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Orders of the Day — County Courts [Salaries and Allowances].

– in the House of Commons on 14th May 1924.

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Considered in Committee under Standing Order No. 71A.

[Mr. ROBERT YOUNG in the Chair.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That it is expedient to authorise the payment, out of moneys provided by Parliament, of all salaries, allowances, and other sums which, under any Act of the present Session to amend the Law relating to officers of County Courts in England and of district registries of the High Court in England, and to make further provision with respect to such County Courts and proceedings therein, and for purposes connected therewith, are payable to registrars, high bailiffs, assistant registrars, clerks, bailiffs, ushers, or messengers of County Courts, to the registrars and clerks of district registries of the High Court, and to certain officers in the Department of the Lord Chancellor."—[King's Recommendations signified.]

5.0 P.M.

Photo of Sir Patrick Hastings Sir Patrick Hastings , Wallsend

This is a matter which was before the House as recently as last week. I cannot myself think that it would be the wish of the Committee that I should take very much time in discussing over again what in substance was, as a matter of fact, considered on that occasion. The Second Reading was passed without a Division, but there were certain suggestions made from this and the other side of the House in regard to certain Amendments. Perhaps I may briefly state what the Bill is designed to effect. It really falls into two parts. The one is to regulate the position and terms of the employment of the Registrars of County Courts; and the other is to benefit, and benefit very substantially, the position of the inferior officials in the Courts who now are grossly underpaid and whose terms of employment are onerous and severe. There is additional provision for pensions for these people in the sense that they shall in future be made permanent civil servants. The reason why this Resolution is necessary is, as the Committee will see, that Clause 9 requires a Financial Resolution to authorise the expenditure. It might, perhaps, be desirable that I should give some sort of idea of the amount of money which this Bill is likely to involve. Under the first part of the Bill, which deals with the superior officials, the appointment registrars, and other matters of that sort, it is hoped that there will be a substantial economy, amounting to something like £25,000. With regard to the second part, which relates to the minor officials whom it is intended to benefit under the Bill, there will be an expenditure in the first year of something like £79,000. That sum is represented almost exactly to the extent of one-half by the payment of immediate gratuities, in the circumstances which I explained last week, to men who are now long past their work, who ought to have been put on a pension system, and whom it is intended to place on a system under which they will receive gratuities of something in the nature of one or two years' pay.

I do not want to reiterate the fact that the Bill is one which is long overdue, nor the fact that it is a Bill which is almost passionately desired, at least, by the minor officials of whom I am speaking, but I desire to urge upon the Committee the fact that this has been a matter of arrangement. There are four distinct parties concerned in the arrangement There is, first of all, the Treasury, who have not been easy to please in the matter of providing the necessary money. Then there is the Lord Chancellor's Department, who have been responsible for the negotiations; and there are two associations, one representing the registrars, and the other representing the County Court clerks and other officials whom I have described as the minor officials. That agreement has been made between all of these four parties, and, the Government having been in negotiation with these four different classes of people, and an agreement having been arrived at, it is impossible to alter that agreement, at any rate to-day. Although, as I have already stated, the grievance of these clerks and minor officials has been one of the outstanding features of the negotiations, and they have shown great loyalty in the face of continual struggles, this Bill not having been introduced until years after it became necessary, owing to difficulties caused by lack of Parliamentary time, one realises that it is always possible for one individual, or more than one, to approach an individual Member of the House and say, "Cannot I get a little more"? My answer to that is that, unless we can get this through on the scheme which has been agreed, it probably cannot be got through at all. Therefore, I urge individual Members who may have been approached by individual clerks, or individual bailiffs, or individual registrars, if any cases of that kind have occurred, to accept it from me that this arrangement has been agreed upon.

I see in his place the late Attorney-General, who was originally in charge of this Bill, and I feel fairly confident—indeed, I am quite confident—that he will bear out what I have said as to the great difficulty of the matter, and the great debt which all people who will benefit really owe to those who conducted the negotiations. Inasmuch as my right hon. Friend made some observations on the Second Reading in which, I think, he described either himself or myself as a layer of cuckoo's eggs, may I say at once that I recognise to the full that the Bill is not my Bill, but is the Bill of my predecessors? I claim no merit in regard to the Bill at all. The negotiations have been conducted entirely by the people whom I have mentioned, very difficult agreements were made, and the only merit that I think we can claim is that we have been able to afford Parliamentary time for the introduction of the Bill. Subject to that, I trust that there will be very little discussion on this Resolution, and I would again urge upon the attention of Members in all parts of the Committee that this matter is based upon an agreement, which I trust they will not endeavour to alter.

Photo of Sir Kingsley Wood Sir Kingsley Wood , Woolwich West

I am sure that none of us desires in any way to disturb the arrangement that has been made, but I should like to make one or two observations upon a matter to which the Attorney-General has just referred, and, perhaps, to put one or two questions to him. In the first place, I hope he will not in any way belittle the necessity of bringing Financial Resolutions before the House. He seemed to me rather to think, though perhaps I may be wrong, that, because he gave a very excellent explanation on the Second Reading of the Bill, and that that occurred only a few days ago, therefore we might treat this matter as a purely formal matter to-day, and not worry any more about it. I see the Lord Privy Seal in this place, and I know he will confirm me at any rate in this, though not, perhaps, in much else in regard to current matters, that this is a very necessary part of our procedure, and is the only time that the House has when it can properly review and look into the financial commitments so far as we are concerned. Therefore, I hope that the Attorney-General will not do or say anything which would materially alter or endeavour to minimise the value of this stage in the House of Commons.

I do not know whether he or the Lord Privy Seal can say why the practice has not been continued in connection with this Bill which I think has operated in connection with a good many others, namely, that we should have a short financial statement ready and available for us, from which we can see the exact financial commitments. I remember that Sir Donald Maclean, when he was in the House, urged this upon the Government on every occasion, and there was a very valuable House of Commons reform, namely, that, when these Financial Resolutions were placed before the House, we should have at the same time a White Paper setting out exactly the financial arrangements and the sum of money that the House was voting. I hope the Lord Privy Seal will look into that in this connection, and also in connection with any other Bills that may be brought forward. It is most useful to Members of the House, but it has not been provided in connection with this Bill. I hope that, either on this or on some other occasion, we may have a statement on behalf of the Government that at any rate that practice is going to be continued, because it is in the public interest, whatever party may be in power or in Opposition.

It is perfectly true, as the Attorney-General has said, that the scheme in connection with this County Courts Bill, upon which this Money Resolution is based, has been arrived at by agreement between the four parties to whom he has referred; and none of us, I feel sure, would desire to disturb that arrangement. I do feel bound, however, to say this afternoon, as it is the only opportunity we shall have, that there are a a number of old servants in our County Courts who are not really getting a very generous contribution under this arrangement. The Attorney-General referred to them, and I think he told the House that some of the older of them, who have been employed in our County Courts up and down the country for 30 or 40 years, are only going to get practically a bonus of one or two years' pay. I frankly admit the difficulties, in any scheme, of providing for these older men, especially when the Attorney-General tells us that the present Chancellor of the Exchequer has been very difficult in regard to providing pensions even for the present salaried staffs of our County Courts. That is a matter which we may notice on another occasion, but I am wondering whether it is possible for the Treasury now, even at the last moment, to make some further provision for these old servants.

I think more justice ought to be done to them, and my chief object, in making these few observations, was to put this final question to the Attorney-General, as to whether, even now, something further could not be done for those who, as he knows, have really served the State very well. There is no need to detail their services and the laborious work they have done in their particular duties, which do not bring them very much to the public notice. They have done very useful work in Courts which are becoming increasingly busier, and which are increasingly affecting more often and more frequently the lives of the people of this country. Our County Courts are to-day, I believe, conducting some 80 or 90 per cent. of the litigation of this country, and they are doing it excellently. We very rarely hear criticisms of their work or of the conduct of the officials, or even observations on the County Court Judges themselves. Therefore, I do think there is a strong case for these men, and I hope the Attorney-General will consider it.

There is an omission from this Resolution, which I suppose is a necessary omission, because provision is not made for it in the Bill. The Attorney-General will remember that on the Second Reading a good many right hon. and hon. Members, including, I think, the ex-Attorney-General, made a plea that something should be done for the County Court Judges of the country. It is a pity that no provision has been made for them in this Resolution. There, again, I hope the Attorney-General may be able to say something this afternoon as to whether he can hold out any hope that something further may be going to be done in this direction. It is a very important public question, because it is very necessary, having regard to the amount of business which the County Courts are doing, and the intimate way in which their decisions affect the life of the humbler people of the community, that we should attract the best possible men we can to become County Court Judges. I venture to say that, at the salary which they are now receiving, namely, £1,500 a year, you will not attract from the Bar to-day the best men that you can get, and that is what we ought to aim at. In days gone by, when £1,500 a year was decided upon, it was undoubtedly at a certain stage in the life of even an eminent member of the Bar an attraction to become a County Court Judge, and to be, to a certain extent, relieved from the daily anxieties and arduous duties of a busy profession; but I venture to say that you will attract very few men in the future by a salary of that nature. I dare say Cabinet Ministers can tell the Committee what a small sum even £5,000 a year is to-day, and when yon come down to £1,500 a year, and expect the best members of the profession to accept these posts, I am sure there will be an increasing difficulty. Therefore, I hope the Attorney-General may be able to hold out some prospect that some further consideration may be given to what I think is a very necessary and urgent matter.

Apart from these questions which I have ventured to put—not by any means with a view to criticising this arrangement or the satisfactory solution which has been come to—I congratulate whoever has been concerned in this arrangement, whether it be the present Attorney-General or the ex-Attorney-General—they can share the credit between them. I am, at any rate, authorised to say for a very large number of people who are concerned, that they welcome the rather belated attention that has been given to this matter; and we hope that, by means of the scheme that has now been arranged, not only in connection with the Registrars but in connection with the humbler officers of the Courts, they will have much better financial arrangements made for them, and that in that way we shall attract a still better type of man to perform what are really very arduous and difficult duties. While supporting the Resolution, I venture to express the hope that we may have some assurance from the Attorney-General on the points I have mentioned.

Photo of Mr James Sexton Mr James Sexton , St Helens

Like the hon. Gentleman who has just sat down, I have no desire to interfere with any arrangement that has been made. I think, however, that the point which I desire to raise is really a Committee point, which will not interfere with any arrangement. It is in connection with those of these officers who have served for 30 or 40 years, and have some years of vigorous service still to come. These men will automatically go on to civil pensions, but no regard whatever is given to their past years of service, not one year of which will count in regard to this pension. Some of them may only have a few years to go, but, in view of the fact that, particularly in the lower classes, such as the bailiffs, they are performing duties of a rather distasteful character, in the capacity of the Shylock of a system of private enterprise, and are not very well received wherever they go, I suggest to the Attorney-General that some consideration should be given as regards some of the time that has been served by these men, who have, one might almost say, toiled in the service of the County Courts, and that some part of that time should be taken into consideration for superannuation benefit. I hope that in Committee, if I happen to be on the Committee, I may have an opportunity of moving an Amendment to that effect.

Photo of Sir Douglas Hogg Sir Douglas Hogg , St Marylebone

I do not rise to delay the Committee for more than a moment or two, and I certainly do not desire to say anything which might in any way impede or imperil the passage of this Resolution or of the Bill to which it is designed to give effect. I welcome the attitude of the Government in affording time for a Measure in which I personally, as I think the Attorney-General knows, have taken a very great interest, and which, as he has very well said, does tardy justice to a very deserving class of men. I should like, however, if I may, to reinforce the suggestion that has been made by my hon. Friend the Member for West Woolwich (Sir K. Wood), that it would be desirable that detailed financial information should be given to the House before Members are asked in Committee to deal with a Resolution of this kind. In the present instance I do not suggest that it should be done before the Resolution is passed, because that would cause a delay, which we are all anxious to avoid; but I would suggest that even in the present instance it might be a good thing if, at least to the Members of the Committee who will presently have to look into the Bill upstairs, there could be given the detailed information from which the summarised figures which the Attorney-General has mentioned were derived.

The reason why I venture to press this suggestion just a little upon the Attorney-General is that, at the time when I was interested in the Bill, I had certain figures before me as to the estimated cost, and those figures did not altogether tally with the figures which the Attorney-General has just given to the Committee. The information that I had was, that the total cost, even including the registrars, would be £79,000, which the Attorney-General gave as the cost, excluding the registrars. Further, it was anticipated, according to the figures that I had, that the whole of the cost would be covered by the County Court fees which would be received, so that the net cost to the revenue would be nothing at all. Of course, it may be that further investigation of the figures has shown that those results were not quite accurate, and I do not, in the least, desire to challenge the statement which the Attorney-General has made, but the fact that there is that discrepancy emphasises, I think, what my hon. Friend—

Photo of Sir Patrick Hastings Sir Patrick Hastings , Wallsend

The figures which my right hon. Friend has given are quite accurate, and I did not intend to say anything that was different from them. What I intended to say was, that it was estimated that the saving, owing to the reorganisation of the Registrar's Department, would result in economies to the extent of £25,000, and that the total expenditure would be £79,000, of which one-half would be gratuities for the older men who are being retired at once. The £79,000 includes the expenses in connection with all the classes.

Photo of Sir Douglas Hogg Sir Douglas Hogg , St Marylebone

I am very much obliged to the Attorney-General for that explanation, which shows that there was not quite such a discrepancy as I had feared. Possibly I was under a misapprehension as to what the Attorney-General told the Committee, but, when we are dealing with figures of this sort, which are just a little difficult to follow when they are given on the Floor of the Committee, I think it is desirable that the Members of the Committee should have an opportunity of knowing in detail what the calculations are, so that they may form a judgment as to the amount to which they are committing the country. I am not in the least suggesting that the expenditure in this case is not amply justified, and is not, indeed a very moderate one. I am quite confident that it is. I entirely support the Resolution, but I think that this is a useful opportunity to reinforce my hon. Friend's suggestion, which I think is a valuable one. There is one other point, which is almost microscopic. I notice that in the Resolution there is a reference to powers taken to pay certain officers in the Lord Chancellor's Department. As far as I knew from the Bill, there are no officers in the Lord Chancellor's Department who are concerned. The only reference to the possibility of there being such officers is in regard to some power, I think, to appoint examiners, or something of that kind, to examine the accounts. I do not know whether that is the occasion of the reference, but it struck me as a little difficult to understand. I am heartily glad that this Resolution has been introduced. I congratulate the Government on finding time for it, and I entirely endorse the words of commendation in which the Attorney-General recommended it to the attention of the Committee.

Photo of Sir Ellis Hume-Williams Sir Ellis Hume-Williams , Bassetlaw

I do not like to sit quite silent while this Resolution is presented to the Committee, because I should like to congratulate the Attorney-General on having found time to bring in this Bill. It is long overdue, and it deals with a most deserving class. They have no union, and have never been able to strike, and have never, therefore, been able to enforce their demands in what, apparently, is the only modern way, but have awaited year after year the very tardy justice that this Bill is now meting out to them. I should like the right hon. Gentleman to give us some indication of the sort of scale of gratuities and pensions which are going to be given. I have not examined the Bill in any great detail, but I do not think it affords the information, and I think the Attorney-General might, perhaps, give the Committee some sort of idea as to what provision is being made for these men commensurate with the amount of service they have rendered to the State. I should also like to say a word about the aspect of the case which has been presented by my hon Friend behind me (Sir K. Wood) with reference to the importance of the County Courts, and the consequent importance of making them more attractive to the officials interested in them. County Courts are becoming more and more important. When I was a young man first called to the Bar, I will not say they were inefficient, but they had nothing like the jurisdiction or the efficiency which they boast of at present. The County Court Judges were recruited from a different class of men. The amount of work they had to do was large, but the scale of the work they had to deal with was comparatively unimportant. As every year has gone by the tendency has been to put more important work on to the County Courts. They now try a great number of cases which, when I was a boy, could only be tried in the High Courts. Now there is even a proposition that divorce jurisdiction should be conferred upon them. They try important cases which often take a whole day, and the jurisdiction is becoming every year more important. If that is so you must make it more worth while for men with brains to enter upon County Court work, and this Bill is a distinct step in that direction. By giving gratuities and pensions in the future it makes this a branch of the Civil Service which it is worth a man's while to enter, and you will recruit a better class of man for what is rapidly becoming one of the most important branches of the jurisdiction of the country.

Photo of Mr George Bowyer Mr George Bowyer , Buckingham

Like many other Members of Parliament, I have had certain grievances sent to me relating to the Bill to which this Resolution refers. I am very much struck by the appeal of the Attorney-General, in which he emphasised the fact that what has been done has been the result of an agreement come to between the Treasury and the Lord Chancellor's Department, as well as the Association of Registrars and the County Court Clerks' Association. It is difficult enough very often to make an agreement between two parties. It is very much more difficult, of course, to make an agreement between four parties, and I realise that whatever the force of individual objections and grievances may be it is of great importance, more especially as attention to this matter is long overdue, that what we have got by way of agreement should go through in the form in which it has been agreed upon. It seems to me to be all-important, in view of the increase of work which goes to the County Court now and in view of the increased importance which it holds in the life of the people, to make the whole life, of those who are involved in County Court practice more attractive. Not long ago a High Court Judge was selected from the County Court Judges. I believe that was a departure, but I cannot help thinking that if that precedent is not to be lost sight of in the future, it will act as something which will make the life of a County Court Judge more attractive, especially in this that it might lead to the possibility of a High Court Judgeship in the future. If in the case of this and other similar Financial Resolutions, we could have a White Paper it would be of great convenience to us. This matter, of course, assumes more importance when one speaks from this side of the House than when one speaks from that side, and it is not easy to grasp the full inner meaning of these Financial Resolutions, and the issue of a White Paper beforehand would lend enormously to an intelligent following of the Measure and of the statement of the Minister who introduces it.

Photo of Sir Herbert Nield Sir Herbert Nield , Ealing

I hope this Resolution is sufficiently wide in its terms to cover the very hard case of the older servants, and I hope the authorities, in administering the Bill, will take care not to pack off these old people with one, or at the most two, year's salary. The salary is extraordinarily low, and these poor people have been hardly able to keep body and soul together. I do not suppose there is anyone who has not come in personal touch with the administration of the County Courts Act who can realise the frightful monotony of the work. It is one of the features which makes one desire more to sympathise with those who have borne the burden of many years, either in the office of the registrar or of the high bailiff. Of course, in the smaller cases where the registrar has been a practising solicitor, there has been the general practice of the office and they have been able to fill up their time. But that is not the type of clerk I have in my mind. I am speaking of Metropolitan clerks and County Court clerks in large towns, where their whole life is given up to it, and I sincerely hope, when we come to deal with it in Committee, we shall find the Government prepared to accept Amendments to make it perfectly clear that the clerks are to be adequately remunerated. Something has been said about the salaries of County Court Judges. There again, undoubtedly, with regard to the altered conditions in which we live and many other considerations which do not apply to other judicial arbiters, the position of a County Court Judge is entitled to very generous consideration at the hands of the House. I hope it may be found possible to make the provision which I think has been suggested from time to time by those officials in connection with the County Court system, and I hope they will be able to induce the Treasury to act generously towards them.

Photo of Sir Patrick Hastings Sir Patrick Hastings , Wallsend

I should like to reply to one or two of the observations which have been made. The most important seems to me to be the one dealing with a White Paper setting out the financial position before the matter comes to Committee. It is too late to remedy that now, but the Deputy-Leader of the House tells me that that has been the practice in the past, and certainly we have no intention of doing other than carrying on that practice in the future. With regard to this Bill, I will see that a Financial Statement is prepared which shall be available to Members of the Committee upstairs. I think I can make the financial position clearer. It is anticipated that there will be a saving in the reorganisation of the Registrar's Department of £25,000 a year. The total cost in the first year, with regard to the increased remuneration to the minor officials and the registrars and everyone concerned, will be £79,000, of which £39,000 will go in immediate gratuities to about 127 minor officials who are over 65 years of age, and will be retired at once. They Will get a gratuity of about £300 each. That is what has been agreed. It is very easy to appeal on the ground that it would be desirable that they should have more. All I can say is that, with regard to every one of these matters, the increase of salary of County Court Judges, and such things as pensions to Judges' clerks, we should all like to do them, and we all feel they ought to be done, but the difficulty is to enable them to be done. There is nothing in this Bill which permits us to consider the increase of the salaries of County Court Judges. The Bill was not intended for that purpose.

Photo of Sir Ellis Hume-Williams Sir Ellis Hume-Williams , Bassetlaw

Are those about to retire to be given the option of £300 or a pension?

Photo of Sir Patrick Hastings Sir Patrick Hastings , Wallsend

No. Those who are to be retired under the agreement are men over 65 years of age. It is obvious that if you put those men on to a pension system, you are introducing the system that past years' service as the private servants of registrars was to be included in calculating pensions, and the scheme does not provide for that. In answer to the hon. Member for St. Helens (Mr. Sexton), I should like to have seen if it were possible, but the scheme does not provide for previous years of service being taken into account in arriving at a pension. What we wanted to do was to get the best terms we could, and these were the best terms we were able to arrive at after a consultation with the various Departments. When we get into Committee, I shall be prepared to give every detail of the agreement, and the matter can be further discussed.

Photo of Viscount  Turnour Viscount Turnour , Horsham and Worthing

I rise to deal merely with the question of the White Paper, which is rather an important matter. As I understand it, the hon. and learned Gentleman has said it was due to an oversight that the statement was not published. I am very glad to hear it is the intention of the Deputy-Leader of the House in no wise to depart from the practice of previous Governments and always publishing the fullest information on Resolutions of this kind. This is a right which is very jealously guarded, and it has been the subject of protest on former occasions. On the face of it it looked rather like a departure from practice that no information should be published with the Resolution, and I am very glad to hear that there is no intention to depart from the practice.

Resolution to be reported To-morrow.