HC Deb 31 May 1968 vol 765 cc2361-78

1.15 p.m.

Miss J. M. Quennell (Petersfield)

The subjects of these last-day adjournments vary enormously and I want now to raise one of the problems of the National Health Service—the problem of the downgraded designated officers. We not infrequently discuss the National Health Service from the patients' point of view, from the medical angle and from the point of view of its development and the shortage of professions auxiliary to medicine. This is a valuable opportunity now for us to inquire into some of the problems and difficulties—rarely discussed by the House—of those engaged in making the National Health Service work.

In particular, I seek to raise the problems and anxieties of a handful of men whose loyalty enabled the National Health Service to begin the programme of rationalisation some years ago, which has been, in effect, the foundation of the development plan of successive Governments.

Following the White Paper issued in 1962 by my right hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West (Mr. Powell) when he was Minister of Health, plans for merging hospital management committees and groups were put in hand and were becoming effective by 1964. This meant that where the mergers occurred senior administrative officers such as hospital secretaries and treasurers and group secretaries found that their posts were obviously also affected because, for example, where two group secretaries had formerly been required now there was only one post.

Therefore, in order that the programme could proceed smoothly and efficiently, these designated officers were downgraded. They retained their former salaries on a purely personal basis but no future salary increases were to apply to them. In other words, at the time the mergers occurred, these men had their salaries frozen for life, and so, in consequence, their pensions also.

I do not think that it will be disputed that had it not been for the co-operation and assistance of the administrative staffs of the hospitals affected by these regroupings the programme of amalgamations could never have succeeded so smoothly prior to 1967. After 1967, no problems present themselves. First, in July that year, after prolonged negotiations, the appropriate Whitley Councils had reached an agreement under which the salaries of the officers downgraded as a result of amalgamations were to be fully protected. Secondly, since 1967 there have been no further amalgamations. There-for we are concerned today only with designated officers downgraded following amalgamations of hospital management committees prior to 1967, and in that category with a very small number of people.

But this tiny minority is probably the only section of our working population that has had its earnings frozen for the past five years and, what is more, during a period when the cost of living has risen by 20 points and appears to be likely to continue to rise. They also face the prospect of retirement—and not too distant retirement—on a pension frozen at a level of some years ago which, while it may have been appropriate to their then salary level, will hardly be adequate now and, with the frightening loss of purchasing power, will certainly not be adequate in ten years' time.

Having tried to give the House the general problem of the downgraded officers, I will give examples, one from my constituency and another from the neighbouring constituency of Eastleigh. My hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price) cannot be present but has asked to be associated with the debate.

My constituent entered the National Health Service at its inception in 1948 and from then until 1964 was group secretary to the Alton Group Hospital Management Committee and group secretary to the Treloar Group. When the Alton and Winchester groups were merged, he was downgraded from group to hospital secretary. According to prac- tice then, he was allowed to retain his salary on a purely personal basis. While it was agree that he could have received any increments on the salary scale of his former post, no future increases in the scale were to be allowed him, and in his case, since he was on the maximum scale, no increments were payable.

The question of age enters into this. After the July 1967 agreement, any designated officers downgraded as a result of the mergers were allowed to keep their existing salary scale, with the benefit of future increases if they were 55 or over. If under 55 this protection lasts for four years. This is a simple admission of the indisputable fact that the older one is the more difficult it is to get a comparable job.

Despite the fact that the Ministry has told all employing authorities that officers downgraded should be given every help subsequent to their downgrading in finding employment appropriate to their earlier grade, my constituent tells me how difficult this is. He writes: In spite of the fact that hospital authorities are (or should be), aware of the importance of finding suitable alternative employment for staff downgraded following amalgamations and the efforts of the National Staff Committee in this direction, it is virtually impossible for anyone of my age (59 at the time of amalgamation, 63 now) to find another comparable post. No management committee, except in very exceptional circumstances, is going to appoint anybody over 55 as their group secretary, despite Ministry exhortations or National Staff Committee efforts. I know this as I have tried. I can understand this. This man has had his salary frozen at the date of the merger four years ago, when he was 59. It is exactly the same today. His former grade enjoyed a small increase in salary in July 1964, which did not apply to him. There was another in January 1965 and a third in April, 1966. Had my constituent been eligible for these he would be paid nearly £600 more a year than he is now. More important for a man of 63 is that his pension would have been enhanced. This, for a man of his age, is the most important consideration. Had my constituent been affected by a merger following the agreement of July last year, his whole position would have been protected. Despite the fact that his employing authority has supported him, the Ministry fears that to ameliorate his position would open the door to limitless retrospective claims from downgraded officers. I will deal with this argument, to which the Ministry clings with all the force of an agitated limpet, later.

I want to turn now to the second case concerning another designated officer, a former deputy finance officer. He had to suffer downgrading on the amalgamation of Winchester and Alton H.M.C. He was downgraded to the senior administrative grade four years ago, on 1st April, 1964. His original salary was on the scale of £1,142 rising to £1,426 a year. He was on the maximum, but the salary scale of the senior administrative grade to which he was downgraded was £1,125 rising to £1,382. Three months later, in July, 1964, the senior administrative grade enjoyed a salary increase which made the grade £1,164 rising to £1,430. This man had entered into the new grade on his maximum on the old salary scale so he could not benefit. Subsequent increases in the grade he now occupies means that the present maximum scale is £1,734, while he remains on the salary of his downgraded post, a maximum of £1,428. Had he retained his old salary scale he would have been earning nearly £1,800.

Two other cases have been brought to my attention by my hon. Friend the Member for Maldon (Mr. Brian Harrison). He was anxious to participate in the debate, but ironically he is the chairman of a hospital group and is presiding over a meeting of that group. The cases which have been brought to his attention relate firstly to a group secretary and treasurer of the Severalls H.M.C. He was appointed in 1956, after 26 years' service. In 1964, after amalgamation, he was down-graded and appointed deputy group secretary to the St. Helena H.M.C. Again he retained his old salary, with no prospect of future reward.

The irony in this case is that he was subsequently appointed a group secretary again, to the St. Helena group. By 1967 the wheel had turned full circle and he was back in his old post from which he had been downgraded. However, the Ministry had decided that previous service in group secretary's grade could not be approved for incremental purposes. This unfortunate officer will not reach the maximum by pensionable age. This is a very hard case. His financial loss is over £1,500.

My hon. Friend's second case relates again to the wheel of misfortune turning full circle, and refers to a deputy group secretary at Colchester H.M.C. He was appointed in 1953, again following 23 years service with various hospitals. At the time of amalgamation his post became redundant, and he retained his old salary on a personal basis, without any future increment. Once again, he found himself reappointed to the same post, with the same responsibilities from which he had been downgraded.

As in the other case, he was placed on the minimum of the salary scale. His Service and experience have been totally disregarded. In this case the financial loss is over £800. If a private employer sought to treat his experienced employees as hardly as this he would not be able to keep them long. If ever there was a manifest injustice it is illustrated by this case.

The Ministry has taken the view that it could not do very much, even partially to help. If they sought to help one downgraded officer it would open the door to claims from all of them, it has said. I refer to a tiny majority of our working population. On 8th March I asked the Minister of Health how many officers were affected. The reply was On the information available, 42, of whom 15 have since retired or secured posts at least as good as those previously held; no amalgamations have yet taken place since 1st August, 1967; those affected were 17 hospital management committee secretaries, 11 deputy secretaries, 7 treasurers, 1 deputy treasurer, 3 supplies officers, 1 deputy supplies officer and 2 hospital secretaries; all hospital authorities are fully aware of the importance of finding suitable alternative employment for staff downgraded following amalgamations, and the National Staff Committee is paying particular attention to this problem. As to the last part of that Answer, I can only remind the House of my constituent's comments about his efforts to find another post. No one would agree that any designated officer can say that he has any claims on our sympathy or the service if he has left that service. It seems from the reply that there are 27 men to consider. Of the 42 referred to in the Question, it seems that … 15 have since retired or secured posts at least as good as those previously held".— [OFFICIAL REPORT, 6th March, 1968; 8th March, 1968, c. 184.] The 27 are very probably ones who, because of their age at the time of amalgamation, found it difficult to obtain posts comparable to their former posts. They are men who were downgraded to a lower salary scale than they previously occupied, but who have been denied the subsequent rises of salary attributable to their new posts—because they held their former ones.

These are 27 people who have suffered a wage freeze such as no other group in the country has endured, and their pension prospects have been frozen as well. It is a chilling thought for those over 60. It must seem a curious irony when they read of the recommendation of the National Board for Prices and Incomes that wages and salaries should not rise by more than 3½ per cent. per annum.

I have received details of many of the 27 cases. For the convenience of this debate, I have quoted only four of them. They illustrate the dreadful difficulty that these men are in. Despite representations from the employing authorities, from Members of Parliament, many of whom have been in correspondence with the Ministry, and from the National Association of Local Government Officers, the Ministry has clung fearfully to the argument that, if one man's case was accepted, all would have to be admitted, that retrospection would open a very dangerous door, that the cost would be incalcuable, and that the repercussive effects would be utterly unpredictable.

Ministries can advance arguments ad infinitum, as every hon. Member knows. I want to comment briefly on the ones that I have mentioned. I do not think that the repercussive effects would be so great. In the Civil Service, problems of this sort can be absorbed much more readily; the problem does not arise; in any case, there are different agreements. The same is true in local government. The other State services have industrial and commercial personnel and unions, and the transfer between the private sector and the State sector is very flexible. Hospitals are scattered all over the country. There can be no interchange with the private sector, only interchange and regrading within the hospital service.

It is, therefore, essential that when such regrading occurs it should be fair, just and reasonable. Personnel can now be assured that, following the agreement of July, 1967, these things will be. But for the officers who made the hospital Plan possible prior to 1967 regrading has in many cases been bitter.

I appreciate the Ministry's long-standing fears. It is proper that Ministries should be fearful of opening dangerous doors. However, I do not believe them to be so substantial as the Minister thinks. I suggest, therefore, that the case of the downgraded designated officers in the hospital service should be taken out of the arena of argument now and referred to an impartial umpire. I suggest that the impartial examination of the case should be entrusted to the National Board for Prices and Incomes. I have reason to believe that I would be supported in this submission by the unions involved. Such a reference would place the case of these downgraded officers in the hands of those experienced in delving into the equity, consequences and repercussive effects of such awards and would ensure a full and fair examination.

The Board is the Government's own brainchild. I do not think that the Government could have any objection to the reference of this case to the Board. If the Government's arguments are sound, the Board will certainly uphold them. If they are not sound, I believe that the House has a right to expect that an injustice should be righted—after all, this is what the House is for—and nothing but credit will accrue to the Government if they will accept this suggestion and refer the case of these downgraded designated officers for the impartial opinion of the Board so that these men can have the confidence that their case has been explored thoroughly and fairly.

1.35 p.m.

Mr. Anthony Royle (Richmond, Surrey)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell) on her skill in securing this debate on the very important subject of hospital services. I want briefly to refer to one of the services in my constituency which has been suffering over the past six to nine months. The casualty department at the Royal Hospital in Richmond was closed by the South-West Metropolitan Regional Board on 19th December, 1967. I informed the Minister that I would seek to raise this subject today, so I do not think that he can complain at my bringing it forward.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Julian Snow)

The hon. Member very courteously gave me notice that he would seek to raise this. I have been puzzled as to how this issue can be applied to the subject of the Adjournment debate which had been raised by the hon. Member for Peters-field (Miss Quennell).

Mr. Royle

It can be so applied, because the casualty department provides a service in the hospital service; and this debate is on hospital services. Before I raised this subject, I took advice and learned that it would be perfectly in order.

As I say, the casualty department was closed on 19th December last, due to work being carried out in the X-ray department. The X-ray department was opened on 14th February of this year. During the period after 14th February, the house surgeons occasionally helped on very urgent cases which came in at the last minute, when the casualty department was not in full operation. On 30th April, all staff were withdrawn from the casualty department.

From 19th December right down to when the department was reopened on 13th May, no advice was given from the Board to local general practitioners in the area that the casualty department had been closed. If an urgent case came up which a local general practitioner wished to send to casualty, the case might have been sent, although the department would have been closed; but local general practitioners were not aware of it. The South-West Metropolitan Regional Hospital Board took no trouble to circularise doctors in the area about what had happened.

There was great local indignation about this. I have raised the subject in Parliamentary Questions on several occasions since the beginning of the year. As a result of this local indignation, the casualty department was reopened on 13th May. At the time of the reopening, on 14th May, I received two letters, one from the Minister and one from the Chairman of the Regional Hospital Board, the letter from the Minister telling me that the casualty department would not open in the foreseeable future, the letter from the Chairman of the Board telling me that it had reopened the day before—13th May.

I do not blame the Minister for this. There was obviously a misunderstanding between his private office and the Regional Hospital Board. A few days later I received a very courteous letter from the Minister apologising for this error. The fact that the Minister was not informed of the Board's intentions about the casualty department underlines the confusion of the Board itself.

Many people in my constituency are very worried about what the future holds for this casualty department. There seems to be a total lack of public relations between the Board and the people living in the area. Contradictory statements are put out. Apparently, the Minister was not informed about what the Board was doing. This has caused deep concern, not only to myself, but to the staff of the hospital, the consultant surgeons who attend it, the friends of the hospital, the patients and the people living in the area it serves. It seems to me wrong that no information is given to local people until it is forced out of the Board either by the Press or by myself.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary whether he can tell me what is to happen now. The casualty department is at present open from 9.30 to 5.30 only. It is staffed on a sessional basis with local general practitioners and anybody who can be obtained. The casualty department is closed entirely on Sundays and at night from 5.30. I understand that these arrangements were started for six weeks. No one seems to have any knowledge of what will happen after the six weeks elapse. The present casualty officer leaves on 7th June. There has been no advertisiment to replace him. I have heard that the Board will advertise a job, but it may well be for Kingston Hospital. Everybody suspects that this might mean that the casualty department will again close.

If the Parliamentary Secretary is unable to answer me in detail today—and I would understand if that were so—I beg him to give me an assurance that his Ministry will carry out an immediate investigation with the Board into, first, the future of the casualty department and, secondly, into the appalling public relations arrangements which the Board has with the people living in my constituency.

1.42 p.m.

Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles (Winchester)

I support the case so ably made by my hon. and fair friend the hon. Lady the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell). I have two constituents, Mr. Brooman and Mr. Ward, who are in exactly the position to which she referred arising from the amalgamation of the Winchester and Alton Groups.

I wish to emphasise three points. First, these officers' careers have been jeopardised by circumstances completely and absolutely outside their control. Ironically enough, they may even have contributed to these circumstances by selflessly carrying out their duties and advising on the amalgamations. Secondly, arising from these circumstances, in September last year the Winchester Group Hospital Management Committee stated that considerable injustice had been done to my constituents and the other officers concerned.

I am sure that the Minister will agree that when the Winchester Hospital Management Committee and the National Association of Local Government Officers, which does such excellent work on behalf of its members and knows fully the details of a case like this, speak as they have spoken about considerable injustice being done, it is time for the Minister to sit up and take notice.

1.43 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Health (Mr. Julian Snow)

In raising this topic the hon. Lady the Member for Petersfield (Miss Quennell) has expressed her sympathy with hospital staff who have been affected by amalgamations or reorganisations. I for my part welcome this opportunity for setting in perspective the question of salary protection and for stressing that it is not because of any lack of sympathy with the officers concerned that the protection arrangements introduced last July were not made retrospective.

I am grateful, too, to the hon. Lady for giving me advance notice of the many points she wished to raise, which I hope will result in my being able to give her a slightly better informed reply. I endorse what she said, namely, that we must be very grateful to the loyalty of many of the officers concerned without which it would have been difficult to carry out many amalgamations and reorganisations.

I think that it may be helpful if I define three technical expressions which I shall use in the course of my speech. The first of these is mark-time protection, or scale point protection. This means that an officer whose post has been downgraded retains on a personal basis the actual salary which he was receiving previously until the salary scale for his new post catches up with the mark-time salary. Next, scale protection. This means that an officer on an incremental scale may continue to advance up that scale to the maximum but does not receive any increases in the scale negotiated following his downgrading. However, if the scale for his new post overtakes his protected pay, he will then proceed up the new scale in the normal way. This seems inconsistent with the facts of the second case as given by the hon. Lady.

Finally, there is full protection, which means that a downgraded officer may continue to receive his old salary scale plus any increases in that scale subsequently negotiated. I will not apologise for the complex nature of that part of my reply. Perhaps the hon. Lady and the hon. and gallant Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) will accept that the speeches and my reply today will merit examination by those people most immediately concerned.

I now turn to the main principles with which we are dealing. First, there is the doctrine that a man should be paid the right rate for the job he is doing and not for some job which he used to do. Against this, there is the argument that but for an act outside his control a redundant or downgraded officer would still be doing his old job. The conflict here between the general principle and the argument relating to the individual does not admit of any easy or obviously right solution.

It is for this reason that the management sides of the various Whitley Councils have always been very anxious to get the right balance in arrangements for salary protection. It may be said that to offer protection is to tackle the problem at the wrong end. If an officer has been doing a job at a certain level and this job ceases, clearly the best course is, if possible, to offer another job at the same level.

This is not only because otherwise the public service would lose the benefit of trained manpower or, if protection were available, would be paying a man more than others doing the same job; but it is also in the interest of the individual officer. Salary protection may protect his income in the short term, but may conceivably work against his long-term interest by discouraging him from finding a post elsewhere which would employ his talents and experience as they should be employed and thus give him corresponding standing in the Service.

This is why more than one of the protection arrangements which have been introduced includes a requirement that the officer if below a stated age must give an undertaking that he is prepared to move to a post elsewhere commensurate with his protected scale.

We realise, of course, that it is not easy to ensure alternative employment for redundant officers, partly because the individual hospital boards and Committees which are responsible for making appointments may prefer a local officer seeking promotion to a redundant officer from another area, and partly because officers in the hospital service have so far not always been willing to move to posts elsewhere.

I can, of course, understand the view of employing authorities, particularly if one of their own staff who knows their hospitals and is already on good terms with the clinical and nursing staff, has been groomed for the expected vacancy and perhaps feels that it is already nearly within his grasp.

But the National Staff Committee, set up by my right hon. Friend's predecessor following the advice of the Lycett Green Committee, has advised that when an employing authority, having a vacancy, receives an application from an officer affected by reorganisation who previously held a comparable post, it should consider that application before taking any steps to fill the vacancy. My right hon. Friend commended this advice to hospital authorities early in 1967.

I can understand the attitude of the man whose roots are in a certain town and who may feel it unfair that he should be expected to move some distance away in order to secure a post comparable with his old one. Nevertheless, with a developing, changing and expanding service he cannot necessarily expect the Health Service to continue to provide him with a career in the town of his choice.

Against this background it has been necessary from time to time to introduce varying types of protection to meet different situations. I shall confine myself to those applicable to the designated grades to whom the hon. Lady has specifically referred, although these are not, of course, the only staff who may be concerned.

The first important step was taken in August, 1956, not by the Whitley Council, but under the then Minister's statutory powers. As part of a general policy for smoothing the passage of group amalgamations, group designated officers were granted scale protection when they were downgraded following an amalgamation, but only if employed by the successor authority. In July, 1963, the Minister of the day decided that down-graded officers employed by an authority other than the successor authority should be entitled to mark-time or scale point protection. I have already explained the terms.

In the meantime, the Administrative and Clericals Staffs Council had been evolving a new pointing system for determining the salary scales of designated officers in the Hospital Service—points being calculated according to the number of hospitals, number of beds, number of out-patient attendances, etc.

When this new system was introduced in 1962, it was agreed that officers downgraded as the result of a drop in points— for example, because of the closure of a hospital or ward or because of a reduction in beds—should receive full protection unconditionally if aged 55 or over and should also receive it if aged under 55 if they gave an undertaking that they were prepared to move to a post elsewhere commensurate with their protected scale. This replaced previous arrangements which were less favourable, their main feature being mark-time protection.

The House will, of course, realise that in this type of case the officer is still doing substantially his old job although some aspect of it has become less demanding. It was this consideration in particular which was felt to justify a special type of protection.

As I have said, protection for down-pointed officers was introduced in 1962, but it was not long before the staff side was arguing that it ought to be applied not only to down-pointed officers, but also to officers downgraded following an amalgamation—who might be performing a job very different from their old one. The management side resisted this proposal largely because it felt that the case of down-pointed officers was different in kind from that of officers downgraded following an amalgamation, but also because at this time the Lycett Green Committee was considering the recruitment, training and promotion of administrative and clerical staff in the Hospital Service and it was hoped that their recommendations would provide some help in the resettlement of downgraded or redundant officers. In fact, the Committee's advice was similar to that of the National Staff Committee, which, as I have said, had already been commended to hospital authorities.

I would remind the House that at an earlier point in my speech I said that when an officer's job folds under him following an amalgamation, the first consideration should be to fit him into a job of similar responsibility: protection arrangements are only a sort of safety net and, indeed, they may operate to the officer's long-term disadvantage by reducing the incentive to move to another post.

At this point, I think that I should refer to the Severalls-St. Helena case referred to by the hon. Lady. This officer did, in fact, suffer a temporary setback because we did not consider that service as a group secretary in a relatively small group should be taken into account when he became group secretary in a very much larger one; but he is, of course, now much better off than if his former post had continued and he had continued to occupy it.

In the Colchester case mentioned by the hon. Lady, the officer in question, again, has finished up in a post more highly paid than his old one, and I think that this cancels out, to a large extent, the short-term setback. It was, I think, in this connection that the hon. Lady specially referred to the adverse effect on his retirement pension.

Miss Quennell

He cannot reach the maximum of his present scale by pensionable age.

Mr. Snow

As I was remarking, the hon. Lady referred to the adverse effect that there would be. I should like this to be looked at. He has now gone into a better post. We will have to see whether and to what extent the one balances out the other. I cannot commit myself on this case, but I will look into it.

To return to what I was saying in the main theme of my speech, the management side of the Administrative and Clerical Staffs Council found it difficult, for reasons which I gave earlier, to advance beyond the protection—whether scale protection or mark-time protection —already authorised under the Minister's powers. As I have said, there is a conflict here between the principle that a man should be paid for the job he is currently doing and the argument that through no fault of his own he is no longer in a position to do his old job. Even mark-time protection is some concession to this argument: scale protection is a much greater one.

This was the thinking of the management side of the Administrative and Clerical Staffs Council when the staff side pressed its views that the protection arrangements already available for down-pointed officers should be extended to officers downgraded following an amalgamation. In the event, the management side decided on a major advance to meet the staff side's point of view. In July, 1967 they offered to extend full protection to senior officers of the designated grades downgraded as a result of reorganisation and also to certain officers of the special grades—this class including, incidentally, catering officers and domestic superintendents among others—who would be similarly affected.

These officers would receive full protection if aged 55 or over but below the age of 55 full protection would be limited to a period of four years—after which scale protection would be available—and also would be subject to an undertaking that the officers were prepared to move to a post elsewhere. Those officers of the special grades who were not given full protection were given, in fact, scale protection.

The basis of the distinctions in these arrangements is that senior officers experience greater difficulty in finding alternative employment. As the hon. Lady rightly said, the more senior that people become, the more difficult the problem. It is possible that they can be called upon to advise on desirable amalgamations which do not improve their mental attitudes. As against this, younger officers, even though in senior posts, can more readily find alternative employment. I accept that.

In introducing these proposals, the management side took the view that protection was a subject on which, in the nature of things, one could not offer an agreement with retrospective effect: once the principle of retrospection was conceded, it would be impossible to set a limit without someone arguing for further back-dating or extension. It was for this reason that the management side offered an agreement with immediate effect from the date of the meeting.

The hon. Lady will, no doubt, feel that she is not seeking a general award of retrospection, but is concerned only with the 42 designated officers mentioned in the Answer which my right hon. Friend gave to her on 8th March. But if the present agreement were to be applied retrospectively to these officers, the matter would not stop there.

The hon. Lady has suggested that this is a matter which should be referred to the National Board for Prices and Incomes. This is a suggestion that I should have to consider with my right hon. Friends the Secretary of State for Economic Affairs and the First Secretary of State. But I am bound to say that as I am advised at present, this case would not be appropriate for reference to the Board.

In conclusion, may I stress again that when an officer is downgraded or made redundant following an amalgamation the first consideration should be alternative comparable employment. I have spoken of the duty of employing authorities in this matter, and the National Staff Committee and regional staff and regional staff committees also have a part to play; but so has the individual affected. While employing authorities must remain responsible for making individual appointments, my right hon. Friend would always be willing to make inquiries if given details of difficulty on the part of an individual in obtaining suitable alternative employment in the National Health Service.

I hope that with that assurance, the hon. Lady will not press for the introduction of retrospection, which could have repercussions well beyond the limits which she currently contemplates.

As I said at the beginning, perhaps what I have said is complex and may not be fully appreciated merely by being listened to, but I think that what I have said would justify officers concerned in reading carefully my words so that they can, if they wish, pursue the matter by further inquiries through the proper channels.

I wish now to turn to the intervention by the hon. Member for Richmond, Surrey (Mr. A. Royle). I was interested to hear that he had received an assurance that his intervention was on a similar subject. He will know that my right hon. Friend has already written to explain the cause of the discrepancy between the letters from the regional board and those from the Minister himself. This was caused by a rather unexpected appointment of a locum registrar at the casualty department which was not known until 9th May. It was decided to reopen the casualty department.

I think that the hon. Member is making rather heavy weather of this, and I cannot quite disabuse my mind of the idea that there is some local political antagonism to the chairman of the board concerned. Of course, I may be wrong.

Mr. A. Royle

I really cannot accept the allegation that there is any political antagonism whatsoever. As I said, the main concern is with the regional hospital board and not necessarily the local board. I must ask the hon. Gentleman to withdraw that remark.

Mr. Snow

I am very delighted to hear the hon. Member's observation on that point. I feel that in these matters one has to be very careful of the people who serve the regional boards of their own volition and very well indeed. I am glad to hear what the hon. Member said.

The changed circumstances, as my right hon. Friend has admitted, have been reported to my Department, but there was a week's interval, a total of four days' discrepancy, between the letter and when the matter should have been reported to us; it was reported rather late. I think that the hon. Member is mistaken in reading into a small administrative oversight a lack of liaison between the board and my Department. He was wrong in saying that there was no local information about this matter, because I was advised that the public were informed through Press announcements about the temporary closure and the reopening of the casualty department. I do not think that his criticisms of the regional board are justified, but I can see that there has been some local misunderstanding.

I would say this to the hon. Member: that I am taking steps to ascertain from the regional board what its long-term plans are for this casualty department, though I must ask him to bear in mind that we are suffering from a lack of skilled medical manpower, and that it is not always possible to do all that we should like to do. However, I will try to get the matter inquired into as far as possible and I will write to the hon. Member.