HC Deb 27 June 1984 vol 62 cc1133-40

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

1.2 am

Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)

One of the most important rights of any citizen is to have his case raised on the Floor of the House. That is why, on behalf of my constituent Dr. Rankin, I am grateful for the opportunity of raising this subject on this occasion.

In January 1979, Dr. Rankin applied for the post of chief technician in the mining department of the university of Zambia. Instead, he was persuaded to apply for the post of lecturer in the department of mining in the university of Guyana. In a week he was appointed to that position.

Throughout that time Dr. Rankin was in the employment of the university of Leeds, but, apart from an initial period of two or three months, the whole of his contract was intended to be performed in the university of Guyana.

Such secondments seem to confer benefits on all three parties, or ought to. Clearly, it is of benefit to the individual. It also confers a great benefit on the country to which the individual is sent, particularly in so practical a matter as the science of mining. This is especially so of a country such as Guyana, given its needs. It also confers a great benefit on the donor country responsible for effecting the secondment.

It is my contention that in this case there appears to have been no benefit to the individual concerned, and that whatever benefit might have accrued from it has been lost. In all his subsequent dealings, Dr. Rankin has been extremely upset about this fact and has sought to rectify it, but he has also been fired by a determination that no one else should go through his experience.

This Minister more than any other will be aware that Guyana has undergone and is still undergoing a period of severe economic and social difficulty. Despite that, Dr. Rankin managed to found a department of mining in the university, and to recruit a member of staff who would ensure continuity in the department. Moreover, at the expiry of the contract, he was prepared to return to Guyana for a further contract. Nevertheless, at the end of the three year fixed appointment, the contract was not renewed. Dr. Rankin has returned to this country and, not unjustifiably, he feels that his full remuneration under the contract has not been met, and that has not been satisfactorily explained. He has not been offered a succeeding appointment.

The problem of Dr. Rankin's remuneration is a combination of superannuation payments and the gratuity paid to him by the university. On taking up the contract, he was required to join the university superannuation scheme. For his share of the scheme, he contributed 6.25 per cent. of his salary. According to the letter by which the appointment was confirmed on 25 May 1979 from the registrar of Leeds university: In addition, arrangements have been made for the 12 per cent. Employer's Contribution to be paid to this university while you are in Guyana. He was told that further details would be sent on to him in due course, but none ever appeared.

Despite that clear reference in the letter of appointment, a later letter dated August 1982 gave a different version of the facts. That said that at the time of his appointment in January, it had been agreed that the employer's contribution was to be payable out of the gratuities that he received from the university of Guyana and the Inter-University Council.

It is remarkable that, if that agreement had been arrived at in January, the letter of appointment in May made no reference to it, and that the first reference to that understanding was made in the letter of August 1982, after Dr. Rankin had returned to this country. It is made even more curious because the gratuities that Dr. Rankin was due to receive as a result of his service in Guyana were 6,772 Guyanese dollars, which with an exchange rate of 5.2 Guyanese dollars to the pound means, gross, between £1,250 and £1,300. The employer's contribution to the superannuation scheme came to £4,707, so even on the gross total, Dr. Rankin could not meet the employer's contribution through that payment. If one goes further, however, one finds that half of the gratuities that Dr. Rankin was due to receive were taxed in Guyana at a rate of 70 per cent., which meant that the dollars that he received through his gratuities yielded him exactly £192.

Dr. Rankin feels, and having looked at the figures, I agree the idea that he was supposed to pay the employer's contribution out of his gratuities incredible. The matter is compounded by the fact that Dr. Rankin strenuously denies ever having received any gratuity as a fixed sum at the end of the three years or, as is said in one of the letters of correspondence, at the end of each year. Despite the fact that he raised this in a letter as early as November 1982, followed by a letter in 1983, he has never been shown adequate documentary proof to allow him to acknowledge that he was paid. He has received no proof that those sums were paid.

The intertwined matters of superannuation and gratuity are of the utmost importance to my constituent. Two years after the completion of the contract, it is time that he be given an explanation to clear the matter up to his satisfaction.

Secondly, my constituent is aggrieved by the fact that, despite having a great deal to contribute as an experienced mining engineer, he has not been offered any further employment. He felt that his services were going to be sought because, in the initial letter to which I have referred, it was stated that he might be expected to work elsewhere if the Guyana project terminated prematurely. In the event, the contract ran its full term. During it, Miss Priscilla Wingate-Saul, one of the officers of the British Council, wrote to Mr. Irvine of the university of Guyana concerning the continuation of Dr. Rankin's contract. It was understood by the university of Guyana, as a result of that approach, that Dr. Rankin would be returning to the university for the autumn term, because the examination timetable for the end of the year in question was fixed to enable him to do that. Dr. Rankin would obviously have concluded, and did conclude, that he was going to be offered more than one term of contract, but that did not happen.

After serving out the remainder of his term in the form of leave, Dr. Rankin has been left unemployed. As a man over the age of 60, he is faced with insurmountable difficulties in obtaining a job of any kind, let alone a job of equivalent standing in this country.

To sum up this point, I find it incredible that someone like Dr. Rankin, who had gone abroad to teach and, therefore, to benefit that country and our country as the donor country, could at the end of his contract be left in such total confusion as to his entitlement under the contract, and left on the shelf.

For the future, I hope that the Minister can assure the House that the quality of information given about any contractual obligations is a great deal clearer for the person who has served a contract, and that efforts will be made to utilise every one of those lecturers so that their talents are harnessed to avoid the difficulties that may occur by their not being re-engaged for a second term.

My final point is possibly the most worrying of all. People like Dr. Rankin go abroad to a variety of material conditions in a variety of countries. Often the countries that need most help are those in which those conditions are the most difficult. I make no complaint about that. It is right that it should be so. However, I have to raise the question of how much longer the Government can expect people to fulfil that sort of contract when, at the end of their term, they have no claim to further employment. In addition, they apparently have no recourse to redundancy payments or rights, and no check upon actions leading to the termination of their contracts which, had they occurred in similar conditions in the United Kingdom, might well have led to awards of compensation. I imagine that the Minister will say that in the letter of appointment Dr. Rankin specifically waived, as did others, his rights under the redundancy payments and unfair dismissal legislation. I again stress that he was an employee of the university of Leeds at the time.

Can the Minister confirm that Dr. Rankin is now left without any legal recourse in respect of this contractual matter? If so, is that right? Is not the waiving of such rights against the public interest, and so possibly void in law? If not, should not it be taken into consideration in the terms offered to lecturers who give up careers, or who take up new short-term careers abroad, particularly as inflation, the cost of accommodation, physical shortages and so on in the country in which they serve are likely to undermine the adequacy of the salary during the term of their appointment?

When someone, as in the case of Dr. Rankin, suffers because of the inadequacy of those contractual arrangements and finds that his career prospects and health are at risk as a result of his having fulfilled them, we should insist that the parent body in this country recognises that fact, possibly by an ex gratia payment. In the good name of the country, Dr. Rankin should be offered such an ex gratia payment. I hope that the Minister can give us hope that people will never again find themselves in the position of Dr. Rankin, and that the hon. Gentleman will agree, in justice to Dr. Rankin, to have him recompensed for the bitter and hurtful experience that he has undergone during the fulfilment of that contract.

1.16 am
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Mr. Ray Whitney)

My right hon. Friend the Minister for Overseas Development has asked me to explain that he is leading the United Kingdom delegation to the ministerial negotiating conference for the new Lomé convention in Luxembourg, and to apologise to the House that he is therefore unable to be here tonight to reply personally to the representations made so eloquently by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John). As the hon. Gentleman recognises, the official connection between his constituent and his admittedly serious problem and the Overseas Development Administration rests on the payment of a supplement to Dr. Rankin additional to his salary in respect of his services in Guyana. Neither the ODA nor the British Ceuncil has any locus in respect of the contract of employment between the university of Guyana and Dr. Rankin.

It may be helpful if I first explain that an important objective of the official aid programme is to assist the development of skilled manpower resources in the rnany countries that receive British aid—a point made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd. Many Governments overseas are very willing—indeed, eager—to secure the services of British nationals to work in their public services, and universities and similar institutions. Such people are hired on contract by the overseas employer, be it the Government or a university, and they are paid the local rate for the job. In order to facilitate the employment of British people under such contracts, the ODA is willing to provide a supplement to the officer's local salary and some other benefits, such as a gratuity and allowances for children's education, so that, wherever possible, the total net emoluments paid in respect of the overseas appointment are on a par with the net salary the officer should expect to get from employment in Britain.

The British Government are unable to offer supplementary benefits to each and every British national employed in the public services overseas, but there are continuing discussions with each overseas Government involved about their plans for the development of a coherent manpower policy, and it is, of course, the overseas Government in each case who are best able to say which particular post held by British officers should be supplemented, in accordance with their relative priority and importance in their economic and social development policies.

In the specific case which the hon. Gentleman has raised, Dr. Rankin's service as a staff member of the university of Guyana was arranged on behalf of that university by the Inter-University Council for Higher Education Overseas—the IUC. The IUC ceased to exist as such in 1981 and its work in support of higher education overseas was taken up by the British Council. The IUC though an independent body representative of United Kingdom universities, derived most of its operational funds from the Votes of the Overseas Development Administration, and present support of higher education links, through the British Council, continues to be provided to a large extent by the ODA.

The hon. Gentleman has had considerable correspondence with the higher education division of the British Council about this case. I am sorry that he should have felt that at one point he did rot have full and frank replies to his letters. I understand that he subsequently had a meeting with the controller of the division at which, from the record that I have seen, there was a comprehensive explanation of Dr. Rankin's position and an assurance given that the British Council, as successor to the IUC, had fully discharged it obligations to Dr. Rankin.

Dr. Rankin was appointed by the university of Guyana as a senior lecturer in mining engineering in the faculty of technology—

Mr. John

I apologise for intervening because this is an Adjournment debate, but it is simply not true to say that he was appointed by the university of Guyana. The first sentence of the letter of appointment reads: I have pleasure in offering you a supernumerary fixed term appointment as a Lecturer in the Department of Milling and Mineral Sciences at the University of Leeds.

Mr. Whitney

That was part of the arrangement. The basic contract was with the university of Guyana. As I understand it, the arrangement was for a three-month attachment before and after at the university of Leeds. That is the origin. If I may continue, I shall reach that particular point.

Dr. Rankin was paid a salary at the top of the senior lecturer scale in Guyanese dollars, with other allowances and a gratuity of 10 per cent. of basic salary. At the same time, in 1979 the IUC arranged for Dr. Rankin to be appointed to a supernumerary post as lecturer in the department of mining and mineral sciences at Leeds university for three and a half years from 1 May 1979 to 31 October 1982. Under this arrangement Dr. Rankin was enabled to be employed at Leeds for about three months before he went to Guyana and for a similar period on his return. Employment at Leeds was funded by the ODA, through the IUC, and latterly the British Council.

In support of Dr. Rankin's overseas appointment, the IUC undertook to pay him a salary supplement, for the reasons I gave a moment ago, of about £7,000 a year for the duration of his overseas service and terminal leave, plus a gratuity of 10 per cent. of that supplement as a contribution towards maintaining superannuation arrangements.

Dr. Rankin was thus, for the period from 1 May 1979 to 31 October 1982, on contract to the two universities but not to the British Council nor Her Majesty's Government. The hon. Gentleman has made, on behalf of Dr. Rankin, a number of representations in respect of that period of service. As I understand them, they basically fall into two groups: first, the question of remuneration and the fact that Dr. Rankin was not paid to maintain his superannuation arrangements and did not receive his gratuity from Guyana; and, secondly, that he was given a promise by the British Council of future and further employment.

Let me take these points in turn. Dr. Rankin, as a university lecturer, was required to join the universities' superannuation scheme to which both the employer and the employee contribute. While he was employed directly by Leeds for about six months, that university paid the employer's share against reimbursement from the British Council. It was made clear to Dr. Rankin in writing that while he was employed by the university of Guyana he was expected to transmit the employer's contribution from the gratuity provided by the university of Guyana in lieu of pension, and from the supplement paid to him by the IUC, or by the British Council from 1981. That was made clear to him in letters in 1979.

I also understand that Dr. Rankin's own share—the employee's share, which was, of course, his own responsibility—has been paid, either directly or by deduction, with his agreement, from his salary at Leeds in the autumn of 1982.

The British Council has met fully its undertaking to provide Dr. Rankin with a supplement during his service in Guyana, plus a gratuity, all tax free. Dr. Rankin has these resources, coupled with his gratuity from Guyana, to draw on towards payment of the employer's share of the pension arrangements.

The British Council is, moreover, able to make an additional payment to meet the balance of the employer's share to take account of local Guyanese taxation of part of Dr. Rankin's overseas gratuity. No money is owed by the British Council to Dr. Rankin and no payment has been withheld from him. On the second point, the British Council had a categorical assurance in 1982 from the university authorities in Guyana that full payment of salary and gratuity had been made to Dr. Rankin.

With regard to the suggestion that the British Council has gone back on some particular promise to Dr. Rankin of further employment, let me repeat that he left Guyana after three years, in mid-August 1982, and returned to employment by Leeds. During 1981 the possibility of an extension of Dr. Rankin's contract by the university of Guyana was mooted at the initiative of that university itself. In response, the British Council indicated to the university of Guyana its willingness in principle to continue salary supplementation if indeed that university were to take a decision to renew or extend Dr. Rankin's contract. In the event he was not offered an extension or renewal by the university of Guyana. The reasons for that are entirely a matter for that university.

Since there was no further contract of employment by an overseas employer, the question of a salary supplement by the council in association with such a contract fell away. So that there is no possibility of misunderstanding, I should reiterate that at no time did the British Council give any undertaking to Dr. Rankin that he would be provided with a further contract of employment.

The question of living conditions in Guyana has also been mentioned by the hon. Gentleman. As in many countries overseas, British expatriates face different conditions from those they are used to here—in respect, for example, of living conditions and the high cost of familiar foodstuffs. They were among the factors taken into account when it was decided to offer salary supplementation in Dr. Rankin's case.

Much as I regret it, we could not help Dr. Rankin with additional support. I have to remind the House that the British Government's obligation to him was in respect of salary supplement and gratuity, although I might mention that he did receive a retrospective increase in his rate of supplementation.

I understand the very clear case which the hon. Gentleman has made and I appreciate the courteous way in which he has put forward the problems encountered by Dr. Rankin, but I have to say that, having looked at the case very carefully, I am absolutely ready to accept that the Overseas Development Administration fully discharged all the responsibilities that it had encountered and undertaken in respect of Dr. Rankin and that at all times the conditions relevant to the contract of employment were made clear to Dr. Rankin.

I believe that the arrangements which are in place are satisfactory and that the concerns which the hon. Gentleman has expressed for the general arrangements for overseas experts are, indeed, not well founded. The Overseas Development Administration has long experience in this matter and fulfils its obligations in an appropriate manner. I share the concern for the problems which Dr. Rankin is now experiencing, but I am convinced that the Overseas Development Administration has indeed discharged its obligations to Dr. Rankin fully and has at all times sought to answer diligently the various concerns that Dr. Rankin and the hon. Member have expressed.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past One o'clock.