HC Deb 18 April 1983 vol 41 cc137-44

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

12.11 am
Mr. William Hamilton (Fife, Central)

During the past few weeks several of my constituents have been dismissed from employment at Rosyth dockyard. I wrote to the Under-Secretary of State about it following receipt of letters, not only from my constituents but from the district officer of the Transport and General Workers Union at Dunfermline, and I have made representations to the Ministry of Defence on behalf of those men. I await the reply of the Ministry. Perhaps we shall hear it tonight. My hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Douglas) is also actively interested in this problem, because some of his constituents are involved. For obvious reasons, I prefer to use no names to identify those men, although the Minister knows their names. I presume—I hope that I am wrong—that they were dismissed on security grounds.

I have represented Fife, Central and, before that, Fife, West, in the House for more than 30 years, and I cannot recall any time when several workers at that dockyard have been summarily dismissed during such a relatively short time. It seems to mark a major change of policy. If that is so, I wish to know whether it was initiated by the Ministry or by the local management. I fully understand the need for security in every naval dockyard, the more so at Rosyth where the servicing and fitting of nuclear submarines takes place. High standards of vigilance and surveillance must be maintained, and it is precisely because of those considerations that all employees are carefully vetted before they are employed at the yard. Indeed, I should be worried if that were not the case. The severity and depth of the vetting would depend on the extent to which the prospective employee would have access to information of high security value to a potential enemy.

With those considerations in mind, I wish to pose several questions to the Minister, because deep anxiety is felt about this matter locally, and there must also be some national concern.

Were the men about whom I have written to the Department vetted before they were offered employment in all cases? If so, how often subsequently were they vetted? How long had each of them been employed before they were dismissed? What notice of dismissal were they given? What was the nature of their work in the yard? Did they have access to information that might have been of use to a potential enemy? Were any of them skilled craftsmen working directly or indirectly on the nuclear submarines? Could they therefore have had access to information, directly or indirectly, of a sensitive character? Were they, when they were dismissed, given reasons for their dismissal and, if not, why not? What appeal machinery exists to safeguard the interests of such men? Could they, for instance, appeal to an industrial tribunal against unfair dismissal, and if so would the Department be obliged to defend itself other than by saying that the dismissals were for security reasons? If that is the case, that would be a shocking state of affairs.

One of the men who wrote to me was a young, newly married man, whose wife was expecting their first baby. That should have been a time for joy and excitment, but instead that joy and anticipation were replaced by unhappiness and fear of the future because in that part of Fife it is almost impossible for a man to find another job if he loses the one that he already has. To deprive a man of his job in those circumstances it tantamount to signing his death warrant, because there is little or no hope of alternative employment.

That must be especially the case if the man has been dismissed because he cannot be trusted, and because he is branded as a potential traitor to his country. These latter remarks are relevant to one of the cases brought to my attention. Mr. X explained in his letter, which is now in the possession of the Department, that the only reason that he could think of for his dismissal was that his father had been a member of the Communist party. Mr. X told me in his letter that he was non-political and belonged to no political party.

For 15 years my constituency, now Fife, Central, but then Fife, West, was represented in the House by a Communist Member. I defeated him in 1950 and in every election since then the Communist party has fought hard to get the seat back. There is hardly a young person in the constituency who does not have a parent or grandparent who once or twice in the past, although I suspect fewer now than previously, has voted Communist. Fife, and particularly the central and west part of it, has never been truly Communist. It is rather a community that is rich with radical, Socialist politics.

There may be a small number of Fifers in the dockyard whose fathers, mothers, grandfathers or other relations were, or even still are, members of the Communist party. However, that is not illegal. We believe in the freedom of speech and of association. The recent happenings at Rosyth dockyard smack—if my fears are correct—of the McCarthyism of America in the 1950s when anybody with liberal views was tarnished with the smear of Communism.

All around us there is increasing and alarming evidence that our civil liberties are under attack by the Government. We have seen that in the responses of the Government to those who support the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. They are castigated and blackballed and declared either Communist, fellow travellers or whatever. The Data Protection Bill, the Police and Criminal Evidence Bill, the British Nationality Bill and the Immigration Rules have all been subject to criticism—often very strong criticism—by judges and lawyers, by the medical and legal professions, and by churches of all denominations, for their various threats to our civil liberties.

We are witnessing, in my belief, a frightening burgeoning of the apparatus, methods and intolerance of the police state. What is happening in Rosyth dockyard is symptomatic of those horrific tendencies. I shall be delighted if tonight the Minister can allay my fears on all those things, but particularly in reference to what seems to be happening at Rosyth. I shall be very happy if he says that the men concerned have been dismissed for incompetence, negligence or other misdemeanour. I hope that he will not hide behind some cloak of secrecy by saying that his lips are sealed on security grounds.

Any man who loses his livelihood, perhaps for the rest of his working life, by dismissal from his job, and especially dismissal from a job in a Government establishment, has the right to know the reasons for his dismissal and the right to appeal against it at an independent tribunal. I hope the Minister will give me and the House satisfactory answers to the questions that I have put to him.

12.21 am
The Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Ian Stewart)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. Hamilton) on securing the debate tonight. I thought at one moment that the antics of the Whips might prevent him from having the Adjournment debate, but I am glad that we have the opportunity to discuss these matters.

This is my first speech from the Dispatch Box and I am glad that it should be about affairs in Fife, since my family come from that part of Scotland, although many generations ago.

I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on the manner of his speech and the reasonable way in which, for the most part, he made his points, although I cannot accept his suggestion of a Government attack on civil liberties over a wide front.

I must first make clear one point of terminology. The hon. Gentleman refers in the title of his debate to dismissals but — this is a very important technical distinction — the cases about which he and his hon. Friend the Member for Dunfermline (Mr. Douglas) have written to me are discharges. Dismissal has a particular connotation, in Civil Service usage, of termination of employment as a disciplinary measure in consequence of misconduct. That is certainly not appropriate in these cases, as I hope will become clear.

The hon. Gentleman has called in question the practices which were recently adopted in Rosyth dockyard in the course of employing new industrial staff. Both he and his hon. Friend have written to me about the cases of individuals involved in this matter. The hon. Gentleman is right not to have quoted names in the debate and I shall follow him in that respect. I have seen the relevant letters and I have given them careful attention. I shall be writing to both the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friend. I shall not be making any direct references to specific cases in my speech. However, let me say that I fully understand the personal distress and disappointment that those involved have suffered as a result of what has happened.

I have a list of questions that the hon. Gentleman asked me and the answers to all or most of them will emerge from what I say. If they do not, I shall be writing to the hon. Gentleman anyway. I expect that some of the answers will not be satisfactory to him, but I must give the background because in some cases there has been misunderstanding as to how the position has arisen.

I should first explain that when I refer to the dockyard I am technically referring to the general manager's department in the dockyard and not to the rest of the naval base which includes various supporting services such as the stores department and so on.

As the hon. Gentleman will know better than I, over the years Rosyth has generally had an enviable reputation for the completion of refits, in particular, of Polaris submarines. Its work force has mostly produced satisfactory results. With the closure of Chatham dockyard we plan to increase the size of the Rosyth work force, and the load of refits of minesweepers and similar vessels will remain much the same, but there may be some increase in frigate work. In addition, a second stream of nuclear fleet submarines refitting will start at the end of the decade. Therefore, I am glad to say, the future of the base at Rosyth is well assured for many years ahead.

It might be helpful if I were to begin by describing briefly what usually happens when someone presents himself as an applicant for work as an industrial employee of the Ministry of Defence, and then explain how procedures at Rosyth have, in the recent past, differed from that norm.

The majority of non-industrial civil servants are recruited centrally through the Civil Service Commission, usually by means of open competitions. However, in the case of industrial civil servants and those non-industrial civil servants who serve in what are known as non-mobile grades, men and women are recruited by local civilian management units which, in the case of the Rosyth dockyard, means the personnel manager there. He is the person who is responsible for ensuring that only those people who are considered suitable in all respects are taken on and in that he is acting in a way that I am sure any prudent employer would aim to follow. I know that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is in any employer's interests to seek to ensure that the work force that he employs is the best to meet the needs of his particular venture as far as that is possible, and within the limits of certain statutory provisions such as, for example, the employment of disabled persons, and so on.

Several factors must be considered, and security is one. It is only one, however, and I can assure the hon. Gentleman, although I must leave it in general terms, that there has been no departure from previous practice by the last Labour Government or any Government in recent times in the way in which our criteria over a whole range of factors have been applied in this case.

The normal procedures for recruitment of the industrial work force at Rosyth and other dockyards are that the person concerned is interviewed and is either helped with the completion of an application form or the form is checked in the person's presence to see that it has been properly filled in. It is a long form and calls for a great deal of information about the individual, his qualifications, training, and personal and family history.

The applicant is asked for details of all his previous employment, including time spent at school, over the preceding five years and, where possible, during the preceding 10 years, and details of all previous Government service even if prior to the preceding 10 years. Where the applicant is in current employment we ask if he has any objections to his present employer being approached. We ask for the names and addresses of two reponsible people who could supply character references. There are questions about any service in the Armed Forces. The applicant is required to declare any convictions for offences other than parking offences, although in Great Britain applicants do not have to declare any offence which has become spent under the Rehabilitation of Offenders Act 1974. There is also a question about solvency or financial difficulty. The answers to all these questions can have a bearing on whether or not an applicant is likely to be suitable for employment in terms of conduct and general track record. There are other questions on the form of an administrative nature.

Finally, the form requires the prospective employee to make a declaration that he is not aware of any circumstances which might question his fitness for employment in the Government service and to acknowledge that any false statement, knowingly made, on the form carries a possible penalty of disqualification or discharge. I thought the hon. Gentleman and hon. Members might like to see this form, which is MOD Form 429, and I have placed a copy of it in the Library.

After this form has been completed, it is usual for references to be taken up and for other inquiries to be made to verify or enlarge upon information given on the form. This is the kind of thing that all employers normally do, but there is, of course a special obligation to exercise particular care when someone is being employed in a Government establishment. This is especially true at Rosyth where there is an annual practice that the hon. Gentleman probably knows about of rotating the industrial labour force so as to give as many workers as possible an opportunity of working in the high earning areas of the yard such as the Polaris refit compound. In that important respect, practice at Rosyth differs from the practice at other dockyards and, naturally, this has implications for recruitment. Taking up references can be a long drawn out matter. People are sometimes slow to reply and have to be chased, and previous employers turn out to be unavailable because they have moved, merged or gone out of business. However, unless there are good reasons for not doing so, references from previous employers or from schools are actively sought.

The application form, to which I have referred, requires the applicant to give many other details. These all provide the basis for inquiries to be made when deemed necessary. That is not at all unusual and it corresponds with the practice followed by many, if not most, large organisations both in the public and private sectors. All that takes time. In Rosyth's experience, it is usually a few months. During that time a prospective employee usually has to wait as patiently as he can or, and this is one of the problems, settle for some other job where he can be taken on quickly. There is no guaranteed offer of employment at the end of the waiting period. If the references or other inquiries show that the individual is not suitable, he simply does not receive an offer of employment. I have described the normal procedures, but what has given rise to these circumstances is that the normal procedures were departed from last year.

In July 1982 the local management at Rosyth decided to adopt an accelerated recruitment procedure. This was not the first time it had been done. The procedure had occasionally been adopted in the past but on those occasions it had not aroused public concern. Rosyth had last year been given the go-ahead to recruit more employees and needed them to cope with an increased work load as a result of ships returning from the south Atlantic. So, instead of waiting for some months to process the applications, they took these applicants on straight away but made it quite clear at the time that the offer of employment was provisonal and subject to satisfactory references and inquiries. In so doing, they were conscious that some of the people so entered might prove unacceptable once their references had been taken up and any other inquiries had been made. Indeed, on a purely statistical basis it would have been unrealistic to expect any other outcome, as there have always been a few who do not meet the required standard.

The fact that the offer of employment was subject to satisfactory references was spelt out in the formal letter sent to each prospective employee. As I am sure the hon. Gentleman will appreciate, it is not incumbent on any employer, in the public or private sectors, to disclose reasons why an applicant for a particular vacancy is not successful. Neither this Government nor any of their predecessors have done so. Indeed, the business of taking up and giving references is a useful and widespread practice in all walks of life, but it would become meaningless and vague as an exercise if people were not reasonably sure that remarks made in confidence would be respected.

Legislation requires that in the case of dismissal from employment, the individual should be told, in broad terms, the reasons for his dismissal, but there is no statutory requirement to divulge the reason or reasons behind a decision to decline an offer of employment to a particular individual. That is what happened in the Rosyth case. Offers of employment were specifically conditional on the satisfactory taking up of references and other inquiries. Therefore, when in a small number of cases they proved unsatisfactory, the men were not technically dismissed; rather, their provisional offers of employment were not converted into permanent employment.

Because we declined to say who or what had caused a person to be regarded as unsuitable, all sorts of accusations were made locally in Rosyth, and on 23 February the secretary to the port admiral had to issue a statement in which he said: There is no witch hunt He clearly stated that they were following normal procedures, and I reaffirm that.

The port admiral made it clear that the practice that had been adopted over the previous six months or so had been a genuine attempt by management to avoid people having to wait around for employment, but it carried with it the risk that in a few cases men might have to be discharged if references or other inquiries proved unsatisfactory. A clear warning of that was given at the time.

That discharges occurred in only a few cases is illustrated by the fact that out of more than 500 men who joined under the special procedure, only 11 have so far had to be discharged, although it is possible that there may be a few more when all the inquiries have been completed.

Because of anxieties about the consequences of this procedure, the management at Rosyth reviewed the position in March this year in the light of experience since July 1982. It was then clear that the conditional entry system, although having advantages in terms of getting men employed more quickly — which is why it was introduced—was creating the sort of difficulties that the hon. Gentleman has described. I fully recognise that they are difficulties. It was therefore decided on 8 March to revert to the practice of offering employment only after references and other inquiries had been pursued in advance. That is the present and intended practice.

I should add that I quite accept that the procedure adopted at Rosyth last year for speeding up recruiting had problems of this kind, and I repeat my comments about the individual cases and the distress that it has caused. Its disadvantages in creating dissatisfaction among those whose employment is not confirmed, even though they are a small number, outweigh the advantages gained by more rapid recruitment. For that reason, Rosyth has reverted to the usual procedures, and I see no prospect of any future departure from them. I hope that such circumstances will not arise in future.

This was a well-intentioned attempt to speed up recruitment procedure. I remind the hon. Gentleman that everyone was clearly informed in writing that his employment would in certain circumstances be subject to termination. As the secretary to the port admiral said, there has been no kind of witch hunt. There has been no departure from the normal procedures, and I am anxious that that should not happen.

Everything done at Rosyth, including the fact that individuals have not been given reasons for our inability to offer them permanent employment, is in accordance with normal accepted practice which has operated for many years, including the years during which the Labour party was in office.

I accept that, in giving a general outline of the way in which this procedure has worked, I have possibly been able to satisfy the hon. Gentleman on only one aspect of the problem. The difficulties arose because of a change in procedure. In the light of comments that he and others made to the Ministry of Defence it is no longer regarded as suitable. On the other point, I cannot help the hon. Gentleman further.

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to One o'clock.