HC Deb 15 March 1979 vol 964 cc955-60

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

4.26 a.m.

Lord James Douglas-Hamilton (Edinburgh, West)

I regret that I must initiate this Adjournment debate at this hour, but it is absolutely necessary to do so.

I shall state the matter briefly. Three of my constituents believe that they are suffering a savage injustice. They are Archibald Gray, Graham Simpson and Thomas Tomson. The purpose of the debate is to draw attention to the fact that those three gentlemen, chief engineers who received promotion to the position of assistant superintendents in the lighthouse service in Scotland, now see that chief engineers are apparently earning £3,000 a year more than they are.

Four years ago the assistant superintendents earned more than the chief engineers, as was appropriate for the more senior posts, but now not only has the lead enjoyed by the assistant superintendents been lost but the chief engineers are being paid £3,000 a year more. The assistant superintendents were directed ashore to what were at the time superior posts compared with the position of chief engineer in the service of the Northern Lighthouse Board, to which they had been recruited because of their Department of Trade qualifications.

Promotions within the board are on a seniority basis, with a consequent salary increase. Subsequent details of full maritime awards and the unwanted and opposed attachment to a Civil Service grade have meant that the lead which they once enjoyed over contemporaries, because of promotion and seniority, has disappeared.

There is a second issue. Other quasi-Government services, such as Trinity House, the Irish lighthouse service, Post Office cable ships and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which have ex-marine staff in shore appointments, have been able to maintain a differential. My constituents are asking only for the same consideration.

There is not an exact parallel between my constituents' position and other positions in the United Kingdom, but it appears that there may have emerged an element of discrimination. perhaps unintentional, but none the less discrimination. On the basis of comparability they are not being treated the same as other people in similar, or approximately similar, positions in the United Kingdom.

It is fair to put on record the statement issued to me by the assistant secretary of the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers' Association, who wrote: This Association is aware of the serious anomaly in salary differentials which has arisen in respect of members employed as Assistant Lighthouse Superintendents—by the Northern Lighthouse Board. It appears that the situation has arisen at least partly because these members' employment conditions ceased in 1975 to be linked to National Maritime Board awards. However, the problem existed prior to 1975, but negotiations over some years have failed to get it rectified. Now he comes to the crux of the matter: We are also pursuing a claim in respect of all members employed by the Northern Lighthouse Board for parity with their counterparts in Trinity House and this matter is due to be considered by the Central Arbitration Committee on 3 April this year. We are continuing in our efforts to obtain a solution to this totally unsatisfactory situation and about which our members are quite understandably incensed. It is relevant also that the salary and pension prospects of the assistant superintendents which they had expected to enjoy have been unjustly and arbitrarily diminished because of their misfortune in being promoted from posts which they would have been happy to enjoy until the end of their service. As my constituents wrote on 3rd July last year, Our initial employment by the Northern Lighthouse Board which gave the prospect of ultimate promotion ashore certainly did not imply that we would be worse off salary-wise and at retirement than our contemporaries who were lucky or unlucky enough not to receive this promotion ashore. I put this to the Minister. If the Prime Minister had invited him to accept his job as Minister and said"I must ask you, so that you may secure this promotion, to receive £3,000 per year less than other Members of Parliament who are not Ministers receive ", I should have been extremely surprised if he would have accepted that offer. But what happened in this case was that when my constituents received their promotion they did not realise that it would have such an unfavourable outcome.

On 13th October 1978 my constituents wrote again: We reiterate again our original claim that because we were promoted ashore in the interests of the Lighthouse Board service, we have suffered greatly financially in comparison with our colleagues who are still in the lighthouse tenders. We claim a miscarriage of justice and call upon you to take the matter on to the Floor of the House of Commons. Even then, I hoped that it would not be necessary to have this debate in the middle of the night, and I wrote to the Secretary of State for Scotland, who replied on 6 December: Although the difficulty affects the employees of a Scottish-based organisation, it does appear to me to be more of a general pay question which will require to be considered when pay policy permits. I appreciate that the Minister may be able to do little about this matter tonight. In a parliamentary answer which he gave on 16 February, he said: Recent pay awards secured by officers of the Merchant Navy have distorted pay relativities within the Northern Lighthouse Board's management structure. Adjustment is a matter for negotiation between the unions concerned and the Northern Lighthouse Board, within the framework of pay policy."—[Official Report,16 February 1979; Vol. 962, c.665] I hope, however, that there is one thing that the Minister and I may be able to do, and that is to draw the attention of the Northern Lighthouse Board to the fact that promotion has been contrary to the interests of the three persons concerned and has led to a loss of salary of £3,000 a year, which is bad for the morale of the assistant superintendents concerned.

I think it fair to say that they should either be offered back their old jobs or at least be offered the rate for the job. The Minister, I feel sure, will pass on the deep concern felt by my constituents at their unsatisfactory situation so that it can, if possible, be rectified this April and they will, one hopes, be paid the rate for their job.

4.34 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade (Mr. Clinton Davis)

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton) has, like my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) in the immediately preceding debate, shown a quite remarkable power of endurance, and that he has stayed behind to raise this matter at such a late hour is a tribute to his work as a constituency Member of Parliament—though I must add that I think that his analogy relating to Ministers' pay is one which is better not pursued. Suffice it to say that we have corresponded on this issue. The hon. Gentleman also put down questions. I fear that I am not able to do more this morning than repeat that this is not a matter for which there is ministerial responsibility. But it may be helpful if I elaborate on the matter a little more than has been possible in the correspondence.

The lighthouse services are not funded from moneys voted by this House. They are funded from the general lighthouse fund which is fed from dues paid by shipping entering ports. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Trade is the custodian of this fund. In the exercise of this function he can give or withhold approval to proposals by the lighthouse authorities on, among other things, changes in the pay and conditions of service of their staff.

After negotiation with the appropriate union, a lighthouse authority may think it appropriate to grant a pay increase to certain of its staff. It must then seek the approval of my Department. But the Department is not a party to the negotiations. The departmental function is to agree, or not to agree, whatever proposal is put to it by the authority.

In the case of the assistant superintendents, the history, as I understand it, is that agreement was reached between the Merchant Navy and Airline Officers' Association and the Northern Lighthouse Board, effective from June 1975. This was that the men's pay should be assessed on the analogue of the professional and technical class of the Civil Service instead of, as formerly, on a Merchant Navy analogue. At the time this gave the men a pay increase.

However, the parties agreed to the incorporation of a clause under which the analogue with the Civil Service professional and technical class could be looked at again. It was said: The MNAOA reserve the right to raise the matter of this graded structure with reference to the pay of the Commissioners' Chief Engineers Afloat, when free to do so within the terms of the Government's pay policy. I am told that no such approach has been made by the unions. Such pressure as there has been is from three men as individuals, through the hon. Member.

The Northern Lighthouse Board's view is that there is an agreement and that this agreement stands until the other signatory seeks to invoke the reopener clause. Any reopening of the matter can take place only within the framework of pay policy as it stands at the time.

Furthermore, the Northern Lighthouse Board believes that the present analogue with the professional and technical grade of the Civil Service is the appropriate one, having regard to the nature of the men's work and responsibilities. It is open to the union to try to persuade the Northern Lighthouse Board that it is wrong. Only if it succeeds will there be an issue for me to consider.

This will be simply whether to give consent to the change, which would entail additional cost falling on the general lighthouse fund. At this stage I am simply not involved. The only view that I can express is that it is not right for any group of workers to seek to move from one pay analogue to another and back again in a comparatively short period merely as the process of negotiation put one or the other analogue at a temporary advantage. The settlement date for the Civil Service is 1 April. Therefore, another change in the relativities is likely from that date.

I was interested to hear the hon. Member suggest that the union may be pursuing a claim or has already initiated a claim for comparability before the Cen- tral Arbitration Committee under the provisions of schedule 11 to the Employment Protection (Consolidation) Act 1978.

I invite the hon. Member's attention to a letter addressed to him on 13 October 1978 by Mr. Gray, one of the men involved in the dispute. In this letter, of which a copy was sent to me, Mr. Gray said: It has been our contention for some time that to take our claim under schedule 11 of the Employment Protection Act 1975 would be of little avail as we cannot directly compare our conditions of service with any other organisation because the Northern Lighthouse Board operates a completely different system of work to either Trinity House or the Irish Lighthouse service—the normal comparisons. We are directly recruited from the Northern Lighthouse Board Tenders and promoted ashore—no other organisation does this and consequently no comparisons can be drawn. To sum up, my Department has learnt something about this matter, not least from the representations that the hon. Member has made. But my Department is in no sense a party to the dispute. Indeed, I am doubtful whether one should properly refer to a dispute when neither of the signatories to the relevant agreement is seeking to reopen it. On the information before me, I believe that the Northern Lighthouse Board's attitude is reasonable. Even if I thought otherwise, I could not direct the board to change its attitude.

Our function in the Department of Trade is clear-cut. If at any time the Northern Lighthouse Board should be converted to the view that its assistant superintendents' pay link with the Civil Service professional and technical class should be changed, the board would have to present a case to my Department for doing that. Then, and only then, would this be a question for my consideration. Until then, I regret to say—perhaps it ought to be not"I regret to say"but"I have to say "—I have no part to play in the matter.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty minutes to Five o'clock a.m