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National Coal Board (Ex-Employee)

Volume 526: debated on Tuesday 6 April 1954

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

10.1 p.m.

I apologise to the Parliamentary Secretary for keeping him waiting all day for this Adjournment debate, but this case concerns a Mr. R. W. Simpson, of Glenrothes, for whom this debate will be more important than the Budget debate which has just been adjourned.

Mr. Simpson is a comparatively young man, in his early 40s. In 1949, he got a first-class mine manager's certificate. I should like to run very quickly through the events that have taken place since then which have now placed him in the position of being unable, although he has this certificate, to get a job in the coal mining industry, although he lives in one of the most important coalfields in the whole of Britain.

Subsequently to getting his certificate, in 1949, he was appointed a training officer at the Valleyfield Colliery, in Fife, and there he became responsible for dust suppression work, in which he was keenly interested, and in which, he tells me, he did very good work. I should say that all the information I have on this case is from Mr. Simpson himself, and it may well be a one-sided story. I have not heard the other side, but perhaps the Minister may be able to provide more information than I have.

In 1951, after Mr. Simpson had held this job for some time, the colliery manager, Mr. McAllister, was promoted agent in the East of Fife and later, in 1951, Mr. Simpson was transferred to die same area, where he again became a dust suppression officer. In July, 1952, he had added to his duties those of control and supervision of shot-firing and explosives in the mine in East Fife.

In August, 1952, Mr. Simpson was invited by the agent to take charge of the development of a new section which required to be speeded up, and Mr. Simpson tells me that the work there went ahead after he was invited to take charge of it. In October, 1952, he again returned to his duties as a dust suppression officer. It seems to me from that story to date that Mr. Simpson had evidently given some satisfaction; indeed, there is no evidence of any complaint having been made against him up to that time.

In March, 1953, he was appointed by the agent as the group dust suppression officer for two collieries, Michael and Lochhead, in East Fife, where his duties were to be of a supervisory nature. Mr. Simpson is a man of not too strong physique, and it was understood by the agent that he would not be involved in any work requiring lifting and that kind of thing.

Two days after his appointment to that work, Mr. McAllister, the agent, was given further promotion to be area production efficiency engineer, and a Mr. Finnie replaced Mr. McAllister as agent. Mr. Simpson alleges that the new agent was not an enthusiastic supporter of dust suppression, and, to cut a long story short, there was very little co-operation by Mr. Finnie in giving Mr. Simpson the necessary workers to transport the water pipes which are evidently necessary for dust suppression work. Simpson, rightly or wrongly, reported this lack of co-operation, so he thought, on Mr. Finnie's part to the area safety engineer, who wrote to the manager pointing out that Simpson was getting little co-operation from the agent.

Subsequently, word got back to the manager that Simpson had sent the letter. He was called to the manager's office and it was quite clear that both the manager and the agent were annoyed that he had written complaining of their non-co-operation on dust suppression. Simpson was then ordered to do laboring work, although physically he was quite unfitted for it. He protested to the agent and was then, I understand, recommended for a course on explosives. Shortly afterwards, he was invited to become an assistant teacher at shot-firing classes in a training centre at Muiredge, near to the collieries concerned.

Apparently, the agent personally told Simpson to report at these classes for nine o'clock in the morning on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Simpson attended the explosives course and expected to be appointed explosives supervisor in the area. Five weeks after commencing the shot-firing classes, Simpson was called to the agent's office and was given his notice.

Evidently the area production manager, to whom Simpson had written earlier complaining of the non-co-operation in the matter of dust suppression, had written again to Mr. Finnie complaining of the dust suppression measures at the Michael Colliery; and Simpson, rightly or wrongly, was blamed for those defects. His defence was that he had had to attend the shot-firing classes and that another dust suppression officer had been appointed at the colliery where the complaints were being made. Nevertheless, he got 15 days' notice as a result, and no reason was given.

At that juncture, Simpson wrote to me and I made representation to various quarters. I wrote to the Ministry of Labour in Fife asking for the National Coal Board reasons why Simpson was given his notice. The Ministry refused to give me those reasons. On 24th October, 1953, Simpson was given a clearance certificate which stated that he left of his own accord. He has tried subsequently to get a job at other pits in the area, but with no success.

On 18th November I wrote to the Scottish Division of the Coal Board, and the chairman told me that the reason why Simpson could not get a job was that he could not start his duties at six o'clock in the morning. Simpson points out that he could not do that because he had been asked by his agent to attend as a teacher at the shot-firing classes at the instruction centre for nine o'clock in the morning. Simpson still maintains that if need be he could start at 6 a.m. In fact, his present job in a linoleum factory in Kirkcaldy involves his starting at 6 a.m. Therefore, that argument does not hold water.

Having received no satisfaction from the Coal Board in Scotland, I wrote on 11th March, and again on 15th March, to the Coal Board headquarters at Hobart House, London. On 19th March, I had a reply which said that although Simpson had had jobs at Valleyfield, Blairhall and other collieries in the East of Fife, he was not really suitable for the jobs he had held, although so far as I know no complaint was made by these collieries. It also infers that Simpson was not prepared to co-operate fully with the management, and that his poor health was another factor which added to the difficulties.

Simpson, of course, alleges—and I have no reason to agree or to disagree with the allegation—that he has been victimised. The Scottish Coal Board headquarters deny this, and, in fact, after this whole question had been raised by me here with the Minister and with the Coal Board interesting developments took place. On 25th March Simpson got an invitation from the Scottish Coal Board to apply for a vacancy as warden at the residential training college at Sauchie, in Scotland. In Simpson's view the educational qualifications that were needed for the job were such as to rule him out completely, but Simpson feels, rightly or wrongly, that this invitation was sent out to destroy the argument that he had, in fact, been victimised.

I appreciate the Minister's courtesy in sending to me the letter that he sent earlier. I realise that he has a limited responsibility in this, but I ask him to consider these points. In the first instance, the Coal Board is continually crying out for men with technical qualifications and experience of all kinds, because there is a dearth of men of that calibre all over the coalfields of this country.

While it may be that Simpson has been a difficult man in some respects and may be he has not always co-operated— although I must say that co-operation is always a two-way traffic—there may be faults on both sides. In any case, he is a highly qualified man and Fife is a tremendously important mining area. It is one of the most important mining development areas in the whole of the United Kingdom. I myself know Simpson personally, would vouch for his sincerity and would say he is a conscientious worker and an able man with a splendid character.

I would urge the Minister to use his good offices and the influence which he must have with the Coal Board to get this man a job in the coal industry. It need not necessarily be in Fife. I believe that he is willing to take a job in England, and I would respectfully ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give me a sympathetic reply tonight, because this man and his family are desperately anxious that he should take his place again in the coal industry and help to give the country what it needs.

10.14 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Fuel and Power
(Mr. L. W. Joynson-Hicks)

I can well appreciate the desire of the hon. Member for Fife, West (Mr. Hamilton) to try to help his friend and constituent whose case he has raised in the House this evening, and I should like, in all sincerity, to express my admiration of the determination with which he has pursued the case of this miner. I am not sure whether he started at pit level, but it went up through the divisional board level to the National Coal Board. Now he has brought it to the national forum.

One cannot but be impressed with the encouraging way in which this gentleman is so anxious to remain in the coal industry. That is a good sign and one which we have not always seen in the coal industry in the past. There have been times when people have been only too glad to take an opportunity of leaving the industry to seek their fortunes in an alternative form of employment.

I am anxious to help the hon. Gentleman in any way I can, but my difficulty this evening is to see how I can help him. The responsibility of my right hon. Friend as Minister of Fuel and Power is limited by the statute. One of the things over which he has no direct control given to him by Parliament is the day to day administration of the nationalised industries, one part of which is their staffing arrangements. Indeed, it is difficult to see how it could be otherwise, for the question of the employment and engagement of their staff must inevitably be the responsibility of the employer, who is, in this case, the Coal Board.

If it gets upon wrong lines there are industrial arrangements by which the matter can be pursued, and the Coal Board is fortunate in having an exceedingly comprehensive system of trade union representation throughout all levels of the employees of the Board. I do not think there can be any difficulty, if a question of employment got upon the wrong lines, in finding a way in which it could be brought by the representatives of the employers and employed to a satisfactory method of negotiation. But that, again, is outside the sphere of my right hon. Friend.

I have followed closely what the hon. Gentleman said because I wondered whether there had been a case of wrongful dismissal or anything of that sort— but I did not understand from what he said that this was alleged; that there may have been a matter of difference of opinion as to the merits of the decision by the employer in the case, but, clearly, that is not a matter upon which my right hon. Friend could intervene. If there was a case of wrongful dismissal, that could be settled at law, but, there again, that is a different channel from the one which the hon. Gentleman is seeking to follow.

Then the hon. Gentleman mentioned that he had been in communication with the Chairman of the Divisional Board. That in itself is evidence that at his instigation the case was reviewed by high authority in that area. Not content with that, he had taken it up to the national level as well and the case must evidently have been reviewed by the deputy-chairman—I think he said—of the Coal Board. There, I began to wonder whether there might be a case in which my right hon. Friend could intervene, because he is responsible for the appointments of the Coal Board and the Act has given him power of dismissal of those whom he appoints.

But the hon. Gentleman made no complaint of the reception which the deputy-chairman had given to his letters, and there is no complaint of the reply which he received. In any case, I do not think that the hon. Gentleman would seek to press my right hon. Friend to use such drastic action as to invoke powers under the Act against a member of the Coal Board in the circumstances of this case.

The complaint I make is that the letter I received from the Scottish area was to the effect that the reason why Simpson lost his job was that he could not start at six o'clock. The reason that came from Hobart House—I think I am interpreting aright —was that he had not really been suitable in his previous job. So there seemed to be some kind of attempt to explain away something, which I think smells just a wee bit.

That, of course, is a matter of opinion, but one on which I cannot express any opinion because clearly I have no knowledge of the circumstances which led to the dismissal, if dismissal it was. I understood that a letter which he received indicated that he left of his own accord. Howsoever it may be, that is clearly a matter for the Coal Board to deal with as opposed to its being a matter for the Minister.

It occurs to me that there is no question here of the gentleman being debarred or victimised—I think was the expression used—to the extent of being unable to seek employment. We heard that he has received the opportunity of applying for a job actually in the same division of the Coal Board. In addition, he has a variety of qualifications. Among other things he is a qualified dust suppression officer, and it occurred to me that when he said that he was employed in the linoleum industry he was probably employed there as a dust suppression officer or in some capacity where he could utilise his knowledge and training in that respect, because that is a dusty industry in which that knowledge might prove useful.

I understand that he has also acquired some qualifications in shot-firing and the use of explosives. That, again, is an occupation which is by no means limited to the coal mining industry and he might find an outlet for his experience in quarrying or some other industry. My difficulty is that I do not know, and even if I did know I doubt whether it would be within my province to say, why this gentleman was unsuccessful in holding down any of the jobs which he had with the Coal Board.

It is true that the Board has a very wide need for skilled men but, as the hon. Member indicated, one must realise that the holding of a certificate or any other form of degree or qualification of a technical character by no means necessarily carries with it a qualification of suitability for an executive post. It may be that with the highest qualifications in the world people are not suitable for some kinds of jobs. I do not know, but possibly that applies in this case.

I do know that the Board is very fully alive to the need to make the best use it possibly can of people with the necessary qualifications. There is a shortage of qualified people and it would be very surprising to me if, with the qualifications which the hon. Member has indicated that this gentleman possesses, the Board should decline to make use of him without some satisfactory reason. The fact that he has now been offered the opportunity of applying for a position as a warden in a training centre rather indicates that that may well be the view of those who are in a superior position and who have to decide the rights and wrongs of people who hold executive positions under them.

That job, responsible and important as it is, may well not be the type of job which at first sight would appear to be a suitable one for a person carrying the qualifications outlined. On the other hand, it is a job which would enable the gentleman to remain in the industry and also enable him to keep in touch. Possibly, as time goes on, he might find that the experience which he has gained in technical ways might be given an outlet, if not in that division, in some other division of the Board, or in some other industry able to make use of his services.

I have not been able to assist the hon. Member to any great extent, but I do hope that I have indicated that, as far as lies in our power, there is really nothing we can do. I have every sympathy with him. He has had the opportunity of raising the case in the House. I can only wish him success and good fortune in the task in which he is engaged in trying to help his friend.

Question put, and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at Twenty-six Minutes past Ten o'clock.