, having spoken to them over the months and again recently, about the depth of their feeling in this respect and about the importance of arriving at a satisfactory conclusion to the particular case which they have in mind. This is an inter-party case, supported almost equally from both sides of the House. I hope, therefore, that the Minister can give us a satisfactory answer.

9.23 p.m.

The Minister of Defence for the Navy (Mr. J. P. W. Mallalieu)

I am extremely grateful for the manner in which this issue has been raised tonight by the hon. Lady the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Dame Joan Vickers), the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton (Mr. Ian Fraser) and my hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline Burghs (Mr. Adam Hunter). There is certainly no party political issue in this. I can well understand the impatience both of hon. Members and of the apprentice group instructors particularly about the long time it has taken to settle this issue.

The hon. Lady quoted a letter which I wrote in which I referred to representations "however impolitely expressed". That was a slightly pompous phrase to use. What happened was that the apprentice group instructors at Rosyth spoke to me very directly in naval language, which I understood.

This matter has had a very long history—it is not a matter of just a year or two—and I believe, looking back on that history, that had we been able to deal with this in isolation there would have been no problem. Unfortunately, it is in some ways part of a wider problem. This point about the apprentice group instructors is not just the narrow one which the hon. Member for Plymouth, Sutton mentioned. It is part of a wider issue which we hope to see settled fairly soon.

The Chancellor's moratorium, which was quite justifiable, is now over and we are moving, I hope, towards the point at which we put proposals. Whether they will be accepted remains to be seen, but definite proposals will be put. There is no issue at all about the quality of the apprentice group instructors. They are jolly good lads doing a remarkable job. They are, however, involved in a wider issue because they are drawn from the ranks of charge men, who are the first line of management, again extremely able people. We like to draw them from the ranks of charge men and to interchange them so that they go back from instructing into the ranks of charge men and keep their know-how up to date. They are interchangeable not only in that way but in that they are paid the same rates and have the same grading as industrialists.

Hon. Members are right in saying that in one literal sense this is peculiar and that in other Government Departments and other Navy establishments the instructors are not industrial but non-industrial. Naturally, the staff side of the Navy Industrial Whitley Council and the A.G.I's themselves have been pressing hard for regrading.

But if this comparatively limited group of about 200 men were regraded, the question of a much wider group of charge men being regraded would have to be considered, too, and here the trade union side, most anxious as they naturally are to improve the standing and wages of their members, came into the matter. They want to see pay raised, but they have objections, which I can well understand, against regrading.

The hon. Lady asked, why does not the Navy Department make up its mind? It has done. But I am no dictator, nor is the Navy Department. We have to try to see both sides of this issue. Had I been a dictator I should have settled this in one way or another the day after I came into office, but we cannot do it in that way. It would be wrong for any employer to try to dictate.

Since the end of 1964, which covers a full three months of office for me in my junior job, when I was directly responsible for this sort of thing, the Navy Department has been absolutely clear in its own mind that it was the right solution from a management point of view of the problem which faces the A.G.I.s. But because we are not dictators we listened, as we must, to representations from the trade union side of the Whitley Council asking us to discuss the whole problem of regrading and to try to agree upon limits of where regrading should take place and where it should stop. We have been doing this for a long time, and I am delighted to say that an official committee, after long deliberations, has made its recommendations. We still have to clear them with other Government Departments, but as soon as that is done—and it will be a very short time—we shall put these recommendations to the staff side and to the trade union side. Things are moving. I do not wish to say any more at the moment than that they are moving, and not before time.

The hon. Lady also mentioned the question of surgery assistants. This is a similar problem. It is another link-up in this rather tangled web. These are industrials, too, in the dockyards, though not elsewhere in the Navy Department and other Government Departments. At present a claim on their behalf for increased wages is being considered. It is before the Shipbuilding Trades Joint Council at the moment. In considering that claim we are looking carefully at the qualifications which are needed for this job and at the duties involved. In the light of what is now being considered we will make our suggestions about pay increases, status and regrading, but I must warn the House that there are difficulties of regrading here which are very much the same as they are right through this sphere.

Both issues which have come up tonight—and the case affecting metal polishers—are already being dealt with, I know slowly, by the normal procedure. The proceedings have been slow, partly because of the complexity of the job, partly because of the wide divergence of view that is held on the staff side and the trade union side but perhaps more because of the determination of the Navy Department, whatever Government are in power, to try to get a solution which is reasonably fair to both sides in any dispute.

The machinery of the Whitley Council, which we have used for so many years, is, on the whole, the most effective negotiating machinery we have in this country. The relations between the Navy Department and the trade union side in the dockyards over the course of half a century have been extraordinarily good. I know that on this issue it has worked slowly, for the reasons I have mentioned, but I believe that very shortly we will be in a position to present proposals which should be accepted by both sides, and I hope and believe that they will be so accepted.