§ THE EARL OF DARTMOUTH had given Notice to call attention to the West Midland Regional letter of February 9, 1922, stating that the Ministry of Pensions issued instructions that the salaries of the clerical and typing staff of the Staffordshire War Pensions Committee should be reduced in accordance with a revised scale, with effect on February 10, without previous notice of such reductions having been given, and to ask—
- 1. Whether the members of such staff were not legally entitled to one week's notice before such reductions would become operative.
- 2. What association or associations nominated the staff representatives.
- 3. What grounds there were for the Minister's statement that the terms of the agreement were well known.
- 4. Whether, when the agreement was made, the staff representatives knew that it was proposed to institute the revised salaries without giving the staff one week's statutory notice.
- 5. Whether any local committees have ignored the instruction, and if so, what action the Minister proposes to take.
§ The noble Earl said: My Lords, the letter to which I shall call attention is a circular letter that was distributed by the Regional Directors to the various local committees within their respective areas, calling attention to the instructions of the Minister of Pensions that the salaries of the clerical and typing staffs of the war pensions committees were to be reduced in ac.2ordance with a revised scale. The letter with which I am concerned was written on February 9, and was received on February 10, which was the date on which the reduction was to take place. The chairman of the Staffordshire local committee wrote to the Regional Director making a protest, and pointing out that, it would be grossly unfair if this was done. These reductions amount to between 5s. and 6s. per week, and by the Regulations of 1920 all appointments other than principal appointments may be terminated by one week's notice in writing. It may possibly be argued that this circular letter, conveying the instructions, did not involve the termination of the appointments, but I think that most of us will agree that those who have accepted service under certain conditions are entitled to statutory notice when those conditions are altered.
§ The Staffordshire local committee is not alone in this matter. There have been a good many protests and I think there is a general sense of agreement as to what seems to be a breach of contract. A Question was asked the other day in another place, and the answer given by the Minister was to the effect that the reduction referred to was the result of an agreement come to after protracted negotiations between the representatives of the staff and the Treasury, that the agreement was a compromise in favour of the staff and its terms were well known; and that it would have been better if formal notice had been given. I should like to say at once that I am not complaining of the reductions—they may be necessary—but what we do complain of is the manner in which they were carried out. It is, I think, obvious that economy, if it is to be effective, will involve hardship upon a good ninny people, and I have no sympathy with those professed economists who, while always girding at the extravagance of the Government 27 and clamouring for economy, always seem to think that the weight of the economy should fall on other shoulders than their own.
§ I think we may admit that reductions, in view of the present state of things, are necessary, but I feel strongly that it was very unfair to have carried out these reductions in the way they have been carried out. I think, realising what a reduction of from 5s. to 6s. per week must mean to many of these poor people, the Department would have been well advised to temper the wind to the shorn lamb, instead of which they have proceeded in a way which constitutes a general sense of grievance.
§ I should like to say one word about the position of the local committees. We know, I think, by experience, that where there is a grievance it is always the nearest head that gets beaten. In this case it is t he head of the local committees, and from my experience of these local committees I am confident that the work they have done is beyond all praise. They are ladies and gentlemen who have for a long time given up their time, without any remuneration at all, in order to carry out the difficult and rather delicate task of administering pensions, and they feel that they should have received a little more consideration than that which has been shown them.
§ We, in this House, are perhaps a little more fortunate than are the members of another place, because in giving notice of a Question we can elaborate the particular points on which we want an answer. With regard to the second point in my Question, your Lordships will notice that in the answer given in another place the Minister said that it was a matter of negotiation. We have no knowledge of what association or associations entered into those negotiations. As to the third point, my idea is that nobody had any idea of the agreement and that it came upon these people as an avalanche. I hope that the noble Lord who is going to reply to my Question will be able to give a satisfactory answer on these four or five points.
THE UNDER-SECRETARY OF STATE FOR AIR (LORD GORELL)
My Lords, I feel able to admit at once that at first sight the case which the noble Earl has stated with such moderation seems almost to deserve the censure that he has meted 28 out to it, but I think I can show, in a very few words, not only that there is no actual grievance but that by the attitude which has been adopted throughout by the Ministry towards these clerical staffs they have actually benefited. Before doing so I might say that I was glad to note that the noble Earl made no complaint about the actual reductions, but rather confined his attention to the technical point of the general sense of grievance.
What are the actual facts with regard to these clerical staffs? They are appointed by the local war pensions committees and not by the Ministry of Pensions, but they are paid by the Ministry of Pensions, and the rates of pay which have governed them have been those which have governed those in similar classes of employment, not only in the Ministry of Pensions but in Government employ as a whole. They have for some time past been treated, therefore, as substantially in the same position as direct employees of the Ministry. From time to time in the last few years it has been obviously necessary to adjust rates of pay throughout Government Departments, and these rates have been settled as occasion arose by negotiations between staff associations, nominated by the staff side of the National Whitley Council, and the Treasury. The first negotiation to which I should like to draw attention is one that was embodied in an agreement of November 29, 1920. That was an agreement between the Treasury and these associations representing temporary clerks in Government employ to increase the rates of pay throughout the Government service. Though the agreement was come to on November 29, the increased rates of pay were made retrospective to July 1, and the agreement was applied, not merely to the regular employees of Government Departments, but also to these clerical staffs who were appointed by the local war pensions committees.
Perhaps naturally, as human nature goes, there was no protest on the part of these clerical staffs at their pay being suddenly increased in this way and made retrospective, or at their being treated in exactly the same way as the regular Government servants. Then, as the noble Earl has admitted, towards the end of last year it became necessary, in consequence of the fall in the cost of living, to revise the rates of pay again, and there was a lengthy negotiation conducted between 29 members of the association representing the staffs and the Treasury. Exactly the same course was followed as in the previous year, and there is perfectly clear evidence that a very large proportion, at any rate, of these staffs of local committees were well aware of the coming reduction in their pay. So much so that the rates were actually inserted in a number of the journals which are issued by these staff associations. These negotiations went on for a considerable time, and it was not until January 25 of this year that an agreement was actually reached, and the date fixed upon for the coming into force of this agreement was February 4.
It is obvious that had the Ministry of Pensions departed from their previous rule of regarding these employees as direct employees of the Ministry they would, in consequence of the reduced cost of living, have brought into force reductions for these employees at a considerably earlier date than they did. But, having throughout treated them exactly as if they were regular Government employees, they treated the agreement as applying also to them, and they gave them the further extension of time fixed upon up to the date mentioned by the noble Earl, February 10. They did not, as had been done in the case of increase of pay, make the reduction retrospective. It is, therefore, I think, clear that these clerical staffs have gained materially throughout the course of the time under review by being treated in this way.
The Ministry of Pensions has not yet received all the accounts of local committees for the period in question, but, so far as the Ministry is aware, no committee has ignored the instruction to give effect to these reductions, and it is obvious that, unless an entirely anomalous position was to be created between people doing exactly the same class of work, there was really no other course before the Ministry. I am informed that, so far from there being, as the noble Earl said, a general sense of grievance, in the large majority of cases at any rate there has been no protest made against these reductions, and only in a very few instances has any exception been taken to the action which the Ministry felt bound to take. It is certainly true, and should he admitted, that the position of these clerical staffs in the past has been rather anomalous, and it is in consequence of that that the Ministry have felt throughout that the only way of treating them was 30 on precisely the same footing as employees directly employed and paid by the Ministry. This anomaly, as no doubt the noble Earl is aware, will be removed from the end of this month in consequence of the provisions of the War Pensions Act, by which the staffs of these local offices will become an integral part of the staff of the Ministry.
§ THE EARL OF DARTMOUTH
My Lords, I am obliged to the noble Lord, but I should like to ask one further question. The benefits that are suggested do not seem to me to affect the position I have taken up. My point is that, whether the reductions were necessary or not, these men were entitled to a week's statutory notice, which was not given. I do not think the noble Lord quite answered that point. Nor did he answer my fourth Question, which asks whether, when the agreement was made, the staff representatives knew that it was proposed to institute the revised salaries without giving the staff one week's statutory notice, to which I claim that every member of the staff was fully entitled. The noble Lord said there have not been many protests. I know that in our own case we wrote two letters to the Regional Director, and two letters were written from his office to the Minister, and it was more than a mouth before the Regional Director got an answer to the first letter making a protest, not against the reduction—I hope I make that perfectly clear. These reductions may be necessary in the circumstances, but I am protesting strongly against the fact that they were made without the week's statutory notice to which these people were entitled.
I am sorry if I have not answered all the noble Earl's Questions. I was under the impression I had covered all the ground mentioned by his five points. I think there is no doubt that, technically, these staffs were entitled to the notice which he has claimed in his first Question, but I attempted to show that, had the Ministry of Pensions been governed by the strict interpretation of rights, these staffs would in fact have been subject to reductions many weeks earlier. With regard to the fourth Question, so far as I am informed it is quite clear that it was well known that these reductions would take effect as soon as possible after the agreement which had been come to, dated January 25.