HC Deb 09 July 1979 vol 970 cc223-34

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Wakeham.)

12.52 a.m.

Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon)

I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on an important subject, albeit for a brief time. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) on his appointment as Minister of State, Civil Service Department. I recognise that he has inherited the problem that we shall discuss tonight. He will, I am sure, wish to avail himself of the opportunity of clearly stating the Government's future attitude towards the scientists and engineers, whose work is of such importance.

I cannot deal with the pay issue in detail. The details of the highly complex pay offers and structures are doubtless as well known to my hon. Friend as they are to me. It is more important to talk in terms of attitude and principle for the future. My hon. Friend will know that ill-feeling has been gestating for more than 15 years and that it has now blossomed into bitterness and acrimony. I have received more than 500 letters from dissatisfied constituents, and many colleagues in the House and present in the Chamber tonight have suffered a like fate. I mention but some: my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Mr. Morrison), Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton), Hitchin (Mr. Stewart), Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major), Oxford (Mr. Patten), Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), Galloway (Mr. Lang), Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart), and Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden). The constituents who have written to me are moderate men, members of a moderate union; men slow to anger, who view industrial action with extreme distaste and who have been forced to strike.

Scientists and engineers believe, and there is substantial evidence for it, that the Civil Service Department has been waging a long vendetta against them. They further believe that neither the Government nor our fellow countrymen realise how important they are and that the administrators eat the cream, leaving the milk for them.

My hon. Friend will know that I am privileged to have many scientists and engineers living and working in my constituency. Their roles are vital for the future for our country.

I begin with Harwell, a multi-purpose research and development establishment which has moved into contract research and now receives 60 per cent. of its revenue from sources other than the atomic energy Vote. These funds approximate to £30 million, a remarkable achievement from a team effort inspired by Dr. Walter Marshall. This is surely one of our country's few great success stories since the war.

Next, I turn to the Rutherford Laboratory, which is the largest establishment of the Science and Research Council. Its function is to provide front-line fundamental research for universities. It is of key importance to the country's future, in terms of both education and research.

I come now to Culham, this country's main establishment for the investigation of nuclear fusion, which may hold the ultimate answer to our energy problems. It is host to the Joint European Torus, JET, which is a crucial step forward in fusion research.

Scientists and engineers are the cutting edge in those establishments. The calibre of talent is immensely great. Their contribution to our country's future, in terms of technical research and provision of energy, is hard to exaggerate. The scientists and engineers must expand our civil nuclear programme over the next 20 years to fill a substantial gap that will be left by the decline in supplies of oil and natural gas. Nuclear power is the only new source that can possibly produce energy on the scale that we need.

That is why the scientists and engineers are so important. However, as I have indicated, morale is at an all-time low. They believe that the Civil Service Department holds them in contempt. This must not be allowed to continue.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire)

May I intervene briefly? My hon. Friend is right to touch on morale in the the matter of the negotiations. If my constituents with whom I have had discussions are an even sample of opinion across the country, the fact is that, for good reason or ill, both scientists and the professional and technological staff no longer believe that the Civil Service Department is treating them fairly. I do not know whether that attitude is justified, but it certainly exists, and it is a very potent force in the negotiations.

There are two particular points—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill)

The hon. Gentleman cannot make a speech. He asked whether he could intervene.

Mr. Benyon

My predecesor, Airey Neave, a valued friend of scientists, initiated an Adjournment debate in February 1974 on the same issue. A reader of Hansard at that time would have a sense of déjà vu as he listened to the debate tonight. That situation has hardly changed.

Most importantly, scientists and engineers are under-valued by our society. In other countries the reverse is the case. I believe that our country's economic and industrial decline since the war is in part related to the way in which we undervalue our scientists and engineers in comparison with their opposite numbers in comparative administrative grades.

Further, I believe that pay research comes up with barely adequate results for scientists and engineers, as the pay of their analogues in the private sector is low. As my noble Friend Lord Home said when asked by a well-wisher " How is your wife? ", " Compared with what? " There are always difficulties in finding equitable comparisons. First, the structure of scientific groups in the private sector is different from that in Government bodies. The best scientists in industry are promoted to managers, so Government scientists feel that they are compared with the junior scientists in industry.

Also, a Catch 22 situation exists, in that the Government are the largest employer of scientists in the country, and employers look towards the pay of Government scientists to obtain guidelines. This clashes with the Civil Service Department's policy of acting as a follower rather than a leader in wage increase rounds.

Mr. Peter Lloyd (Fareham)

I should like to associate myself with what my hon. Friend says about the feelings of Government scientists and technical officers. They feel that in this year's negotiations the Government have unilaterally changed the basis on which the pay research is based. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister of State will take up that specific point.

Mr. Benyon

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Let us earnestly hope that the present small points of difference between the Civil Service Department and the IPCS over scientists' pay are speedily resolved before the scientists' morale becomes even worse.

Mr. Toby Jessel (Twickenham)

If, as my hon. Friend says, the differences in negotiation between the two sides are small, is it not odd that the many scientists from the National Physical Laboratory at Teddington in my constituency, who have written to me and come to see me, and on whose behalf I asked a question in the House on 19 June, seem not to be aware of that? Can it be that some of their leaders in their union have not kept them fully in the picture about the way that the negotiations have been proceeding?

Mr. Benyon

I heartily endorse my hon. Friend's comment.

I respectfully suggest that in future when the Pay Research Unit has deliberated its findings should include more than a glance at the international market place, where United Kingdom scientists and engineers with 10 to 20 years of expensive, hard-won experience are paid premium wages. At a time when the world energy crisis bites deep, our mean United Kingdom pay structure makes us a head hunter's paradise.

It is the scientists and engineers who are in demand, not the administrators. If the current pay situation is allowed to continue, there will be a notice outside Harwell that will read " When the last scientist leaves Harwell, will he please show the administrative officer how to switch off the machinery? "

I address myself to the P and T grades.

Mr. Michael Shersby (Uxbridge)

Is my hon. Friend aware that at the National Gas Turbine establishment at West Drayton in my constituency, a youngster with two A-levels will receive £5,020 as an executive officer at the age of 23, whereas a young scientific officer, with a degree, aged 24 will earn only £3,000? Is that typical of my hon. Friend's experience?

Mr. Benyon

I thank my hon. Friend for his eloquent intervention. He expresses the position far more succinctly than I do.

The P and T grades are deeply aggrieved about their position. I understand that the divide between the Civil Service Department and the IPCS as regards the P and T grades, the engineers and their colleagues is wide and hard to resolve. Their morale is as low as that of their scientific colleagues. It is hardly surprising.

On six previous occasions the settlements for the P and T grades were between the median and the upper quartile with comparisons outside the Service. This year their paymaster, the Civil Service Department, has decided to cut their pay by about 15 per cent. below the basis of previous settlements.

This offer has been banged down on the table with a " no negotiation " thump. If I may say so, the way in which the union has been dealt with in this matter makes the way in which the pay of Members of Parliament has been dealt with look like an exercise in public relations excellence by comparison. The Civil Service Department wishes to go to arbitration immediately, ignoring the criteria and principles accepted in the past for determining the pay of this group.

The reasons for their premium rating are well known to my hon. Friends. I have no time to outline them here. Let us hope that the Civil Service Department will negotiate over this matter with the union at the earliest possible date. My hon. Friend will have in mind, I hope, the fact that the engineers are poorly paid. Currently, average earnings since 1973 have risen by 66 per cent. and P and T grades by merely 21.4 per cent. I also hope that the Civil Service Department will send a reply to Mr. McCall's letter of 4 July to Sir Ian Bancroft. It is understandable that my constituents feel like second-class citizens.

I ask my hon. Friend the following questions and, if possible, to give the following confirmations: first, are the Government committed to the cause of science in this country for the future? Secondly, is there a vendetta or even ill-will towards the scientists and engineers from the Civil Service Department? If there is, will he undertake to rectify that? Thirdly, will he confirm that he will ensure that the Pay Research Unit and arbitration proceedings are not biased against engineers and scientists? May I humbly volunteer as a candidate on behalf of my constituents to sit on either of those bodies? Fourthly, will he agree to rectify any situation where a scientist is paid less than an administrator of equal responsibilities and experience? If the Pay Research Unit throws up that anomaly, will he please devise a more sensible system of research?

We now have a new Government, the Prime Minister of which has two unique qualities, among others. She is a woman and a scientist. On behalf of my constituents, I ask my hon. Friend to use his best endeavours to ensure that scientists' pay is fair so that they may continue their vital work.

1.5 a.m.

The Minister of State, Civil Service Department (Mr. Paul Channon)

I first congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) on his truly excellent speech this evening. It has done the House a service. The presence of a large number of Members of Parliament—mainly Government supporters, if I may say so without being unduly controversial—shows the deep interest that is felt in the House about this important matter. I am under no illusions whatsoever either about the importance of the subject or the wide interest that is felt by so many of my hon. Friends. I shall deal with my hon. Friend's points and those made by my hon. Friends the Members for Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), for Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major) and for Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), and by the many others present who have been in touch with me and who no doubt will be contacting me again on this topic.

I welcome this opportunity to put the record straight on the pay of scientists and professional and technology staff in the Civil Service. My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon is right. It is known to those on both sides of the House that the pay of Civil Service scientists has been a difficult and contentious issue for most of the past decade. There has been a tremendous amount of ill-feeling and misunderstanding. I regard it as one of my most important tasks to lay to rest the disagreements of the past and to build up harmonious attitudes and relations for the future.

To answer my hon. Friend's first question, I must say that we live in a scientific and technological age. The Government understand and value the contribution which science and technology have to make to our way of life and standard of living. The Government have a major task in revitalising British industry and introducing new and up-to-date methods. The scientific and technical community will have a vital part to play in that. Within the Civil Service, specialist staff have an important role to play—many, for example, in defence, which is a matter of special concern to all Members of Parliament at present, and also in other areas. No one should underestimate the Government's appreciation of the work done by our specialist staff. I am determined to treat them fairly; my colleagues in the Government are determined to treat them fairly; the management of the Civil Service is determined to treat them fairly.

One of the features that I have found most distressing in my first few weeks in office is the widespread distrust and suspicion of the administrative staff of the Civil Service Department amongst the specialists in the Civil Service. To answer my hon. Friend's second question, I must tell the house straight away that I have not detected any ill-feelings in my Department towards specialists—nor would I tolerate such an attitude for a moment if I found it. It would be quite wrong. I do not believe that it exists. I regard it as a major priority to put any unfounded suspicions to rest. Such divisiveness would be bad for any organisation. The specialists are civil servants and I am determined that they shall be treated fairly—just like all other civil servants.

Let me take first the case of the scientists. It is not my objective tonight to rake over old controversies, but in explaining how we got to our present position I must acknowledge that there is a difficult history connected with this.

When, in 1977, it was agreed that the Civil Service as a whole should return to pay research in 1979, the Institution of Professional Civil Servants demurred for scientists because it had reservations about the applicability of pay research for scientists. The question of how pay research should be applied to scientists in 1980 was referred to the Pay Research Unit Board. We now have its report and an agreed basis for determining scientists' pay in future. Indeed, the Pay Research Unit is now collecting the pay information for next year's pay settlement. However difficult the negotiations may be next year, I want to make it perfectly clear that we shall be approaching them with good will, with a desire to be fair to the scientists and with a determination that, like all other civil servants, they shall receive fair treatment.

For 1979, scientists were left with no agreed basis for determining their pay. That lack, and some correspondence concerned with it, lies at the root of the current unhappy dispute with the scientists. For a variety of reasons, the scientists believe that they should have this year what their administration group colleagues have had.

The House will appreciate that I arrived in this situation very late in the day. The dispute is not of my making, nor of this Government's making. I arrived at the tail end of a settlement in the non-industrial Civil Service in which the scientists and the P and T people were already involved. There is a long history. I immediately recognised that there had been a genuine misunderstanding on this topic, and, recognising that fact, I have agreed to what the IPCS wants, which is a temporary pay link with Administrative civil servants for 1979. The IPCS asked at its annual conference for a gesture of good will from the new Government. I have made such a gesture, and in return all I have asked is that that agreement, and the pay rates flowing from it, should not upset the pay arrangements for 1980, or the pay arrangements for other groups of civil servants. That seemed to me to be perfectly reasonable.

The IPCS has accepted that a ring fence should be put round this year's arrangements. All that we need to do, therefore, is to establish a form of words that will avoid repercussions and misunderstandings. Negotiations have taken place on this and substantial progress has been made. I very much hope that I shall be able to make an announcement later today.

Dr. M. S. Miller (East Kilbride)

I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to intervene. I am concerned with the form of words, because, according to my information, apparently there has been a great deal of suspicion and ambiguity about some form of words that has been chosen in the past. Will the Minister undertake to ensure that he deals with this form of words himself and does not allow his advisers to put him off by increasing the ambiguity which hitherto has applied to forms of words which have been put forward?

Mr. Channon

Any words that go forward will certainly be my responsibility, and I shall accept full responsibility for them, but I would prefer to go no further tonight than to say that substantial progress has been made. As I told the House, I hope to be in a position to make an announcement later today.

The other pay dispute with the IPCS affects technologists, engineers and certain other professionals. This is an entirely separate and distinct issue. These are staff who have been the subject of a pay research exercise like the rest of the Civil Service, except the scientists, for 1979. Extensive negotiations have taken place. There is no dispute about the facts thrown up by the pay research exercise, but the IPCS and my Department have been unable to agree on the revised pay rates. Again I must emphasise that there has been no question of discrimination. The technologists and engineers and other professionals have been treated in exactly the same way as the rest of the Civil Service.

The pay research evidence was interpreted in precisely the same way as that for all other civil servants. They have settled but the IPCS has not. The arguments which the IPCS put forward have been examined in detail and it has been informed that my Department cannot agree to the increases which it has sought. Hon. Members may be interested to know that the offer which my Department made represents an overall average increase of 17.5 per cent. to the professional and technology staff. For the principal professional and technology officer, the offer represents an increase of approximately 22.5 per cent. and would lead to a maximum salary of £10,700. If the IPCS cannot accept the offer, made after careful examination of its case, it is at full liberty—I emphasise this—to take its claim to the independent Civil Service arbitration tribunal to seek to convince that tribunal that its reasons are sound. The Civil Service arbitration tribunal is composed of an independent chairman assisted by two assessors drawn from panels nominated by the staff and official sides.

We shall accept the decision of the tribunal, whatever it is. I cannot accept—and I hope that the House agrees with me—that in these circumstances there can be any justification for industrial action by members of the IPCS over the current disputes. There is well-tried and established machinery for the resolution of disputes, and I think the House will agree that unjustified industrial action can undermine the whole Civil Service negotiating machinery. I much regret any inconvenience to right hon. and hon. Members caused by industrial action, and I deprecate any attempt to interfere with the operation of Parliament.

I have been told by the IPCS that it considers that there is an issue of principle at stake here which is not suitable for arbitration. The IPCS has not told me what that principle is. It has admitted that the Civil Service Department has never accepted that the pay of professional and technical staff should be settled on a more favourable basis in relation to outside evidence than is the case for other civil servants—that is at the upper quartile rather than the median. As for the other reasons which the IPCS has put forward for favourable treatment, the judgment that the Civil Service Department made is consistent with that made in 1974, when the IPCS was happy to take the dispute to arbitration. The offer is, moreover, firmly grounded upon the Priestley fair comparisons principle, the current pay agreements, and the current evidence. I urge the IPCS to call off its disruptive action and refer its claim to the independent Civil Service arbitration tribunal, the findings of which the Government will accept.

One of my hon. Friend's essential points is that perhaps we do not value scientists and technologists sufficiently highly. But the Civil Service cannot take the lead and push its salary rates well above the national market. To do that would either starve British industry—on which ultimately all our salaries depend—of the very talent that it urgently requires, or it would increase costs if it attempted to match a higher rate.

I am determined to have a fair rate of pay when dealing with professional and technical staff. I urge on them the independent nature of the Civil Service arbitration tribunal. I believe that in this sector, as in virtually every other sector of our national life, industrial action should be the last resort. When a tribunal of this kind exists it is a great pity that industrial action should be taken.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Newbury)

Is my hon. Friend aware that a delegation of the scientific grades came to see me last Saturday and told me that in all the offers made to them they are between ½ per cent. and 3½ per cent. below the equivalent in the administrative grades? The scientific staff find it difficult to see how the Minister can talk about equity when they are discriminated against and offered rises which are based on lower salaries, which makes the difference considerable.

Mr. Channon

Is my hon. Friend talking about scientists as opposed to professional and technology

Mr. McNair-Wilson


Mr. Channon

As I said earlier, we have made substantial progress and I hope that it will be possible for me to make a further announcement later today. I hope that my hon. Friend will be kind enough to await that further announcement. I wish that I were in a position to make it now, but, unfortunately, I am unable to do so.

I welcome the opportunity tonight to make clear the Government's position with regard to the pay of scientists and technologists. Can we not put behind us the difficulties of the past? They are certainly not the fault of the present Government. Let us put the difficulties of the past behind us. Recognising the contribution that scientists and professional technologists make to our national life, and the fact that they are responsible professional people, I think that I am entitled to ask them to conduct their industrial relations in the sensible way that we know they wish. They have been so moderate in the past.

I give them my assurance, on behalf of the Government, that they will be fairly treated. There will be no turning back on that. The Government are determined to treat these people fairly. We are determined that they shall not be discriminated against. There is no vendetta against them. I am determined to make sure that they have fair treatment in the Civil Service, and I again urge the IPCS to go to the Civil Service arbitration tribunal, where it will have a fair hearing. On behalf of the Government, I undertake to accept whatever may emerge as a result of the Tribunal's findings.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes past One o'clock.