The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1979-1983 Parliament

Mr Major’s Contribution to Civil Service Science Grades Debate – 9 July 1979

The text of Mr Major’s contribution to the Civil Service Science and Technology Grades (Pay) debate in the House of Commons on 9th July 1979.

Mr. Tom Benyon (Abingdon) I am glad to have the opportunity to speak on an important subject, albeit for a brief time. I begin by congratulating my hon. Friend the Member for Southend, West (Mr. Channon) on his appointment as Minister of State, Civil Service Department. I recognise that he has inherited the problem that we shall discuss tonight. He will, I am sure, wish to avail himself of the opportunity of clearly stating the Government’s future attitude towards the scientists and engineers, whose work is of such importance.

I cannot deal with the pay issue in detail. The details of the highly complex pay offers and structures are doubtless as well known to my hon. Friend as they are to me. It is more important to talk in terms of attitude and principle for the future. My hon. Friend will know that ill-feeling has been gestating for more than 15 years and that it has now blossomed into bitterness and acrimony. I have received more than 500 letters from dissatisfied constituents, and many colleagues in the House and present in the Chamber tonight have suffered a like fate. I mention but some: my hon. Friends the Members for Devizes (Mr. Morrison), Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton), Hitchin (Mr. Stewart), Twickenham (Mr. Jessel), Huntingdonshire (Mr. Major), Oxford (Mr. Patten), Fareham (Mr. Lloyd), Newbury (Mr. McNair-Wilson), Galloway (Mr. Lang), Renfrewshire, East (Mr. Stewart), and Brighton, Kemptown (Mr. Bowden). The constituents who have written to me are moderate men, members of a moderate union; men slow to anger, who view industrial action with extreme distaste and who have been forced to strike.

Scientists and engineers believe, and there is substantial evidence for it, that the Civil Service Department has been waging a long vendetta against them. They further believe that neither the Government nor our fellow countrymen realise how important they are and that the administrators eat the cream, leaving the milk for them.

My hon. Friend will know that I am privileged to have many scientists and engineers living and working in my constituency. Their roles are vital for the future for our country.

I begin with Harwell, a multi-purpose research and development establishment which has moved into contract research and now receives 60 per cent. of its revenue from sources other than the atomic energy Vote. These funds approximate to £30 million, a remarkable achievement from a team effort inspired by Dr. Walter Marshall. This is surely one of our country’s few great success stories since the war.

Next, I turn to the Rutherford Laboratory, which is the largest establishment of the Science and Research Council. Its function is to provide front-line fundamental research for universities. It is of key importance to the country’s future, in terms of both education and research.

I come now to Culham, this country’s main establishment for the investigation of nuclear fusion, which may hold the ultimate answer to our energy problems. It is host to the Joint European Torus, JET, which is a crucial step forward in fusion research.

Scientists and engineers are the cutting edge in those establishments. The calibre of talent is immensely great. Their contribution to our country’s future, in terms of technical research and provision of energy, is hard to exaggerate. The scientists and engineers must expand our civil nuclear programme over the next 20 years to fill a substantial gap that will be left by the decline in supplies of oil and natural gas. Nuclear power is the only new source that can possibly produce energy on the scale that we need.

That is why the scientists and engineers are so important. However, as I have indicated, morale is at an all-time low. They believe that the Civil Service Department holds them in contempt. This must not be allowed to continue.

Mr. John Major (Huntingdonshire) May I intervene briefly? My hon. Friend is right to touch on morale in the the matter of the negotiations. If my constituents with whom I have had discussions are an even sample of opinion across the country, the fact is that, for good reason or ill, both scientists and the professional and technological staff no longer believe that the Civil Service Department is treating them fairly. I do not know whether that attitude is justified, but it certainly exists, and it is a very potent force in the negotiations.

There are two particular points –

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bernard Weatherill) The hon. Gentleman cannot make a speech. He asked whether he could intervene.

Mr. Benyon My predecesor, Airey Neave, a valued friend of scientists, initiated an Adjournment debate in February 1974 on the same issue. A reader of Hansard at that time would have a sense of déjà vu as he listened to the debate tonight. That situation has hardly changed.

Most importantly, scientists and engineers are under-valued by our society. In other countries the reverse is the case. I believe that our country’s economic and industrial decline since the war is in part related to the way in which we undervalue our scientists and engineers in comparison with their opposite numbers in comparative administrative grades.

Further, I believe that pay research comes up with barely adequate results for scientists and engineers, as the pay of their analogues in the private sector is low. As my noble Friend Lord Home said when asked by a well-wisher ” How is your wife? “, ” Compared with what? ” There are always difficulties in finding equitable comparisons. First, the structure of scientific groups in the private sector is different from that in Government bodies. The best scientists in industry are promoted to managers, so Government scientists feel that they are compared with the junior scientists in industry.

Also, a Catch 22 situation exists, in that the Government are the largest employer of scientists in the country, and employers look towards the pay of Government scientists to obtain guidelines. This clashes with the Civil Service Department’s policy of acting as a follower rather than a leader in wage increase rounds.