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Post Office (Public Relations Officer)

Volume 465: debated on Monday 30 May 1949

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

10.14 p.m.

On 30th March I asked the Postmaster-General the following Question:

"Whether the public relations officer to his Department is an established civil servant; and what age-limit attaches to the appointment."
The right hon. Gentleman replied:
"The present public relations officer to the Post Office is not an established civil servant. In accordance with the general practice in the Civil Service about unestablished officers, no age limit attaches to the appointment."
I then asked this supplementary question:
"But as an established civil servant, aged 62, was removed to make room for this Socialist ex-Minister, who is now nearly 68, and who has had his salary increased from £1,350 to £1,700, can the Minister say how much longer this particular example of patronage is going to continue?"
The right hon. Gentleman replied:
"I do not think there is any question of patronage whatever. This man was put in because he was able to do the job, and he is still doing the job very well indeed."
After a supplementary by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Perth and Kinross, Perth (Colonel Gomme-Duncan), I said:
"In order that the House and the country may be better informed of the particulars of this appointment, I beg to give notice that I shall raise the matter on the Adjournment at the earliest possible moment."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 30th March, 1949; Vol. 463, c. 1208–9.]
My opportunity comes this evening.

My object is to pursue this matter a little further and to make certain investigations. I wish to ask the Assistant Postmaster-General if he will be good enough to elucidate certain points to us. May I make it clear from the outset, because it is important, in relation to what I have to say, that I am not acquainted with, and indeed have never met, the gentlemen whose names I am now to mention? I assure the Minister that there is here no case of personal advocacy or antagonism and that I believe the principle here involved to be one which affects hon. Members in whatever part of the House they may sit.

Brigadier G. C. Wickins, C.B., C.B.E., was appointed Public Relations Officer to the Post Office on 1st February, 1945, being then aged 60 years and seven months. He was released from the Antiaircraft Signals to take the post. He was transferred to other Post Office duties on 1st May, 1946, for a few months, pending his retirement in October of that year at the age of 62 years, three months. Apart from his absences during two great wars, in both of which he rendered distinguished service in the field, this gentleman had been in the Post Office for 44 years.

He was released on 1st May, 1946, to make way for Sir Drummond Shiels, another gentleman whose record in the first world war was extremely gallant. He returned from it decorated with the Military Cross. At the time of his appointment to this public relations office at the Post Office his age was 64 years, nine months, making him now 67 years, nine months of age and still holding the appointment.

He was, as hon. Members will be of course aware, Under-Secretary of State for India in the Socialist Administration of 1929 and subsequently he was Under-Secretary of State for the Colonies in the same Administration. Since then he has rendered other public services of value to his country. He served on a special Commission on the Ceylon Constitution and he was deputy-secretary for some time to the Empire Parliamentary Association, a body which hon. Members of all parties belong to, and value. He is a qualified doctor, but he has had no previous experience—and this is, after all, the important point—of either Post Office work or the intimate working of public relations. In short, he appears to have been appointed to this class of public relations, early during the lifetime of this Government and before many of their great Measures had reached the Statute Book, as one who has been well qualified to publicise nationalisation and its merits to the public, by demonstrating its virtues in the Post Office.

Neither the hon. Gentleman who has come here to reply, nor his chief the present Postmaster-General, were at that time in office. The Department was at that time in the hands of the noble Lord the Earl of Listowel, and the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Burke). Reference to HANSARD will show that I queried this appointment on the ground, which seemed to me to be odd, that a gentleman of 64 years of age should replace one of 62. So much for the appointment. I now turn to the duties attached to it.

The responsibilities of the post have considerably increased. During the time of the previous Public Relations Officer the Department comprised a publicity section, a Press section and a sales section. In pre-war days there was also attached an excellent general Post Office film unit under the control of this officer. There is no film unit now, and the sales section is no longer under the control of the Public Relations Officer. All that remain are the publicity and Press sections. Moreover, in pre-war days one of the functions of the public relations department was to persuade people to become telephone subscribers. The hon. Gentleman will be the first to admit that that form of propoganda and persuasion is not necessary at the moment. Nowadays, so far from there being a shortage of subscribers, we shall find common ground in saying that there is a shortage of telephones, and indeed there is a proposal before the country to fine fairly heavily those who have been unwise enough to instal telephones in their houses, by the raising of the charges which they will have to pay.

In these circumstances, with the removal of these various activities from the Department, it seems odd, to put it mildly, that the salary of £1,350 per annum drawn by Brigadier Wickins has been raised to £1,700 for his successor. The first question I must put to the hon. Gentleman is: Why is there a higher remuneration for decreased responsibility? I must ask him this, too, because it is very relevant: Has there been any comparable rise in any section of the established staff, as the result of the trade union negotiations which have been patiently carried on since 1946? I think I am right in saying that the U.P.W., one representative of which I see opposite, are at this moment endeavouring to negotiate a general increase of 12½ per cent., while the increase to the Public Relations Officer represents something in the vicinity of 25 per cent.?

I can see one possible explanation of this. I do not know whether I am right, but the hon. Gentleman will probably reply that the first public relations officer ever appointed to the Post Office by the late Sir Kingsley Wood was Colonel Crutchley, who received a salary of £1,650 per annum in 1935. It was stated that that was to conform to his previous salary level. I have investigated that and have found that Colonel Crutchley was a Post Office man in his origin. For many years he was transferred to the Ministry of Transport and from there to Australia to deal with the migration problem, and he probably returned here with a salary of something like that category and that may be the reason why he drew that salary at that time. However, that is a digression from the main matter before us.

I must ask the Assistant Postmaster-General this question: Why was it necessary to appoint an outsider of nearly 65 years of age, with no Post Office specialised knowledge, to replace an experienced established official nearly three years his junior? Why retain that outsider in his appointment years after the age at which an established civil servant would be compelled to retire? I do not think it is unfair to ask: Why appoint an outsider at all, and particularly a Socialist ex-Minister?

When the time came for Brigadier Wickins to go, was it really impossible to offer the post to another established civil servant of experience and personality there? There was one available. I will not mention his name because I think it would be invidious to suggest an alternative to an appointment which is already in existence, but the Minister will recognise at once I am sure, that when the Post Office went into publicity one of their most successful discoveries was a former Post Office Press officer, whose work both there and in the Middle East during the the war won deservedly high praise and who is still in the middle fifties. He would surely have been the ideal man, but instead he was allowed to go to London Transport, because, presumably, of the resolve to appoint an elderly and pliant politician.

Apart from him, surely there are established civil servants in the administrative grades of wide Post Office experience who could fill this post with conspicuous success, but if not in the Post Office establishment, surely throughout the Civil Service establishment as a whole. After all there are now 694,000 from whom to choose. In any case, how long is the present Public Relations Officer to continue in this appointment—unto three score years and ten or unto four score years?

I end as I began. This is no personal vendetta—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh!"] No. I have met none of the gentlemen mentioned, that is what I meant by saying that this is no personal vendetta.

I am afraid I cannot give way. I am pursuing the appointment, as I have done for three years and one month——

This is no personal vendetta. I hope I shall not be told by the hon. Gentleman that I am attacking a distinguished civil servant unable to defend himself. [An HON. MEMBER: "You are."] The Lord President of the Council has asked us to give instances of where we think unsuitable appointments have been made to nationalised industries. This gentleman is certainly distinguished. I said so at the beginning. However, he is not a civil servant in the generally accepted sense of that term. I am criticising the appointment and not the man. The Minister can quite properly be asked a Question and defend the appointment on the Floor of the House, and I have raised the matter in the hope that he may now do so.

10.28 p.m.

I regret that my hon. and gallant Friend has introduced this subject at all. It is always difficult and embarrassing to hon. Members here when what will be interpreted as an attack upon a public servant is brought before the House. I have the privilege of serving on the Advisory Council of the Post Office, I have been in touch with the present Public Relations Officer for some years, and I can bear testimony to the admirable service, in season and out of season, which he renders to the Post Office.

The gentleman referred to by my hon. and gallant Friend was a Member of this House for a considerable time. He was a member of His Majesty's Administration. Subsequently he became assistant secretary of the Empire Parliamentary Association and was in that office for a period of five years. Those of us who have been associated with that work, receiving visitors from all parts of the Dominions and Colonial Empire, have the greatest admiration for the tact and skill and spirit of service rendered by him.

Yes, my hon. and gallant Friend said all that, but he said it in a way which can be interpreted unkindly and I do not like that sort of thing in this House. I am a peacemaker in this House whenever I intervene. During the time this gentleman has been at the Post Office, I have had many consultations with him. More than that, I have had the opportunity of consulting those outside who are competent to express an opinion on the efficiency of his work and, believe me, in the Press there is universal agreement that his contact with all the channels of publicity which make for the development of this country in all its aspects of social service, has been regarded as highly acceptable.

I think it a great pity, when a public servant has rendered work of that kind, that we should criticise him in this House and make his future work an embarrassment. As a matter of fact, I understood that this gentleman wished to retire from his position at the Post Office some time ago, but because of the work he was doing so efficiently and the service he was rendering to the satisfaction of the Postmaster-General and the Director-General of the Postal Services, he was asked to continue his service. I resent strongly any attack in this House, either implied or expressed, in which a public servant is brought under unfair criticism. I conclude by bearing my testimony to the quality and character of this public servant, and I say that he deserves the confidence of this House.

10.30 p.m.

The hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) has quite properly said he is not attacking the person, but is attacking the desirability or suitability of this person for the office. I should like to declare my interest and say that from my personal knowledge of the officer in question, this public servant has indeed far more of the qualities for fulfilling this office than many of the appointments the Government have made. In the past I have sincerely attacked the Postmaster-General for his administration, but in this instance he has appointed a man who has every personal quality necessary for the job. When I first knew him he was a member of the Tariff Reform League. I do not know whether this will commend him to my hon. and gallant Friend. Subsequently he was engaged in business in the city of Edinburgh. He served in the First World War and won the Military Cross. I saw him fighting in battle with a gallantry as great as any man has shown. Later he was a member of Edinburgh Town Council. All these were public relations. He qualified almost at middle age, as a doctor. He thought it his public duty to enter this House, but he is a doctor of medicine. After that his career is well known to the House.

I submit that this record of service, apart from his personal qualifications, justified the Postmaster-General in his appointment. Why should age be against him? Age should be no bar. Voltaire wrote "Candide" at 64. It may well be that the P.R.O. of the Postmaster-General's Department is such an officer. Who will say that my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition, who is well past the age of 65, has lost the capacity of effective public relations? The Government know very well his competence in this field; if not, they will know at no distant date. I declare again my interest. It is impossible to imagine another appointment which will be so well justified by capacity as this particular one.

10.32 p.m.

My task this evening has been made all the easier by the interventions on behalf of the Public Relations Officer of the Post Office of the two hon. Members who, out of their knowledge of the individual concerned both personally and in their official capacities, have spoken so well with regard to his appointment. The hon. and gallant Member for Holderness (Lieut.-Commander Braithwaite) was at great pains to say that there was no vendetta against the P.R.O., but if there has been no vendetta, there certainly has been a campaign of disparagement. Of that, I am convinced.

It is all very well for the hon. and gallant Member to say at the outset that he raised this question in March this year. In point of fact he has been pursuing this matter for over three years. My predecessor, the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Burke) was asked in April, 1946, by the hon. and gallant Member:
"What is the age of the new P.R.O. for the Department and what was that of his predecessor on retirement?"
The reply was given, and the hon. and gallant Member's supplementary was to the effect:
"Are we to understand that this exacting task of public relations is now to be regarded as suitable gainful employment for a superannuated Socialist ex-Minister?"
Then the hon. Member for Holland (Mr. Butcher) asked:
"Is it not a fact that this is an admirable appointment?"
The hon. Member for Blackpool (Mr. Robinson) asked:
"Is it not a fact that this appointment was made purely on merit and that this person is a first-class public servant?"—[OFFICIAL, REPORT, 11th April, 1946; Vol. 421, c. 2070.]
These questions were not asked by hon. Members on this side, but by hon. Gentlemen opposite, which I think is sufficient proof that the general feeling in this House is that this is not a political appointment. Certainly it is not.

I have been asked one or two direct questions, which I shall endeavour to answer. Before I do so, I think it is necessary that there should be a certain amount of background given. The late Sir Kingsley Wood appointed the first P.R.O. to the Post Office, Sir Stephen Tallents, and he came from outside the Department. It is true that he had Civil Service experience, but he did come from outside the Department. The subsequent appointment was Lieut.-Colonel Crutch-ley, who was later seconded to the Home Office. During the war, public relations practically ceased to exist, and the machine was just kept going by a series of assistant secretaries.

That brings me immediately to the suggestion, or insinuation, that the present holder of this office has not so many men under his control, and therefore has less responsibility. I think I am quoting the hon. and gallant Member fairly. In point of fact that may be so, as far as the predecessor in the office, Mr. Wickens, is concerned. He had not the whole task which falls upon the present holder of the office. He did only part of the job. He had not the whole of the responsibility. He was perfectly aware, within nine months of the appointment being made, that as far as he was concerned, he had no right to expect that he would become the permanent Public Relations Officer to the Post Office. That was made clear to him. So he cannot claim to have been unfairly treated.

What we endeavoured to do was to find a person who was suitable for carrying out the job. Soundings were made, people were interviewed, and, in the opinion of the previous Postmaster-General and of his officials, Sir Drummond Shiels's was the best possible appointment. I think that that has been proved beyond peradventure, because we have had no complaint about the efficiency of the holder of this office. I have a series of quotations made by people paying tribute to his work. I shall read one of them, and am prepared to give to the hon. and gallant Member the source of the information later. It reads:
"If all public relations departments were like yours, news-editors would have fewer grey hairs and reporters fewer duodenal ulcers."
That does not seem to be the case of a person who is inefficient—if he can satisfy the Press, who would be critical, particularly if they were aware of the fact that this person happened to be a Socialist ex-Minister.

Regarding the salary, I have heard the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness claim that he is always in favour of the rate for the job. In this case we are paying the rate for the job. No special rate is being given to the present holder. The hon. and gallant Member does raise a real principle here. If we are to follow his argument—I hope I am being fair, and I have endeavoured to pay particular attention to the questions he has asked—I must say that frankly I do not like his approach to this subject. I think he has a political bias, and that he has allowed this bias to get the better of him in his approach to this question of the Public Relations Officer to the Post Office. I deplore that.

Let us consider this question as an ordinary appointment. The fact is that Sir Drummond Shiels is a Socialist ex-Minister and the Government claim the right to appoint people to posts without regard to their political affiliations. I think that all sides of the House will agree so far as that is concerned. What the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness is asking us to do is to apply a political test and only to appoint people who are non-political, and, by inference, Conservative.

I think that is true. It follows from what the hon. and gallant Member said. That would be tantamount to banning all Socialists from holding appointments. It would be political patronage of the worst type if that came to pass. I think that is the logical consequence of the points raised by the hon. and gallant Member. We are satisfied that Sir Drummond Shiels is doing a good job and that he is efficient. It is true that had he been a permanent civil servant he would by now have retired. That is accepted. But it is not unusual to appoint to specialist jobs of this character, people brought in from outside who are allowed to continue working beyond the normal retiring age. As has been pointed out by intervention, if we are going to raise the question of age, we shall cast reflections on Members of both Houses of Parliament who are over that age, and the hon. and gallant Member will be casting a reflection on his own Leader—and I am sure he does not intend to do that.

I deplore the fact that the hon. and gallant Member has raised this matter. There is no question of political jobbery, log-rolling or nepotism. It was a straightforward appointment, and the person who got the job was the most able of those who presented themselves for the post. I am convinced that the Post Office is getting good service from Sir Drummond Shiels and will continue to get good service from him. I do not think that the person who only partially held the job has been ill-treated or badly done by. He has been fairly treated. He was never led to believe that he would become the permanent Public Relations Officer of the Post Office.

Therefore, I can only say that I regret the fact that the hon. and gallant Member for Holderness has seen fit to raise this matter. I feel that it is somewhat deplorable, and it is certainly neither honourable nor gallant to attack a civil servant who is not in a position to reply for himself.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Eighteen Minutes to Eleven o'Clock.