HC Deb 17 May 1966 vol 728 cc1289-300

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

11.30 p.m.

Mr. R. Chichester-Clark (Londonderry)

I shall have some difficulty in the time available tonight to tell adequately what I believe to be a sad story of personal injustice. What I am seeking to do tonight is to find out whether there is any good reason why the present director of the National Maritime Museum, Mr. Frank Carr, should be retired, as he believes, prematurely, and to provide an opportunity for the Government, in so far as they can, to put what is wrong right.

Nearly 20 years ago a mere trickle of visitors, about 250 a day, found their way, sometimes not without difficulty, to the National Maritime Museum, which houses so many treasures of British and Commonwealth naval history. I say not without difficulty, because at that time it was quite possible to find a tram conductor in Greenwich who could not tell you where the museum stood. There was an average of 250 visitors a day in 1947; the number is well over 2,000 a day in 1966, to cope with which the staff has been increased from 32 to 130. Of course, there are reasons for this. There is more to see—the "Cutty Sark" near Greenwich Pier; all the Royal Observatory buildings, since 1951 part of the museum; the new additions to the collection of manuscripts; ships' draughts; and the new planetarium since last November.

In all this record of progress and all this provision of more to see Mr. Carr had a very large part. Indeed, he is more closely identified with the restoration of the "Cutty Sark" and the completion of the planetarium than anybody else. For his tenure of office since 1947 it speaks well that, as soon as his case came to the fore, some months ago, an enormous volume of letters has gone to him, and to his friends, and to the columns of many national and provincial newspapers; and they include many tributes from abroad where his work and reputation have spread, with some from the United States of America and some from Canada and many other countries, and notably one from the President of a rather similar institution, Haida. In Britain itself so many eminent public figures have gone to press on his behalf that it would not be possible for me to list them all. The case has been raised in the House by the hon. Member for Woolwich, West (Mr. Hamling) and the present Minister of Power, who has been extremely active and persistent on behalf of Mr. Carr, who is a constituent of his.

To go back to the beginning, Mr. Carr became Assistant Librarian to the House of Lords on 1st January, 1929. At that time he was told that he could not hope for promotion till his immediate chief reached at least the age of 60 or, more probably, 65. This meant he had no hope of promotion for about 22 years. He accepted this for the reason that, if he remained, he would be likely to be promoted eventually and be able to complete 40 years of public service, which would entitle him to the full pension which he would be able to earn.

Then, at the end of 1946, the very distinguished director of the National Maritime Museum at that time, Sir Geoffrey Callender, died in office—at the age incidentally, of 71. Lord Attlee, then Prime Minister, offered the post of director to Mr. Carr. However, there was an immediate difficulty about this with regard to his pension. As an Officer of the House of Lords he was not a civil servant, and unless his public service could start from 1st January, 1929, and be regarded as continuous in his new post, he would lose 18 years of accrued pension rights which he had already acquired. Not only that, but, unless he could continue until the end of the year when he became 65, he would be unable to complete the 40 years which would entitle him to the full pension which he would otherwise have obtained in his service for the House of Lords.

The position was confused because there were three parties concerned. The museum directorship was a Downing Street appointment. The House of Lords was concerned with the appointment of an Assistant Librarian and its other Officers. The only body which could issue Mr. Carr with the required certificate of service was the Civil Service Commission, which was not otherwise involved in the case. But it was additionally complicated because, as director of the museum, he should not be a civil servant. Unfortunately, there was not at the time any machinery to deal with the case, and there was no one responsible for getting things moving.

The museum did not have a director, the House of Lords could not appoint a successor as Assistant Librarian, and nothing could be done until the deadlock was resolved. This came about eventually by the chief Civil Service commissioner issuing Mr. Carr with a certificate of service starting on 1st January, 1929, and, when this was done, Mr. Carr took up his present appointment on 1st May.

The significance of this, of course, is that it was definitely accepted and agreed that, when he became director in 1947, he could look forward to enjoying the same length of service as would have awaited him in the service of the House of Lords, namely, that he would continue until he was 65 and retire at the end of 1968 having earned his full pension. Had this not been done, he might have planned his life entirely differently. That is my contention, as, indeed, it is his. He would have had to consider very carefully whether it would have been better for him to remain at his job in the House of Lords.

I emphasise that this was a rule which applied to all directors appointed to trustee administered museums at that time, and the trustees' decision that he should retire at 63 makes him the only director, so far as I know, of a national museum or gallery whose services have been curtailed in this way.

Incidentally, I think it highly debatable whether people in positions of the sort which Mr. Can occupies should be tied down to retirement at 60. After all, we are here talking about international experts, and it is, perhaps, ironical that, because of their particular qualifications, they may never be able to acquire the sort of position in industry or commerce which may be open to retiring civil servants, and this could well lead them to earlier voluntary retirement or, indeed, to not coming forward to take up such positions at all if they are to be left in doubt about their pension. However, that is just an interpolation.

If I understand the position aright, the chairman of the trustees, Lord Runciman, has interpreted the Treasury letter of 1963 to mean that, as from the age of 60, Mr. Carr has been living on what was termed "borrowed time", the apparent implication being that he should be grateful to the trustees for continuing him beyond the age of 60 rather than feel aggrieved at not being continued until 65. It certainly shows a fundamental difference between the terms on which he was appointed and the understanding on which his service is now being ended.

As I say, there were a good many years of achievement until March, 1965, when Mr. Carr received a, letter from the chairman of the board of trustees suggesting that the director might find himself retired earlier than he expected. The letter contains one significant passage, which I ask the Minister to note: The possibility of"— a certain gentleman—I prefer not to name him and I shall not call him "Mr. X" because that is a little melodramatic, though the Minister will have his name in mind— succeeding you has reached the stage where we shall have to consider it particularly in regard to his own position in the Government service…Things may, I fear, have to move rather faster than we had hitherto contemplated". That is what was said, and Mr. Carr heard no more until the week before the trustees' meeting in July. He was then told that he was to be retired at the end of April, 1966. However, certain events followed, including a letter to the Prime Minister and to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, and this was followed—I do not say directly, but it was followed—by the trustees being asked to reconsider the decision at a September meeting. Afterwards, as I understand, the Chancellor and the Prime Minister were informed that the case had been reconsidered and the trustees were unanimous in their decision that Mr. Carr should leave, but that his departure should be deferred until the end of 1966.

I do not want to cast any aspersions on the trustees who are, no doubt, an honourable body, trying to do their best. But in the interest of Mr. Carr I must ask certain questions. First, were all the trustees fully appraised of the situation? Did they know what their powers and responsibilities were? Secondly, were they all summoned to the September meeting when reconsideration took place? Thirdly, were they unanimous? There is a good deal of evidence which tends to show that this was not the case and I am prepared privately to give the hon. and learned Gentleman the evidence I have.

Did the trustees know of the provisions of the National Maritime Museum Act, 1934? No doubt the hon. and learned Gentleman has looked up the Act. It definitely reserves the appointment of the director to the Treasury. Section 5 (1) says: There shall be a Director of the Museum who shall be appointed by the Treasury and shall hold office on such terms and subject to such conditions as the Treasury may direct, and shall, subject to the control and direction of the Board, be charged with the care of the Museum and of the objects collected there. There is more in Section 5 that is relevant but the point is clear. There is nothing there that gives the trustees power to appoint or dismiss the director. As far as I know, that is the case. It does not look as if everyone had realised the limits of their powers.

Another letter, dated 23rd April, 1965, from Lord Stanhope, previously chairman of the trustees, contained the following relevant passage: Runciman kindly wrote me a long letter in reply saying that the Trustees, as I think rightly, had some time ago been thinking of how they could find a suitable man to succeed you when you reached the age limit. I know only too well what I went through when we lost Callender suddenly in 1946.… The letter then describes how much more difficult it is to find a director for the museum than it is for the Victoria and Albert Museum or the Tate Gallery because the museum covers so many subjects. It continued: Runciman heard some time ago of a certain gentleman, but found that sinless he … knew definitely at a fairly early date that he would be chosen to succeed you he would cease to be available. So the Trustees offered him the job, but they hope to defer his taking over as long as possible which, unfortunately, cannot be as late as the date when you will become 65. Lord Runciman told Mr. Carr that he had arranged for this gentleman, to whom I have referred in guarded terms, to be interviewed by those trustees who did not already know him. However, even if the trustees did not know what I believe to be the limitation of their powers, someone did, and it was decided that the post must be filled by open competition. Accordingly, an advertisement appeared in the Sunday Times on 24th April.

Let us pinpoint just what wrong is being done to Frank Carr. Now that the trustees—or whoever is responsible—have relented a little, he will not lose so much financially as would have been the case had he left at the end of April. If he retires at the end of 1966 as against the time he expected to retire, he calculates that he will lose about £400 by way of income, allowing for interest on savings, etc. That would worry anyone but there are more important things than money.

What Mr. Carr feels most deeply about, having given a most considerable part of his talented life to dedicated service to the museum, is that he is being dismissed before he can see the results of some of his labours come to fruition. He also feels, with a large section of the public, that he is being deprived prematurely of a cherished job, not to mention income, by retrospective application of a Treasury letter of 1963, which in any case, he never saw.

This is a shabby treatment of a distinguished man which would never have been meted out by the trustees had they been fully appraised of the circumstances of the case and known the full facts. Did they ever hear the evidence of Lord Attlee, the Prime Minister who appointed Mr. Carr, on the arrangements for his pension and length of service? It is on record that Lord Attlee has intervened in this matter and has written to the Prime Minister. He knows the facts better than anyone else and he has informed the Prime Minister that he did not accept the Runciman explanation. I have copies of the letters here, but without Lord Attlee's permission, which I have not attempted to seek, I should prefer not to quote them. In any case, the Financial Secretary will know about them.

Tonight, the Financial Secretary has an opportunity, in several ways, to begin putting right an injustice to an individual who deserves a great deal better of the trustees and of the Government, too. When his record is set against the background which is being meted out to him, is it any wonder that the Mayor of Greenwich called the trustees' decision, "an appalling one and completely unjustified"? Is it remarkable that we find the hon. Member for Woolwich, West is quoted as saying: There is no suggestion that he is not doing his job, so why put him out at 63? Why not let him go on, until his work is completed? Is it strange that the right hon. Member for Greenwich (Mr. Marsh) is on record as saying: This has been a terrible shock for Mr. Carr. He never expected it, neither did anyone else. What disturbs me is the failure of the trustees to give a full explanation. That is exactly what disturbs me. What we want is a full explanation and a fair deal.

11.47 p.m.

The Financial Secretary to the Treasury (Mr. Niall MacDermot)

May I begin by saying that it is obvious to everyone that it is matter of great regret that the question of Mr. Frank Carr's retirement should have become a matter of public dispute, because everyone is agreed that he has rendered most distinguished service to the National Maritime Museum over a period of nearly 20 years. On any basis it is an extremely sad thing that his departure should in any way be clouded by this disagreement.

The first question to consider is who is the proper authority to decide when the time has come for a director to retire? As the hon. Member has said the legal, formal, power is vested in the Treasury, as is the power to appoint trustees, but it has for long been the practice in relation to this, and other museums in a similar position, for the Treasury to leave the decision on this matter to the trustees and to act on their advice. A moment's reflection will make it clear that this is obviously a wise practice.

The trustees are those who are responsible for supervising the day-to-day management of the museum and they are the ones who have the intimate knowledge which qualifies them to take a decision in a matter of this kind. The Minister would not feel justified in intervening in a decision of this kind, where the trustees have the appropriate day-to-day knowledge.

As a result of the protests which have been made, and which have been referred to, Ministers have made close inquiries into this case. May I say, at the outset, that there is no doubt whatever that the trustees have acted in this matter with the utmost good faith and in what they believe to be the best interests of the museum. May I also say that they have quite clearly operated within the framework of the rules which prevail within the Civil Service as to retirement, which rules were brought to the attention of them and other similar trustees in 1963. These are not arbitrary rules. They are deliberately designed to be flexible, so as to enable people to continue to serve between the ages of 60 and 65, according to the needs of the Department in which they are employed.

From the point of view of the public service as a whole this is obviously a much more sensible arrangement than having a fixed rule, either that one has to go at 60 or that everyone is entitled to say until he has reached the age of 65. It follows that quite often officials may be invited to retire sooner than they would wish. I stress, therefore, that Mr. Carr's position in this respect is not exceptional.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

Before the hon. and learned Gentleman gets too far from the question of appointment, is he really suggesting that the chairman of the trustees was not going far further than he had any right to do, before a vacancy arose, in going out and looking for a man and offering him a job?

Mr. MacDermot

I will, of course, deal with that, but I do not have much time in which to reply and perhaps I can deploy my answer in my own way and in my own time.

Ministers are also satisfied that the trustees did not reach their decision in this matter without long and anxious consideration, with the interests of the museum at heart. While everyone is entitled to his own view about the merits of their decision, there can be no question about the trustees' motives.

Reference has been made to the fact that it has been a common practice for the senior staffs of museums to serve until the age of 65. Indeed, in earlier days they served sometimes considerably later. There was never any question of a rule about this or of established rights. There is nothing here which can be recognised as an exception to the general retirement policy. As I have said, the policy which we seek to make common throughout the whole of this field was circulated to the chairmen of trustees of museums in 1963.

It has been suggested that the trustees have not been united in this matter. I assure the hon. Member that the decision taken at the meeting on 15th September, which was to confirm the decision that Mr. Carr should be retired but deferring the retirement until the end of 1966, which, I think, had the effect of giving him another full year's pension rights, was taken unanimously at a properly convened meeting to which the trustees were all summoned. If some of the trustees have had any second thoughts or expressed views privately since then, this is not a matter for which Ministers can accept responsibility.

The hon. Member has referred to the possibility that the trustees had in mind a particular candidate as a successor to Mr. Carr. I suggest that there is certainly nothing wrong in their giving thought to the question of succession in a specialist post of this kind. The hon. Member read a letter from a very distinguished person in this field explaining particularly in relation to this museum how difficult it is to find the right man. Obviously, the availability of a potential successor is a factor to which, I suggest, it is perfectly proper for the trustees to have regard when reaching their decision on a matter of this kind.

It certainly would be quite wrong to suggest that this was the only factor, and it is equally quite wrong to suggest that he was offered the job, which I think, was the phrase used in a letter which the hon. Member read. That is not so. I have specifically inquired on this point, because I, also, had seen a copy of the letter from which the hon. Member quoted.

In any event, what is clear is that the post will be filled by means of an open competition held by the Civil Service Commissioners. Indeed, it has already been publicly and prominently advertised. This is in accordance with what now is the normal procedure for posts of this kind, where it may be necessary to find a candidate from outside the Department concerned. A recent example is the appointment of the new director to the Tate Gallery after the retirement of Sir John Rothenstein. That is a recent example of the use of this method. Certainly, the trustees will be represented on the selection board, as they were in that case—it would be quite ridiculous if they were not—as they have intimate knowledge of the gallery. But they will not be a majority on the selection board, and the eventual recommendation will be that of the Civil Service Commission, whose independence is not in question. The appointment will then require the approval of the Prime Minister.

For those reasons, I hope that I have made it clear why it is that there can be no question of Ministers intervening now in this decision, or of Mr. Frank Carr's service being extended beyond the end of 1966.

A question has been raised about Mr. Carr's pension. I cannot accept that there is any kind of binding agreement that has been entered into, or that there is any rule which prevailed under which Mr. Carr was entitled to continue in service until he was 65. There have been a number of cases of other directors of galleries who have retired before the age of 65. But, in any event, there is no power to award him any greater pension than that to which he is entitled by the years of service which he will have completed. It would be contrary to the Superannuation Act, 1965, to seek to reckon his years of service as 40 when, for pension purposes, they are only 38.

The fact that 40 years' service is the period required to earn a pension equivalent to half salary does not entitle any public servant to an implied moral right to continue to service for that length of time. A very large proportion of the highest administrative and professional class civil servants who enter after the age of 20, and sometimes well after the age of 20, complete less than 40 years' service before their retirement and do not in that sense earn a full pension. That is something which is well understood in the Service to be a result of the conditions of service.

I can only repeat what I said at the outset, that I greatly regret that there has been this public controversy arising out of the matter. I am satisfied from the investigations that I have made—and other Ministers have looked closely into the matter—that the trustees have acted properly and in good faith in what they consider to be the best interests of the museum. They were acting wholly within their powers, and, though it may be a disappointment to Mr. Carr, I cannot agree that he has suffered an injustice, or that there is any matter here which would make it either desirable or proper for Ministers to seek to interfere with the discretion exercised by the trustees.

Mr. Chichester-Clark

The hon. and learned Gentleman is dealing with a difficult case. I know what it is to speak from that Dispatch Box and defend certain decisions, but, in view of all that has been said tonight, surely his answer has been a little legalistic and mean. Would it not be fairer to call the trustees together, let all the information now available, including Lord Attlee's evidence about how Mr. Carr was appointed and the certificate from the Civil Service Commission, be laid before them, and make them think again about whether the chairman did not exceed his powers? My own belief is that he did.

11.58 p.m.

Mr. T. L. Iremonger (Ilford, North)

Having listened to what has been said without having been closely involved in it, I must voice what cannot fail to be the feeling of the whole House that this matter is unworthy of the sort of attitude of responsibility that one would have expected from the Government.

My hon. Friend the Member for Londonderry (Mr. Chichester-Clark) used the word "legalistic". I think that that was a very kind way of putting it. What Ministers are for and what the responsibility of the Government is, is to see that in cases where they have a discretion, they exercise that discretion to ensure that injustice is not done. It has been done in this case, and the House must remain profoundly dissatisfied. I personally feel ashamed both to be a Member of a House which cannot remedy this and to have to acquiesce in a Government decision which seems to me to be a positive scandal.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twelve o'clock.